Remember There Are Russians Who Don’t Want War

February 13, 2024

For over twenty years I taught Russian literature to high school seniors. I admired the depth of the Russian soul, the great writings of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and especially the struggles of twentieth-century writers such as Pasternak, Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn, and others who had the courage to speak out under threat of Soviet brutality. Some had their writing banned, others were sent to labor camps. They had to use certain types of language to get by the censors.

At a Waldorf High School teachers’ conference in 1986, Jennifer Greene and I shared the enthusiasm our students expressed in our Russian literature classes. Jennifer suggested that we organize a trip to the Soviet Union. I immediately answered, “Why not?”

Jim Staley and I organized two trips, the first in 1987 with adults so we could figure out the opportunities and pitfalls, and in 1988 with teenagers. We were going to meet people on the other side of what President Reagan called the Evil Empire.

Our plane began to pierce through the clouds as we approached St. Petersburg. I was nervous. I was scared. No matter how much I prepared for this trip, I still had the Cold War mentality knocking around in my mind. These were our enemies. Then the sky cleared, and I looked down at a common scene of a campground. Families were setting up tents, children were running around gathering wood for a fire. In that moment, everything changed. I said to myself, “Those are just families camping.” I was ready to meet the people whose names I had been given who wanted contact with Americans.

In 1987, I had the honor of meeting with poet Andrei Voznesensky (1933-2010). Through a contact of my friend John Wulsin, Voznesensky invited four of us to the Dom Literatura (House of Literature) and spoke about changes happening in the country. At that time, he was working to establish a museum in Vitebsk for Marc Chagall’s work. It was due to his effort that Dr. Zhivago would soon be published in the U.S.S.R. 

In 1963, Nikita Khrushchev personally warned him to get out of Russia. By then huge stadiums were overflowing with audiences coming to hear the new poetry of Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko as they were both internationally known and loved. Voznesensky answered Khrushchev, “I am a Russian poet, and I am not going anywhere.” He believed poetry could change the world.

I had read Voznesnsky’s poems in the book Arrow in the Wall, and in our meeting, I quoted these lines from his poem “Mother”:

“Don’t go to America, son.
You won’t go, will you?” she asks, frightened by TV.
Don’t go. They’ll kill you.”

“Did your mother really think the Americans would kill you?” I asked. “No”’ he said. “You have to learn to read Russian poetry between the lines. The ‘they’ refers to the KGB.”   “Aha!” From then on, I shared this clue with my students, and they eagerly practiced reading between the lines.

I also had the opportunity to meet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2007) in Berkeley when he was on tour. His poems touched my students and we often ended the course with his long poem I Would Like. Here is the opening verse:

I would like
to be born
in every country,
have a passport
for them all
to throw
all foreign offices
into panic,
be every fish
in every ocean
and every dog
in the streets of the world.
I don’t want to bow down
Before any idols
or play at being
an Orthodox church hippie,
but I would like to plunge
deep into Lake Baikal
and surface snorting
why not in the Mississippi?

Once the war in Ukraine started, I thought about the writers who had courageously stood up against the government and the people I met during our trips to the Soviet Union. Today, the situation is just as dangerous, and there are Russians who disagree with the present war, who have either left the country or are afraid to say anything because of being arrested. Not all Russians want this war.