Monday, September 1, 2014

Babi Yar

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

For the text of this poem in English, click here for its page at - not a very good translation alas, and spelling mistakes as early as the second line. I have a "better" translation - my own! - if you would like to email me at I will be happy to share it.

To hear Yevtushenko reading the poem in the original Russian, at first, and then in English translation, and with some splendid echoes and doublings to create the sense of multiple voices, click her for its page at YouTube. The background music is from Shostakovich's setting of the poem.

   Ancestral voices seem to demand this poem, this one and this alone, from among the many Yevtushenko poems that I might have chosen; ancestral voices, but also the specific voice of Max Jacob, my narrator in “Going To The Wall”, for whom this poem became enormously symbolic in the narrative both of the Jews and the non-Jews who underwent the catastrophic experiment of Communism in the Soviet Union. There are other poems, or lines from other poems, which I love more; the poem he calls “Lies”, for instance, and which ends with the wonderfully, wisely didactic lines:

                                  Forgive no error you recognise,
                                  it will repeat itself, increase,
                                  and afterwards our pupils 

                                  will not forgive what we forgave

lines that could only have been written by one who had survived the sort of totalitarian assault against ideals and values and morality which was the Stalin Terror, and who emerged, not simply “unvanquished and unyielding” (in Virginia Woolf’s stupendous phrase), but with a sense of duty and responsibility even heightened.

    There are, of course, many in the west who chastise Yevtushenko for not being another Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn; and from our perspective of moral and material superiority it is very easy to criticise. Whatever his failings, however many his compromises, I suspect it was no easy thing just to be Yevtushenko; in much the same way that one could criticise John the Baptist for not being Jesus.

    I love the gushing sentimentality of “Zima Junction”, not for itself, but for the glorious irony of it in the face of the reality of Stalinist collectivisation; like the extraordinary tale of Sartre being granted a performance licence for “Les Mouches” by the authorities in Nazi-occupied Paris, or Camus likewise for the publication of “La Peste”, the fools completely oblivious to the real meaning, the allegory, the intent behind the irony, the amazing courage of the protest. As Yevtushenko expresses it, in “Later”:

                                  It would be far more terrible to mistake
                                  a friend
                                  than to mistake
                                  an enemy.

    The sentimentality is plain in Babi Yar too, but here it is not intended ironically. Some of the sentimentality is hard to take. “I know the goodness of my country” for example, which is simply mendacious; and the several attempts at symbiotic empathy (“I, wandering in Egypt…I am also a boy in Bialystok…I seem to myself like Anna Frank…”) which achieve a measure of sympathetic identification, but no more. How, one wonders, might Whitman have composed it – I say Whitman only because there are obvious similarities of style? Certainly not in the way that Yevtushenko does in the last seven lines, which I, as a Jew whose ancestors died in one of far-too-many Babi Yars, find rather nauseating – much more than mere poetic failure, which it is too. But I do not chastise. In the face of Russian history, past and contemporary, the writing of the poem at all was a heroic act, and we are grateful to have one hero, Yevtushenko, arguing against that other, earlier one, Bogdan Cmielnicki. There are times when a poem’s quality as poem, in this case strictly limited, is less important than the fact that it exists at all.

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