BUSO performs Shostakovich and Beethoven at Symphony Hall on November 20,
8 p.m.

Vol. IV No. 14   ·   17 November 2000   

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Russian poet Yevtushenko to appear at BU concert
The poem that stole past Khrushchev and into a symphony

By Michael B. Shavelson

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the most popular Russian poet of the post-Stalinist period, wrote the five poems that form the foundation of Shostakovich’s Symphony XIII, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko will speak before the November 20 Boston University Symphony Orchestra performance of the work at Symphony Hall. He recently discussed the genesis of the title poem and the symphony with the B.U. Bridge by telephone from New York.

Dmitri Shostakovich at about the time he composed his Symphony No. 13. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis  

It wasn’t what he saw that jolted poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko when he visited the site of the Babi Yar massacre. It was what he didn’t see. As a child he had heard of the Nazi bloodbath outside the Ukrainian city of Kiev. Now, in 1961, he was standing at the edge of the yar (ravine) itself.

"I was in Kiev to give a reading of my poetry," Yevtushenko says. "My companion and guide was the writer Anatoli Kuznetsov, who had been an eyewitness to everything that happened." Kuznetsov described the Germans’ bestial murder of some 34,000 Jews in September 1941 and how the ravine filled with bodies, dead and wounded.

"I was terribly ashamed," says Yevtushenko. "There was not even one little sign. I’m not talking about monuments, but just a sign saying that here are buried tens of thousands of innocent victims." And worse, "the whole ravine was full of garbage. It had been turned into a garbage dump."

Twenty years had passed since the atrocity, and Babi Yar had been covered up -- both literally and by what Yevtushenko calls

a conspiracy of silence. Because the Nazis were aided by eager Ukrainian collaborators during the war, he says, and after the war Stalin was preparing his own assault on the Jews, Soviet authorities preferred not to regard the topic as anything more than a symbol.

"I wrote the poem ‘Babi Yar’ that very evening," says Yevtushenko. "It took probably three or four hours. I immediately recited it by phone to a friend in Moscow. But I forgot that my phone could be bugged."

The next morning officials tore down signs announcing Yevtushenko’s poetry reading. When he demanded to know why it was being canceled, "the bureaucrats told me that there was a flu epidemic. I understood. So I blackmailed them."


"Ha! That’s easy. We were monkeys in the socialist jungle.

I knew how. We [threatened to] make a scandal. Since people were supposed to have forgotten about Babi Yar, the bureaucrats were afraid of reminding them. They didn’t say it was because of my poem, but I understood, of course."

Obscene horror

"The horrors of Babi Yar were endless and obscene," writes historian Martin Gilbert in The Holocaust (1985). The Germans occupied Kiev on September 19, 1941, and a week later ordered the city’s remaining Jews -- mostly women, children, and the elderly, as the men were in the army -- to assemble for resettlement. He quotes the testimony of a witness, who described how Ukrainian policemen ". . . formed a corridor and drove the panic-stricken people towards the huge glade, where sticks, swearing, and dogs, who were tearing the people’s bodies, forced the people

to undress, to form columns in the hundreds, and then to go in the columns in twos toward the mouth of the ravine.

". . . They found themselves on the narrow ground above the [Babi Yar] precipice, 20 to 25 meters in height, and on the opposite side were the Germans’ machine guns. The killed, wounded, and half-alive people fell down and were smashed there. Then the next hundred were brought, and everything repeated again. The policemen took the children by the legs and threw them alive down into the Yar.

". . . The Germans undermined the wall of the ravine and buried the people under the thick layers of earth. But the earth was moving long after, because wounded and still-alive Jews were still moving."

Over the next several months Babi Yar became the grave of tens of thousands more: Jews, Gypsies, and Soviet prisoners of war. As many as 100,000 may have been executed there, according to Soviet estimates. The killings, minus the details of Ukrainian collaboration, became a useful Soviet symbol for the evils of fascism and an easy way to avoid talking about such Soviet evils as Stalin’s purges or the Gulag Archipelago.

Dangerous verses

Reciting the poem was one thing; publishing it was another. Soviet authorities turned the heat up on Yevtushenko when "Babi Yar" appeared in September 1961 in the hugely influential newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, which had a circulation in the millions. Publishing the poem "was a very courageous decision of the editor, Valeri Kosolapov," says Yevtushenko. "He was a veteran, and

it was helpful that he had come with the Red Army to Kiev and had seen [the mass grave] when they discovered it. Kosolapov said he and his wife had to think about the decision, and I asked, why? He said, ‘I’ll be fired if I publish it.’"

Yevtushenko waited "deep into the night." The editor’s wife came out, says Yevtushenko, "and her eyes were a bit wet. She said to me, ‘We decided to be fired.’"

No memorial stands over Babi Yar
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
I feel as old today as the Jewish
race itself.
I feel today that I am a Jew.

Yevtushenko explains that one reason he got into trouble was because his poem is only incidentally about the massacre at Babi Yar; it is more broadly a sweeping attack on anti-Semitism. "The authorities wanted to stop performances of the poem," Yevtushenko says. "Articles accused me of showing only Nazi crimes against the Jews and not mentioning in the poem that there were Ukrainian and Russian victims there. The poem mentioned Babi Yar, but it wasn’t a scrupulous essay or investigation. It was a metaphorical poem."

Blood is spattered over the floor.
The ringleaders in the tavern are getting brutal.
They smell of vodka and onions.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with the bullies.
They jeer, "Kill the Kikes,
Save Russia!"
A grain merchant beats up my mother.

Dmitri Shostakovich, the greatest Russian composer then living in the USSR, read "Babi Yar" in Literaturnaya Gazeta. He asked Yevtushenko if he could set it to music.

"He called me up at a time when I was being attacked from many sides," says Yevtushenko. "It was like God [calling] from the heavens. I remember how we listened to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony [Symphony 7, written in 1942] during the war. In Zima Junction [Siberia], where I was born, we didn’t have radios in school or in homes. It was pretty cold, but giant crowds of workers, women, and children would listen outside to the black loudspeaker on a pole. Leningrad really inspired people during a hard time."

Although Shostakovich asked Yevtushenko for permission to set the poem to music, he admitted that he had already done so. "He asked me to come over, and he played and sang," recalls Yevtushenko. The composer not long after set three more poems to music and asked the poet to write a fifth. What Shostakovich had originally conceived as a suite of songs became his Symphony XIII in five movements, one for each poem: "Babi Yar," "Humor," "In the Store," "Fears," and "A Career." The poems are sung by a male chorus and bass soloist.

"It was a great lesson to me," says Yevtushenko. "In the same symphony he connected themes nobody imagined were connected. It was like Shakespeare’s high and low styles: people cried during the "Babi Yar" movement and laughed during "Humor" and "A Career."

Première or finale

  Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Yevtushenko’s poem was still upsetting Soviet authorities as high as Khrushchev, jeopardizing the symphony’s scheduled première on December 18, 1962. "They couldn’t state their accusations directly," says Yevtushenko, "so they hid them behind the mask of Russian patriotism, complaining that I insulted the feelings of the Russian people. God damn, there’s probably no Russian of my generation who wrote more about how wounded our country and people were by the war. They organized a letter campaign [against me]; that’s very easy to do."

The public anticipated the première with such excitement that the Central Committee of the Communist Party, rather than cancel the event outright, pressured key musicians to drop out. "The atmosphere around the performance was terrible because the conductor refused [to participate] at the last minute and the singer from Kiev, Boris Gmyria, refused [to perform] under pressure from the Ukrainian Communist Party. They betrayed Shostakovich."

Kirill Kondrashin agreed to conduct, and Shostakovich was able to find another singer -- whose understudy actually sang when he failed to appear. "The première was a political and social event," says Yevtushenko. "There was something like 40 minutes of standing ovation. Traffic was paralyzed outside the concert hall because people already knew my poem. Everybody was surprised that the performance was even permitted."

But Communist officials were ready to turn the première into the finale. "They gave Kondrashin an ultimatum," says Yevtushenko. "People are full of indignation, and if Yevtushenko doesn’t mention that Ukrainians and Russians were also killed with the Jews, we won’t permit future performances.

"Shostakovich was a delicate man. He didn’t force me to do it; he didn’t say a word. I wrote artistically unnecessary lines, lines that absolutely didn’t change the meaning of the poem. It was a tactical step."

And I become like a long, soundless scream
Above the thousands and thousands buried here.
I am each old man shot dead here,
I am each child shot dead here.

was changed to

I think about Russia’s heroic feats,
In blocking fascism’s path.
To the very tiniest dewdrop,
Her whole essence and fate is dear to me.

"It was my own decision," says Yevtushenko. "I wrote these lines to save the symphony, and I was right. I knew that if I didn’t, then a great masterpiece would be hidden from the people."

Today the poem is widely translated and anthologized and is sung every time the symphony is performed. In the original version.


17 November 2000
Boston University
Office of University Relations