Even on the screen of a small mobile device, seeing and hearing poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko recite “Babi Yar” as Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 rises in the background brings chills, or maybe tears.
Yevtushenko wrote “Babi Yar” before he was 30, but the 1961 poem, about a Nazi massacre targeting thousands of Ukrainian Jews and other “undesirables,” takes on new depth when it is read by his nearly 80-year-old self.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
Yevtushenko will be reading this poem and others in Buffalo this week, first at UB’s Slee Hall on Thursday night and then, Friday morning and Saturday evening, with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra as it performs Shostakovich’s symphony.
The poet was born in Siberia in 1933 and grew up through the terrifying years of Joseph Stalin’s iron rule, World War II and the Cold War. From the 1960s onward, he was one of the most famous writers living and working in the Soviet Union, his name as recognized there as Robert Frost or Carl Sandburg in the United States. When “Babi Yar” was published in 1961, it became a sensation.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
“Beat the Yids. Save Russia!”
some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.
“Babi Yar” refers to the name of a ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, where in five days in 1941 the occupying Nazi army massacred and buried 34,000 Jewish residents of the city – the largest single massacre of its kind in the war, and possibly in human history. More Soviets – again, mostly Jews – continued to be killed there throughout the occupation.
Tanya Shilina-Conte of the University at Buffalo’s Department of Media Study, will moderate a discussion of Yevtushenko’s film work on Wednesday night at UB. In Europe last week, she responded to questions about the poet’s standing via email.
“The controversy regarding the poem,” Shilina-Conte explained, “is that Yevtushenko underscored the fact that the Soviet government didn’t emphasize that most of those killed and interred at Babi Yar were Jewish – that this was also a part of the Holocaust – [instead] referring to victims of the massacre as Soviet people at large.”
When the poem appeared in 1961, it inspired Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to compose his Symphony No. 13 – also a work that pressed the limits of Soviet tolerance, in a good but also dangerous way.
“It’s a big piece, it looms so large in world history, it helps us all understand how music reflects the world around us,” is how BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta describes Symphony No. 13. Shostakovich, 26 years older than Yevtushenko, worked for years under Stalin, “constantly trying to find a way to be the artist he was and create music under the dimensions that Stalin demanded.”
Stalin, a basically crude man, did appreciate how music could influence people, Falletta said, and so demanded pieces that glorified the Soviet Union. Sometimes Shostakovich fell short of the mark, she said, and would tell of spending nights outside his apartment, fully dressed and with a suitcase, so if the police came to get him, they might leave his wife and family behind. His salvation very likely was his popularity in the West, she said, which would have made it awkward should he have “disappeared.”
By the time of “Babi Yar,” however, Stalin was dead, and the composer was inspired by the controversial young poet.
“Both Yevtushenko and Shostakovich wanted to draw attention to the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union at the time – they were still horribly treated and oppressed,” Falletta said. “[The symphony] was harshly criticized. [For its Moscow performance] some of the lines in the piece had been softened and been made less brutal, less frank, less honest … But now it’s always performed in its original.”
Dan Hart, executive director of the BPO, was excited about mounting Symphony No. 13 this season. He said, “I had done the Shostakovich in Colorado Springs (when he directed the orchestra there) 20 years ago, and Yevtushenko was part of the performance, and it was a very powerful and moving experience.”
Once he and JoAnn Falletta decided to include it this season, “I started to look for Yevgeny Yevtushenko again,” Hart said, then laughs. “And I found him in Tulsa, Oklahoma!”
Yevtushenko teaches in Tulsa now and agreed to come to Buffalo to read his poem with the orchestra and also to appear at the University at Buffalo.
“This man is such a major figure in contemporary arts,” Hart said, pointing out that besides poetry, Yevtushenko has written, appeared in and directed films. He also is a novelist and at one time was a member of the Russian parliament.
A 1964 film that he wrote with Cuban screenwriter Enrique Pineda Barnet, “I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba),” directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, so impressed Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola that they helped get it re-released in 1995, according to UB’s Shilina-Conte. He also directed two of his own films, including “Stalin’s Funeral (Pokhorony Stalina)” in 1990, which will be shown at UB on Wednesday night.
Shilina-Conte pointed out that, despite efforts by politicians and fellow poets (particularly Brodsky, who called him a mouthpiece for the government), to discredit him, Yevtushenko remains popular in his native country.
“His poetry has been set to music, recited at bard festivals and featured in many popular Soviet films, including the most popular of Russian holiday films, ‘The Irony of Fate’ by Eldar Ryazanov, which is broadcast on Russian TV every year without fail on New Year’s Eve (comparable to the popularity of Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ at Christmas),” Shilina-Conte wrote. “The opening phrase of his poem, ‘In Russia a poet is more than a poet,’ is so famous in Russian culture that it frequently serves as a reflective topic for high school student papers in literature classes.”
At UB on Thursday evening, Yevtushenko will read in English; with the BPO, he will be reciting his poetry in Russian – a language Falletta describes as like music itself – with the most eloquent words toward the end, words that say it is not the oppressors that history remembers, but rather the people who were oppressed.
The work of the poet and the composer endures, Falletta said, because “It goes far beyond any one particular group … whether Jewish, Ukrainian, anyone – it goes to the spirit of man.”
“I feel this is one of the most important concerts we will do this year,” Falletta said. “Yevtushenko is a living monument – he’s from that world, and that is a period we never want to forget.”