Yevgeny Yevtushenko performed a miracle of sorts in Los Angeles on Monday afternoon.
In a little more than an hour, the Russian poet managed to sound like both President Ronald Reagan and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
During a reading of his poetry at Cal State Northridge, Yevtushenko used verse to denounce timid, time-serving bureaucrats and red tape of all political stripes, mourn the loss of the crew of space shuttle Challenger, call for world peace and reflect painfully on the death of Che Guevara, Castro's fellow revolutionary who was killed while leading an unsuccessful insurgency in Bolivia in the 1960s.
No Puzzle to Poet
To Yevtushenko, the seeming paradox of his poems wasn't a puzzler at all. It was yet another example, he said, of an old theme of his--don't pigeonhole the poet.
The 52-year-old Yevtushenko, who achieved world fame as a young firebrand more than two decades ago for work that deplored anti-Semitism and the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, said he has been misperceived in the West in recent years, particularly in the United States. By most reckonings, he continues to be one of the two or three most famous poets in the world, if not the most famous. He is perhaps best known in this country for "Babi Yar," a poem about the mass execution of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis during World War II.
In a hurried parking lot interview following his appearance, Yevtushenko said that swings in his reputation in the West have been based on illusions, that he has always been a maverick within the Soviet Union, not a sometime conformist to the Communist Party line as his critics have charged. And he placed the blame for the waxing and waning of his image here squarely on the press, which, he said, has sometimes attacked him because he has been critical of the United States or because he backed official Soviet views.
Last December, Yevtushenko's reputation took another swing in the West after it was learned that he had delivered a scathing speech to the Soviet writers' congress in which he attacked censorship. The complete version of the speech was widely and prominently reported in the Western press. An edited version of the remarks, deleting Yevtushenko's references to what he called the "merciless extermination" of army officers, Communist Party dissidents and intellectuals under Stalin, was also published in a Soviet literary newspaper.
In many accounts, Yevtushenko's speech was seen as the poet's return to outspokenness as well as a possible indication that the Soviet government's tight control of the arts will be loosened under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
But as far as he's concerned, the speech was merely a continuation of convictions he has expressed all along, Yevtushenko said as he signed autographs and accepted admiring comments from some in the Northridge audience who had followed him to a waiting car.
"I never lost this reputation (as a maverick) in the eyes of my audience in the Soviet Union," the poet said in accented English. "Some of your journalists just misinterpreted my role and my situation. . . . In my speech I just make digest from my work, from my poetry, from my novel, from my short stories, from my (other) speeches. But you don't like sometimes, you like Russians when they criticize only their society. You don't like it if they criticize some parts of American society. . . . I'm the same in America and Russia. I love Russia and I love America. But I don't love my own country blindly and I don't love America blindly. So if I see something I don't like in my country, I say so. If I see something I don't like in America, I say so. But some people here don't like it. They want to be just caressed, you know. They would like to see Russian writers only criticize their own society. I think society is the same, the family of man is the same."
And he added a mention of famous American writers. "There are no borders between me and Allen Ginsberg, between me and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, between me and William Styron, between me and Norman Mailer, because they're my brothers," he said. "But with the bureaucrats, the Russian bureaucrats, I have borders, they are for me strangers, aliens. And American bureaucrats are aliens for me too. Forever."
A few moments later Yevtushenko was on his way to Santa Barbara where he was scheduled to give another poetry reading. He was due back in Los Angeles at midnight to attend a small gathering of friends from the area. Tuesday morning his schedule called for meetings with Dr. Armand Hammer, the Occidental Petroleum head with longtime Soviet government contacts, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Yevtushenko's breakneck and apparently sleepless pace was being maintained despite the fact that he seemed tired and jetlagged on his arrival at Northridge. The poet was an hour and a half late for his appearance there, he told the audience, due to a delay in one of the "three or four" flights he had taken during the day to get to California from "the State of Maine."
Despite Yevtushenko's tardiness, the 500-seat hall was nearly full when he took the stage. And the crowd was clearly not disappointed with Yevtushenko's theatrical performance. At times the poet's voice threatened to overwhelm the speaker system as he vigorously recited in Russian, English and "Siberian Spanish," giving free rein to a repertoire of facial expressions that ranged from leers to solemnity.
Yevtushenko was assisted in his performance, the 17th of this American tour, by his translator Albert Todd, a Slavic language expert from Queens College in New York, who read most of the poems in English after recitations in Russian by Yevtushenko.
The readings included a poem about the January explosion of the space shuttle, "Requiem for Challenger," which Todd said he had finished translating within the last two days.
In the poem, Yevtushenko called the spacecraft, "This white tragic swan . . . this white swan of death made from the last breaths of seven evaporated souls shook the gravestones of Arlington . . . and the ancient armored statues of Rome."
Many of the works recited contained calls for universalism--"I want to be born in every country"--and attacks on bureaucrats (labeled "but what iffers" in one poem) or sentiments against tyranny, war and self-centeredness. Yevtushenko also added in dashes of humor and observations on contemporary America, drawing laughter and a round of applause when he declaimed that he would like to experience life in as many ways as imaginable "but never in the image of Rambo."
Before he went on stage, Yevtushenko slipped into a men's room to change clothes, a tactic he uses to "psyche" himself for a performance, according to James Ragan, a Los Angeles poet and writing teacher at USC who shared the stage with Yevtushenko at a poetry reading in Moscow last summer and came to Northridge to hear the Russian.
Yevtushenko emerged wearing a loose-fitting blue flannel shirt emblazoned with large Paisley swirls and jeans turned up at the cuffs. The outfit caused a woman in the crowd to remark, "He's Hollywood."