A famous Russian poet who brought the Babi Yar massacre to public attention with a poem and denounced anti-Semitism has died.
Acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny A. Yevtushenko, whose work focused on war atrocities and who denounced anti-Semitism and tyrannical dictators, has died. He was 84.
According to Yevtushenko’s son, Yevgeny Y. Yevtushenko, doctors said he was suffering from stage 4 cancer.
“He passed away pretty peacefully, painlessly,” the younger Yevtushenko said, adding that family members and friends, including his widow, Maria Novikova, were with his father in his final hours.
“I was holding his hand about the last hour or so,” he said. “He knew he was loved.”
Yevtushenko was first diagnosed with cancer about six years ago and underwent surgery to have part of his kidney removed, but the disease recently returned.
Yevtushenko gained notoriety in the Former Soviet Union while in his 20s with poetry denouncing Josef Stalin. Later, as a young revolutionary, he was internationally acclaimed for “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.
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.
“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.
Human Rights Poetry
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 Kiev, 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.”
Yevtushenko was born deep in Siberia in the 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.
Years after he moved to Oklahoma, Yevtushenko’s death inspired tributes from his homeland.
Yevtushenko’s son said his father was proud of the high regard in which he was held in his homeland.
“He was also proud of being a global citizen,” he said. “There’s more that unites us than there is that divides us.”