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Andrei Voznesensky

OVER an early-morning tea in a motel coffee shop, Andrei Voznesensky hardly looks like one of the foremost Soviet poets. Trim, cleanshaven, dressed in a tweed jacket and a silk scarf, he could easily pass for a professor or an international businessman. But his message carries the same protest that once caused Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in a towering rage, to order him to ``clear out of my country.'' It is a message that more recently brought 14,000 people together in a Moscow sports stadium to hear him read. During a month-long tour through the United States to promote his latest collection of poems, ``An Arrow in the Wall,'' it has been a message that has left audiences energized, moved, and delighted.

Now, in soft-spoken English charged with Slavic vowels, he turns his attention to the 21st century.

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``We need a revolution of the mind,'' he says simply.

He builds to that point by commenting on two significant characteristics of modern society. The first, he notes, is ``very banal: Everybody has said it.'' It is the need for international agreements to control weapons - nuclear as well as conventional.

``Nobody wants war,'' he adds, except possibly ``some adventurous, crazy generals.'' What worries him is a war that might arise ``by chance.''

``Our country doesn't trust you,'' he says, ``and your country doesn't trust us.'' That, he adds, ``can be dangerous not only for you and us but for everybody.'' He worries in particular about ``what happens in your lab or our lab'' as weapons research moves into genetic technology.

Breaking borders HOW can the threat be stemmed? ``We have to open our labs'' for international inspection, he says.

A second characteristic of modern life, Voznesensky notes, is the increasing interrelatedness of nations. Nowadays, he says, ``we have no borders - and this is [both] good and bad.'' He values every evidence of a breakdown of political borders: His current trip to the United States (``I was not sent,'' he insists) came after only two weeks' wait for permission from the Soviet authorities. But he also points to some problems. ``Chernobyl had no borders,'' he notes, referring to the radiation that spread into Europe following the explosion at a Soviet nuclear power plant in 1986. ``Acid rain has no borders.''

``There are borders geographical and borders of the mind. But people now don't understand this, and they stay very primitive - thinking about ego inside borders.''

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Needed: a new vocabulary THE challenge for the 21st century is to ``stop the ego'' - the self-absorption that occurs ``not only in a personal sense, but in a national sense.'' The need will be to ``think about our neighbor, about [other] persons and cultures.''

``That is why we need first a new way of thinking, a new vocabulary,'' he says. Today ``we have 19th-century thinking. But technology is so fast - everything [is] traveling so fast. Everything is speeding more than our brains, [so] we have to change our brains to make our mentality 21st-century. If we don't, we will die.''

Warmaking is ``19th-century thinking,'' the result of one nation's desire to impose its ego on another. Also ``19th-century'' is the desire of ruling powers ``to take some countries by occupation'' - a topic that includes the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Grilled about Afghanistan during his poetry reading the previous evening at Tufts University, Voznesensky replied that ``I am against this war,'' that it had been begun under then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and that it would not last.

The need to reach beyond such ``19th-century thinking,'' in fact, underlies Voznesensky's work as a poet.

``That is why I'm so for art - not realistic art, but very modern art, experimental art,'' he says, ``because this art will give us a new kind of thinking.

``When you see classics like [the paintings of] Salvador Dali, or Picasso, or my friend Robert Rauschenberg, you [perhaps] cannot agree with them, but immediately they give you another possible [way] to look at the world.

``That is why I am fighting in Russia for modern art: not because I am an artist but because these modern paintings [and works of] literature show people how to think [about] economics, politics, and agriculture.''

Experiencing such art, he says, people ``will think something new. ``They will do the same as Salvador Dali, but in economics. Otherwise we die. We need something unexpectable.''

``I think the future will be in cooperating,'' he says, adding that the goal must be to draw the best elements from both East and West.

``We have terrible sides in our country, terrible,'' he says, referring to the Soviet Union. But, while noting that ``I love your country,'' he says there are ``some things I don't like'' about the United States.

``Somebody asked me, `Would you like to have an American economy?' I said, `Yes, in many respects.' But we must not lose this interest in art, in literature.'' What he likes least about the US, he says, is that ``literature, art, is not so important here.''

The contrast with the Soviet Union, in fact, is striking. At home, Voznesensky enjoys a popularity usually accorded only to Western film stars. A speech he made recently in Moscow, protesting plans for an ill-suited public monument, sparked such a popular outcry that the government reversed direction. Since then, he says, his telephone has been ringing constantly with calls for help.

The great danger `I'M not a powerful man,'' he says. ``I have no high job, I have no motor car with a special telephone. But as a poet, if I ask an [official in] high authority - if I call and ask, `Please, look, we need [something]' - in Russia, they love poetry. For them, poetry is something special. If I ask, they do it, [because] they want to do something for a poet.''

Not surprisingly, the great danger Voznesensky sees facing both superpowers in the 21st century is the undercutting of artistic expression by what he calls ``standardization.''

``Certainly I'm afraid of [the increasing number] of weapons,'' he says, ``but I'm more afraid of raising people to be standard - to make robots from people.''

In particular, he worries about what he calls ``the losing of personality, individuality.'' In the Soviet Union, ``where you cannot stand all this blah-blah-blah-blah-blah standard'' of rhetoric, people tend to become indifferent and apathetic.

``But in your country,'' he says, ``people become standard, too.'' He sees a danger of a loss of individuality in a society where moneymaking, competition, and what he calls ``fighting'' are so important.

``I'm not interested in the 21st century if it will be only robots. It can happen, but it will be death: We will be alive, but dead. And that is why I'm very eager about our art, about poetry. We need it like vitamins.''

What qualities would he draw from East and West to fashion a way of thinking for the 21st century?

``You have the best economy,'' he says. ``Maybe what we can learn from you is incentive.'' He faults the Soviet worker for being ``lazy,'' for ``smoking all day long'' instead of working, and for drinking heavily. But he notes that free enterprise is making itself felt in the Soviet Union. ``Now we have the first private restaurants, the first private taxi drivers,'' he says. Gesturing across the table to include the now-bustling coffee shop, he notes that sooner or later ``all the economy like this has to be private.''

`The main thing is spiritual' BUT Voznesensky has already found, if only anecdotally, an adverse side to American privatization. Because he writes his poems in memory while walking - ``10 kilometers, at the end is my poem'' - he needs space to walk.

``I wanted to write [a poem] last week on the West Coast, near San Francisco,'' he recalls. Out for the day with a friend, he found himself inspired by a ``very beautiful beach, a very beautiful place to write. But my friend said, `No, you can't go [there], because it is private.'

``She called [the owner] and said, `Can you allow a Russian poet to go [to your beach] to have inspiration?' and he said, `Certainly, go!' But it was too long [a] preparation, and my inspiration stopped.''

``For me,'' Voznesensky concludes, ``it is strange and not nice when this forest you can't enjoy, this piece of sea belongs to somebody.''

For Voznesensky, the great Russian contribution to the 21st century will be in matters of the human spirit.

``Maybe the brain of your nation is better,'' he concedes. But ``our instinct is better, yes?''

``From us the main thing [that the 21st century can learn] is spiritual things, like literature.'' He notes that in the Soviet Union ``religion was stopped'' after the revolution - at least officially. But the spiritual needs remained. Now, he says, ``poetry is like a new religion: It's something very spiritual.''

Is he, then, an optimist? The question has a sobering effect. Leaning forward, Voznesensky answers with a guarded melancholy. ``I try to make something to make me optimistic,'' he says cryptically. ``Working and trying - because even in this bad situation you have to find a way.''

Will glasnost survive? THEN is he worried that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's renowned policy of glasnost (openness) will not survive into the immediate future - not to mention the 21st century?

``In my heart, I don't think about this. I try to work hard, and I'm sure that if I work hard it will be [all the] more reason that [glasnost] will be not stopped. Because I know there is terrible resistance'' inside the Soviet Union to these reforms. ``Now it is a fight like war. I hope that we'll win - I hope. Gorbachev has said that he wants this process not to stop. But we have to stop this wind resistance.''

Down through Russian history, he explains, ``if the czar or our leader wants to replace [officials] with new people, what did he do? He asked the police and army [to] arrest the people [and] kill them. But now Gorbachev, for the first time in our history, wants to make [a] revolution by a democratic way. It's very difficult. But it's fantastic, because he really wants to make it by democracy, not [by] arresting people. But it is dangerous - because he uses this method, but [his opponents] do not. They are people of very dishonest methods.''

In recent months, Voznesensky has refused invitations to read his poetry in Spain, Italy, India, and other nations. Had he been able to, he would have postponed his American trip. ``I [wanted to] stay in Russia, to help this process. If more people [did] this, things [would be] better. We have many active enemies, and we have many indifferent people who are afraid what will be tomorrow.''

Throughout his conversation, however, one element of his faith burns brightly: his trust in the youth. ``We have [to] think of youth,'' he says. ``They are not [yet] very [wise], but by instinct they are making what is for the next century.''

He describes an art exhibition held in Moscow several months before he left for America - the first of its kind in which ``they gave the gallery to only youngsters without any control.'' Daily there were ``a thousand people waiting at the door,'' and in the evenings they held rock concerts.

``The atmosphere [was] good, everything [was] great,'' he recalls. But among those who presented their work was ``not yet one genius.''

``We need time,'' he says - time to develop the talent of the youth, time for ``books to be written.

``They are not smart, but they feel by instinct, by blood, that they have something new, a new morality that is pure.''

A poet `by instinct'

``Why do you write poems?'' Andrei Voznesensky was asked at a recent reading.

``By instinct,'' he replied to the questioner. ``Why do you live?''

That instinct has brought Voznesensky, one of the Soviet Union's foremost poets, to prominence at home as well as abroad, where his works have been translated into English and most other Western European languages.

While he was still a schoolboy, that instinct also led him to send some poems to Boris Pasternak. The result was a close friendship over many years and a strong attachment to Pasternak's anti-Stalinist values.

``Pasternak told me, `Don't go to Institute of Literature, because they [will] only kill you,''' he recalls.

He enrolled instead at the Architectural Institute in Moscow. When he began publishing poems in 1958 during the Soviet Union's 10-year cultural ``thaw,'' he became immensely popular, along with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, as a voice of poetic protest. After 1963, when Nikita Khrushchev criticized him severely, Voznesensky spent years without being published. In 1978, however, he won the State Prize for Poetry for his volume ``Stained-Glass Craftsman.''

``Voznesensky always worked within the system,'' says Tufts University Russian professor David Sloan, ``criticizing inequities where he found them, but not becoming a dissident.'' Voznesensky is currently championing the first publication inside the Soviet Union of Vladimir Nabokov's works and of Pasternak's ``Doctor Zhivago,'' and hopes to organize the first major exhibition in Russia of Marc Chagall's paintings. A strong supporter of Russian rock music, he has written the libretto for a rock opera, ``Juno and Perchance.''

Next: Theodore J. Gordon, futurist, April 22.

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