Tribute to Yevtushenko

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Today at ICUJP I want to talk a Russian poet who hated borders and walls and loved to build bridges of understanding and connection through his poetry. His name is Evgeny Yevtushenko and he died recently at age 84, on April 1st of this year. He was in many ways the Bob Dylan of the Soviet Union—a quirky, passionate defender of human rights and freedom. He became world famous by writing a poem called Babi Yar that denounced anti-semitism. He also denounced Stalinism, war, and everything else that stifled the human spirit. While I was helping to edit a Quaker-inspired collection of poetry and fiction in the Reagan era, I got to travel to the Soviet Union and visit Yevtushenko in his summer home, his dacha, in Peredelkino. I’d like to share with you a poem he wrote in 1984, during the period known as Glasnost or Openness. The poem is called “On Borders.”

Before I do, I’d like to say something about my own journey and how it brought me to the Soviet Union. Poetry was my entrée into the Quaker peace movement. I’ve loved poetry all my life but wasn’t able to connect it to peace making until I moved to Philadelphia in 1984 and became involved with the Quakers. I was drawn to a book project that was to be edited and published in both countries as a way to overcome stereotypes by showing that Americans and Russians are not enemies but human beings. This idea intrigued me and I became one of the book’s editors and public lists.

Yevgeny Yuvtushenko loved the idea of our book and was eager to meet with us Quakers, as were many other Soviet writers. And we were thrilled to meet with him since he was a kind of rock star. When hegave readings at this time, tens of thousands of people would show up, cheering him wildly.

Yevtushenko published his first book of poems when he was only 19 years old and his early work gained admirers in the West that included Robert Frost. But what made him famous was Babi Yar, a poem named after a place in the Ukraine where over 30,000 Jews were massacred. When Yevtushenko visited Babi Yar, he was outraged to discover that no monument commemorated this terrible slaughter. Anti-semitism was rampant in the Ukraine and in Russia, and some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to kill Jews. In this poem, Yevtushenko identifies with those Jews who were killed and persecuted. He wrote:

“I myself am one massive, soundless scream
Above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am each old man here shot dead.
I am every child here shot dead.
Nothing in me will ever forget!
The “Internationale,” let is thunder
When the last anti-Semite on earth
Is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all anti-Semites
Must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason, I am a true Russian!

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