Yevgeny Yevtushenko wasn’t a household name in Tulsa, but he achieved fame worldwide for his willingness to speak truth boldly and beautifully.
Yevtushenko, who had split his time between Russia and the University of Tulsa since 1992, died Saturday at Hillcrest Medical Center. He was 84.
Yevtushenko was best known for his 1961 poem “Babi Yar,” which described the 1941 mass killing of nearly 34,000 Jews by occupying Nazi forces and Ukrainian collaborators. The poem and three others by Yevtushenko were set to music in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled Babi Yar.
At a time when speaking out in the former Soviet Union could be a life-or-death choice, Yevtushenko was an honest voice, which built his acclaim. The Associated Press reported that at the height of his fame, Yevtushenko read his works in packed soccer stadiums and arenas, including to a crowd of 200,000 in 1991 during a failed coup attempt in Russia.
Yevtuskenko appeared on the cover of Time magazine. His death was news in The New York Times and The Washington Post. In a 2003 interview, Tulsa World writer James Watts referred to Yevtushenko as “arguably the most famous poet in the world.”
In the same interview, Yevtushenko described how he decided to come to Tulsa after happening to hear “Lara’s Theme” from the movie, “Dr. Zhivago” played on the carillon at Utica Square.
“...(A)t the time, for me, it was like a sign. It was as if Pasternak himself was telling me this was the right place for me,” Yevtushenko said.
Yevtushenko’s body will be buried in Peredelkino, a writers’ colony near Moscow. TU is planning a campus memorial service on Wednesday.
Yevtushenko was an enormously brave and enormously talented man, and Tulsa was proud to be his “second motherland.”