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Acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko dies

Acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose work focused on war atrocities and denounced anti-Semitism and tyrannical dictators, has died.

Yevtushenko was 84, according to several Russian news outlets.

Roger Blais, the provost at the University of Tulsa, where Yevtushenko was a longtime faculty member, said he was told by Hillcrest Medical Centre in Tulsa that Yevtushenko died on Saturday morning.

A spokeswoman for the eastern Oklahoma hospital confirmed his death.

"He died a few minutes ago surrounded by relatives and close friends," his widow, Maria Novikova, was quoted as saying by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

She said he died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure.

Yevtushenko gained notoriety in the former Soviet Union while in his twenties, with poetry denouncing Joseph Stalin.

He gained international acclaim as a young revolutionary with Babi Yar, the unflinching 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis and denounced the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union.

Until Babi Yar was published, the history of the massacre was shrouded in the fog of the Cold War.

"I don't call it political poetry, I call it human rights poetry; the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value," Yevtushenko, who had been splitting his time between Oklahoma and Moscow, said during a 2007 interview with the Associated Press at his home in Tulsa.

Yevtushenko said he wrote the poem after visiting the site of the mass killings in Kiev, Ukraine, and searching for something memorialising what happened there - a sign, a gravestone, some kind of historical marker - but finding nothing.

"I was so shocked. I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn't keep a memory about it," he said.

It took him two hours to write the poem, which begins: "No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid."

At the height of his fame, Yevtushenko read his works in packed football stadiums and arenas, including to a crowd of 200,000 in 1991 that came to listen during a failed coup attempt in Russia.

He drew on the passion for poetry that is characteristic of Russia, where poetry is more widely revered than in the West.

With his tall, rangy body, chiselled visage and declaratory style, he was also a compelling presence on stages when reading his works.

"He's more like a rock star than some sort of bespectacled, quiet poet," said former University of Tulsa president Robert Donaldson, who specialised in Soviet policy during his academic years at Harvard.

Yevtushenko was born deep in Siberia in the town of Zima, a name that translates to winter.

He rose to prominence during Nikita Khrushchev's rule.

His poetry was outspoken. Some considered it risky, though others said he was only a showpiece dissident whose public views never went beyond the limits of what officials would permit.

Dissident exile poet Joseph Brodsky was especially critical, saying: "He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved."

Brodsky resigned from the American Academy of Arts and Letters when Yevtushenko was made an honorary member.

Mr Donaldson extended an invite to Yevtushenko to teach at the university in 1992.

"I like very much the University of Tulsa," Yevtushenko said in a 1995 interview with the AP.

"My students are sons of ranchers, even cowboys, oil engineers. They are different people, but they are very gifted. They are closer to Mother Nature than the big city. They are more sensitive."

He was also touched after the Oklahoma City bombing.

He recalled one woman in his class who lost a relative in the 1995 blast, then commented that Russian women must have endured such suffering all their lives.

"This was the greatest compliment for me," he said.

AP

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