The poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko inspired one of the greatest works by Dmitri Shostakovich: his Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar). This work anchors the opening program Sept. 21-22 and 25 of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season, which is dedicated to the themes of peace and reflection. With Riccardo Muti on the podium, the CSO will be joined by the men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and bass Alexey Tikhomirov.

In 1961, Yevtushenko polarized Soviet society with the publication of his poem “Babi Yar,” prompted by a visit to the ravine just outside Kiev where the Nazis had carried out a mass execution of Jews in 1941. The poem was a bold attack on the enduring anti-Semitism in Soviet society. “Babi Yar” was one of five Yevtushenko poems that Shostakovich (1906-1975) set to music in his Symphony No. 13, composed in 1962. Thirty years later, Yevtushenko sat for an interview with program annotator and scholar Harlow Robinson, ahead of a Babi Yar engagement in the United States. When the CSO performed Babi Yar in 1995, under Sir Georg Solti, the interview was published in the orchestra’s program book. The following is a reprint of that article.

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Born in Zima Junction in the Irkutsk region of Siberia in 1933, Yevgeny Yevtushenko was one of the best-known contemporary Russian poets. (He died in Tulsa, Okla., on April 1, 2017.) Yevtushenko came of artistic age during “The Thaw,” an exciting, turbulent but short-lived period of cultural and political liberalization that followed Stalin’s death in 1953. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, Yevtushenko was a prominent spokesman for a new, more idealistic generation eager to end Russia’s long tradition of isolation and secrecy.

As the youngest member of the powerful Soviet Writers Union, Yevtushenko helped to revive the oral tradition of Russian poetry. In fact, his public readings frequently filled huge athletic stadiums, and they were surrounded by the kind of hysteria associated in the West with rock concerts. Although his work remained within the bounds of the ideologically permissible, and he never crossed the line into dissidence, Yevtushenko frequently tested the limits of censorship.

With the appearance of the poem “Babi Yar” in 1961, the controversy that had always surrounded Yevtushenko reached its height. Although many Communist Party officials were disturbed that the poem focused on Russian racism, it was approved for publication in the authoritative Literaturnaia Gazeta, becoming the first poem attacking anti-Semitism to be published in the Soviet press for decades.

The triumphant premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 occurred in Moscow on Dec. 18, 1962, in a tense and uncertain atmosphere: the volatile Nikita Khrushchev had just launched a new campaign against Formalist trends in Soviet art. Repeated two days later, the symphony was then abruptly removed from circulation upon orders from the Kremlin.

Harlow Robinson: How did you come to write “Babi Yar”? How do people react to the poem today [in 1992]?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko: When I heard the word zhid (“yid”) for the first time in Moscow, I asked what it meant. No one believed me — they thought I was pretending not to know. But my mother and father detested anti-Semites, and such bigots weren’t allowed to cross the threshold of our home. My own ancestry is very mixed: Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish, Tartar, German, Lithuanian — but not a single drop of Jewish blood. A Jew could not have written the poem “Babi Yar” — nor a person of any other nationality. This is a poem by a Russian about the shame he feels at the history of anti-Semitism in our country and all over the world.

Anti-Semites can never understand why I so often (and not only in “Babi Yar”) attack anti-Semitism. They simply can’t fathom that a person can feel the pain of another. That’s why they have attacked me for “Babi Yar,” accusing me of glorifying the Jewish tradition while neglecting the sufferings of my own Russian people. Last winter [in 1991], they even burned my effigy, with the words “An Agent of International Zionism” written on it. During its recent 80th anniversary, the members of the anti-Semitic political organization Pamyat even insulted my mother, an elderly newspaper kiosk vendor. They came up to her and shouted: “When are you going to kick off, you old kike, along with your offspring?”

What is the history of your poem “Babi Yar”?

I read “Babi Yar” for the first time publicly in Kiev in 1961. Since then, I have read it everywhere around the world, even in Franco’s Spain and in Salazar’s Portugal. But Kiev was closed to me for 28 years afterward. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 was performed in Kiev only in 1991, on the 40th anniversary of the Nazi massacre.

After the poem was published in Literaturnaia Gazeta, I received several thousand letters, mostly from Russians who supported me. But there were also threats. For 22 years after its first publication, the Soviet censors consistently refused to allow the poem to be included in any of my subsequent collections. But everybody knew the poem, anyway, and it was translated into 72 foreign languages.

How did Shostakovich come to use your poem for his Symphony No. 13?

We were not acquainted at the time. He telephoned me and asked, as he put it, for my “kind permission” to write music to my poem “Babi Yar.” I was stunned by his call, and answered, “But of course, please.” He replied joyfully, “Wonderful. The music is already written. Come and hear it.”

The most thrilling performance was the very first one, when Shostakovich himself sang it for me, sitting at the piano. He played and sang all the parts: the soloist, the chorus and the orchestra. His eyes were filled with tears. He decided all by himself to set the text to music. The way he had done it amazed me. If I had been able to write music, this is exactly the music I would have written for this poem. For he had combined seemingly incompatible things: requiem, satire and sad lyricism.

When people heard the symphony, they cried, became indignant, and — which happens very rarely — they laughed. After we met, I began to visit him often at home. We became friends.

Could you describe your impressions of Shostakovich?

He was a great man in a badly gilded cage. Could he have loved his cage? Of course not. He hated it, and broke his teeth and fingernails on its bars. But the roaring of this big hunted beast inside his cage was worth more, much more, than the carefree twittering of many so-called free birds. Why didn’t he emigrate? Because a monument cannot emigrate. And if he had emigrated, not only the members of his family, but all of Russian music would have been taken hostage.

He was like the doctors in Camus’ novel The Plague, who remained and worked as well as they could in a city infected by an epidemic, wanting to save at least somebody. But Shostakovich paid with compromises for this victory of “non-emigration,” for the right to keep his homeland. And yet if you consider his “compromises” on the one hand and all his great music on the other, then the great obviously outweighs what he was forced to do.

Describe the controversy surrounding the premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13.

Bowing to official pressure, both the Leningrad conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Ukrainian singer Boris Gmyrya had refused Shostakovich’s invitation to participate in the premiere. At the very last minute, the singer Vitaly Gromadsky agreed to fill in, and Kirill Kondrashin conducted. But the clouds that had been gathering over the Symphony before the premiere and afterward turned into a thunderstorm.

Kondrashin was summoned by the Party Secretary for Ideology and told that “the public was disturbed” because my text didn’t contain any reference to the fact that Russians and Ukrainians died together with Jews at Babi Yar. He gave us an ultimatum: if the text wasn’t altered in some way to include this information, then the symphony would not be allowed to be performed, recorded or published. Kondrashin asked me to save the symphony. I understood what he was saying. Shostakovich never asked me about this personally — he was too subtle for that.

But Kondrashin came to see me immediately after visiting Shostakovich. A great work might have been hidden away, and for how long, none of us could begin to predict. And so I wrote the additional lines. Kondrashin and I brought the lines to Shostakovich. He sighed and wrote them into his piano score. All the other rumors and inventions about how I wrote an entirely different version of “Babi Yar” are false, the product of those who like to take advantage of the frailty of human memory.

Is the message of “Babi Yar” still relevant today?

I would be happy if my poem “Babi Yar” would become irrelevant — the sooner the better. But that will happen only when anti-Semitism disappears. For the moment I don’t see that happening. But I’m hopeful that reason and kindness will in the end overcome racial hatred. At the moment, we are seeing filthy new outbreaks of anti-Semitism in both Russia and Germany. That makes it all the more appropriate and symbolic that the German conductor Kurt Masur and [I] are now going to perform together at Avery Fisher Hall, like brothers, united by the tragic shadow of Shostakovich, who summons humankind to ensure that such terrible crimes will never be repeated.

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer and professor emeritus of history at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He is a frequent annotator and lecturer for the Boston Symphony, Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Opera Guild and Aspen Music Festival. His next book is a biography of Russian-born film director Lewis Milestone.

TOP: Undated portrait of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. | Photo: Wikimedia