Back in March, as the war in Ukraine gathered pace, I became obsessed with the memory of a poem I’d studied as a sixth-former, by the Soviet poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Ostensibly about child-rearing, the poem describes the way the communist state seeks to infantilise the masses. “You shouldn’t tell untruths to little children.”
But when I tried to track the poem down, I kept bumping up against a different, and to my mind weaker, version. My school book, published in the west, is out of print. (And back in the Soviet era, a book might be on a university syllabus but not available to buy.) But by searching the missing lines I came upon a Russian poetry blog which contained the text I remembered. Apparently this version, from 1952, is almost unavailable in print – and I can’t now tell you where it is, because the blog itself is no longer accessible. I did copy it, though. Phew.
Yevtushenko lived a long life – 1933-2017 – and was quite a cool dude in his day; a strong-featured man who declaimed his work on stage and achieved fame at home and abroad, as writer, performer and filmmaker. Political commentary, and criticism of Stalinism, were a constant. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for his poem Babi Yar, about the Nazi massacre in Kiev. Another thing I read at school.
As for the poem about morality and children, which came back to haunt me… There are plenty of English translations out there, but all in the sort of free verse that might as well be prose (sorry guys). Also they sometimes add a title – ”Lies” – when lies is a word he’s very careful not to use at all. Untruth is much more the Russian way. Poetically, Yevtushenko works in primary colours, so rhyme and rhythm, particularly in this poem, are used almost simplistically to hammer the message home. And not to observe that nail in the final line is… well… untruthful.
I spent a couple of days in a sort of linguistic trance, translating it. Verse translation always involves compromise, but it’s the ultimate writer’s puzzle. It’s not perfect. But, to me, this is what Yevtushenko’s poem feels like. As much to be heard as read.
I’d love to share the original here, but don’t have permission to reproduce the text from the poet’s family. Perhaps that’s something I should get on to now!