In marking the death of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 2017, I praised his extraordinary anthology of 20th-century Russian poetry, Stanzas of the Era (Strofy veka, 1995), writing: “Every time I think I’ve discovered a completely forgotten poet — Anna Prismanova, Aleksandr Tinyakov, Yuri Kazarnovsky — there he or she is, in Yevtushenko’s pages. His Stanzas is the fruit of a lifetime in the service of poetry.”
Often, the obscure poets Yevtushenko elevates to Parnassus are his predecessors. This devotion to the work of one’s neglected forebears is admirable, of course. Still more admirable, I feel, is Yevtushenko’s inclusion of much younger poets in his anthology — not those already gaining prestige in the 1990s, but those in whom he believed and for whom, perhaps, he feared.
One such poet is Nina Grachyova, who was born in Moscow in 1969. She showed promise from an early age, joining elite workshops organized by the journal Youth (Yunost’) and, later, enrolling in the Gorky Literary Institute. It was Yevtushenko, however, who took the poet under his wing, writing a preface for what was to be her first collection, Human Speech (Yazyk lyudey). But something went wrong.
According to one of the very few sources I’ve been able to find, the publisher demanded that the preface be removed, Grachyova refused, and the book was scrapped. Then Grachyova fell ill, stopped publishing altogether, and cut herself off from her friends. Her parents passed away in 2005 and 2006, worsening her isolation, and she herself died sometime in 2019. If there is a grave, its location remains unknown.
In his brief biographical note in Stanzas, Yevtushenko seems to hint at the trouble ahead: “It may be that the flaw in Grachyova is that she ignites too easily; on the other hand, she burns completely, leaving nothing behind.” The poem below, addressed to Mata Hari, the exotic dancer executed for espionage during the First World War, is Grachyova’s fiery defense of a woman’s right to live her life any way she wants to, even if it consumes her. It’s also a genuine fireworks display.
Mata Hari, o dancer, o wild one, bursting with pride —
a woman these days is a man’s silly plaything, that’s all.
You look down from cheap posters, poor bird, eyes open wide,
bearing the title and rank of the first femme fatale.
Who dares to demean the sancrosanct beauty of woman?
Spit in their faces and dance your dance of the snake,
your hair flying every which way, undulant, foamy.
I feel sorry for you. I write these lines for your sake.
Beauty is blameless, but the people of earth are malicious.
Mata Hari, keep dancing, hiding your pain in your breast…
While you, who had wanted to squeeze the last living juices
from the poor dancer’s body? I warn you — beat it! get lost!
Мата Хари, танцовщица, гордячка,
В этом времени женщина — лишь безделушка мужчин.
И глядишь ты с полотен заправских, как бедная крачка,
Первой дивной красавицы титул имея и чин.
Кто посмел надругаться над женской святой красотою?
Плюнь в лицо им и снова танцуй этот танец змеи,
Где легко разлетаются волосы пеной густою.
Я жалею тебя, и о том нынче строки мои.
Красота неповинна, а люди земные жестоки.
Мата Хари, танцуй, свою пытку запрятав в груди…
Ты же, кто захотел выжать тела последние соки
У танцовщицы бедной, молю и кричу: “Уходи!”