On the Question of Freedom

Dachau’s ashes burn my feet
The asphalt smokes under me
Warheads & bayonets stuck
under my nails

I’ll stroke a stray strand of my beloved’s hair
And I myself shall smoke
crucified Christ-like on wings of bombers
flying through this night to kill Christ’s kids

My skin trembles with explosions
as if it were Vietnam
and breaking my back and ribs
the Berlin Wall runs through me

You talk to me of freedom? Empty question
under umbrellas of bombs in the sky
It’s a disgrace to be free of your own age
A hundred times more shameful than to be its slave

Yes I’m enslaved to Tashkent women
and to Dallas bullets and Peking slogans
and Vietnam widows and Russian women
with picks beside the tracks and kerchiefs over their eyes

Yes I’m not free of Pushkin and Blok
Not free of the State of Maryland and Zima Station
Not free of the Devil and God
Not free of earth’s beauty and its shit

Yes I’m enslaved to a thirst for taking a wet-mop
to the heads of all the bickerers & butchers of the world
Yes I’m enslaved to the honor of busting the mugs
of all the bastards on earth

And maybe I’ll be loved by the people for this
For spending my life
(not without precedent in this iron age)
glorifying unfreedom from
the true struggle for freedom

— Yevgeny Yevtushenko
(Trans. by Lawrence Ferlinghetti with Anthony Kahn)

President Richard Nixon meets with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1972.
Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

It’s arguable as to whether Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was better known internationally for his denouncement of Stalin or his poetry that described anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. He alternately earned praise and fell out of favor with other Russian dissidents, both celebrated for his bravery (bravado?) in criticizing the political and social heirs of Stalin the sly and dismissed as a toady for his often more moderate criticism of the state. Yevtushenko died on Saturday in Oklahoma, where he taught at the University of Tulsa.

[Research note: “Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russian poet who memorialised Babi Yar, dies aged 84,” Guardian (April 1, 2017)]

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