In Russia, a poet is more than a poet. The strong feelings revealed in a recent national argument over two bards -- Yevgeny Yevtushenko, long emigrated to the United States, and Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996 -- might even help explain how the regime of President Vladimir Putin is able to maintain its grip on power.
In late October, government-run Channel One television departed from its usual fare of cheap entertainment and fawning Putin coverage to air something truly surprising: an in-depth, three-part interview with the 80-year-old Yevtushenko. The program attracted between 12.6 percent and 17.2 percent of all television viewers, according to the RIA Novosti news service -- a very high share for the late-night time slot in which the interview was shown.
Fifty years ago, Yevtushenko was undoubtedly the world's best-known Russian poet. His face graced the cover of Time magazine in 1962, and his poems made history. "Babi Yar" was the first verse published in the Soviet Union to address the Holocaust, and "The Heirs of Stalin" became a symbol of the thaw in Soviet society under Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s. The Communist Party, aware of Yevtushenko's global fame, handled him with care. Officials allowed his poems to be printed in newspapers, published thousands of copies of his books and honored him with the state's top literary awards.
Now Yevtushenko's fame is long past. He works as a professor at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, where -- according to students -- he has to hand out his biography to make students aware of who he is. He still writes poetry. In his Channel One interview, he read a piece about the "Oklahoma steppes." But Russians don't set his poems to music anymore.
What, then, explains the immense interest in Yevtushenko's interview? It probably has something to do with the details he revealed about his relationship with Brodsky, a Nobel Prize winner and probably the last Russian poet to be called great.
Brodsky didn't share Yevtushenko's privileged position in the Soviet Union. Authorities refused to recognize him as a poet, punished him for failing to find useful employment and sent him away to live in a far northern village. He was ejected from the country in 1972, after which he lived and taught in the U.S. His rejection of his Russian homeland was so complete that he chose to be buried in Venice, Italy.
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. In the Channel One interview, Yevtushenko swore, with tears in his eyes, that Brodsky was mistaken. "We'll make our peace in heaven," he said.
The recollection of the poets' conflict elicited a strong reaction in newspapers and social networks, suggesting that its significance reaches beyond literature and into the realm of politics.
"The hullabaloo that has arisen around an old spat between an aging poet and a dead poet speaks of mass nostalgia for the times when poets' words actually meant something for the life of the nation," wrote columnist Igor Karaulov in the newspaper Izvestiya. Journalist Gleb Morev, writing on Facebook, called the interview a "great victory" for Yevtushenko, "not in the battle with Brodsky, which he lost long ago, but in his own poetical biography."
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.
Oleg Kashin is a Russian journalist living in Geneva, Switzerland.