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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yevtushenko in Demand as the Bard of Oklahoma

TULSA, Oklahoma -- With a bright patchwork jacket from Guatemala covering his broad shoulders, the graying lion of Russian letters, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, paced and shouted as he read some of his poems that once shook the world.

Between verses he tossed off advice and opinion about life, love and literature.

His audience did not fill a theater in Moscow, but a classroom of English students at the University of Tulsa. Somewhat improbably, Yevtushenko has found a home here.

"In some provincial cities you can find the real soul of a country," he said after his class ended. "I like the craziness of New York, but New York is really not America. It's all humanity in one drop. Tulsa is very American."

For nearly half a century Yevtushenko has been a piercing voice of conscience, sometimes bitterly angry, other times overflowing with enthusiasm and hope.

Many Americans see him as part Walt Whitman and part Bob Dylan; Russians know him as a wildly popular poet who embodies their country's spirit and has often screamed truths that others feared to whisper. His fame has spread far beyond his homeland.

Not all of Yevtushenko's students are fully aware of the ways he has helped shape his country, but many quickly realize that they are in the presence of an extraordinary force.

"He's just a little more alive than anyone I've ever met," said Michelle Whalen, a sophomore.

On Monday Yevtushenko taught his last two classes of the year, one on poetry and the other on film.

On Thursday evening in New York he was appearing at Queens College, where he once taught literature, for a 70th-birthday tribute that was to include a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 13," based partly on one of Yevtushenko's best-known poems, "Babi Yar," a searing 1961 attack on Russian anti-Semitism.

On Sunday he is to read in Russian to an audience in Chicago, and then make later appearances in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere.

After the holidays he is to return to Tulsa, where he has lived with his family for nearly a decade and where the university considers him a treasure. He came here at the invitation of a former university president, Robert Donaldson, a Soviet scholar who greatly admired him.

"He is very galvanizing for many students who are looking for an extremely attractive model for the life of the artist," said Lars Engle, chairman of the English department at the University of Tulsa.

Yevtushenko's lectures are scattershot combinations of recollection and observation, punctuated by readings of poems during which he prowls the room and, in the words of one student, "gets right in your face."

At Monday's poetry class he warned his students of a great danger they may soon face. "For many people the first diapers of their babies are the white flags that symbolize their surrender," he said. "Don't be like that. You can fight for all your principles and for your children, too."

After the class ended, a student who plays on the university soccer team stopped to tell Yevtushenko about the mixed emotions he felt after a coach refused to let him play in the team's final game.

When he finished, Yevtushenko flung his arms out wide and commanded: "You must write about that feeling. Do not squeeze it inside."

In a conversation later, Yevtushenko said he admired many American writers, but sees none with the stature of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"Everyone is reading him now, even maybe in the bellybutton of world culture that is Tulsa," he said.

Of the new generation of Russian writers, he said he especially liked the novelist Olga Slavnikova, whose work has not been translated into English.

For much of his life Yevtushenko was in trouble with the authorities in Moscow because of his critiques of life under communism. Today, he said, some developments in the United States remind him of the Soviet Union.

"The Soviet Union wanted to take care of some countries without a deep understanding of their histories, their traditions, their political situations," he said.

"In the same way, some Americans now believe, sometimes very sincerely, that everyone will be happy only if they live like Americans. That's naivet?, and believe me, our leaders were not less naive.

"You didn't really study the situation in Iraq very well," he continued. "Saddam Hussein was not my cup of tea, but you miscalculated, it's clear now. Your first reaction was to go and get him out, which is typical Soviet behavior. Too much self-assurance is the complex of a great empire, but intelligent people know how all empires end."

Although Yevtushenko closely follows news from his homeland and returns there every year, he refused to guess where Russia's political journey might take it.

"Russia doesn't know yet what kind of course it will choose," he said. "We are in the second transformation of our society in less than a century. We invent, we modify, every day we change something, but the future is still very unclear and foggy. We have not decided what kind of an identity we want."

As a member of the first freely elected Soviet parliament from 1988 to 1991, Yevtushenko worked for democratic reforms. In 1994, to protest the war in Chechnya, he refused to accept an award from then-President Boris Yeltsin.

Today he hopes Russia will find a balance between its Slavic heritage and "what is best in the West," but shies away from offering prescriptions.

"Advice, it's very easy," he said. "I don't want to play the role of giving advice to other people. I choose my role. I'm a writer because I don't need power, only the power of words.

"It is sinful for a writer not to think about political subjects, but I don't want to pretend that I have some secret understanding that no one else has."