Yevtushenko speaks in first person throughout the poem. This creates the tone of
him being in the shoes of the Jews. As he says in lines 63-64, “No Jewish blood is
mixed in mine, but let me be a Jew . . . ” He writes the poem to evoke compassion
for the Jews and make others aware of their hardships and injustices. “Only then
can I call myself Russian.” (lines 66-67). The poet writes of a future time when the
Russian people realize that the Jews are people as well accept them as such. If you
hate the Jews, he asks, why not hate me as well? True peace and unity will only
occur when they have accepted everyone, including the Jews.
Stanza I describes the forest of Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev. It was
the site of the Nazi massacre of more than thirty thousand Russian Jews on
September 29-30, 1941. There is no memorial to the thirty thousand, but fear
pervades the area. Fear that such a thing could occur at the hands of other humans.
The poet feels the persecution and pain and fear of the Jews who stood there in
this place of horror. Yevtushenko makes himself an Israelite slave of Egypt and a
martyr who died for the sake of his religion. In lines 7-8, he claims that he still bars
the marks of the persecution of the past. There is still terrible persecution of the
Jews in present times because of their religion. These lines serve as the transition
from the Biblical and ancient examples he gives to the allusions of more recent acts
of hatred. The lines also allude to the fact that these Russian Jews who were
murdered at Babi Yar were martyrs as well.
The next stanza reminds us of another event in Jewish history where a Jew was
persecuted solely because of his religious beliefs. The poet refers to the “pettiness”
(line 11) of anti-Semitism as the cause of Dreyfus imprisonment. Anti-Semitism is
his “betrayer” (line 12) when he is framed, and anti-Semitism is his “judge” (line 12)
when he is wrongly found guilty. Lines 13-14 claim that even the fine and
supposedly civilized women of society shun Dreyfus because he is a Jew and fear
him like they would fear an animal.
In stanza III, Yevtushenko brings himself to the midst of the pogroms of Bielostok.
He gives the readers the image of a young boy on the floor being beaten and
bleeding while he witnesses others beat his mother. In line 24, he gives the reader
the rationale of the Russians who are inflicting such atrocities on the Jews.
“Murder the Jews! Save Russia!” They view the Jews as the curse of Russia;
a Jewish plague that must end in order to save their country from evil. In a way
they think that they are acting in patriotism.
The poet transports us to Anne Franks attic in the fourth stanza. He describes to
the reader the innocent love that has blossomed between Anne and Paul. Her love
of the world and life and spring has been denied her (line 30). Yet, she manages to
find comfort for her loss in the embrace of her beloved. In line 33, Yevtushenko
shows the reader Annes denial of what is going on around her. She tries to drown
out the noise of the Nazis coming to get her. When her precious spring comes, so
do the war and the Nazis to take her to her death.
Stanza V brings us back to the ravine of Babi Yar. In line 40, the poet chooses to
personify the trees. They “stare down” on him in judgement as G-d would. Line 41
is oxymoronic. There is a silent mourning for the martyred Jews by the air; a force
in nature. The air around Babi Yar howls for the massacre it has witnessed. The
poet himself claims to be “an endless soundless howl/ over the buried” (lines
43-44). He is a mourner for the thirty thousand, but there is nothing that can be
said. He writes that e is every one of thirty thousand and feels their pain and
injustice. “In no limb of my body can I forget.” (line 57). His physical body feels
their pain. “Limbs” depicts an image of mangled bodies in the mass grave of Babi
Stanza VI begins with Yevtushenko reminding the Russian people of their ability to
be good hearted and moral. He speaks of “men with dirty hands” (lines 52-53).
Fascists, Nazis whose hands are covered in the blood of the innocent, come to
Russia and cause the Russians to close their magnanimous hearts. The tone of lines
52-54 is cruel and harsh like the actions of the Nazis. These hateful people claim to
bring “the union of the Russian people” (line 59). He makes a point of referring to
these people as “anti-Semites” (line 57) because the Jews are Russians, too. The
Nazis in effect have turned Russian against Russian – hardly a “union.”
In the last stanza, the poet calls for world unity which will only occur when
anti-Semitism has ended. He is not a Jew, yet he equates himself to one. If all
Russians are people, then the Jews are no less Russian or less human than he
himself. If this is the way you treat these Russian people, he is trying to express,
then treat me, a “real” Russian, as you have treated the Russian Jews. Only then
will all Russians truly be united and equal.
Yevtushenko is a supporter of the Jewish plight. He sees the injustice that they
have been subject to and feels responsible for it in a way. He tries to rationalize
why his people, the Russians, have acted so immorally and blames their actions on
the influence of others. He calls to his people to reform; simultaneously urging the
Jews not to blame them entirely for their actions and to show that they do have
natural goodness within them.