When a Man Gets to Forty, Yevgeny Yevtushenko

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I might have met Yevtushenko – or at least his English wife. When I went to Moscow as a student in 1986 I was given his phone number, and told that Jan (his wife) was always grateful to meet students from the West. But I was young and gauche, and daunted at the possibility of meeting a man then acclaimed as the greatest Soviet dissident poet – a man who had filled football stadiums for his recitations – so the telephone call was always put off till the next day.

Like many figures of the Soviet era, Yevtushenko straddled the divide between official recognition and active dissidence. His most famous poem, Babi Yar, which addresses Soviet anti-Semitism through the prism of a Nazi World War II atrocity, was the inspiration for Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony – a work by another Soviet ambivalent. Akhmatova and Brodsky were dismissive of Yevtushenko’s poetic merit; others would probably…

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