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Editor's note: This feature, reported by Alex van Oss, first appeared on All Things Considered on June 23, 2000. It aired in advance of a performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conductor Yuri Temirkanov — with poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading his own "Babi Yar" as part of the performance.
Yevtushenko died on April 1, 2017.
During the 1950s and early '60s, the Soviet Union went through a period called "the thaw." For a time, there was less censorship, abstract art was created and shown, and people began discussing long-forbidden topics such as the gulag and the Stalin repressions. One of the pivotal figures during those days was the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who in 1961 wrote a work called "Babi Yar." It cried out against official anti-Semitism, and caused a scandal when it was first published. It also inspired composer Dmitri Shostakovich to create a new work: his Thirteenth Symphony.
The name "Babi Yar" refers to a ravine, a killing ground in the city of Kiev, where tens of thousands of Jews were shot and buried by German troops in 1941. Twenty years later, when Yevtushenko first went to Babi Yar, he says there still wasn't even a marker there. [In 2016, the Ukrainian government pledged to create a memorial at the site in time for the 80th anniversary of the massacre in 2021. — Ed.]
"I was so ashamed that I wrote this poem very quickly," Yevtushenko told NPR in 2000. "Probably, it was three hours, four hours."
The dashing young Yevtushenko read his poem to a packed audience in Kiev. Years later, Yevtushenko learned a curious fact about that hall where he had read: It had been built right on top of cellars where in Stalin's time the secret police had tortured their prisoners.
"You know, paradox was that I was reading poem about the bloodshed in 1941. But the stage was like a raft — a raft which was swaying on another blood, another blood of so many citizens who were tortured and they were killed under this stage. It's like sandwich of sufferings, you know?"
"Babi Yar" was published in the main Soviet literary magazine, Literaturnaia Gazeta, but not printed again in Russia for decades. Yevtushenko was denounced by the Soviet authorities.
What a shock it was when one night, Yevtushenko's wife handed him the telephone — and on the line was none other than Dmitri Shostakovich, the world-renowned composer. Shostakovich sounded nervous and humble. He was asking, of all things, permission to set "Babi Yar" to music.
Yevtushenko was tongue-tied.
"I just — I began to mumbled something — 'Of course,'" the poet recalled. "And he said, `Oh, thank you for your kindness, dear Yevgeny Aleksandrovich.' He was the first man who was calling me Yevgeny Aleksandrovich, using my patronymic. Nobody did it before."
Yuri Temirkanov and "Babi Yar" go back a long way. After the choral symphony's debut in 1962, Soviet authorities came down hard. They ordered changes in the text so it said that not only Jews perished at Babi Yar, but Russians and Ukrainians — meaning non-Jews — as well.
To save the work, Yevtushenko and the composer made adjustments, but the original score survived and was performed thanks to a few brave conductors, including Yuri Temirkanov in then-Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
"They never wanted to change anything. They were forced to change it," Temirkanov asserted in 2000, speaking to NPR through an interpreter. "When I took the score, the original text was there, because it was visible. It was written over it, the new text. So I told the soloist to learn the original text and I knew it was a risk. Fortunately, those who had the power to forbid it, they didn't know either text, so they wouldn't know the difference."
Shostakovich's symphony presents five Yevtushenko poems, ranging through the spiritual to the comical to the grim. The first movement is "Babi Yar." In this part, the soloist, or poet — who's not Jewish himself — takes on different voices. Sometimes, he's the victim of a pogrom or of the Holocaust. At one point, he's even the young girl Anne Frank. But the poem also resonates with the experience of Soviets under Stalin: millions who heard a knock on the door at the wrong time of night.
Here are some of lines from "Babi Yar":
"I seem to be
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And I have no need of phrases.
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much --
tenderly embrace each other in a darkened room.
They're coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No. It's the ice breaking ..."
There are official monuments now at Babi Yar. Much has changed in Russia. But Yevgeny Yevtushenko was cautious in 2000. He told NPR that the best memorial is the music of Dmitri Shostakovich itself, for the Thirteenth Symphony is movable: It can be played in Russia, or in Tel Aviv, or in Baltimore.