Mourners Crushed at Stalin’s Funeral

Evgenii Evtushenko, Precocious Autobiography. 1963


The enfant-terrible of the Thaw, and a leader of the destalinization effort, writes his young autobiography in which the horrors of Stalinism are brought home to his fellow citizens.

On 5 March 1953 an event took place that shattered Russia — the death of Stalin. I found it almost impossible to imagine him dead, so much had he been an indispensable part of life.

A sort of general paralysis came over the country. Trained to believe that Stalin was taking care of everyone, people were lost and bewildered without him. The whole of Russia wept. So did I. We wept sincerely with grief and perhaps also with fear for the future.

At a writers’ meeting, poets read out their poems in Stalin’s honor, their voices broken by sobs. Tvardovskii, a big and powerful man, recited in a trembling voice.

I’ll never forget going to see Stalin’s coffin.

I was in the crowd in Trubnaia Square. The breath of the tens of thousands of people pressed against one another rose up in a white cloud so thick that on it could be seen the swaying shadows of the leafless March trees. It was a fantastic and a fearful sight. New streams poured into the human torrent from behind, increasing the pressure. The crowd turned into a monstrous whirlpool. I realized that I was being carried straight towards a traffic light. The post was coming relentlessly closer. Suddenly I saw that a young girl was being pushed against the post. Her face was distorted by a despairing scream which was inaudible among all the other screams and groans. A movement of the crowd drove me against the girl; I did not hear but felt with my body the cracking of her brittle bones as they were broken on the traffic light. I closed my eyes in horror, I could not bear the sight of her insanely bulging, childish blue eyes, and I was swept past. When I looked again the girl was no longer to be seen. The crowd must have sucked her under. Wedged against the traffic light was someone else, his body twisted and his arms flung out as on a cross. At that moment I felt I was treading on something soft. It was a human body. I picked my feet up and was borne along by the crowd. For a long time I was afraid to put my feet down again. The crowd closed tighter and tighter. I was saved by my height. Short people were smothered alive. We were caught between the walls of houses on-one side and a row of army trucks on the other.

‘Get the trucks out of he way!’ people howled. ‘Get them away!’

‘I can’t. I’ve got no instructions,’ a very young, fair, bewildered police officer shouted back from one of the trucks, almost crying with desperation. And people were being hurtled against the trucks by the crowd, and their heads smashed. The sides of the trucks were running with blood. All at once I felt a savage hatred for everything that had given birth to that ‘No instructions’ shouted at a moment when people were dying of someone’s stupidity. For the first time in my life I thought with hatred of the man we were burying. He could not be innocent of the disaster. It was the ‘No instructions’ that had caused the chaos and bloodshed at his funeral. Now I saw once and for all that it’s no good waiting for instructions if human lives are at stake — you must act. I don’t know how I did it, but working energetically with my elbows and fists, I found myself thrusting people aside and shouting:

‘Form chains! Form chains!’

They didn’t understand, so I began to join neighboring hands together by force, all the while spitting out the foulest swear words of my geological days. Some hefty young men were now helping me. And now people understood. They joined hands and formed chains. The strong men and I continued to work at it. The whirlpool was slowing down. The crowd was ceasing to be a savage beast. ‘Women and children into the trucks!’ yelled one of the young men. And women and children, passed from hand to hand, sailed over our heads into the trucks. One of the women who were being handed on was struggling hysterically and whimpering. The young police officer who received her at his end stroked her hair, clumsily trying to calm her down. She shuddered a few times and suddenly became still. The officer took the cap off his tow-colored head, covered her face with it and burst out crying.

There was another whirlpool farther ahead. We worked our way over, the tough boys and I, and again with the help of curses and fists made people form chains in order to save them.

The police too finally began to help us.

Everything quieted down.

‘You ought to join the police, Comrade, we could use fellows like you,’ a police sergeant said to me, wiping his face with his handkerchief after a bout of hard work.

‘Right, I’ll think it over,’ I said grimly.

Somehow, I no longer felt like going to see Stalin’s remains. Instead, I left with one of the boys who had been organizing chains, we bought a bottle of vodka and he walked home with me.

‘Did you see Stalin?’ my mother asked me.

‘Yes,’ I said discouragingly, as I clinked glasses with the boy.

I hadn’t lied to my mother. Stalin was really what I had seen.

That day was a turning point in my life and therefore in my poetry as well.

I realized that there was no one to do our thinking for us now, if indeed there ever had been. I realized that we needed now to do some hard thinking… A feeling of responsibility, not only for myself but for our whole country, came upon me and I felt its crushing weight on my shoulders. I don’t mean that I instantly became aware of the full measure of Stalin’s guilt. I still continued to idealize him to some extent. Many of Stalin’s crimes were as yet unknown. One thing was clear to me — that a great number of problems had come to a head in Russia and to opt out of trying to solve them would itself be criminal. So I thought about poetry — both my own and Russian poetry in general.

Perhaps more than any other, Russian poetry has always had a strong civic sense. Russian poets have always been the spiritual government of their country. Pushkin, who could convey the subtlest overtones of feeling, also wrote biting polemical verse. He also wrote:

While we are still alight with freedom
And while our hearts to honor live,
My friend, let’s to our hinterland devote
The noblest upsurge of our spirit

a whole revolutionary program for the young progressive Russia of the time, and a program still for the young Russians of today. Russia’s tyrants had good reason to fear her poets. They were afraid of Pushkin, then of Lermontov, then of Nekrasov. Nekrasov once made up a slogan:

You may or may not be a poet
But a citizen you must be.

Even Blok, with all his magic powers as a lyricist, would give up his preoccupation with the enigma of woman to speak in a prophetic voice about his country. Finally in Maiakovskii this tradition received its gigantic revolutionary embodiment: ‘I want the pen to be equated with the bayonet.’

To a Russian the word ‘poet’ has the resonance of the word ‘fighter’. Russia’s poets were always fighters for the future of their country and for justice. Her poets helped Russia to think. Her poets helped Russia to struggle against her tyrants.

So when, after Stalin’s death, Russia was going through a difficult moment in her inner life, I became convinced that I had not the right to cultivate my private Japanese garden of poetry. And the great Russian poets came to my help, their example making me believe that civic poetry can be more intimately lyrical than any other if it is written with single-minded generosity. To write only of nature or women or world sorrow at a time of hardship for your countrymen is almost immoral. And it was a time of hardship for the Russians.

The doctors who had been arrested in connection with the ‘plot’ were freed.

The news stunned the general public who, by and large, had believed in their guilt. The trusting Russian people were beginning to understand that it could be dangerous to trust too much.

I saw the vulture face of Beria, half hidden by a muffler, glued to the window of his limousine as he drove slowly by the curb, hunting down a woman for the night… The same man would turn to the people and make them moving speeches about communism.

The bullet lodged in Beria’s head was an act of justice — but how belated! Unfortunately justice is the train that’s nearly always late.

Rehabilitated prisoners, back from remote concentration camps, were beginning to appear in Moscow. With them arrived the news of the gigantic scale of the injustices committed.

The people were thoughtful, tensed. The tension was felt everywhere. It could not be relieved by the speeches of Malenkov, a man with a womanish face and a studied diction who addressed them on the coming improvements in food, tailoring and haberdashery.

‘Suppose we do gorge ourselves on cream buns and put on new suits, where shall we go in them?’ The worker who lived next to us was amused.

What the people wanted was that someone should speak to them openly and seriously about how they were going to live They had never reduced the notion of ‘living’ to food, housing and clothing. For them ‘living’ had always included ‘believing’.

There was something very important that needed saying to them, but I couldn’t understand yet what that was and felt utterly lost and confused.

But perhaps this confusion existed only in Moscow, in the welter of political events which were chasing and lashing one another on. Perhaps in the depth of Russia there was peace and spiritual balance. I took the train to Zima Junction. I wanted to escape from my own brooding and misgivings. But it was my own thoughts and misgivings I recognized in talking with the engineers and agronomists who sat next to me in the train. And when I arrived in Zima, I found them again in the first questions put to me by my two uncles — one was the head of the local car pool, the other a locksmith. I had come home to find the answers to the same questions. In Moscow and in Zima people were thinking about the same things. The whole of Russia was one pondering mind throughout all the thousands of miles between the Baltic and the Pacific.

The image of the ‘simple Soviet man’ is the creation of our press. This ‘simple man’ has been sung, filmed, staged, proudly mentioned in political speeches. But I saw how far from being simple he really was.

Source: Evgenii Evtushenko, Precocious Autobiography (New York: Dutton, 1963), pp. 88-102.


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