INTERVIEW WITH YEVGENI YEVTUSHENKO
INTERVIEWER: Yevgeni, can I first ask you about the 1957 youth festival, the Moscow Youth Festival? How do you think that signaled something new that was happening? How do you recollect that as being something about a change at the time, something...?
YEVGENI YEVTUSHENKO: How I could forget Moscow Youth Festival? For the first time in my life, my socialist lips touched so-called "capitalist lip(s)" because I kissed one American girl, breaking any Cold War rules. Not only me, many of my friends, too, they're doing the same too on the streets of Moscow, in all the parks. But if we'll speak seriously about it, it was a very important moment, because since 1935, since the beginning of Stalin's purges, [the] only visitors in our country were just some diplomats and spies from the West; and [the] only Russian tourists abroad were our diplomat(s) and our spies. And for the first time, we've seen such a lot of foreigners, from Africa, from S-South America, and... people was so happy to see, to feel as a part of humanity, as a part of humanity which was stolen from us; so it was a great signal, great beginning of liberalization in Russia.
INT: Right. Now can you describe... at the same time, you were also engaged in poetry readings which were getting huge audiences... can you describe to me what was it that appealed to the audiences so much about that poetry, what were you touching in people with this poetry?
YY: I could just quote you in English, in my own translation, a couple of stanzas from one of my poem(s) which I wrote in 1972, when Cold War was in full swing and many dissidents' trials. So I wrote that time poem: "I would like to be born in every country, have a passport for them all, to throw all bloody boring foreign officers into panic, to be every fish in every ocean and every dog in the streets of the world. I don't want to bow down before any idols or play at being a Russian Orthodox Church hippie. But I would like to plunge deep into Lake Baikal and surface somewhere. Why not in the Mississippi?" That was declaration, not only my own, it was declaration of our generation. That's why they, all people around me, my friends, they were dreaming when Russia again will be part of the common civilization. I mean, we didn't feel lost or completely culturally isolated, because we were continuing to read some great Western books, French, American, English books. We were brought up as European culture... in Russian culture as a part of European culture, but we wanted, I could say, physical connection with the rest of the world. That's why, when American exhibition in 1959 was opened in Moscow, so many Muscovites were lining up for exhibition of Edward Steichen, 'Family of Man'.
INT: Can you be a bit more specific about the poetry? I mean, what was different about the poetry that you were writing at that time from the previous official poetry in particular? What sort of barriers did you break through with it?
YY: I could say that traditionally, before Revolution, Russian poetry was a kind of spiritual government of Russian people, because remember, we were living 300 years under Tartars' yoke, 300 years under the Romanovs' yoke; afterwards, more than 70 years under so-called "communist" yoke - because I don't think what society which we had it's connected with communism as it was seen by Marx and Engels. And so all these times we were living in the times of very hard censorship. Sometimes it was easier, sometimes harder, but always censorship. So, metaphorical language of poetry was only way to express our
nostalgie for freedom. That's why Russian people traditionally respects poetry. And during Stalin's times, many poets died behind bars in concentration camps. Poetry became official poetry; we had some little islands of little poet... of great poet(s), like Pasternak, Akhmatova, but they were emigrants, I could say. But poetry got back popularity during Second World War, because it was easier in that time to be sincere and to be published writing poetry. So, and after the Cold War began, again even good, best poets, they were keeping silence or they were silenced forcedly [sic], like Akhmatova and Pasternak. When Akhmatova appeared in Polytechnic Museum after the Second World War, all people stood up, applauding her during half an hour; and Stalin, when he knew it, he became very jealous and he gave order to close all her public appearance(s), because he was [the] only one man who could be applauded such a long time. And, you know, when Stalin died, the political stage... I mean social stage, was completely empty; we didn't have any kind of dissidents' movement because all potential dissidents, they were in concentrations camps or already killed. So, Sakharov was official nuclear physicist under the top secrets, and he was different man - he was even a little bit Stalinist in that time, he honestly confessed in his memoirs. So we young poets, new generation, we were [the] only free voices in that moment when political... so we jumped on this empty political stage and read our poems against chauvinism, against dictatorship of only one party, against censorship, against anti-Semitism. And that's why we... and we were longing for the opening of the world; we wanted to join to the all world. And that's why people sink their own unrealized hopes in our poetry. That's why, in Gorbachev('s) parliament we had so many writers, because our poetry was a cradle of glasnost, and glasnost was a cradle of our democracy. Our democracy is still very childish, undemocratic; it's probably inevitable because we don't know what to do with freedom. I don't think that in the rest of humanity people knows what to do with the freedom too.
INT: Would you say also that it was more personal than official poetry had been, that instead of dealing with the ideals of social realism, that actually it was another dimension that you were also exploring in that, which was a much more personal, much more intimate kind of poetry?
YY: Yes, that's true. Because, for instance, I...
INT: Sorry, could I ask you to say "It is true that..."?
YY: So I think... For instance... in 1953, in the 1st of May, Literaturnaya Gazeta, our writers' union newspaper weekly, published 'Revolutionary Page'. I say "revolutionary" but it was nothing connected with politics on this page, because in this date we were publishing only official poetry glorifying Soviet power, socialism, Stalin personally, Party, etc. But this day, for the first time in the history of Stalin's regime, the editor, who was a great writer, a great poet, Konstantin Simonov, he published only love poetry, and it was like rebellion, you know, it was revolutionary page. And I, for instance, I become popular nationally, not as a political poet: as a poet of love, because for many, many years of Cold War after 1945, some poets even didn't use in the poetry about love [the] word "I" - they were using "we": "we love, we lo..." "If we lo... I love you as I love my country", for instance - that was typical, you know, hypocritical quotation from poetry of that time. And even poems about... not political poems, about loneliness, for instance - like my poem, early poem - it was accused like anti-Soviet poem, because if I am Soviet man, how I could be lonely if I'm member of such a giant collective like two millions of my friends who are working for ideals of communism, something like that. I remember these hypocritical articles. And afterwards... Russian poetry traditionally, since Pushkin's time, was very powerful in two fields: in the field of love poetry and the field of political, so-called "civic" poetry.
INT: Right. You also wrote about the dilemma of whether man served socialism or whether socialism served man. This seems to have been a central question that was being asked at the time, but also it was possible to ask it because people were able... after the 20th Party Congress, it was possible to examine and look at the regeneration of socialism and new principles to be employed. Now your view was that man was serving socialism ansocialism would serve man. I think that was what your dilemma wa. That was one of the issues which it was possible to discuss in the Thaw which hadn't been possible before, wasn't it?
YY: Yeah. I never been a member of Communist Party, I never been member of any kind of party in my life, because I don't like any kind of cadres, I don't want to fulfil any kind of instructions which general secretary of any kind of party could order to me. But, you know, I've seen two systems, so... different versions of capitalism and socialism, and also in different versions, and I think that both systems are discredited forever, and I think that humanity is pregnant with another kind of system - we don't know name of the system - and this I think it was a great guess of the academician Sakharov, when he was telling about konvergentsiya - like " convergence" in English, probably, which means merge of two system(s) and something, the third, when new system will not repeat any crimes, neither socialism, neither capitalism; it will create something, absolutely new relationship between different countries and persons. And I was of course on the side of the Prague Spring, for the "socialism with a human face", and it was my most terrible day in my life when our tanks crossed border of Czechoslovakia, because I physically felt this day that our Russian tanks, they are going on my back, on my backbone. And it was a terrible... so many of my ideals collapsed in this day. And I immediately wrote a telegram of protest, and I wrote also a poem about it, and when this poem was transmitted in Czechoslovakian underground radio, I am so happy that it was heard by Czechoslovakian people. And when I came back after many years to Czechoslovakia, and I was a persona non grata because of my telegram defending Czechoslovakian people, one woman stopped me in the street - she said, "I am teacher of Russian language and Russian literature in Prague, and when your tanks crossed our border, I came to my school and I told to my children that I never will teach Russian literature, Russian language. And in two days, when I heard you telegram of your protest, I came back to school and I began to teach again Russian literature." It was the greatest compliment in my life; it was much better than any kind of Nobel Prize. So... but it was a terrible tragedy for me, because I never was an anti-Communist... I think I agree with Sartre that the 20th century gave birth to two monsters: that dogmatically communism in Stalin's version, and anti-communism, which was second monster. And I think this Cold War is a terrifying history of the fight of these two dinosaurs, two giant monsters. And when they were crushing people, relationship between people, human contacts, destroying human souls; and this was tragedy of Cold War.
INT: Can you just repeat that again? There was one word that I missed... that the tragedy was that it ruined relationships - could you just repeat that again? What do you think the real tragedy of the Cold War was?
YY: I think...... I share opinion with Sartre, when he said that our century gave birth to two giant monsters: communism in Stalin's version, and anti-communism which [is] not less barbarian than communism. And so, Cold War, it's a history of the terrifying fight between these two monsters, when with their pose they ruined so many human lives and potential friendship, personal friendship, loves - because so many people who was in love, living on the different sides of this so-called artificial ideological borders, they were destroyed also. So, so many victims of this war, even in America, because happily for America, they were not accustomed for dictatorship like Russia was traditionally but they also had their McCarthyism and many other things.