By Linda Smith
The elderly poet gets on the stage, ready to recite his poetry for a large audience. He has told no one what he will be reading, because he himself does not know what he will talk about. Yevgeniy Yevtushenko’s repertoire of poetry will not fail him, though, and he delivers a select number of his poems in his native Russian, beautifully capturing the reality of his times.
Yevtushenko will be reading poetry and having a Q&A session Friday, March 27 in Gorman B from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Later that evening, he will also be the keynote literary figure at the 19th Annual Russian Festival at the Southern Methodist University Hughes Trigg Theater. The festival will begin at 7 p.m.
During the Krushchev Thaw, which according to britannica.com involved reversals of strict censorship against authors, Yevtushenko was one of the first to go against the “Soviet socialist realism tradition.” Affiliate instructor of Spanish at the University of Dallas and native Ukrainian professor Irina Rodriguez described the tradition as something that totally glorified Soviet accomplishments.
“Yevtushenko was one of the first authors who was starting to speak out against abuses of power,” Rodriguez said. “He was kind of like a symbol of these first voices of freedom.”
Yevtushenko and a select group of other poets put their words to song, celebrating Russian culture while also documenting discrimination and censorship in Russia. Several of his most famous poems show trials in Russia’s history, including “Babi Yar,” “Heirs of Stalin,” and “Fears.” “Babi Yar” looks at an anti-Semitic killing in Ukraine during World War II. “Heirs of Stalin” reveals that even with Stalin’s death, his oppressive legacy still had people afraid to speak, as they were so used to living without complete freedom and in a corrupt government. “Fears,” however, is a hopeful piece tin which the poet shows his hope for the day when the Russian people’s fears will totally die away. He has also written several works celebrating peace, and friendship between Russians and Americans. Yevtushenko used to recite poetry and perform the works as songs to crowded stadiums of people.
“It was impressive that so many people went not to football matches or hockey games, but to listen to poetry,” Russian language lecturer and chair of Russian area studies at SMU Tatiana Zimakova said.
Rodriguez added that Yevtushenko was considered a rock star, and while she has not heard him in person, she has watched videos of him speak, and has heard from her mother and others firsthand about his amazing stage presence.
“They were not professional singers, but they were writing their own poetry in words and are usually very deep lyrics about the changes, reflecting upon Soviet reality,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a very dynamic speaker, and he’s very personable. He’s very popular, very loved by people. He’s able to relate to the audience very well, which is not always the case.”
Yevtushenko is fluent in English and Spanish to Rodriguez’s knowledge, and has traveled extensively. For example, some of his poems reference the Mississippi River, American names and places in Brazil.
“I think he really wants to emphasize that he is a citizen of the world,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully people are interested in finding connections in his poetry, and maybe asking about his personal experiences. UD is such a special place in the sense that people value traditions, and that’s not always the case elsewhere. I’m very interested in introducing him to the UD community and to the Russian community in Dallas.”
The festival that will follow his UD visit will also have several singing and dancing groups from both Ukraine and Russia. One of the headlining acts is The Flying Balalaika Brothers, a Russian-American rock group that plays traditional Russian music with a modern rock adaptation. Despite the countries’ political differences, Rodriguez said that it is important for festival goers to “just [focus] on the cultural side and [promote] cultural ties.”
“It is great that the range of events is wide,” founder and principal of the Russian School of Dallas, the festival’s main sponsor, Natasha Ksendzoff said. “With Yevtushenko, everybody knows his name. This man is a genius. He’s not only a poet: He represents a whole epoch. He means so much for Russian people who believe in democracy because his poetry, when he started in the 60s, was like a breath of fresh air.”
The festival address is 3140 Dyer St., Dallas, TX 75205. General admission tickets are $20, and student tickets will be available for $10. Tickets can be purchased on co-sponsor The Dallas Telegraph’s website.
“We always want to combine different arts: music, dance, literature, poetry, in our festival,” Zimakova said. “And it’s not just for Americans, or just Russians. We want both to celebrate with us, those who know a lot about Russian culture, and those who don’t. The arts help us to achieve our goals.”