On a cold night in 1986, my husband Stephen Cohen and I were speeding through Moscow in a car driven by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Zhenya, as we called him, was pulled over by the traffic police. As we waited, our friend grew increasingly anxious—and not about the consequences of his driving.
At that moment, he was nervous about the possibility that the authorities might search his car and discover in the trunk his copies of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, still banned in the Soviet Union but published in Russian abroad.
Looking back thirty years later, we might think glasnost, a new era of openness, was already inevitable. But the truth is that for those who lived and struggled through that time, change was far from certain. Even after the determined reformer Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as Soviet leader in March 1985, his policy of ending censorship unfolded slowly, in fits and starts. Indeed, it took nearly three years for people to understand that major changes were afoot. As a globally renowned poet, Zhenya was a key messenger of the new unfolding reality.
Many now know of his death last Saturday, and of his remarkable life. We have read about the indelible role he played in Russia’s history and cultural progress in the countless obituaries in prominent papers that have been written.
But what is less understood is the man who was, as he liked to say, “a poetician, not a politician.” With the instincts of one whose family (both grandfathers) had suffered at the hands of Stalin, Zhenya was a humanist of civic courage and often an incurable romantic–the outsized, swashbuckling kind. (He even played one of the Three Musketeers in a movie he directed.) The life he lived was that of a true Russian patriot, someone who felt a personal responsibility to fight for progress and against what he called “social passivity.”
Back then, Russia’s future seemed uncertain. But Zhenya imagined a brighter path for his homeland, including a better relationship with the United States. Perhaps that’s why he spent decades cultivating his own connection with America, eventually living, working, and teaching here, while also spending months a year at his beloved wooden dacha in Peredelkino, a writers’s compound outside Moscow (where he asked to be buried), and continuing to read his poetry to large crowds in packed stadiums across post-Soviet Russia and, indeed, around the world. (As was often said, he was the world’s most famous poet for several decades.)