Acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose work focused on war atrocities and denounced anti-Semitism and tyrannical dictators, has died. He was 84.
Ginny Hensley, a spokeswoman for Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa, confirmed Yevtushenko’s death. Roger Blais, provost at the University of Tulsa, where Yevtushenko was a longtime faculty member, said he was told Yevtushenko had died Saturday morning.
“He died a few minutes ago surrounded by relatives and close friends,” his widow, Maria Novikova, was quoted as saying by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. She said he’d died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure.
Yevtushenko gained notoriety in the former Soviet Union while in his 20s, with poetry denouncing Josef Stalin. He gained international acclaim as a young revolutionary with “Babi Yar,” the unflinching 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis and denounced the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union.
Heard by huge crowds
At the height of his fame, Yevtushenko read his works in packed soccer stadiums and arenas, including to a crowd of 200,000 in 1991 that came to listen during a failed coup attempt in Russia. He also attracted large audiences on tours of the West.
With his tall, rangy body, chiseled visage and declaratory style, he was a compelling presence on stages when reading his works.
“He’s more like a rock star than some sort of bespectacled, quiet poet,” said former University of Tulsa President Robert Donaldson, who specialized in Soviet policy during his academic years at Harvard.
Until “Babi Yar” was published, the history of the massacre was shrouded in the fog of the Cold War.
“I don’t call it political poetry, I call it human rights poetry, the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value,” Yevtushenko, who had been splitting his time between Oklahoma and Moscow, said during a 2007 interview with The Associated Press at his home in Tulsa.
Yevtushenko said he wrote the poem after visiting the site of the mass killings in Kyiv, Ukraine, and searching for something memorializing what happened there — a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker — but finding nothing.
“I was so shocked. I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn’t keep a memory about it,” he said.
It took him two hours to write the poem that begins, “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.”
Native of Zima
Yevtushenko was born in the Siberian town of Zima, a name that translates to winter. He rose to prominence during Nikita Khrushchev’s rule.
His poetry was outspoken and drew on the passion for poetry that is characteristic of Russia, where poetry is more widely revered than in the West. Some considered it risky, though others said he was only a showpiece dissident whose public views never went beyond the limits of what officials would permit.
Dissident exile poet Joseph Brodsky was especially critical, saying, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Brodsky resigned from the American Academy of Arts and Letters when Yevtushenko was made an honorary member.
Donaldson invited Yevtushenko to teach at the university in 1992.
“I like very much the University of Tulsa,” Yevtushenko said in a 1995 interview with the AP. “My students are sons of ranchers, even cowboys, oil engineers. They are different people, but they are very gifted. They are closer to Mother Nature than the big city. They are more sensitive.”
He was also touched after the 1995 bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. He recalled one woman in his class who lost a relative in the blast, then commented that Russian women must have endured such suffering all their lives.
“This was the greatest compliment for me,” he said.
Blais, the university provost, said Yevtushenko remained an active professor at the time of his death. His poetry classes were perennially popular and featured football players and teenagers from small towns reading from the stage.
“He had a hard time giving bad grades to students because he liked the students so much,” Blais said.
Lauded in Russia
Yevtushenko’s death inspired tributes from his homeland.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on the Russian social media site Vkontakte: “He knew how to find the key to the souls of people, to find surprisingly accurate words that were in harmony with many.”
A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the poet’s legacy would remain “part of Russian culture.”
Natalia Solzhenitsyna, widow of the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, said on Russian state television that Yevtushenko “lived by his own formula.”
“A poet in Russia is more than a poet,” she said. “And he really was more than a poet — he was a citizen with a pronounced civic position.”