This passage from Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1963 A Precocious Autobiography looks at prize culture.
A Stalin prize meant a lot: immediate and enormous reprints, photographs and enthusiastic articles in all the papers, appointment to some official post, a car off the waiting list, a flat, and possibly a dacha. So, many people didn’t care a damn whether the book that got them the prize was read or not, what they cared about was the prize. It would be wrong of me to accuse everyone of having such an attitude. Many authors wrote honestly, without an eye to the award, and got it nevertheless. But careerists were plenty.
And while the brouhaha over gold and silver medals was going on at the Writer’s Union, the splendid poet Boris Slutsky, who had managed to get only one poem published and that as far back as 1940, strode about the Moscow streets with his precise military step. Strange though it is, he was never more serene and confident than any of the nervous candidates for the prize.
Not that he had much reason to be calm. At the age of 35, he had still not been admitted to the Writer’s Union. He kept himself on what he earned by writing small items for the radio, and lived on cheap tinned food and coffee, in a tiny rented room – he had no flat. His desk drawers were stuffed with sad, bitter, grim poems, sometimes frightening like Baudelaire’s, typed and ready, but which it would have been absurd to offer to a publisher. Nevertheless Slutsky was serene. He was always surrounded by young poets and he gave them confidence in the future. Once, when I came to weep on his shirtfront because my best poems were turned dow, he quietly pulled open the drawer of his desk and showed me the pile of manuscripts inside.
“I fought the war. I’m scored all over by bullets,” he said. “I didn’t fight in order to keep these poems in my desk. But everything will change. Our day will come. All we have to do is wait for that day and have something ready for it in our desks and in our hearts. D’you see?”