(Valeria Paikova’s article appeared in Russia Beyond, 3/5; Photo: Mikhail Ozersky/Sputnik)
“A poet in Russia is more than a poet,” Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a leading author of his time, famously stated. He knew what he was talking about. During Nikita Khrushchev’s cultural years of Thaw, Soviet poets were public figures like rock stars. They performed to sell-out crowds, predicted the future and helped get over the past.
Soviet poets were rewarded with public recognition for what they did best – inspire hope and change in the USSR. They rocked in their own, intellectual way.
Poets of the Thaw
In the late 1950s-1960s, poetry was extremely popular among the Soviet youth. Khrushchev’s Thaw brought a breath of fresh air after Stalin’s totalitarian rule. Poetry readings were a rare ray of light in a close Soviet environment, behind the stuffy Iron Curtain. It was an unprecedented time marked by big promises and high hopes that replaced the horrors of WWII and early communism. The generation that came of age in the early 1960s was looking for new challenges, new opportunities – and new raisons d’etre.
Things began to change in the late 1950s, after Nikita Khrushchev delivered his secret speech to the 20th congress of the Communist Party (in which he slammed Stalin’s crimes and the cult of personality).
Poetry, like any form of art, became a powerful form of expression for both artists and listeners. Their collections of poems sold several million copies. “The new kids on the block” were so popular they drew large crowds of admirers that gathered inside packed football stadiums.
Poetry of protest
Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) achieved an almost godlike status among the poets and became the leading figure of the so-called ‘Sixties Generation’ in the Soviet Union.