It is a bit disconcerting to read of the death of someone you didn’t realize was still alive. Actually I had no reason to think of Yevgeny Yevtushenko as dead. It’s just that I hadn’t heard of him for a long time. I suppose it should have been no surprise to learn that he had been living and teaching in the USA; it’s where so many Russian writers end up.
His great years were well behind him and I wonder whether his name means much, or indeed anything, to many young people. But half a century and more ago he was a true celebrity: the Soviet Union’s first pop star poet, one of a handful of famous dissidents, author of poems about the Nazi atrocity of Babi Yar and Stalin’s tomb. ‘Dissident’ was, some thought, too strong a word. He wasn’t silenced or persecuted by the regime. You might say he was a licensed dissenter. Some of the fiercest western critics of the Soviet Union – such as Robert Conquest – regarded him with scepticism. Conquest’s close friend Kingsley Amis, who had met him when Yevtushenko was permitted to visit London, gave him a rough ride in an article, repeated later in his memoirs. Yevtushenko was naturally aggrieved. When Anthony Powell encountered him at a writers’ conference in, I think, Sofia, and, seeking to establish some common ground, said ‘I believe you know my friend Kingsley Amis’, the reply was, ‘yes, he’s a shit’.
I met him once myself. In the autumn of 1977 the Soviet Writers’ Union invited the Scottish Arts Council to send what it doubtless called ‘a fraternal delegation’ to Moscow. The invitation was accepted, and so Trevor Royle , then Literature Director there, and Liz Lochhead and I set off. We were lodged in the Hotel Pekin which, I have recently learned from Joseph Kanon’s novel Defector ranked third or fourth among Moscow’s Grand Hotels. The cooking was terrible, the Chinese chefs having been recalled after Chairman Mao’s fall-out with the Soviet Union; but I have a happy memory of Liz breakfasting off caviar sandwiches in the Hotel Bar.
Diplomatic courtesy, if nothing else, meant that we received an invitation near the end of our trip to dinner in the British Embassy. It was a small gathering, the only other guests being Yeny Yevtushenko and his English girl-friend, a product of Cheltenham Ladies College with a county accent. I can’t remember her name and I don’t know if she was the Englishwoman who became his third wife. At some point in the evening Trevor asked him something about Hugh MacDiarmid, perhaps whether he had met Scotland’s most famous Communist man of letters. ‘MacDiarmid,’ was the reply, ‘’e’s a great poet, but politically ‘e’s crazy’. I agreed with the second judgement and didn’t dissent from the first, as I might today.
Dinner over, the night still young, Yeny suggested we might like to drive out to his dacha, drink some more , talk and recite poetry. Why not? Absolutely, why not? One certainly wasn’t, in Brehznev’s Soviet Union, going to turn down such a suggestion. So we said thanks to our host in the Embassy – the ambassador? – and set off, the girl-friend – let’s call her Diana – at the wheel. On the outskirts of Moscow we were stopped by the police. Even fortified by vodka, wine and whisky, I felt a twinge of apprehension. This was after all the Soviet Union, a place where any transgression or misunderstanding might have incalculably nasty consequences. My anxiety was soon dispelled. With all the confident clarity of a voice accustomed to sound over the hunting-field, Diana addressed the police as if they had been tiresome hunt saboteurs and told them to fuck off. They did so obediently and she drove on. Russia was full of surprises.
It was snowing at the dacha and there was already snow on the ground, but the house itself was warm, heated by a wood stove. Yeny relaxed. He had been, I suppose, playing the correct diplomatic game at the Embassy, though I had the impression he was a familiar regular guest there. (Did he enjoy the role of approved cultural representative allotted to him?) Now, at home, he was relaxed, told jokes and stories, sang and recited poetry. Liz recited her poems, Trevor sang – Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, I think. No poet and unable to sing , I was engaged in conversation by Diana, conversation interrupted by her duty to open another bottle. I told her I was impressed by her handling of the police. ‘You have to keep them in their place,’ she said. ‘They can easily become bumptious.’ I hadn’t thought of the Soviet police in that way.
Midnight passed. Bottles were opened and emptied, ash-trays brimmed. Then, when I was perhaps wondering how we were going to get back to the delights of the Hotel Pekin, or perhaps past caring, Yeny said, ‘now we take you to visit Pasternak’s grave’. ‘Was he a friend of yours?’ ‘Very good friend. Very good man. Great poet. But sad.’ Diana drove back to Moscow, intrepidly, without police interference. Perhaps they had learned their lesson. The gates of the cemetery were unlocked. We climbed the hill to the grave, unsteadily. It had stopped snowing. Indeed there was no snow on the ground, merely mud. The moon appeared, like an actor answering his cue. We bowed our heads at the graveside. ‘Great poet, very good man, always kind and encouraging to me, but sad,’ Yeny said again. I suppose now he felt some of the same burden as Pasternak: Russian patriots with few, if any, illusions left about the regime, keeper perhaps ,in their own minds, of the Russian soul.
At the Hotel Pekin thanks, kisses and embraces were exchanged. We flew to London the next day. I had lunch with my publisher and told him that the mud on my boots was from Pasternak’s grave. A year later there was a return fraternal visit from representatives of the Soviet Writers Union. One of them told me he was a connection of Lermontov and therefore a descendent of Thomas Learmonth of Ercildoune. Perhaps he was, I don’t know.
I remember Yeny Yevtushenko with pleasure, was ready to defend him from accusations of Sovietologists who called him a fake dissident; there was an attractive vulnerability about him. I guess his balancing act was difficult and stressful. He took trouble with us, though unlikely to meet us again. Our evening was fun, beyond expectation and it was also good to have heard the Soviet police being told to fuck off.