Josh Bazuin

The Praise and Criticism of the Soviet Communist Government in Yevgeny Yevtushenko's Poetry

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, artists of every genre were governed by a system of patronage, where a patron paid for an artist's expenses, and the artists wrote, composed, or painted their works for their benefactor. When the Romantic Era began in the late eighteenth century, patronage largely fell into disuse. However, with the advent of Communism in 1917, the patronage system returned to eastern Europe. The Communist government paid for their artist's needs, and the artists glorified the state in their works. However, the artists had to balance artistry and self-censorship when dealing with matters of government because, if they said or did the wrong thing, they could be severely punished. Yevgeny Yevtushenko was an artist under this system. Despite the threat of punishment, one can easily find instances where Yevtushenko not only aligns himself with the Communist government of Russia, but also rebels against it by presenting anti-Communist sentiments in his poetry, especially in the poems "Irreconcilable", "I Don't Understand", and "The Heirs of Stalin".

"Irreconcilable," written by Yevtushenko in 1956, begins with a review of the poet's amicable relationship with his government. He believes that the literary career that the Communists have allowed him is a fair trade for his friendship, as illustrated in the following: "I'll offer life my friendship / ... into the bargain." Yevtushenko also acknowledges that this arrangement has brought him economic stability and the full ability to express himself artistically without economic concerns getting in the way: "Since I have no petty worries." (5) Furthermore, Yevtushenkosays that he is "indebted to the future" (6) and must someday pay the government back. However, Yevtushenko ends this section of praise for the Communist government with that thought; later sections of the poem criticize the government of Russia.

"Irreconcilable" is not a poem which glorifies the Communist system. Even in the pro-Communist beginning, there are already negative overtones. The poet states, "I offer life my friendship and my hostility into the bargain" (3,4). The hostility that Yevtushenko is referring to becomes clear later in the poem, where he does not directly attack the government, but his remarks acknowledge the consequences he will face if he should break its rules. He will not compromise in any form, even in the face of death:
         I disagree with a lot of things
         and cannot possibly agree with them.
         It will go hard for me at times
         And they will say:
              "He'd better hold his tongue!" (7-10)
Yevtushenko wishes to make a difference over matters of extreme importance: "I wish to quarrel in big way, / not over trifles" (12, 13). He does not care about the consequences of his political actions, and the rest of the poem illustrates that he would sacrifice ruin his career in his battle against the injustices of the Communist system:
         And to grow yet stronger
         I don't conceal my weakest spots.
         And picking a road unsuited
         to the making of a career,
              a road drenched in misfortune.
         I stride on,
                 irreconcilable. (17-24)

Yevtushenko uses this poem to tell the world and his government that he would like to see changes in the way Russia is governed. However, that zealous spirit is lost in Yevtushenko's next poem, "I Don't UnderStand."
"I Don't Understand" was also written in 1956, but it is strikingly different than "Irreconcilable." "Irreconcilable" reveals a poet who is opinionated and brash. However, Yevtushenko presents himself as an unsure, insecure, and worried recluse in "I Don't Understand":
        I don't understand
                what's come over me.
        Perhaps's I'm weary--
                 weary perhaps.
        I'm so easily worried, upset,
        and blush without cause
                    to blush.     (1-7)
 The cause of this change, coming so soon after the writing of "Irreconcilable," comes from a movie.

Yevtushenko's abrupt change in attitude came from the release of a movie called The Walls of Malapaga in which artists were murdered and their art was destroyed by the state. This movie shocked many of Russia's leading artists at the time, includingYevtushenko (Reavey 269). He obviously took the predicament of the main character, Peer Gynt, to heart:
        The visions of Malapaga,
            those of Peer Gynt,
        seem, all of them, now
            to apply to me. (34-37)
As a result of this movie, Yevtushenko disassociates himself with all things artistic, as is seen in the following: "I retire into my shell, / fear art like fire" (32,33) He believes that people think he and his work are no good:
        But people insist ...
        that I'm no good,
            have so few ties with life (39-41)
However, Yevtushenko is not only angry with and afraid of the Russian public for its perceived rejection of its artists, but he experiences those emotions when he writes about the government as well.

Yevtushenko believes that the government wants to kill him. He uses the GUM, the state store in Moscow, (Reavey 263) to personify Russia, with the government as a saleswoman. He says that the government is measuring the inches of his neck to get a noose with which to hang him:
        It was in the GUM not long ago it happened,
         . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
         a saleswoman with straggly curls
             with inept but darling hands
          measured the inches of my neck. (8-13)
Yevtushenko reacts this perceived personal attack by criticizing the government. He says that the Communists have "inept but darling hands" (12). This is interpreted to mean that while the ideal of Communism was very attractive, the government has handled Russia's affairs ineffectively and incompetently. Yevtushenko uses "I Don't Understand" not only as a personal struggle for artistic freedom and another criticism of the government, but also as an appeal to Russia's people to save their artists.

"The Heirs of Stalin" (1962) is a completely different poem than either "Irreconcilable" or "I Don't Understand". While both of the former poems are about Yevtushenko and his interactions with the government of Russia, "The Heirs of Stalin" is a direct attack on Stalin and his successors and their legacy. Yevtushenko charges Stalin with
        the neglect
        of the people's good,
             false charges,
                 and the jailing of innocent men. (40-43)
He criticizes Stalin for deceiving the people with stories of brilliant World War II victories even though the people were starving to death. He accuses Stalin of fearing his subjects and committing terrible atrocities to gain their allegiance. Yevtushenko concludes with condemnation of the heirs that Stalin left behind. He says that they hide themselves until the day that they can return and restore a Stalin-like regime. This poem reveals that the poet is so enraged by Stalin and his actions that he appealed to the government to
        treble the sentries guarding this slab,
         and stop Stalin from ever rising again,
                  and, with Stalin,
                        the past. (31-34)
Yevtushenko is so deathly afraid of Stalin and his effects on Russia that he attacked Stalin's legacy in this poem.

Yevtushenko has created poems that both laud and rebuke the Communist government of Russia. The poems "Irreconcilable", "I Don't Understand", and "The Heirs of Stalin" are the experiences, both good and bad, that Yevtushenko and his country have had with their government. As he praises the government in his poetry, he also criticizes it. Yevtushenko's motives for writing these early poems are clear: he wishes to see changes occur in Russia. He hopes to preserve the good of his society through his praise, and to alter its evil and adverse aspects through his criticism. Yevtushenko's goal for his prose is honourable, and, therefore, so is he. 

Works Cited  
Reavey, George. Notes in Early Poems by Y. Yevtushenko. New York: Marion Boyars, 1989.
Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. "The Heirs of Stalin." Early Poems. Trans. and Ed. George Reavey. New York: Marion Boyars, 1989. 161-    165.
Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. "I Don't Understand." Early Poems. Trans. and Ed. George Reavey. New York: Marion Boyars, 1989. 45-47.
Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. "Irreconcilable." Early Poems. Trans. and Ed. George Reavey. New York: Marion Boyars, 1989. 17. 

Josh Bazuin