When Soviets Loomed Large

An alumnus remembers Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s visit

by David Peyton (Col ’74)

In February 1972, Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko came to give a recital of his works in Old Cabell Hall. This visit came before the Dome Room was restored in the Rotunda’s renovation, when Old Cabell was unrivalled as the main meeting place at the University.

The Cold War was at its height, a time of intercontinental missiles newly armed with multiple warheads—MIRVs was the latest geopolitical acronym—and Nixon-Brezhnev summits. Indeed, that summer the two would sign the first arms limitation treaty. A summit back then was really a summit, a small and rare peak. And Nixon, on his way to a huge re-election victory in November, made his surprise visit to Beijing the same month.

President Nixon meets with Russian poet Yevheny Yevtushenko in 1972. Photo from Wikipedia.
It’s impossible to overstate how large the Soviet Union loomed at the time, especially to me as a student studying government. The House Un-American Activities Committee was still in existence. Words I had heard in high school from then-Congressman Schweiker of Pennsylvania—later Senator and Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Reagan Administration—still rang in my ears. He had quoted the French Communist newspaper, L’Humanité, to the effect that communists would prevail over capitalists because they were more disciplined.

We had just won the space race to the moon, but the Soviets challenged everywhere. The rivalry extended to sports. A series of epic bilateral track and field meets had produced many world records and were the greatest such events outside the Olympics. To me, as the U.Va. track team’s intermediate hurdler, watching those meets on television was a thrill. And that year, 1972, later produced the nip-and-tuck final basketball game at the Munich Olympics with the incorrect and much disputed officials’ calls leading to a giant upset Soviet victory on a second replay. U.S. players were so disgusted that they refused to accept their silver medals.  Back at U.Va., I was taking Russian history from Professor Walter Sablinsky.

And so I was going to encounter someone from the Soviet Union in person for the first time. Yevtushenko first stopped at Poe’s room on the West Range, leaving a bouquet of flowers with the greeting, “From Russia with love.”

The great moment of the evening was the reading, first in translation by an English actor, and then in the original by the poet himself, of his searching poem of positive and negative contrasts, “The City of Yes and the City of No.” The translation does not remotely do it justice, as every line in the first half of the poem ends in or rhymes with nyet—curt, truncated—and every line in the second half ends in da or –da—open, exploratory.

He writes that in the city of no, “Typewriters are chattering a carbon copy answer:/ ‘Nyet – nyet – nyet. Nyet – nyet – nyet. Nyet – nyet – nyet.’/ And when the lights go out altogether,/ the ghosts in it begin their gloomy ballet./ You’ll get a ticket to leave – like hell you will!–/ to leave the black town of No.”

In juxtaposition, in the city of yes, he describes: “And water, faintly murmuring, whispers through the years:/ ‘Da – da – da. Da – da – da. Da – da – da.’/ To tell the truth, the snag is it’s a bit boring at times,/ to be given so much, almost without any effort,/ in that shining multicolored city of Yes.”

Yevtushenko resolves the poem with the lines: “Better let me be tossed around –/ To the end of my days,/ between the city of Yes/ and the city of No!”

“A bit boring at times?” In the English translation that does not make sense, but in the original Russian the repeated –da lulls the listener almost hypnotically. Did Yevtushenko manage to sneak a commentary on repression versus freedom past the commissars? Did his reciting the poem with such fervor have anything to do with his reciting it in Charlottesville, a city that for him stood, in the persons of Poe and Jefferson, for artistic and political freedom? I suspect so, in much the same way that some musical commentators now say that Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich, written after being cashiered by Stalin during the purges of the ’30s, has an ironic undercurrent beneath its seeming triumphant surface.

For me, it was my first poetry reading, and I had not encountered such expansive personal literary expression before—and from a Soviet, of all people! Twenty-five  years later I finally started writing poetry myself, some poems coming very quickly, others gestating for a long time. One of the latter is “The One Time,” which brings together many of the most singular experiences in my life. I could never figure out how to organize them until Yevtushenko’s poem came to mind as a template, the negative grouped first as a prelude to the positive.

Today no foe looms for the United States as did the Soviet Union then. Russia still has the missiles, but both sides have been building down. China pushes outward, yet we buy their goods all day long. Terrorists threaten, but they are small in number and dispersed. The greatest threats to the future of humanity now appear to be collectively self-imposed ones of environmental degradation. As far as one can tell, no such time of black-and-white, us vs. them rivalry will reappear. Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union Yevtushenko moved to America to teach at the University of Tulsa and the City University of New York.

It would not be possible today for any one visitor to U.Va. to be a cultural ambassador from such an alien, hostile land. The program may have listed the other cities in his U.S. tour. Yet whatever they were, it now scarcely seems possible that any of them could have had the same emotional resonance for Yevtushenko as did Charlottesville that memorable night.

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