Face to face with history

DON'T DIE BEFORE YOU'RE DEAD by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, trs Antonina Bouis, Robson pounds 16.99

YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO was just 19 when his first book of poems appeared in Russia in 1952. Tall, handsome and athletic, "revoltingly illogical, inexcusably young", he packed Soviet football stadiums with heady live performances whose joyful physical virility seemed to signal the reawakened conscience of Soviet poetry. Published in the West, he was welcomed throughout the world as the true voice of the post-Stalin generation, inviting audiences to join him in stunning displays of celebration and indignation. Yevtushenko's almost messianic responsibility to the truth reached its finest expression in poems like "Baby Yar", a moving defence of Russia's suffering Jews.

As Yevtushenko's poetic hunger for fame and experience turned over the years to a more cautious prose, he vowed to start writing "seriously". This, his second novel, described as an "epic novel of modern Russia", focuses on the days in August 1991 following the old guard's coup against Gorbachev.

Some of the characters are invented: ex-football hero Lyza, wrecked by cynicism and alcohol; "Boat", the fearless blue-eyed mountaineer who loves him and scales the Kremlin tower for him; an elderly emigree poetess named Korzinkina, who arrives at the barricades from Paris to speak of liberty and Russia's poetic past; selfless Ministry of Internal Affairs investigator Palchikov, who resigns rather than work for the coup. Other characters are real: Solzhenitsyn (the "Great Camp Inmate"); Rostropovich (the "Human Cello"); the melancholy portrait of the murdered Tsar, haloed in martyrdom; Gorbachev the plain man, with whom Yevtushenko has a sentimental affinity.

He tracks back to the people of the Sixties, "a generation predisposed to fear, who have yet to begin to conquer it". He imagines Gorbachev "urged higher by his fear, to a place where he thought there'd be no fear", and describes him musing hopelessly about the Prague spring as he sits imprisoned in the Crimea during August, destroyed by his own fear of universal elections.

Allowed to travel and never arrested, Yevtushenko has written this novel partly as an "intimate and political confession" for those who suspect him of having worked too closely with the state. He describes being summoned by the KGB in 1956, finally throwing off his fear and refusing to work with them. Yet there is too much vanity and swagger in the account for it to be convincing. Entering Moscow's White House on the first night of the coup, he jots down his impressions, then stands on the balcony to declaim to the eager crowds below his "very best bad poem":

"And Sakharov, alive,

again with us,

on the barricades...

And the Russian Parliament,

like a wounded marble swan of freedom..."

After the coup has failed, the beautiful faces of the White House's defenders are transformed into the "angry, snarling faces of the vandals" toppling the statue of Dzherzhinsky outside the Lubyanka, jeering at Yevtushenko and demanding to know why he was not arrested. He does not answer.

In this disconnected series of episodes Yevtushenko's slip-shod prose is sometimes rendered almost unreadable in its heavy-handed American translation. There are many moving moments filled with the rhythms and imagery of his earlier poems: Gorbachev as a child watching people trudging across the dusty plains of Russia asking, "Is it far to prison?"; the young Tadjik leaving his homeland and his sweetheart to drive a tank to the White House. But the excitement of Yevtushenko's poetry is all too often drowned in sentimentality, mawkish self-reference and a huge cast of cartoon characters. As Russia hangs weightless in the balance, Palchikov says: "the victors won't be the superpower pythons, but the chameleons." The central hero is always Yevtushenko, scribbling on the run as he mythologises his own past, writing "face to face with history" and promising us yet more instalments to come.

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