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A Poet Against the Destroyers
Yevgeny Yevtushenko
December 19, 1966
Russia's foremost literary figure is an athlete of some renown. In this essay written for Sports Illustrated he tells about two football matches of consequence, explains how he nearly drowned at the Fellinis', accounts for the damage to a dahlia bed that was shaped in Stalin's image and discusses other matters of more moment
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December 19, 1966

A Poet Against The Destroyers

Russia's foremost literary figure is an athlete of some renown. In this essay written for Sports Illustrated he tells about two football matches of consequence, explains how he nearly drowned at the Fellinis', accounts for the damage to a dahlia bed that was shaped in Stalin's image and discusses other matters of more moment

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Once I barely escaped drowning. I was staying with Fellini at his villa not far from Rome. It was late at night, and I love to swim at night. You feel as if you are pushing the stars aside with your body. Despite the protestations of Giulietta and Federico, I went into the sea. I had swum about 30 yards from shore when I suddenly felt a cramp in my left leg. I had no pin with me to jab into the cramped muscle. I tried to massage my leg, but the pain did not subside. I started to swim toward shore using only one leg, but that leg, too, was seized with a cramp. I thought my end was near. Perhaps you may think this a contrived afterthought, but, as god is my witness, all I could think of was how awkward it would be to drown in front of Giulietta and Federico. Such nice people, I thought, and this uncouth Russian comes to visit them and drinks all their wine and now he goes and drowns. I sank my nails first into one leg, then into the other, until the blood came. What saved me was my long fingernails, which my wife is always scolding me about. The cramps stopped, and I got to shore, saying nothing to my hosts, of course. From that time on, I have never cut my nails too short, just to be prepared for anything. But it is much better to keep a pin in one's swimming trunks.

In any case, I love the water and everything connected with it, if we exclude drowned people, cramps and sharks.

What else do I like? I like the snow and the ice, and all kinds of winter sports. When I am tired of the routine cares of life and feel that I am growing petty and empty, I put on skis and go into the forest. The forest fills me with its stern beauty, which is not subject to mundane cares. There I can think about things, as if I were in a white church built by nature itself. In the forest I always think I am about to glimpse through the snowy branches a princess from a Russian fairy story, asleep in a crystal coffin.

I also learned to use Alpine skis. How fine it is to fly along on them over the glittering snow, clad only in shorts! I came to love the unexpectedness of turns, the steep drops and especially jumping. In some ways, being a writer is like being an expert on Alpine skis: after a dizzying descent or a jump, one must climb back up again and again in order to achieve an even more dizzying descent or even more terrifying jump. Perhaps this comparison of art with sport will seem somewhat crude to literary snobs but, after all, art, like sport, is a combat, and, above all, a combat with oneself. Real art, too, needs strong muscles. It is not insignificant that our great poet Blok said of his writing of the poem Retribution: "All the movement and development of the poem became closely linked for me with the development of my muscular system. Systematic manual labor develops, first of all, the muscle of one's arms, the so-called biceps, and afterward, gradually, the more subtle, more delicate and more thinly spaced network of muscles on one's chest, on one's back and under one's shoulder blades. This rhythmic and gradual growth of muscles became the rhythm of the whole poem."

When I write verse there is an element of mountain climbing in it: any new line is like a step cut into the thickness of unyielding ice with an ax, so that one may stand on it and cut another. In the frightening resistance of the thematic material there is an element of freestyle wrestling, the question of who is going to be thrown—I or the theme. In the furious rhythm of verse I feel like a wall-of-death rider who is welded to the motorcycle shuddering beneath him. Allegorical verses are like dribbling and feinting at football, a ruse to lead the defenders astray so that you can kick the ball into the rival's goal.

A word about football. It played a great role in my life, and I am ready, in gratitude, to kiss the ball right on its chubby cheeks. When I began playing, a bundle of rags served as a ball, or sometimes a tin can. But later on the real thing, made of leather, appeared on the scene. I would play truant from school to meet my friends on some empty lot, and we would play for hours at a time, until we were exhausted. The goals were usually constructed from a pile of school briefcases, the exercise books lying idle within. I played on a team from our block, one that later produced many well-known footballers. I certainly never guessed that I would become a poet, and could only foresee a future on the football field. I remember a match that we played against the team from Maryina Roshcha, a suburb of Moscow famous for its roughnecks. Our opponents were solidly built guys with low foreheads and modish haircuts. They were impressively tattooed with sayings like: "Never forget mother," "Death to the Nazis," as well as pictures of grinning skulls and bearded mermaids. On their bodies our opponents bore, as proudly as if they were decorations, the scars of numberless battles. Our street scouts informed us that under their football socks some of our opponents had hidden homemade knives, so as to be ready for any emergency. Their team even had a threatening name: the Destroyers.

We played on a large vacant lot behind a vodka distillery, where we had made ourselves goals out of rusty rails. Several hundred spectators assembled, among them the Maryina Roshcha fans, who could be distinguished by their grim conspiratorial air. This claque was headed by a one-eyed fellow of about 30, known as "Billy Bones." He was a rag-and-bone man by trade, but by inclination he was a drunkard and bandit. From the very start of the match the Destroyers set out to justify their name. Hardly had our center forward received the ball when he howled from the pain of a kick on the shin. Subsequently, our best defender was surreptitiously struck down by a knee to the groin, whereupon he rolled unconscious on the ground for some minutes. I was the goalkeeper, and when I jumped into the air to catch a high ball two of the Destroyers came at me at once from opposite sides. "Watch out, Zhenya!" came a desperate yell from some girls—ice-cream vendors who were reasonably well informed about the forbidden tactics of football. But it was too late. I found myself smashed in midair between two Destroyers and felt something crunch inside me. I fell down, incapable of moving.

"He's pretending!" yelled Billy Bones hoarsely.

"He's pretending!" shouted his obedient chorus.

I lay there, and in front of me the boot of the captain of the Destroyers was smugly tapping the ground. That smug, hostile boot gave me the strength I needed. I got up and stood in my goal again. As the end of the game neared, all our players were covered with bruises and scars. However, there had been no score. The Destroyers were almost mad with rage. In a tense moment one of our defenders was foolish enough to stop the ball with his hand. This led to the most alarming moment possible for a goalkeeper—a penalty kick. The captain of the Destroyers spun the ball around in his hands, slapped it on its sides, spat upon it and put it on the penalty spot. I got myself ready.

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