My colleague in the English department, Dr. Sukholutskaya, asked me to write a short remembrance of Yevgeni Yetvushenko (who died a few days ago at 84 in Tulsa) for her to share at an upcoming conference of Russian language teachers. It had to be short (no easy task for me) but it was all-too easy to write. I have a dozen such stories, of which this is merely one:
My favorite memory of Yevtushenko was during one of his classes at the University of Tulsa. It was the first or second day of class, and he was asking the students to tell him their favorite work of literature. Though a few students had favorite books, most said they didn't read that much, and some offered works that weren't 'literature' by any stretch of the imagination. Yevtushenko's surprise grew by the minute, and he finally asked one, "what about your great authors Mark Twain and Jack London? Do you still read these?" And surprise turned to outright shock when a student said "who's Jack London?" Yevtushenko then launched into a thirty-minute speech about the importance of these authors in his childhood, how every Russian knew Jack London's stories and this formed their very ideas about the American landscape and its culture. "How you could not know your own literature?" he demanded, in his idiomatic way.
His speech was so passionate, and so genuinely concerned, that I think most students scrambled out of class to buy copies of The Call of the Wild that very evening (I know I did). But what most affected me was his sincere passion and relationship to authors and ideas that went beyond a mere class curriculum. These books WERE alive to him, and the thought that his students had no knowledge or curiosity of these works gave him heartfelt sorrow. Words mattered to him, and he was the first professor I had ever had who worshiped the written word. When he spoke, he was writing poetry, breaking his comments into stanzas and meters...even his stray prose seemed to have tumbled out of a play. Simply put, you couldn't leave a class of Yevtushenko's without knowing why language and literature mattered, and even the greatest literary atheist would have a crisis of faith by the semester's end. His classes made a professor of me, before I even knew I had an inkling to step into a classroom.
I mourn his passing since he taught me so much, and was probably the greatest man I've ever met (for all his flaws, which he, himself, would acknowledge). He was also a living link to the great poets of the earlier 20th century, such as Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, as well as great composers such as Dimitri Shostakovich (another hero), whom he collaborated with on the latter's Thirteenth Symphony. It was an honor to briefly know him and to pass on his legacy to my students when I teach his works or share insights which originated in his classes or in casual conversation.