- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2007

TULSA, Okla. (AP) Yevgeny Yevtushenko is not a violent man. He lets words do most of his fighting.

Mr. Yevtushenko, considered by many the world’s greatest living Russian poet, has spent his career turning outrage into inspiration, rifle butts into olive branches.

His poetry has exposed war atrocities, denounced anti-Semitism and tyrannical dictators, poked holes in the Iron Curtain and embraced the world.

He risked his life as a young revolutionary with “Babi Yar,” the unflinching 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of more than 33,000 Jews by the Nazis and denounced the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union.

At 74 — and after hundreds more poems — he is fighting for peace, revisiting “Babi Yar” with a new work that offers hope for a resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. He is older, his gray hair thinner, but his blue eyes still light up when he talks about his craft.

“I don’t call it political poetry; I call it human rights poetry, the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value,” he says in a recent interview at his home in Tulsa.

At the height of his fame, Mr. Yevtushenko read his work in packed soccer stadiums and arenas. There was a recital in 1972 in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the audience of 27,000 in Mexico City and the crowd of 200,000 in 1991 who came to listen during a failed coup attempt in Russia.

He has been to 96 countries and every state in the United States and splits his time between Tulsa and Russia.

“He’s more like a rock star than some sort of bespectacled, quiet poet,” says Robert Donaldson, former president of the University of Tulsa, where Mr. Yevtushenko has taught since the early 1990s. “This is the one person on our faculty who you could say is really a historical figure.”

Mr. Donaldson, a Harvard University-trained expert in Soviet policy, was instrumental in bringing Mr. Yevtushenko here. Mr. Yevtushenko’s position began as a temporary arrangement and turned into a phenomenon: His classes always fill up, and some students petition to take them several semesters in a row.

The city won over Mr. Yevtushenko, too. The people here reminded him of those in the small Siberian town in which he grew up: close-knit, approachable and unaffected.

What also helped make up his mind was hearing “Lara’s Theme” from the movie version of “Dr. Zhivago” played at an outdoor shopping mall during an early visit. The film, along with its score, was once banned in Russia.

He lives in a middle-class neighborhood with his fourth wife, Maria, inside a simply decorated house. Posters announcing past recitals hang on the wall, next to the framed copy of him on the cover of Time magazine and pictures of his family.

Former students remain close friends. Joe Woolslayer and his wife frequently have Mr. Yevtushenko over for dinner, where conversations about Vladimir Putin, missile defense and other foreign policy matters drift into the wee morning hours.

“I’ve never seen anyone else that was in real life bigger than life,” Mr. Woolslayer says. “Maybe John Wayne was, but I never met him.”

Mr. Yevtushenko has held court with politicians, writers, film directors and rock stars. A short list of his many inspirations includes Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Carl Sandburg, Joan Baez, Arthur Miller and Dr. Benjamin Spock.

Boris Pasternak taught him to embrace all the world in poetry, and Robert Frost told him that when you do embrace the world at once, you sometimes have no time to embrace your own life.

His internationalism shines through in “I Would Like …” which begins, “I would like to be born in every country, have a passport for them all to throw all foreign offices into panic, be every fish in every ocean and every dog in the streets of the world.”

But Mr. Yevtushenko will perhaps best be known for “Babi Yar,” the 1961 poem that recounts the slaughter of 33,771 Jews at a ravine in Kiev, Ukraine. Between Sept. 29 and 30, 1941, Nazis rounded up Jews and shot them on a platform built over the ravine. Children were buried alive, wounded survivors beaten to death with shovels.

Until “Babi Yar” was published, the history of the massacre was shrouded in the fog of the Cold War.

Mr. Yevtushenko remembers visiting the site of the mass killings, searching for something memorializing what happened there — a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker.

He saw nothing but construction equipment and pig dung, “a conspiracy of silence,” he recalled later. “I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn’t keep a memory about it,” he says.

It took him two hours to write the poem.

It begins, “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.”

“I was prepared for this all my life; I was morally prepared,” he says. “For me, I always write poetry when I’m inspired by love, by tenderness, or by somebody’s grief. And so, I became the voice of these dead people.”

He was criticized after the poem was published, and some spread rumors that he must be hiding Jewish blood.

“They were sick people, because they could not allow someone who was not a Jew to feel the pain of another nationality,” he says.

Some years ago, the piece took on new meaning after Mr. Yevtushenko received a letter from the parents of an Israeli boy they named after his poem. The family had lost relatives in the massacre and wanted people never to forget what had taken place there.

The letter brought Mr. Yevtushenko to write “The Boy Named Babi Yar” last year.

It begins, “A boy was named Babi Yar, so that nobody in the happiest family would forget on the forgetful earth those who are under the earth.”

The work is a message of hope that future generations of Arabs and Jews will one day find common ground.

“The situation in Ireland also looked many years hopeless; now we see light at the end of tunnel,” Mr. Yevtushenko says. “My hope, then, in the future, probably sons or grandsons of this boy named Babi Yar, they will come together with their Arab friends.

“I believe in potential and common sense,” he says.

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