In October 1961, the FBI decided a poem could be a weapon. Agents at the bureau had learned about “Babi Yar,” a provocative piece of verse written by the wily young Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, about the Nazi massacre of Jews in a Ukrainian ravine—and of Soviet attempts to cover it up.
The poem, with its subtitle “against antisemitism in the Soviet Union,” was a literary and political event in Yevtushenko’s home country, where the realities of the Holocaust, particularly where it occurred with Soviet collaboration or on Soviet soil, were long suppressed. “Babi Yar” managed to combine a brave sympathy for Jewish suffering with the 28-year-old author’s own blooming ego, as when he placed himself in the role of Jesus: “I am a Jew / Here I am wandering Egypt / And here I am crucified, dying on a cross.” The young poet was compared to dissident figures like Boris Pasternak, launching Yevtushenko into a form of literary stardom that is nonexistent today: a major poet with the power of international celebrity. He acted as a Cold War cultural diplomat, meeting with American presidents and movie stars, while constantly toggling between different modes of criticism of the USSR, hoping to stay one step ahead of the censors and of the politburo’s wrath.
In 1961, the demands of fame—the barnstorming tours across America for thousands of fans; the fractious debates with John Steinbeck and Joseph Brodsky over whether he was sufficient in his dissent; the careful tending of political relationships with senior Soviet officials—lay in the future for Yevgeny Yevtushenko. So, too, did years of surveillance and monitoring that would lead to the formation of a 400-page FBI file, which was released to me in redacted form via a Freedom of Information Act request, following Yevtushenko’s death in 2017.
In the fall of 1961, the counterintelligence agents of the FBI had one concern: how to use this poem, written by a star of Soviet literature who performed to packed stadiums in his home country, as a form of propaganda. To start, a translator in the FBI’s New York field office wrote his own translation of “Babi Yar,” and some agents put together some accompanying remarks praising the poet’s bravery and condemning the Soviet Union’s official antisemitism. The project was then pitched to FBI leadership in a memo written by an agent named F.J. Baumgardner who, among his later activities, produced FBI memos labeling Martin Luther King Jr. a degenerate communist.
“It is believed that this poem ‘Babi Yar’ can be utilized by the Bureau as an excellent psychological weapon to further highlight anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and to point out the lack of freedom of speech inside the Soviet Union,” Baumgardner wrote.