Rebel yell at vulgarity

December 8, 1995

Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko explains to Radhakrishnan Nayar how capitalism has polluted Russian culture

At the end of an hour-long interview over breakfast at the Charing Cross Hotel, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, arguably the best-known of contemporary Russian poets, wanted to give me his latest, unpublished, poem, "Twenty-First Century", translated into his somewhat erratic English. But how to get it photocopied? The hotel asked him to wait for ten minutes - impossible for the restless Yevtushenko, who was in London only briefly, for a poetry reading. We wandered round the shops in Charing Cross Station looking fruitlessly for a photocopier. "A backward country!", exclaimed Yevtushenko. I asked whether photocopiers were more easily available than this in Moscow. Under the Soviets they had notoriously been few and closely guarded. "They're available at every corner now," said Yevtushenko.

A characteristically Russian switch from one extreme to another. Yevtushenko's outlook has changed radically as well, but in one crucial respect it has not. The Soviet poet who denounced anti-semitism, who spoke out against the United States for Cuba, for Vietnam, for Chile, remains a staunch internationalist. It used to be said he took such stances to be on good working terms with the Soviet government. If so you would have expected him to fit in with the new regime. But, as is made clear in the epilogue to his novel Don't Die Before You're Dead, since the attempted Communist coup against Gorbachev in 1991 he has broken with Yeltsin.

Yevtushenko, who is teaching Russian poetry at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa, described Yeltsin's regime as "a dictatorship of chaos". "Russians need to find our new self-identification, moral, geopolitical, even religious," he said.

If Russians opt for capitalism, what kind should this be? Yevtushenko favours the way of the late scientist-dissident Andrei Sakharov: a combination of the best features of the Soviet experiment and capitalism, what Sakharov called "convergence". But that has been forgotten.

What about Lenin? During the Communist era Yevtushenko often invoked Lenin as an inspiration for a freer socialism. He explained that his 1960s generation had idealised Lenin, setting him up as a counterpoint to Stalin. "Many documents created an image of Lenin as a kind grandfather," he said. Crucial documents by and about Lenin were not public in the Soviet Union until recently. About five years ago a letter from Lenin to the first Soviet chief of secret police, Feliks Dezherzhinski, was published, said Yevtushenko. In this letter Lenin referred to "turbulence" among intellectuals in Moscow and proposed dealing with this by arresting, as he put it, "30 to 40 professors". This gave a very different impression of Lenin from that current in Russia before 1989. Lenin, went on Yevtushenko, had a strong vindictive streak, derived from the hanging by the Tsarist government (for a plot to assassinate the Tsar) of his elder brother, Sasha, whom he had admired. Witnesses said that after Sasha's death the 17-year-old Lenin had torn up a map of Russia.

I thought this story sounded too much like a folk legend. I had not read it in any western biographies of Lenin, I said. It really happened, insisted Yevtushenko. When writing a poem on Lenin's youth he had found in KGB archives inherited from the Tsarist secret police unpublished files on the young Lenin. One report by a fellow student said that after Sasha's hanging Lenin had been taken to a disreputable pub by some friends. Some people there tried to console Lenin. Lenin had ignored them. He drank a glass of vodka at one go and, looking hypnotised, kept repeating: "I will avenge my brother."

"The history of Russia is the history of dictatorship," said Yevtushenko. Bolshevism's great sin was to accelerate history. "Our socialism was a forced socialism. So no socialism at all, in a sense: it was crippled." And now history was again being accelerated, with the forcing of capitalism on the country. Because of this "forced capitalism" Russia was once again being denied "the natural development of history". The ending of one-party dictatorship was to be welcomed, said Yevtushenko. Now there were at least 172 registered political parties, including fascist and nonsense parties. But freedom of speech was being used irresponsibly - for mutual insults. For example, a special commission led by a prominent lawyer, Andrei Makarov, accused Alexander Rutskoi when he was vice president of having signed a dubious document. Afterwards it was officially declared that the document supposedly signed by Rutskoi had been forged. People no longer knew whom to believe. Yevtushenko said he wanted to erect a statue to responsibility in Moscow, a reminder to people of their duty.

Immediately after Gorbachev's perestroika, the standard of press and television in Russia was high. But now there is powerful, commercial censorship. Yevtushenko spent the summer preparing 52 weekly TV programmes on 20th-century Russian poetry, which were accepted enthusiastically by the national station. Then the broadcaster changed staff. Yevtushenko's programmes were dropped. This was only part of a systematic cutback of anything to do with serious culture. A series of 15-minute talks by Solzhenitsyn was also scrapped.

All his life, Yevtushenko, had battled, he said, against Soviet censorship. But now it turned out that there was a paradox about the censorship: it had, at least, prevented media vulgarisation. With some exceptions, the best works of western literature had been published under the Communists. Not erotic stuff like Henry Miller's, of course, or politically controversial work like Hemingway's novel on the Spanish civil war, For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Soviet public had thought that when the dictatorship fell, they would see many new western masterpieces. "Instead we got an avalanche of vulgarity, of trash! Paradoxically, it is now that we don't publish the best contemporary works from the west."

And the story was the same with films. Sylvester Stallone and the like dominated. If there were good Russian films, you were likely to see them only at matinees in suburbs. "This is part of what I call the third undeclared war: the war of triumphant vulgarity against frustrated subtlety!" The new nationalism of the former Soviet bloc countries was creating regrettable cultural barriers. In Russia, East European literature was published, but in Eastern Europe contemporary Russian literature and Russian films were taboo. His latest novel had been published in 15 countries, even in China, but not in Eastern Europe. The USSR had formed an incredible, gigantic cultural space. Rasul Gamzatov, a poet from the 6,000-strong Avar people, was once published widely. There were only 600 or so Yukagirs, but their writers were sometimes published in 100,000 copies, "Our translations were an unbelievable achievement. Now we translate less and less. Independence turns into isolation."

What did he like in recent Western literature, I asked. The strongest literature today was probably Latin American, Yevtushenko said. The German novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind, a surrealistic story set in medieval France, had impressed him the most after Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. He thought Derek Walcott was very good. Was he impressed by Rushdie? "No not now." Among young Russian writers he liked Dimitry Bakin. In Russia many writers were trying to write the same way as under the Soviet censorship, but this did not work, he said. They used to use foul language as a protest against Communism. Now they continued to use it, but their irony had become self-devouring. To forge a good new Russian literature, education was vital. In Soviet TV, not less than 20 hours a week had been dedicated to literature. Now literature was almost gone. A director who wanted to earmark one channel for education, without adverts, had been killed recently. The new capitalists were fighting for each minute of advertising.

I said that the west's defence of TV's vulgarity is that people want it, it is their freedom. "That's not true! They hypnotise people!" Yevtushenko's rasping, nasal voice rose indignantly. "They produce vulgar stuff, then create the demand for it. They have created a legend in Russia that nobody needs poetry. Yet when I recently published my love poems, they sold out, 50,000 copies in one week."

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