The deaths of two people came to notice particularly in the past week. One person had been a significant cultural influence in the Soviet Union, was world-famous, is still oft-quoted. The other was a West Indian immigrant to the UK, best known for his support for black rioters, gangster criminals and others, as well as his assault on British cultural norms.
The first was Yevgeny Yevtushenko [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yevgeny_Yevtushenko] about whom The Guardian newspaper published this by way of obituary: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/02/yevgeny-yevtushenko-obituary.
The second was one Darcus Howe: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darcus_Howe], about whom the Guardian said this: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/02/darcus-howe-writer-broadcaster-and-civil-rights-campaigner-dies-aged-74.
It can surely be seen that even the Guardian was unable to make out Darcus Howe as being a greater cultural figure or a more positive one than Yevtushenko.
Comment and Personal Musing
I knew neither of the two recently deceased. I had heard of Yevtushenko vaguely, en passant, as a child and teenager, about the poet who was able to fill stadia in Russia with fans listening to his declamations. Black and white pictures from Life magazine and books. Later, in my twenties, I knew a few people who had been well-acquainted with Yevtushenko in Moscow. I even met his third wife on a couple of occasions during that time and once swam with her and her children (Yevtushenko’s) in a semi-private wooded beach area in some expensive part of Bournemouth, on England’s southern coast.
I never met Yevtushenko himself, though I heard plenty about him. His private life was messy, not always commendable, but that is hardly unusual in the biographies of poets and artistic people generally. One cannot judge a poet primarily by his private life (think of Byron etc). At a distance, he seemed to me to be a Soviet cultural windvane, able to change direction not so much with the prevailing wind but at the moment before it changed. Thus Yevtushenko was seen by some , e.g. Irina Ratushinskaya [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irina_Ratushinskaya] as an “official poet”, with all the moral compromise and material benefits which that term implied; by others, as a brave and anti-official –even a little bit anti-Soviet– quasi-dissident.
Certainly Yevtushenko was willing to argue even with such as Khrushchev on occasion. He was lucky, perhaps, to have been born in 1932 and not 1922 or 1912. He escaped Stalinism to a large extent. Also, he was born and mainly brought up in Siberia, where (ironically) the Stalinist pressure was slightly less. Having said that, he lived in Moscow from age 18, studied there, was never in political trouble. I once heard privately that his mother had been an informant (“secret co-worker”) for the KGB and went weekly to an address not far from the Lubyanka to receive her stipend, signing for it on a list which had all the other names blanked out via a kind of stencil. Perhaps. That would not imply, however, that Yevtushenko himself was implicated with such work (and as I heard it, his mother only went through the motions anyway, giving little but avoiding conflict).
Certainly, Yevtushenko lived rather well by Soviet and indeed Western material standards. Robert Conquest [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Conquest] described that as “well-rewarded collaboration”. By the 1970s, if not before, he had a house or “dacha” at Peredelkino [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peredelkino] with (I believe I was told), 4 or maybe 5 bedrooms –unheard of luxury in the Soviet Union for all but the highest-regarded citizens. He also had an apartment near the Kremlin with no less than (from memory) 14 rooms (a friend of mine was offered the chance to stay there for a week while it was unoccupied; she returned to London gushing about how wonderful it was and how she had not realized that people in the Soviet Union lived like that!); the apartment had been occupied at one time, I was told, by Beria [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavrentiy_Beria] though Beria did have a mansion in Moscow, perhaps in addition. Yevtushenko also had a house on the Black Sea, situated, I believe, at Yalta.
Yevtushenko is now known for several “soundbites”, in today’s terminology, as much as for his poems: “in Russia, a poet is more than a poet”; and the 1962 lines usually slightly changed to (and improved?) “double and triple the guard on Stalin’s tomb, lest he return….and with him, the past” [http://osaarchivum.org/files/holdings/300/8/3/text/60-4-47.shtml].
Whatever one’s view of Yevtushenko, there is no doubt that he was a significant cultural figure, who personified the changes in the Soviet Union from Stalin’s rule, through the Thaw of the 1950s and early 1960s and on to the retrenchment which led up to Gorbachev, corrupt laxity and then complete collapse. Yevtushenko himself spent his later years living partly in the USA, paid generously by the University of Tulsa (Oklahoma) and the City University of New York (CUNY). A weathervane to the last.
As to Darcus Howe, I know little of him beyond a few items recently read, though I do recall that rather menacing figure on “British” TV from time to time, always promoting the idea that the blacks in the UK had been and were oppressed by white British people and culture.
I cannot imagine that Howe ever contributed much to the UK, though others, in the mainstream media especially, seem to think otherwise. On Twitter, the death of Yevtushenko was like an express train at night, flashing quickly through a country station (Zima Junction?) without stopping. Darcus Howe’s death was trending for far longer. The mainstream TV and radio almost ignored Yevtushenko’s death (and life), while eulogizing about the life of the West Indian rioter and troublemaker. Channel 4, the tax-subsidized “independent” channel, was especially loud in its praises.
Where the msm did notice Yevtushenko’s death, the reports concentrated mainly on his poem “Babi Yar”, about the death of Jews in the Ukraine during the war with Germany. Typical.
The cultural sickness of the West can be seen in the juxtaposition of the two recent deaths and how they have been treated. The time must come when real merit is respected, when people are able to properly discriminate between what is worthwhile and what is not. Most of the existing cultural organizations and faces must be removed.