The poet and translator Yuri Levitansky was born in the town of Kozelets (in Chernigov Oblast) in 1922. The Levitansky family moved frequently in search of a better life. First, they settled in Kiev; afterward, Yuri's father, David, was able to find employment in one of the mines in the Donbas region, and the family moved to Stalino (present-day Donetsk). There, Yuri began to attend school, and his first poems date to his school days.
In 1939, after finishing high school, Yuri Levitansky moved to Moscow, where he was able to enroll in the prestigious IFLI (Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History).
Following the Nazi invasion of the USSR in late June 1941, Levitansky, who had barely had time to pass his second-year exams, volunteered for frontline duty. He took part in the defense of Moscow, serving as a machine gunner alongside the poet Semyon Gudzenko. Yuri went on to serve on the Northwestern Front, where he saw action at the Sinyavino swamps, and later in Ukraine, Bucharest, and Prague. In those years, Yuri Levitansky wrote poetry, mostly dealing with the war. In 1943, his poems began to be published in frontline newspapers, and he soon became a military correspondent.
In the course of the war, Lieutenant Yuri Levitansky was awarded the Order of the Red Star, as well as medals. In summer 1945, after the end of the Soviet-German War, Levitansky was transferred to Mongolia, where he took part in the war with Japan. Several months later, he was moved to Irkutsk, and went on to serve there for another two years.
His long-awaited demobilization was facilitated by the famous Soviet writer Georgi Markov, who headed the Irkutsk Writers' Union at the time. Markov also helped Levitansky find employment as head of the literary section of the Irkutsk Musical Comedy Theater. Levitansky was also a contributor to the local newspaper Sovetsky Borets.
Levitansky's first book, The Soldiers' Road, was published in 1948.
Levitansky lived in Irkutsk until 1955, when he was admitted to the higher literary courses at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute. Two years later, he became a member of the Writers' Union of the USSR. At this point, he moved to Moscow for good.
Aside from poetry, Yuri Levitansky also produced translations and wrote parodies of the works of his fellow poets. Some of his poems were set to music and became part of the soundtrack of Soviet films. Thus, the Academy Award-winning Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1979) contains the song "A Dialogue by the New Year's Tree", which became very popular. Its lyrics had been written by Levitansky. Yuri signed letters in defense of Soviet dissidents, drawing the ire of the Soviet authorities: his works would periodically be banned from publication. At such times, his friends would help him keep his head above water by commissioning translations from him.
In the 1990s, Yuri Levitansky, who suffered from heart problems, was in urgent need of surgery. However, Russian medicine, and the country as a whole, were in a sorry state at the time. A group of prominent expatriate artists and poets – including Vladimir Maksimov, Ernst Neizvestny, Joseph Brodsky, and Mikhail Shemyakin – financed an expensive operation for him in Brussels.
Levitansky repeatedly took a stand on political issues. In 1993, he signed the "Letter of Forty-Two", in which the liberal Russian literati appealed to President Boris Yeltsin, condemning "the criminal policy of the Supreme Soviet." Later, in 1995, upon being awarded the State Prize, Levitansky openly criticized Russian policy in Chechnya. Yuri Levitansky died from a heart attack in late January 1996, during a "roundtable" discussion of the Chechen War at the Moscow City Hall.
Shortly before his death, Levitansky visited Israel for the first time. He later wrote about it: "I am now beginning to take an interest in Judaism, and I suddenly realize that I have already grasped many of its truths on my own. For me, this visit is, obviously, more than a mere trip abroad: I hope that it will help me understand certain things about myself." 1
In 2013, a memorial plaque in honor of Yuri Levitansky was unveiled in Donetsk. He published more than 20 books in his lifetime. In 2019, a show titled "MorningEvening" was staged, based on his works.