Poetry reveals truth when all other declarations fall on intransigent ears. Within his beautiful verse, Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote calls to action on behalf of human rights and justice. The University of Tulsa was honored to have this internationally celebrated Russian poet on staff for 25 years. This spring, Yevtushenko passed away at age 83. The TU community mourns, but his legacy is emboldened not only in his written word but also in the spirit of his students.
Yevtushenko rose to national prominence in the Soviet Union with his epic poem Babi Yar, which protested the regime’s refusal to recognize Babi Yar as a site where 33,000 Jewish people were murdered. Former TU President Robert Donaldson explained, Yevtushenko’s “courage in raising his voice against indifference, intolerance and injustice made him a world-renowned spokesman against selfish nationalism and mindless collectivism.”
Yevtushenko was also known for his quick wit. “It did not take long for this Russian Pied Piper to lure students into his world, to the point that many of them soon found themselves performing Yevtushenko’s poems with him on university stages before large audiences,” Donaldson said.
Originally, he agreed to teach one semester. Donaldson hosted Yevtushenko for lunch at Utica Square to ask him to be a permanent fixture at TU. Later, Yevtushenko shared with TU Provost, Roger Blais, “The carillon was playing Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago, and he took it as a sign,” Blais said. From then on, Yevtushenko called Tulsa a second home.
At the mention of his name, Yevtushenko’s friends cannot help but grin. “It was not just the brilliant poetry so stirringly performed and his political significance but the magnetism of the man’s personality that drew me to him,” Donaldson explained.
His charm was commonly revealed in his storytelling. He enjoyed sharing his memory of when he first heard Dmitri Shostakovich was setting Babi Yar to music. “He was in his mother’s apartment when the phone rang, and his mother answered and said, ‘I don’t like practical jokes’ and hung up,” Blais said. Later, she explained “that was a man who claimed he was Dmitri Shostakovich.” Thankfully, Shostakovich immediately called back, and Yevtushenko was invited to his apartment to listen to the first movement.
Once again, Yevtushenko’s poetry inspires music. Noam Faingold (BA ’07) composed The Defiant Poet. “An orchestral elegy coming from Tulsa, his final home, provides our community the opportunity to make a statement in world-wide conversation about his work and the real power of art to shape society,” Faingold said. The world premier will be performed by the Tulsa Signature Symphony on November 4.
From Russia to Tulsa, Yevtushenko stirred minds to question and above all else, speak truth. In the poet’s words, “poetry is like a bird, it ignores all frontiers.”