A FULL-LENGTH obituary in The New York Times (April 1, 2017) informs us that Yevgeny Yevtushenko, that gentle and lovable Russian poet, who came to the Philippines in 1973, has died at 83 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been living and teaching for years. He had settled in America after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, where he had become a Member of Parliament and secretary-general of the Union of Soviet Writers in his last years in his native land. He was a world literary figure, but this is not the only reason I want to remember him.
Forty-four years ago, he came to Manila as an honored guest of Mrs. Imelda Marcos, and I had the pleasure of accompanying him to Malacañang. We knew his reputation much better than we did his work, but that did not prevent us from enjoying his presence. His defiant stand against Stalinism inspired a generation of young writers after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953; his poetry and poetry readings (250 of them in 1961 alone) made him among the most admired Russian literary figures in the West.
It began with Stalin
Yevtushenko lost his two grandfathers in the Stalin purges of the 1930s. This exerted an irreversible influence upon his life. He was expelled from his university for joining the defense of Vladimir Dudintsev’s banned novel, Not By Bread Alone in 1956. Opposed the official campaign against Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1958. Denounced the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Interceded with KGB Chief Yuri Andropov on behalf of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of Gulag Archipelago and winner of the literary Nobel Prize, in 1970. Opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
In 1961, after the Kremlin opposed the raising of a monument at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, where thousands of Jews had been machine-gunned and buried in a mass grave in 1941 by the invading Germans—the official excuse was that the Germans had killed not just Jews but other nationals as well—Yevtushenko wrote his poem “Babi Yar” which became an instant sensation around the world. Its most powerful lines linger on.
There are no monuments over Babi Yar
But the sheer cliff is like a rough tombstone
It horrifies me,
Today, I am as old
As the Jewish people
It seems to me now,
That I, too, am a Jew.
Until 1980, Yevtushenko was barred from giving a public reading of this poem in the Ukraine. But wherever else he read it, it was invariably met with stunned silence at first, and then with thunderous ovation, according to the NYTimes obit. He received not less than 20,000 letters applauding the poem. The great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich composed his famous Thirteenth Sympony on lines from Babi Yar and other Yevtushenko poems.
In 1962, came the equally powerful “Stalin’s Heirs.” No less than Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, ran the poem in its regular edition. It was likewise an instant sensation. It is a poem that finds profound resonance even now, in countries where some contemporaneous tyrants have tried to copy Stalin. It says:
I turn to our government with a plea:
And triple the guard at the gravesite
So Stalin does not rise again,
And with Stalin, the past.
From the mausoleum
But how do we remove Stalin
from Stalin’s heirs?
A dead ringer at the Kremlin
How, indeed? A couple of years ago, on my last visit to the Kremlin, I saw a man who looked and dressed exactly like Stalin, risen from the grave as it were; who posed for pictures with local tourists for a fee of several rubles. This was proof of how hard it had become to remove Stalin from Stalin’s heirs—he had now become part of the “selfie generation” and the Kremlin’s domestic program of tourism. There are, of course, other reasons.
The country was under martial law when Yevtushenko came. Mrs. Imelda Marcos had become an illustrious determined patron of music, dance and the arts, and internationally known artists had started coming to perform at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Over time, these would include the Bolshoi Ballet with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, singers Maria Callas, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, Andrea Bocelli, conductors Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta, pianist Van Cliburn, and of course the Beatles.
At the same time, American and European writers also started coming either as Imelda’s guests or at the invitation of Filipino novelist and national artist F. Sionil Jose, president of the Philippine chapter of PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) International. None, however, was more fascinating than the rebel poet from Siberia whose country Marcos would enter into diplomatic relations with only in 1976, three years later.
Yevtushenko at Malacañang
Yevtushenko had a grand time in Malacañang, or perhaps more accurately we had a great time with him. He gave no poetry reading, but was nevertheless the toast of the evening. The only thing that threatened to cast a shadow on the occasion was our Greenwich Village poet, Xoce Garcia Villa, asking me why the Russian poet was being honored at a state dinner while he, who had just been made a National Artist after years of neglect, was not. A Villa protege tried to express this much better by taking a leak right at the Malacañang foyer in the full view of others.
We failed to fully appreciate Yevtushenko’s lines then. We tended to pay more attention to his being a world celebrity than to what he had written. Between Marcos’s authoritarian intent and the CPP/NPA/NDF’s planned overthrow, it was not clear which one would bury the other. Marcos had declared martial law to crush the communist offensive, but it was he who was ultimately ousted by his own military, died in exile after three years, and nearly failed to get a decent burial at home after 27 years, while the communists hibernated for a bit, then came back to life after the Soviet empire had collapsed, and now threaten, amid deceptive talks of ceasefires and peace negotiations, to take over the country through an extraconstitutional scheme designed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s communist-in-chief—Cabinet Secretary and NDF vice chairman Leoncio Evasco Jr.
It now appears that DU30, Evasco and the CPP/NPA/NDF are Stalin’s true epigones and heirs. How then, to quote Yevtushenko again, do we remove Stalin from them? Despite DU30’s numerous physical complaints, which have caused his admitted regular dosage of midazolam and fentanyl, two powerful anti-anxiety and anti-pain pills, the President remains avowedly strong and determined to outlive even his much sturdier friends; therefore, the question of assigning so many guards at his gravesite to make sure he does not rise again does not arise at all. We may not be speaking of his gravesite in years. What has died is the moral order over which every man, not necessarily a statesman, who dreams of the best for himself, his family and his society, has to aspire for.
Will the moral order rise again?
I hope i am completely wrong. But it looks like DU30 has deployed all the forces at his command to make sure the moral order does not rise again. From the undocumented drug killings that have become so casual and routine; to the use of cuss words on individuals and institutions under the influence of opioids and painkillers, for the benefit of our innocent and young children; to the nasty firing of Cabinet or lesser appointees who have incurred his ire or that of the ex-priest and ex-rebel who runs everything for him, because of a reported but unverified offense; to the undenied stories about fornication, adultery and sexual perversion among his friends, which he equates with “happiness” and seems to have proclaimed as the inherent right of every male or female animal in heat in his administration—in all these, DU30 seems determined to make sure the decadent moral order does not ever recover.
Like Stalin at the height of his power, DU30 has physical strength, money, women, and almost every material thing which most people aspire for. He may have every reason to feel completely self-sufficient and invulnerable. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, puts it, he lacks nothing except for “the golden knot that holds all things together.” The other name for that golden knot is basic morality—if not basic common sense—as a human being. This is the first thing men and women tend to lose when they climb to power. But without it, one lacks everything and has nothing.