Obituary: Robert Rozhdestvensky

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Robert Ivanovich Rozhdestvensky, poet; born Kosikha, Altai Krai 20 June 1932; married (two daughters); died Moscow 20 August 1994.

IN THE late 1950s and early 1960s, Robert Rozhdestvensky was a prominent member of the liberal Moscow literary group led by his fellow poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadullina.

It was the time of Nikita Khrushchev's so-called 'thaw' and de-Stalinisation campaign. After Khrushchev's 'secret' speech (of which the entire Moscow intelligentsia knew) at the 20th Communist Party Congress in February 1956, a 'youth revolution' began. Rozhdestvensky met Yevtushenko at the Literary Institute. Rozhdestvensky, Yevtushenko, Akhmadullina (Yevtushenko's wife), and the poet Andrei Voznessensky led the 'angry' young people who went into the streets of Moscow and read liberal poetry, some of it anti-Soviet. The group gave public readings next to the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky's life-size monument on the square bearing his name, attracting crowds of young people who came to listen to the fresh voice of truth. They also read at huge auditoriums such as the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire and Lenin Luzhniki Stadium. It was at this time that Rozhdestvensky published, in the Moscow monthly magazine Yunost ('Youth') - around which the leading young Soviet poets gathered - his best-known collection of poems, Rekviem ('Requiem'), a homage to the dead of the Second World War.

But with Khrushchev's overthrow in October 1964 the era of change and these public protests by Soviet youth came to an abrupt stop. Yevtushenko began publishing verse pleasing to the Soviet authorities. The group ceased to exist, and Rozhdestvensky chose to be for the next 20 years a poet of the Soviet literary establishment, with all the dividends that


Rozhdestvensky was born in 1932, in the village of Kosikha in the Altai region, in the eastern Soviet Union, where his soldier father, Ivan, served. His mother was a doctor. During the Second World War while his father served as an officer, and his mother was a military doctor, Robert was moved from one state orphanage to another. After the war his father was posted to Karelia, north Russia, where Robert graduated from the historical-philosophical faculty of Petrozavodsk University. The family moved to Moscow, where Robert graduated from the military musical college.

Rozhdestvensky published his first poem in 1941, and this helped him to become in 1951 a student of the Moscow Gorky Literary Institute, where he graduated in 1956. While still a student he became a member of the powerful Union of Soviet Writers, a rare achievement for a man of 22. Membership gave him the opportunity to publish his first verse collection, Flagi vesny ('Flags of Spring') in 1955. He then published two collections of poetry, The Test and My Love, both in 1956.

After Khrushchev's overthrow and Brezhnev's taking power, Rozhdestvensky became a senior member of the board of the USSR Union of Writers. In 1971, he was elected a member of the Secretariat of the Union, a powerful group which decided who should be published and who should not. In 1972 he was awarded the Lenin Komsomol prize for young Communists, at the age of 40. He became a member of the Communist Party in 1977 and in 1979 received a Lenin Prize.

In 1970, Rozhdestvensky's Requiem appeared in book form and his former teacher at the military musical college, the composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, wrote a score for it. All the while the most important real requiem, written by the most important Russian poetess of her time, Anna Akhmatova, in 1935-43, and dedicated to her arrested son, remained unpublished in the Soviet Union (it was published in Munich in 1963).

Rozhdestvensky's two-volume Selected Works were published in 1979 and his three-volume Complete Works in 1985. At one time he had his own programme, Documentary Screen, on Soviet television, on which he showed much official propaganda against the West. He also worked with leading composers such as Alexandra Pakhmutova, Doris Mokrousov, and Yakov Frenkel, who set his verse to music. These were songs about love, happiness and the wonderful Soviet life.

Rozhdestvensky played quite a role in official public affairs such as being a senior member of the propagandist Soviet Committee for the Defence of Peace, financed by the Soviet Government, and of the World Peace Council, on whose behalf he often travelled abroad. He was also chairman of various literary committees, and a deputy on Moscow City Council. He lived with his wife, a literary critic, and two daughters in an apartment at 9 Gorky Street, a building where the Soviet elite lived and still live.

As a cultural emissary of the Soviet Government abroad during Brezhnev's, Andropov's and Chernenko's time, Rozhdestvensky used to write for newspapers back home poems on political events or on space flights of which he had read in Pravda and Izvestia - 'a paper which for me is as heroin is for a drug addict', as he wrote in his poem 'Hunger'. From Brezhnev's time until the end of censorship under Gorbachev in 1987 Rozhdestvensky for 20 years wrote hymns to the Soviet Government's every action, whether good or evil.

Before the break-up of the Soviet Union Rozhdestvensky was a rich man but in recent years, when the rouble became worthless and his privileges disappeared, he experienced, like most of his colleagues, enormous difficulties.

Rozhdestvensky will be remembered as a noteworthy poet of the liberal Soviet 1960s. In later life he was seen in public in company with leading cultural figures, and presented the public persona of an outstanding Russian poet in favour of democracy. But whether he really believed this of himself remains an open question.

(Photograph omitted)