Not only does the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko not have a PhD in English, he doesn’t have an earned degree of any kind from any institution of higher learning in any English-speaking country. In fact, he doesn’t have an earned degree of any kind from any country whatsoever.
In the 1950s, Yevtushenko studied at the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow, but he dropped out. That was it for his formal learning. They speak Russian in Moscow, you may have heard. And in fact, Yevtushenko isn’t taken that seriously in academic circles even in Russia. The poet Tomas Venclova wrote in a 1991 essay for the New Republic that few in the Russian literary community “consider his work worthy of serious study.”
Despite this total lack of qualifications to be an English professor, Yevtushenko has been hired as a “Distinguished Professor of English” at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Note that he’s not just a professor of a language he’s never studied, but a distinguished professor. He teaches Americans about their own language even though he himself has has no degree in it. Under “Education and Degrees Earned” on his bio page at U.Tulsa, there is no reference to the Gorky Institute and only honorary degrees are listed. His students at Tulsa say that he teaches gut courses where the only thing you need to get an “A” is a pulse. Yevtushenko hands out a copy of his biography to his students on the first day of class, so they will know who he is.
But as Oleg Kashin reports, the Russian Kremlin is still interested in Yevtushenko. It recently permitted state-owned TV to air an interview with the doddering poet, albeit in a late-night time slot where few might see it. Nonetheless, according to Kashin, the ratings for the program were very high.
Yevtushenko was invited on Kremlin TV to dish about his feud with fellow Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. Kashin writes:
The two poets famously crossed paths before Brodsky’s exile, when Yevtushenko offered to speak with some of his acquaintances in the KGB on Brodsky’s behalf. Brodsky took the offer as proof that Yevtushenko was working for the security services — a belief that later moved him to write a letter warning Queens College not to hire Yevtushenko, who was being considered for a job at the time.
The Russian blogosphere exploded after the interview. Kashin explains:
The reaction demonstrates a big unresolved issue: Russians have yet to figure out what the allowable limits of the relationship between artists and authority should be. Yevtushenko and Brodsky represent two very different models. Brodsky recognized no authority other than poetry. Yevtushenko, by contrast, has played every possible game with the Kremlin — an approach illustrated by his ability to land a three-part interview on state television. Present-day celebrities, such as the conductor Valery Gergiev, go even further in their entanglements with the ruling regime.
The conflicting attitudes toward the two poets also reflect a deep split in Russian society. Brodsky was never as widely read as Yevtushenko, but for the Moscow intelligentsia who comprise a large part of the anti-Putin opposition he is the most important and well-loved. As such, he has become a symbol of the antipathy between the groups that present the greatest threats to Putin: the “creative class” and nationalist-leaning regular folk. The nationalists generally haven’t read Brodsky, and they’re fully aware that the intelligentsia regards them with disdain.
This opposition within the opposition guarantees the resilience of Putin’s regime far better than any political technology could. Until Russians start reading the same books, Putin has nothing to fear.
So in other words, welcome back to the USSR!