Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgment
Here, silently, all screams, and hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
The writer of those words sat in my office as we clinked glasses and downed a shot of vodka. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s hair was indeed ashen gray; his tall body squirming in the small swivel chair opposite my desk. He looked great for a man of seventy. Yevtushenko, the famous Russian poet who penned the haunting poem “Babi Yar,” was about to do a reading of his works at the ORT Institute in Chicago. A crowd of about three hundred packed the auditorium of the Institute, located on Touhy and Albany in Chicago’s West Ridge community.
After leaving Russia in 1991, Yevtushenko settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he has been a professor at the University of Tulsa since 1994. He maintains an apartment in Moscow, and travels extensively giving poetry readings around the world.
This was the last of several stops in Chicago for the poet on this busy Saturday in December, 2003. As the assistant director of the Institute, one of my job duties was to coordinate special events for the various ethnic communities that constituted the majority of the student body- Russians, Poles, Bulgarians and Assyrians. On this particular event, I worked with a Russian newspaper and three cultural organizations to bring Yevtushenko to ORT.
My office was being used as the “green room,” a place for the poet to relax before the reading. When Yevtushenko ascended upon the stage, the capacity crowd gave him a thunderous ovation lasting five minutes. After all, he indisputably is the greatest poet in the Russian language in the post-Stalin era. This audience consisted mostly of elderly Jewish immigrants who came to the States as refugees from the former Soviet Union.
So when Yevtushenko opened with “Babi Yar,” you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The audience clung to every word of his poetic depiction of historic anti-Semitism, culminating in the massacre of Jews at Babi-Yar in the Ukraine. Almost each person in the room had a personal experience with family and friends murdered during the Holocaust. This poem wrenched their guts.
After reading “Babi Yar,” Yevtushenko lightened the mood with several satirical and farcical pieces. An actor by training, he had charismatic stage presence, utilizing both body and voice to magnify the emotional power of his words.
When the reading finally ended, we returned to my office for a congratulatory shot of vodka before he was to meet the press and his adoring fans. I will always remember him asking me in heavily accented English “Richard, my dear, do you perhaps have a glass of water as well?” I brought him his drink, and he handed me an autographed copy of “Babi Yar.” We shook hands firmly as he departed my office, ending a day that will always be etched in my memory.