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Yevgeny Yevtushenko

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The great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko passed away Saturday at a hospital in Tulsa, Ok. He was eighty-three. One of the giants of twenty-century Russian literture, he wrote seering anti-Stalinist poety and was a fighter against anti-semitism. He wrote "Stalin's Heirs" when the dictator died and "Babi Yar" about a brutal pogram. He taught literature at the University of Tulsa and his wife taught Russian at the University School. When asked why he preferred Tulsa to New York, he replied that Americans lived in Tulsa and New York was the world. He called Tulsa, the "belly-button of American culture." I assume that's a compliment. Perhaps it sounds better in Russian. Nonetheless, he was revered by a generation of young Russians during the sixties and seventies. 





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When I heard the news, I found my self humming bits from Dmitri Shostakovich's 13th Symphony ("Babi Yar"), which is actually a choral setting of five Yevtushenko poems. I had the great experience of singing in a chorus that performed the symphony, and later had the chance to take the vocal score with me to Kiev and with some good friends and fellow choristers, and sing the opening lines of "Babi Yar" at Babi Yar. "At Babi Yar, there is no memorial," the poem begins. By the time I got there in 1982, there was a memorial, but one that failed to mention the Jews. It was a memorial about, against, and of anti-Semitism all at the same time--like so many things in Soviet Russia, a complex nuanced reality. Those complexities were well dealt with by Yevtushenko in his poetry, laden with all sorts of levels of irony.



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