Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Obituaries of poets are usually short, and they are of
interest to very few these days. Poetry is in a prolonged

But major publications this week feature prominently, often
on their front pages, the just-announced death of Yevgeny
Yevtushenko, 84, the Russian poet known in the non-Soviet
West as a dissident and troublemaker, as well as for his
verse. He was popular in the Soviet Union, too, and after
Nikita Kruschchev came to power, in the 1950s, briefly in
favor in the Kremlin as part of its effort to shatter the myths
about long-time dictator Joseph Stalin.

Perhaps his most famous poem was “Babi Yar” --- a searing
indictment of the Soviet government’s refusal to acknowledge
the site of the Nazi massacre of 33,000 Jews in the outskirts
of Kiev in 1941. Yevtushenko was a poetry rock star in Soviet
Russia, Europe and the U.S. (which he often visited) after that,
and drew huge crowds for his readings in the 1960s, 70s, 80s
and 90s.

It was on one of those occasions, when Yevtushenko came to
Minneapolis for a reading, that I had an interesting and
memorable encounter with him.

Before his reading, he held a press conference in a hotel across
the street from my office. I was publishing a local newspaper
then, so it was especially easy for me to go to this press

Yevtushenko was a charismatic figure who spoke English quite
well, and appeared before us with a characteristic cigarette
drooping from his lips and a diffident manner. He parried most
of the questions as if he had heard them all before.

Towards the end of this event, I raised my hand and asked him
a question that appeared to shock him. His cigarette fell from his
lips onto the table in front of him, and he suddenly became very

“What do you know abut the Russian poet Alexander Mezhirov?”
I asked him.

A moment for a backstory:  My family on both sides came from
what is now Ukraine, but which then was part of the Soviet Union.
Many in my mother’s family came here at the turn of the century
in the 1890s. Their name was spelled “Masiroff” at Ellis Island,
but it was really spelled “Mezhirov” in correct transliteration.
My grandparents came from large families in the shtetls (ghetto
villages) in the outskirts of Kiev. Immigrant Mezhirovs settled
in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Erie, PA. It
was a family of folk musicians (“klezmorim”) --- although most
of the emigres went into retail trade after they settled in America.
My grandfather, who was a conductor and composer, went into
the furniture business in Erie. Cousins in Chicago (“Mesirows”)
went into the drug store business. Cousins in other cities went
into sales and real estate development.

My Aunt Sylvia, my mother’s sister, was the only Erie sibling of
that first generation to become a serious musician. She was also
the most cultural figure in my immediate family, and introduced
me to classical literature even before my teens. Like her mother,
she was very aware of her family tradition, and kept me posted
on the exploits of famous relatives such as jazz legend Mezz
Mezzrow (real name Milton Mesirow, the son of the Chicago
cousins), bandleader Eddie Dutchin, and pianist/harpsichordist
Rosylin Tureck. A prodigious reader, one day in the 1980s she
read a biography of the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, and
discovered that he had befriended a young poet named
Alexander Mezhirov just before World War II. Mezhirov, it
turns out, survived his military service, and returning to
Moscow, became a protege of Pasternak. Surviving the Stalinist
era, Mezhirov wrote and published many books of poetry, and
became a literary household name in Russia. His poems, however,
were not translated into English in the U.S., and he was unknown
here. Aunt Sylvia wrote to me to be on the lookout for our
hitherto unknown cousin. (My grandmother once told me that all
Mezhirovs are related.)

Back in Minneapolis, I realized I might have an opportunity now
to find out more about my cousin, so I asked Yevtushenko if he
knew anything about him.

“ALEXANDER MEZHIROV!” the charismatic poet boomed,
coming suddenly to life. “No one has ever asked me about him
before.” Then he went on, “Alexander Mezhirov was my mentor
when I came to Moscow from Siberia as a young man. He’s a
great poet.”

After the press conference, Yevtushenko came directly up to me
and asked, “How do you know Alexander Mezhirov?” I explained
that I had reason to believe he was my cousin. I told Yevtushenko
about my family and the names of the two shtetl villages
(Bobrovits and Koselets) outside Kiev where the Mezhirovs had
lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. I also gave him a copy of my
own book of poetry which had recently been published. “You’re
in luck,” Yevtushenko told me, “Mezhirov lives in my apartment
building in Moscow, and I am going to tell him about you.”

About two weeks later, I received a telegram, in English, from
Alexander Mezhirov in Moscow. “We are definitely related,” it
said, “My father was born in Kozelets, and my family is from
there.” It turns out that the father had moved to Moscow (where
Alexander was born in 1933) before World War II, but that most
of the Mezhirovs who had not emigrated to the U.S. had remained
there. (Ilya Ehrenberg, another famous Soviet writer, wrote of
how the entire village of Koselets --- men, women and children ---
had been lined up in a field and murdered by the Nazis in 1942.)

Aunt Sylvia was overjoyed when I wrote to her about the

[There is a fascinating postscript to this story. Shortly after
hearing from Mezhirov, I learned he was coming to the U.S. to
speak at Columbia University. I hastily arranged for him to
come also to Minnesota where we had a remarkable family
reunion. I then took him by train to Chicago where he met my
niece Tobi (also a writer). But all of that is another story.....)

Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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