In October 1961, the FBI decided a poem could be a weapon. Agents at the bureau had learned about “Babi Yar,” a provocative piece of verse written by the wily young Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, about the Nazi massacre of Jews in a Ukrainian ravine—and of Soviet attempts to cover it up.
The poem, with its subtitle “against antisemitism in the Soviet Union,” was a literary and political event in Yevtushenko’s home country, where the realities of the Holocaust, particularly where it occurred with Soviet collaboration or on Soviet soil, were long suppressed. “Babi Yar” managed to combine a brave sympathy for Jewish suffering with the 28-year-old author’s own blooming ego, as when he placed himself in the role of Jesus: “I am a Jew / Here I am wandering Egypt / And here I am crucified, dying on a cross.” The young poet was compared to dissident figures like Boris Pasternak, launching Yevtushenko into a form of literary stardom that is nonexistent today: a major poet with the power of international celebrity. He acted as a Cold War cultural diplomat, meeting with American presidents and movie stars, while constantly toggling between different modes of criticism of the USSR, hoping to stay one step ahead of the censors and of the politburo’s wrath.
In 1961, the demands of fame—the barnstorming tours across America for thousands of fans; the fractious debates with John Steinbeck and Joseph Brodsky over whether he was sufficient in his dissent; the careful tending of political relationships with senior Soviet officials—lay in the future for Yevgeny Yevtushenko. So, too, did years of surveillance and monitoring that would lead to the formation of a 400-page FBI file, which was released to me in redacted form via a Freedom of Information Act request, following Yevtushenko’s death in 2017.
In the fall of 1961, the counterintelligence agents of the FBI had one concern: how to use this poem, written by a star of Soviet literature who performed to packed stadiums in his home country, as a form of propaganda. To start, a translator in the FBI’s New York field office wrote his own translation of “Babi Yar,” and some agents put together some accompanying remarks praising the poet’s bravery and condemning the Soviet Union’s official antisemitism. The project was then pitched to FBI leadership in a memo written by an agent named F.J. Baumgardner who, among his later activities, produced FBI memos labeling Martin Luther King Jr. a degenerate communist.
“It is believed that this poem ‘Babi Yar’ can be utilized by the Bureau as an excellent psychological weapon to further highlight anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and to point out the lack of freedom of speech inside the Soviet Union,” Baumgardner wrote.
The G-man ended with a recommendation: that the FBI’s counterintelligence program print 120 copies of the poem, along with a few pages of commentary, and mail these pamphlets to “carefully selected communists throughout the country who might be psychologically disillusioned on the Soviet Union thereby.”
Like much of the FBI’s approach to Yevtushenko over the years to follow, the idea seemed half-baked and poorly considered. There’s no evidence in the released documents that the FBI followed through on the plan, and it’s unlikely any American communists ever reported a sudden onset of disillusionment after reading an anonymous translation of “Babi Yar.” It’s not even clear that that’s what Yevtushenko would have wanted: An FBI memo written one year later, drawing on a redacted source, describes the writer as a “Soviet patriot.” It doesn’t appear that, despite all its interest, the bureau ever managed to derive useful intelligence from Yevtushenko.
What this episode does reflect is a certain bygone Cold War atmosphere—the utter moral certitude in the American cause, the almost parodic belief that the politics of culture are intermixed with the politics of war—that only survives in the less self-aware elements of the conservative press. Today, most American poets work in obscurity—our government would be more likely to send Dennis Rodman than Natasha Trethewey or Louise Glück on a diplomatic mission. There is no foreign cultural figure who would conceivably merit a White House visit, as Yevtushenko ultimately did.
The story of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, as told through his FBI file, reveals an intensity of belief in art’s power that verges on the ideological. In the overheated atmosphere of the Cold War, anything could tip the scales—even a poem. Throughout this period, the FBI consistently showed constitutional overreach in its prying into the lives of private citizens. The FBI also lacked any sense of proportion, mistaking obscure college lecturers and literary translators for potential informants ready to spill the truth about the communist menace to America. All of which meant that, for a poet visiting from an enemy country, every trip was fraught with danger and suspicion, whether he knew it or not.
In November 1962, the FBI’s Chicago field office got a tip that the Soviet poet “Eugenii Evtushenko”—one of many bastardizations of his name to appear in FBI files—would be visiting the United States near the end of the year. Yevtushenko had just published “Heirs of Stalin,” a poem that showed the poet’s gift for issuing well-timed critiques of Soviet leaders (this being the “thaw” period after Stalin’s death, when some dissent was tolerated). As with any prominent visiting Soviet citizen, the FBI wondered if he could be turned into an asset or used for counterintelligence purposes.
Yevtushenko eventually got sick, scotching the visit. By the time the flamboyant poet, now even more famous, returned in 1966 for an extended American tour, the FBI was closely tracking his itinerary, surveilling him when possible, tapping its sources at colleges across the country, and sending urgent memos to the director himself, J. Edgar Hoover.
While Yevtushenko was an object of official suspicion, the American public embraced the poet, who was known for his colorful suits, overweening energy, and dramatic, almost histrionic performances. Yevtushenko was a sensation, filling auditoriums beyond capacity. The Chicago Daily News called him “the New Soviet Man,” while the Sun Times described an event as “kneeling room only.” He appeared on The Dick Cavett Show; a news network taped a 90-minute television special. He visited steelworkers, the space center in Houston, and film studios in Hollywood. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara came to one of his readings. A typical event also featured Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck, and John Updike.
It was sometime during this tour, in late 1966, that the FBI, apparently acting on a belief that Yevtushenko might be staying with Miller, did some checking up. An agent contacted the post office in Roxbury, Connecticut, where Miller lived, and asked if she had seen any visitors near his house. Someone, perhaps an FBI agent, conducted a “spot check” near the Miller home. “An established source” led the FBI to Albert J. Meyer, a retired New York Police Department detective who lived nearby. Meyer reported “a strange car,” which turned out to belong to a domestic worker. The FBI finally figured out that Yevtushenko was never there.
The FBI was also deeply interested in many of the people around Yevtushenko. The FBI kept tabs on Albert C. Todd, a Queens College professor who accompanied Yevtushenko around the country, serving as his translator. The agency’s notes on a trip the two men took to Alaska are extensive and make use of anonymous informants.
The FBI also developed an interest in a man named Bernard Koten, whom the FBI described as “a well-known communist.” Much of the information on Koten is redacted, but it still tells a story of counterintelligence overreach.
Koten was a 50-something part-time library clerk and Russian-language instructor at New York University. In 1956, Koten testified before a Senate subcommittee where he invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked if he was a communist. He was eventually put on the FBI’s Security Index, a list of potentially dangerous subversives that is the forerunner to today’s terrorism watchlists. An FBI memo claimed that Koten had “extensive contact with Soviet nationals and/or officials.”
The FBI wasn’t the only entity that thought Koten could be working for the other side. The Russian scholar also led trips to the Soviet Union, and in August 1963, he was arrested in Kiev on suspicion of being an American spy and held for more than a month before being released. (FBI documents cite a “sensitive” informant who claimed that Communist Party USA officials helped secure Koten’s release.)
During one trip, an unnamed FBI source said that Yevtushenko had given Koten a manuscript by an unnamed Russian poet and that Koten “might translate this material, sell it in this country, and obtain a substantial sum of money”—a seemingly ridiculous prospect for a poet today, but indicative of the seriousness with which these matters were taken.
In January 1967, Yevtushenko spent four days at Koten’s apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The FBI decided it wanted to know what the two men discussed and to ascertain Koten’s “present attitude toward cooperation with the Bureau.” Agents from the New York field office requested and later received permission to approach Koten outside his apartment. In February and March 1967, as in some Biblical parable, seven times FBI agents confronted Koten outside his apartment and asked to speak with him, and seven times he said no.
In 1972, Yevtushenko arrived in the U.S. for another visit. By then FBI files noted that the bureau had no evidence that Yevtushenko was affiliated with Soviet intelligence, nor had the bureau apparently made any successful attempts to speak to him. That didn’t stop the FBI from monitoring Yevtushenko: The agency filed away copies of his U.S. itinerary, which included a White House visit with President Richard Nixon.
By 1972, Yevtushenko was as popular as ever in the U.S. Appearing before sold-out crowds, he preached rapprochement (“I still have hope for the day when the Cold War will die forever”), offered his appreciation of American culture, and joked about being hungover. He met with Nixon and witnessed the launch of the Apollo 16 mission to the moon. Still a critic, if sometimes a wavering one, of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he said that he was “completely destroyed by the news of the American bombing of North Vietnam.”
On that 1972 trip, Yevtushenko headlined an event that was dubbed “The Bill of Bards”—featuring James Dickey, Stanley Kunitz, and Senator Eugene McCarthy, among others—that sold out for two nights at Madison Square Garden’s 5,000-seat Felt Forum. The Washington Post described Yevtushenko’s performance as “writhing, growling, whispering, yelling, and keening.” Yevtushenko followed that up with a performance in front of 4,000 people in South Carolina and another before 3,500 at the University of North Carolina. He concluded with an appearance at Carnegie Hall.
The trip was a fabulous example of cultural diplomacy in action: two bitter enemies brought together by an exciting, dynamic literary figure who, if not a samizdat-style dissident, had at least become a liberal darling on both sides, capable of negotiating with the president himself. None of that seemed to matter to the FBI’s counterintelligence agents. They followed Yevtushenko to the airport and took notes on who saw him off.
Yevtushenko made a number of trips to the U.S., but by the late 1970s, his star began to fade. Now considered a kind of domesticated critic of the Soviet leadership, he was supplanted by samizdat lyricists, visionary gulag survivors like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and full-throated dissidents like Joseph Brodsky, who developed an intense dislike for Yevtushenko. “There was a real, almost personal hostility on the part of Brodsky toward Yevtushenko,” said Barry Scherr, a former provost and professor of Russian at Dartmouth College.
In the years to follow, during Glasnost, Yevtushenko took what might be called a liberal turn. Avoiding major commitments, he spoke favorably of Gorbachev’s reforms. A declassified CIA memo from 1986 calls Yevtushenko “the most outspoken advocate of cultural liberalization, and one of the first to come forward to test the limits of glasnost.” It’s an honorific with which critics like Brodsky might have disagreed, but the memo’s author was apparently impressed by Yevtushenko’s publication, the previous year, of a poem criticizing Trofim Lysenko, the architect of Stalin’s disastrous agricultural policies.
Rather than leading
the vanguard of cultural liberalization, Yevtushenko was shading into
obsolescence. By the early 1990s, after the
fall of the Soviet Union, he had moved to the U.S., where he spent quietly productive years lecturing and teaching, much of
it based out of Tulsa University. He still wore colorful suits and vamped for
crowds, but the audiences were far smaller, mostly émigrés and college students
in small campus auditoriums. The world no longer needed a celebrity poet to
bridge diplomatic divides, while American culture discovered it didn’t much
care for poetry at all.
The FBI seemed to have lost its interest, too—the released files peter out in the late 1970s. But there is one news clipping—when it wasn’t surveilling Yevtushenko, the FBI was assiduously collecting and marking up articles about him—that offers a revealing coda to the poet’s story.
In one of his 1960s visits, Yevtushenko tussled, as he often did, with Steinbeck over the war in Vietnam. Each accused the other of being insufficiently critical of his country’s actions there. The nagging from Yevtushenko may have contributed to Steinbeck’s decision to go report on the war himself. The Old Wolf, as Yevtushenko called him, had been pricked into action.
“Not enough [war journalists] are being killed, so obviously they aren’t covering the war very well,” Steinbeck told the journalist Herb Caen, in a column that appeared in the December 6, 1966, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The two talked while Steinbeck packed up his Manhattan apartment, as he and his wife, Elaine, prepared to fly the next day to Vietnam.
Regarding Yevtushenko, Steinbeck offered a hard-won respect. “He might be a dissident, but he’s a loyal communist. He’ll never defect,” Steinbeck said.
“The dissident writers are the real patriots,” he said. “All the rest are hustlers.”