A Global Citizen and a Champion for Peace

It is sinful for a writer not to think about political subjects… Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Coming of age at the cusp of the Soviet collapse of 1991, I missed the excitement pervading my parents’ generation, galvanized by a constellation of enthralling voices shedding the horrific legacy of Stalinism and heralding an era known as Khrushchev’s thaw. One of the most vocal among them was Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko, who often recited his own verses, thereby directly interacting with an engaged and elated public. The poet deployed a broad variety of themes, in which everyone would find something of interest. His form was eclectic. Whether it was, in the poet’s words, “free meter, with feverish brush strokes” or calm classical measures with a twist of traditional folklore and urban slang, Yevtushenko’s appeal was irresistible. Growing up in the shadow of oppression and fear, in a society where the state monopolized every aspect of human existence, my parents naturally gravitated to the liberating power of his poetry and the sincerity of his emotions. They sought escape from an odious, depersonalized state-sponsored reality in Yevtushenko’s unconstrained spontaneity in order to procure some sense of individuality and human dignity. This is how I would have judged a renowned Soviet poet, if, one day, I had not found myself in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the edge of America’s Great Plains, doing contract work for a U.S. State Department-funded non-governmental organization. That trip revealed for me a Yevtushenko that I and probably most of my compatriots had never known: a global citizen and a vocal champion for peace.

I came to Tulsa on several occasions to interpret for the Tulsa Global Alliance (TGA), an entity that builds bridges between people and nations by hosting foreign visitors enrolled in various exchange programs, which open the local community to the world. I recall how TGA Vice-President Bob Lieser, a native of Tulsa, mentioned that Yevtushenko lived in the city, and how surprised I was. The question I had in mind then was anticipated by Robert H. Donaldson, a former president of the University of Tulsa, in his eulogy delivered at Yevtushenko’s memorial a few days after the poet’s passing on April 1, 2017. Donaldson, who had invited Yevtushenko to come to Tulsa to teach at the university a quarter century before, recollects that the poet compared the American Midwest with his native Siberia and especially enjoyed “the warmth and friendliness of its people.” In a 2003 interview with the New York Times, the poet noted that he found in Tulsa “the real soul of the country.” The local community echoed that sentiment about Yevtushenko, proud that an internationally-acclaimed writer was residing among them. The poet would often be spotted around town, shopping for groceries or out for a movie. He is remembered as friendly, open and ready to share knowledge about his native Russia, its people and their rich culture with anyone who would approach him. When he found that Lieser, a graduate of Cornell with a major in Soviet studies, was interested in Russian literature, the poet invited him to sit in on his class. What struck Lieser about Yevtushenko’s poetry class was that students were not just reading poems but reciting them. “We don’t do it anymore,” said Lieser. But Yevtushenko encouraged his students to make peace with recitation, and they “seemed to enjoy that new way of experiencing the power of poetry,” its rhythms, its rhymes, the moods it inspires, and the tones and intonations it invokes.

A friend of the Central Association of Russian Teachers of America, Yevtushenko patronized a Russian program at a Tulsa high school where his wife Maria Novikova taught the language. He also supported numerous exchange programmes facilitated by the Tulsa Global Alliance, including trips to Tulsa’s Russian sister city Zelenograd. Lieser remembers how Yevtushenko encouraged American students traveling in Russia to visit his dacha, a country house now supplemented with a museum, situated in the legendary writers’ village of Peredelkino, near Moscow. Following in his father’s footsteps, one of Yevtushenko’s sons interned with TGA, assisting with building global communities and contributing to the cause celebrated throughout his father’s life and poetry. To help raise funds for TGA, Yevtushenko donated a hand-written draft of his poem “Golden Driller” for auction. Composed in English in 1997, the poem conveys the author’s concerns about society’s appetite for natural resources, driven by unbridled consumerism and capital markets. Yevtushenko addresses a giant “gracefully awkward” Soviet-looking statue – a symbol of the daring of workers in the oil industry that was at the core of the history and economy of Tulsa for most of the 20th century.

 

            You are not an actor.

                                   you didn’t have many roles –

            you just drilled in the earth

                                   too many holes.

           Don’t you feel a little guilty?

                                   Mother Earth was wounded by you.    

              

At auction the manuscript was purchased by Lynne Novack, Donaldson’s executive assistant, to be returned later to the TGA, where it belonged. The proceeds enabled yet another group of Tulsans to undertake an exciting and memorable trip to the poet’s native land.

To acknowledge Yevtushenko’s efforts in bringing communities together and promoting intercultural dialogue, the TGA honored Yevtushenko with a Global Vision Award, recognizing his significant and lasting contribution to citizen diplomacy, global understanding, political stability and religious accord.

At the University of Tulsa, where Yevtushenko taught courses on Russian poetry and cinema, he was considered a treasure. In the words of Lars Engle, chairman of the English department, who was interviewed by the New York Times’ Stephen Kinzer in 2003, Yevtushenko galvanized many students who were “looking for an extremely attractive model for the life of an artist.” Donaldson recalls in his eulogy that the poet’s classes were brim-full. “Students from all backgrounds— athletes, engineers, international students, auditors from the community, as well as liberal arts majors— flocked to him,” said Donaldson during the memorial. Many of them had only a vague acquaintance with poetry and foreign art cinema, but Yevtushenko managed to quickly lure them into his world with such enthusiasm and charm that before long students were reciting poems along with the author himself on university stages in front of large audiences. As pointed out in the eulogy, for a quarter-century Yevtushenko continued to impart his wisdom, pronounced at a graduation ceremony following his first year at the university. It is that powerful speech that engendered the title of this essay, revealing a global citizen and champion for peace. In his address, writes Donaldson, Yevtushenko, whose both grandfathers were purged by Stalin, and who himself had to make difficult choices to avoid being silenced by censorship and oppressive ideological posturing, urged students to become engaged on behalf of human rights and justice, and against indifference, intolerance and virulent nationalism. As in his poems, Yevtushenko preached kindness, compassion and mercy towards others. As the best way to celebrate his life and tireless efforts to advocate for harmony in world affairs, Donaldson’s eulogy shared what I believe may serve as a great inspiration for both international civil servants and like-minded world citizens:

 

The greatest and most subtle culture is more than just formal education. It is the culture

of behaviour. This culture is based on the moral impossibility of being indifferent to

 others, including your own family, neighbours, friends, your whole nation, and the

 multicultural family of man.

 

There are no fences or borders between those who suffer. And there isn’t a single

person who doesn’t suffer. But people cope with their suffering in different ways. Some

people transform their suffering into hatred for others, into an aggressive inferiority

complex. This makes the faces of their souls ugly. People who have the courage to

transform their suffering into a thirst for brotherhood become even more beautiful than God

created them to be. 

 

Remember that knowledge in the hands of indifference can be a terrible weapon against 

humanity. But compassion without knowledge can be defenseless. Only compassion,

armed with knowledge, is invincible….    

 

Let us try to be unbreakable branches, and unwilting leaves and flowers of all the known and

unknown crucifixions where all the fighters for justice have been and are being tortured. That

is the only way to save our own faces, the faces of our descendants and the face of mother earth.

 

Yevtushenko once confessed that he hated borders. In 1972, when the world was dangerously divided by ideological disagreements, reinforced by political rivalry and the arms race, the poet dreamed of global unity describing his longing in the poem “I Would Like”:

 

            I would like

                                     to be born

                                                             in every country, 

            have a passport

                                     for them all

            to throw

                                     all foreign offices

                                                             into panic,

            be every fish

                                  in every ocean

            and every dog

                                      in the streets of the world.

 

Over the course of his long and eventful life, this dream came true. Yevtushenko had more than one national passport, and the power of his poetry took him to every corner of the world. He managed to break down boundaries not only for himself, but for more than a generation of students at the University of Tulsa, the city’s schoolchildren, fellow community members and millions of readers of all nationalities and creeds. Yevtushenko’s aversion to borders, which often give rise to discord and bitterness, is a reminder, in Donaldson’s words, of the futility of obsessing about them and the need to focus “on our common humanity, and on the importance of nurturing and strengthening our human bonds.”

 

This brief tribute to Yevgeny Yevtushenko would not be complete without recalling his appearance at the Dag Hammarskjöld Library at the United Nations in 2000. Mr. Dionyssios Kalamvrezos, Minister Plenipotentiary, Deputy Permanent Representative of Greece to the United Nations, since August 2016, a long-time admirer of classical Russian literature and culture, and an author himself, recalls that memorable evening, during his first tenure in New York, between 1998 and 2002.

As a young diplomat with knowledge of Russian, Mr. Kalamvrezos was posted to Moscow in 1992. As Head of the Consular Section of the Embassy of Greece in Moscow, he travelled extensively to various parts of Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union to assist the Greek diaspora there in coping with post-soviet crises. This experience served as a unique source of inspiration for Kalamvrezos to start his novel Moscow-New York, The Inverted World. Leaving Moscow, in 1998, Kalamvrezos was posted to the Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nations in New York.

At the reading at the Hammarskjöld Library he met Yevtushenko and asked the writer’s permission to use his poems as epigraphs in two chapters of his novel. Yevtushenko inquired about the book and expressed his pleasure to share the poems. One of them, “A Loss”, composed in 1991, especially reverberates within Kalamvrezos’ fictional political thriller, manifested by the challenging destiny of Russia and the endurance of its citizenry:

 

                       For a long time

                       we wandered in the fog

                       mired in blood to our knees…

                       Lord, you have punished us enough, mercy …

 

                       Is it true

                       we’re condemned to live

                       in our silken dreams

                       or is it in numbered prison uniforms?

                       In outbursts of pride

                       or outbursts of humiliation?

 

As the evening unfolded, recollects Kalamvrezos, the recitation evolved into a passionate performance. Yevtushenko fired up the audience. Listeners responded with requests for his most popular poems. The diplomat remembers that although it was difficult for a non-native speaker to follow every word, he was moved by the atmosphere and energy of Yevtushenko’s verses read aloud and the accompanying admiration and respect of the audience.

Later that evening, Kalamvrezos gave Yevtushenko a ride to the “Russian Samovar”, a legendary New York gathering place for the Russian émigré cultural elite, where the diplomat and poet had a chance to talk briefly about the importance of cultural and literary education for policy-makers from around the globe. The poet believed that a good politician, analyst and diplomat had to have a deep knowledge not only of world history, but also of literature and art in order to better understand human nature, needs, moral limits, ambitions, purposes and convictions, recalled Kalamvrezos.

A mediator between countries and cultures, Yevtushenko once wrote that war can’t be outlawed by resolutions or even peace treaties, and that police power alone cannot defeat the impetus of terrorism. The poet was convinced that “the mission of culture is to achieve mutual understanding, and as such it must assume an essential role in alleviating human suffering and averting conflict and strife.” 

 

About the author

A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Dr. Lyubov Ginzburg is an editorial assistant at the UN Chronicle. With research interests in the history of Russian-American relations, Dr. Ginzburg has focused her work upon exploring and analysing the broad venues of public diplomacy, cultural influences and social interactions between peoples and nations. Prior to her assignment at the United Nations, she taught Russian Literature and Language at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, in the United States.