When hearing the news that Yevgeny Yevtushenko died on Apr. 1, I was immediately transported back to June 22, 2000, and my profoundly visceral memory of one seemingly endless, twisting line of people throughout the lobby of Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Most Americans likely don’t know the name Yevtushenko, unless it is accompanied with the qualifier, “Author of ‘Babi Yar.’” In this country, poets often go unnoticed, but the Siberian-born Yevtushenko was a rock star among poets. To those who were born in and lived behind the Iron Curtain, his voice — though not without its critics — was heroic and inspirational. Yevtushenko was a poet, novelist, activist, director, actor and teacher.
And right now, what Yevtushenko’s life and works can teach us is more important than ever.
In 2000, I was a fledgling reporter and Yevtushenko was coming to town for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 13 in B-Flat Major (Opus 113, Babi Yar).” I did my homework and slowly learned the story of this symphony’s genesis. I learned about the relationship between Yevtushenko, the late composer Shostakovich and Yuri Temirkanov, then music director of the BSO.
I was riveted by the audacity of these three men, living under constant KGB surveillance and threats, who were so compelled by their artistic passion and mutual opposition to Soviet rule that they risked everything to collaborate.
Yevtushenko often repeated the story about his 1961 visit to Babi Yar, where according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, “On September 29-30, 1941, SS and German police units and their auxiliaries, under guidance of members of the Einsatzgruppe, (mobile killing unit) C, murdered the Jewish population of Kiev at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the city. This was one of the largest mass murders at an individual location during World War II. As the victims moved into the ravine, Einsatzgruppe detachments shot them in small groups. According to reports by the Einsatzgruppe to headquarters, 33,771 Jews were massacred in two days. In the months following the massacre, German authorities stationed at Kiev killed thousands more Jews at Babi Yar, as well as non-Jews including Roma (Gypsies), Communists, and Soviet prisoners of war. It is estimated that some 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar.”
Yevtushenko said he penned his masterwork “Babi Yar,” in two hours after visiting the tragic site. He was “horrified” that the ravine had no marker or memorial whatsoever to what lay below. “Here,” he wrote, “all things scream silently/and, baring my head/slowly I feel myself/turning gray/And I myself/am one massive, soundless scream/above the thousand thousand buried here.”
More telling, Yevtushenko said that his “co-author” of the poem “was shame.” And this “illegal” poem was at that time disseminated through the underground press, in literary circles, and finally in a now-critically acclaimed symphony.
That night in 2000, I sat among those in the packed symphony hall and was overwhelmed by the raw, emotional impact of “Babi Yar.” When Yevtushenko joined Temirkanov onstage, while the last beautiful notes of Shostakovich’s work still echoed in the hall, they were met with a truly deafening roar from the audience, the musicians rapping on their music stands, the choral groups onstage shouting and applauding. And as I watched through my own tear-filled eyes, the two men standing quietly together soaking in this resounding appreciation, I noticed that all those around me were also weeping as they stood.
Once I had somewhat composed myself, I joined the mass exit from the hall. When I entered the lobby, I was immediately swallowed up and blocked from moving toward the doors. It took some time, but I finally realized that my movement was obstructed by a line of people snaking around the whole breadth of the airy lobby.
As I made my way into the middle of the blockade, I saw Yevtushenko sitting at a table at the far end of the lobby from where the line emerged. Standing patiently in line, as they probably learned to do all too well in the Soviet Union, were hundreds of people, carrying flowers, potted plants, plates of food and so many holding substantially dog-eared copies of Yevtushenko’s books.
I could see that many would have to stand for hours to make their way to the poet’s side, but no one was leaving. As I stood there and began to weep anew, I realized that these people would wait forever just to have that one moment be near this man who had so intimately touched their lives and sustained them with hope and strength. I also realized that these people were the real story of Yevtushenko.
At that time, it never occurred to me that I, too, would look to Yevtushenko for sustenance. I could not have imagined then that I would be living under a new American government that would be making overtures that mimic the Soviet regime: obscuring scientific and historical facts, disparaging the free press, recklessly dispatching executive orders, alienating itself from the rest of the world, and shaping a government that imposes a nationalistic ideology and identity in which I am not welcome.
We still need you, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. As I and so many of my fellow citizens struggle to create an effective resistance movement, we will look to you. As you said, “When truth is replaced with silence, the silence is a lie.”
Rest in very well-deserved peace, Yevgeny. You and your words will never be forgotten.
A former Baltimore resident, Deborah Walike is a self-described lapsed journalist living in upstate New York.
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