For a poet just turned 30, whose work is of dubious literary merit, Yevgeny Yevtushenko has been the subject of an inordinate amount of publicity. And for a man with less than subtle political beliefs, he has been the victim of gross and continual misunderstanding.
Yevtushenko's A Precocious Autobiography, one of the few books by a Soviet author to be published abroad in recent years without official approval, does little to enhance the author's literary reputation. But then Yevtushenko is most important as a political and social figure, not as a man of letters, and this slim volumne does contribute greatly to an understanding of his politics.
If it was not clear before it is now: Yevtushenko is not an alienated, radical dissenter from Soviet society.
He accepts the framework of the society, its basic way of life and its political and ideological goals. He justifies his criticism of the Soviet Union with this key statement: "A strong man is not afraid of show-his weaknesses. I believe ... in the spiritual strength of our people and I therefore regard it as my duty to speak openly about whatever I think is wrong. This precisely is my way of expressing my love for the people and my unlimited trust in them."
Inevitably, Yevtushenko has come to his role as social critic through a desire to purify the Revolution, and hark back to the principles of Lenin and Marx. This was not always his mission, but there were portents of it in his early youth. The Autobiography as a chronical of Yevtushenko's political development--a side of the man which transcends his poetry--is a valuable work.
In discussing the genesis of his life as a poet, Yevtushenko manifests a strong sense of tradition and loyalty. He writes of the love of learning handed down to him by his father, and of two poets who first encouraged his endeavor. "Once, they had both wanted to become writers but so far neither had succeeded. And now they saw in me their own youth, and wanted me to fulfill its frustrated promise."
His first book was a monumental failure, and of it Yevtushenko writes: "Who could care about my pretty rhymes and striking images if they were nothing but curlicues decorating a vacuum?" So he turned outward, and began to become aware of "the beautiful ... world of real people." At the same time, the young Yevtushenko was deeply imbued with "the romantic ideals of the workers and soldiers who stormed the Winter Palace in 1917," and looked upon the world "with a revolutionary's scornful gaze."
Thus a conflict appeared between Yevtushenko's poetic concerns and his political ones. He believed in the Revolution, but devoted his poetry to other topics. The conflict was finally resolved by the most important event in the young man's life--the death of Stalin in 1953. He writes: "After Stalin's death, when Russia was going through a very difficult moment of her inner life. I became convinced that I had no right to cultivate my Japanese garden of poetry."
The sense of tradition and loyalty that was so important in directing him toward poetry in the first place, now impelled him to put his art at the service of his country. "It was our duty to rub off these dirty marks from our banner and to restore the original meaning to our revolutionary concepts," he declares.
So as a political man Yevtushenko remains true to, indeed ardently pursues the professed ideals of Soviet society. But he has his own ideas about how these ideals can best be realized, and these do not always jibe with official inclinations.
The official policy toward literature has long been "socialist realism." Literature is expected not only to be inoffensive, but to actually contribute to the perfection of the workers' state. All decisions about literature are strictly political ones; there is no concern for art for its own sake.
Yevtushenko and others have branded such attitudes "dogmatic." They claim there is room in the Soviet Union for both the influx of foreign art and literature, and also indigenous creativity that does not-necessarily hue to the line of socialist realism. Again, the Party's policies are dictated primarily by political considerations. When Premier Khurshchev decided the publication of the startling novel One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovitch would be a wise political move, he made it. When it appeared the pressure for more intellectual freedom was growing out of hand, Khrushchev summarily squashed the dissident voices.
Among those reprimannded last spring was Yevtushenko, who evidently went too far when he gave the manuscript of A Precocious Autobiography to the French weekly 'L'Express for publication without official sanction. We are fortunate to have it, even though the indiscretion incurred for the author a great deal of public defamation, and cost him a projected trip to the United States.
For it is clear now that the popular image of Yevtushenko is largely the product of over-zealous western imagination, eager for some sign of the decay of Soviet society. On the contrary, the phenomenon of Yevtushenko is a sign of vigorous health. It means Soviet society is beginning to accept the important doctrine that "a strong man is not afraid of showing his weaknesses."
Yevtushenko will recover from his most recent disgrace. He will remain loyal to the regime, but he will also criticize it, for he firmly believes self-examination is the only way to inner strength. He will make no great literary contribution of his own; but by his relentless campaign for increased freedom for intellectuals, he has, and will continue to make, an important-contribution to the artistic achievements of others. He and his allies will suffer setbacks, as they did last spring, but each time they will cause the sphere of freedom to be widened a little further.