cover image Don't Die Before You're Dead

Don't Die Before You're Dead

Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Random House (NY), $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44574-6

In what Russian poet Yevtushenko calls an autobiographical novel (but in which he makes only occasional appearances), he weaves together a series of stories about people caught up in the events of August 1991, when an attempted coup against President Gorbachev led to a people's counter-coup and the coming to power of Boris Yeltsin. Written in swift, vivid prose full of humor and lyricism (and superbly translated), the book is an eloquent panorama of Russia's confusing present and often terrible past. The principal characters are Lyza Zalyzin, a former soccer star fallen upon drink and decay, who finds a new reason for living in the 1991 revolution; the love of his life, the amazing and passionate Boat, with the bluest eyes, hands like hams and a heroic passion for climbing everything in sight; special investigator Stepan Palchikov, the ultimate insider, who wants nothing so much as to win back his disaffected wife; an enigmatic and unnamed Soviet Marshal who is at the heart of the coup's failure; and sundry real personages like Gorbachev and Yeltsin, great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Yevtushenko's own appearances show him dealing with his fears at a call from the KGB in early years, improvising a ``very bad'' poem when called on to make a speech from the parliamentary balcony at the height of the counter-coup excitement, facing off in a confrontation with the new Russian cynics. He is piercingly empathetic about the two conflicting personalities he sees living inside Gorbachev, and offers indelible glimpses of Yeltsin trying to improve his tennis and in search of some native vodka from a store selling only imports. This is at once a highly sophisticated political novel and a deeply touching series of vignettes about unforgettable people caught up in a world they never made--certainly Yevtushenko's finest prose work to date. Author tour. (Nov.)