Soviet Underground – Part 2


Maria the Nurse

What did I say to Maria the nurse
when I was hugging her?
“You know that officer’s daughters
don’t look on us soldiers.”

And the field of clovers was beneath us
quite like the river.
And the waves of the clovers became higher
and we swayed upon them.

And Maria, opening her arms,
swam down the river.
And black and eternal
were her light-blue eyes.

And when sunrise arrived
I told Maria
“No, imagine that officer’s daughters
don’t wish to look at us.”

– 1950s Bulat Okudzhava

1924 was a terrible year for Russia and the Soviet Union. Famine was close, the revolution was just over and the Civil War ended not long ago as well. People were starving and everything was destroyed. Communism was still an ideal held dear to many of the nationalities within the borders of the USSR. That year the god of Russian Communism died – Lenin. The world was in grief and sorrow. And in 1924 in post-revolutionary Moscow where Esenin and Mayakovsky still walked the streets, Bulat Okudzhava was born. By heritage he was most definitely not a Russian – his father was Georgian and his mother Armenian. Nevertheless he was brought up with the language, the culture, and the ideals of a Russian youth. His father was a high Party member. But as Stalin came to power and the great purge began in 1937 his father was falsely accused, arrested, tried and then ultimately shot as a German/Japanese spy. This was of course one of the many insane accusations of the Stalin regime. Okudzhava’s mother was arrested as well, and from 1937 to 1955 she was imprisoned in the Gulag. After the dramatic year of 1937 Okudzhava moved to live with his paternal grandmother, but in 1939 moved to Tbilisi, Georgia. With all that was going on, first living a life of privilege then considered an outlaw Okudzhava faced an unknown future, and in 1941 at the age of seventeen, perhaps to show his patriotism, he volunteered for the army. He described himself as a small kid, whose feet were crooked, and who marched out of step. But nevertheless he joined the Red Army and fought in the infantry, being wounded several times. In the war he fought proudly and bravely, and once later in his life admitted that he and some of his friends had actually thought about escaping from the front and going to fight in the Spanish Civil War against fascism, but this was never realized. In 1950 he graduated from the University of Tbilisi, and in 1955 his mother was released from the Gulag, and Okudzhava settled in Moscow with his mother.

The war’s impact on Okudzhava was tremendous, almost all his early songs are about war and its horror. He had been writing poetry since he was little – he didn’t care if it wasn’t published because to be published you had to write what the government wanted you to write, not what your soul told you. Some very unorthodox poems exist in Okudzhava’s work, for example “The Black Cat” which is most definitely speaking of Stalin, was written in the 50s, when one could be shot for such poetry:

In the courtyard there’s a famous ally
by the name of the “black hallway”.
In that ally as if on an estate
lives the Black cat

He hides his smiles with whiskers,
darkness is like a shield to him.
All the cats are singing and crying –
but this Black cat is quiet.

He doesn’t make a sound –
just eats and just drinks –
touches the dirty floor with claws
as if scratching on his throat.

He hasn’t been chasing mice for a long time,
laughs and laughs beneath his whiskers –
catches us when we are honest
for a little bit of meat.

He doesn’t demand, doesn’t ask anything,
burns and burns his yellow eye –
everyone brings him something
and says “thank you” to him.

And that is why the house
we live in isn’t happy –
we would need to hang a lightbulb
but there’s not enough money for that.

The “house we live in isn’t happy”, the great Soviet Union, the house which isn’t happy. It isn’t happy because someone would have to show the light to the people, someone would have to try to do something and change something but there’s not enough strength and courage — and so this fat black cat sits there and torments the house. This song was forbidden from being recorded professionally, it was circulated among the thousands of tapes known as magnitizdat. It was clear to the government that songs like these, with witty references to the government, the state of the country, and its leaders was dangerous – and made it a goal to hide these from the public.

In Moscow Okudzhava worked at several jobs with literature, because he wished to be a Russian writer. It is a great privilege to call yourself a Russian writer; it is even greater when someone else calls you a Russian writer. Pasternak was a great living poet, and when he visited Moscow one time Okudzhava snuck into his room and greeted the startled poet. Okudzhava gave him some of his poems and left. Pasternak wasn’t impressed.

He wrote short stories, poems, and a novel that was never published. With his friends he would share his poems, sitting up late through the nights at each others tiny Soviet apartments drinking, smoking, and staring down at the busy Moscow streets they envisioned a whole different world. Surrounded by a close group of friends he would sit down, when the laughter and drinking had ceased for a while, he would pick up a guitar start singing a poem to a very simple melody. It was pleasant to hear him – his voice was youthful and bright, not a truly singing voice but a warm voice – a regular person singing the sadness of the heart. Sometime in one of these nights friends decided to record his songs, because they were, after all, fun to listen to and had a very deep meaning. Soon these recordings started circulating around and soon Okudzhava became a legend.

The English reader must understand on what level the Russians view poetry — to them it is the highest form of art, the most cherished form of art that the Russians hold dear to them. There is a music in the language that is so engaging to the ear that once some remarkable poem is heard it is irresistible and that is why Russians would fill up stadiums just to listen to a poet recite. It was also the style, a new fresh wave of poetry sweeped Russia and the Soviet Union with the late fifties and early sixties. Albert C. Todd in the Introduction to the Collected Poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko writes: “In Russia poetry was the more neutral and fortunate outlet for the talents of a new generation of fiery idealists. (Yevtushenko, Akhamdulina, Voznesensky, Brodsky, Rozhdestvensky, and the slightly older Okudzhava), which found opportunity in the chaos and confusion of the post-Stalin years. They found ready audiences in schools, factories, and most all, on street corners. By no apparent decision of authority, but rather by a default of uncensored young voices spoke to crowds that grew quickly into hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands in city squares and sports stadiums. Electrifying, audacious voices of youth touched strings of conscience and hope with increasing boldness about things so long unspoken they seemed like new discoveries and moral revelations of great wisdom.”

An example of such a song/poem would be Vadim Egorov’s “Rains”

I love you my rains
My heavy
My heavy autumn rains
A little funny
A little scattered
I love you my rains

The leaves glide towards the trunks
And the sidewalks are just like mirrors
And I walk upon the mirrors
In which nobody reflects

Where like stooping walrus’s
Cars are puffing by with their motors
And like a snake
The rails flow by monotonously

Where the ragged street lights
Stroll by in a w
et dripping line,
And Autumns a flaming wig
Is ripped off by rainfalling hands . . .

Thank you, my rains
Thank you, my autumn rains . . .
For all that you have done to me,
Thank you, my rains . . . .


By the late sixties and early seventies “Rains” was considered among the classic guitar-poet songs. In 2000 when in a Russian record company published a two volume CD entitled Songs of Our Century “Rains” was among them. Today “Rains” has entered into the popular song of Russia, where the author is lost among the flood of culture, and as the years progress the song loses its connection with the author and becomes nothing more then a national song (nationalnoya pesnya), much like Turgenev’s “Misty Morning” has entered the popular song of Russia, and many Russians go day by day humming “Misty Morning” never knowing the great novelist wrote it. Once a poem enters the nations vocabulary it is truly worth study and interest. Unfortunately Egorov never produced more then a few songs that captured the nations interest — his other songs are also beautifully written and performed to a very sweet melody, some might say performed even better then Okudzhava. But Okudzhava was more “cityish”, he seemed to symbolize the movement and the beat of the city, its tenderness and harshness. One major theme to sing about was a very old street in Moscow – Arbat. Arbat was and still is very beautiful, very European and exciting for the youth, his love for it reflected in many of his songs especially “The Song About Arbat” and “Sign on the Stone”:

May my love be as old as the whole world
For I alone served her and believed her.


Okudzhava produced dozens of songs that are still sung in films, theaters, and are played on television and radio over and over. Among these are the “Blue Trolley-bus”, a song about the Moscow trolley that goes around at night; “Prayer”, a philosophical poem as a prayer to God; “Song About Mozart” which is basically a beautiful poem contemplating the sorrow and enlightenment of music and life, where the author repeats several times, “please do not loose hope maestro”. His songs spread like fire across the Soviet Union, they reached the tremendous population of Russians in New York, Paris, Germany, and Australia.

As the Russian teenagers poured hours over listening to these illegal recordings some picked up their own guitars and started singing their poetry. Alexander Gorodnitsky was one of those first. Born in Leningrad in 1933, he lived through the Blockade, witnessed the war, and began writing poetry while in the seventh grade in 1947. Ten years later, when he graduated as a geologist from the Leningrad University he began traveling, working, and doing research in Taimyr, Igark, Turhansk, in Kolskiy and Kolyma. “And it was precisely there,” he wrote in the preface to his book of poems, “there in the taiga and the tundra, under the mosquitoes and the heat, near the camp fires of archeologists, where I first heard songs unknown to me. They were sung by geologists, pilots, fishermen — our workers, but most importantly, by the former ‘zeks’ . . . These songs entered my soul with such rapture that unexpectedly I began creating melodies to my own naive poems, unwillingly resembling what I heard before. And so this is how my first songs appeared: in 1958, “Snow”, in 1959, “Leather Jackets” and “Wooden Villages”. . .”

These songs have entered the national song as well. “Snow” is probably one of the most famous; it has the rhythm of a national song with a truly beautiful melody. “Leather Jackets” is perhaps the best example of Gorodnitsky’s art. It gives a sentimental look at the lifestyle of the geologist-romantic, the one who seeks out unknown lands, dreams, and hopes and yearns. The poem, which he later turned into a fabulous song, is a scattered piece — giving images upon images of the vagrant life:

Leather jackets
tossed into the corner.
The low little window
is covered by a rag.
Roams behind the hanger
the lonely northern blizzard . . .
In a tiny hotel room
it’s empty and dim.

It’s about time
we forget this lonesome song.
Hermetically the motors
and hearts have been closed up.
Again drags off the shore
the mists and the snows,
the weather is not flyable
even to the moon.

Bald romantics,
aerial hobos,
our life — endless boyish years.
Shew your grief away
with the empty flask
May the meteorological service
prophesize our hopes.

A sun that doesn’t set
a warm breeze from the west.
And a steering wheel
in those yearning hands . . .
Unknown brides and schoolgirls
wait for us
in your tiny
little asphalt lands.

This was written in the Spring of 1959 in Turhansk and later he set it to a fabulous melody. Gorodnitsky did not yet know Okudzhava personally, but he defiantly heard his songs, and much like Okudzhava “Leather Jackets” and many others spread around the Soviet Union.

The public was fascinated with Gorodnitsky, still young he embodied the romanticism that symbolized the generation — he lived the life of a true romantic, traveling through the harsh wilderness, diving in the waters of the earth and cutting open reefs and corals; journeying towards the Arctic and the Antarctic; spending nights staring over the Indian Ocean’s skies as the expedition cruise moved slowly along its path for months. His poetry is filled with the images of journeys, farewells, and adventures:

I sit on the edge of the earth all locked up,
my tables without food,
and my window has no glass . . .
Sirens sing,
the wind whistles . . .
and rain drizzles above Vladivostok.

I’m playing a card game
Not from love
nor amazement . . .
And seagulls scream high over my ship,
there’s a black mist over Vladivostok.


One of the amazing things about Gorodnitsky and his poetry is that all he wrote about was true. He did sit at the edge of the earth in Vladivostok, and it was raining, and he had no windows . . . all he had was he interest of life and the awesome splendor of nature. This romanticism was what the public denied of freedom yearned for — and when in a country without God the youth created its own gods and legends — the bards.

At around this time another poet appeared with a guitar. His name was Yuri Vizbor — though not as attractive, charismatic, or adventurous as Gorodnitsky, his songs (more then 1,000 of them) circulated from the busy streets of Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad to the tiny villages of Siberia and the Ural Mountains. Born in 1938 in Moscow he also began writing poetry at a young age and in the early fifties started composing songs, his guitar was a true Russian guitar — 7 metal strings. His poems were light and devoid of deep philosophical meanings — they were extremely sentimental and pure, mostly dealing with nature.

Growing up in Moscow for a youth fascinated with poetry and the history and culture of Russia he enrolled in the University by the name of V. I. Lenin, and in 1955 graduated with a degree in Russian language and literature. He worked as a teacher in the North where he also joined the army. Using his creative skill as a writer he published his works as a correspondent in the popular magazine “Yunost” (Youth) and “Krugozor”, he also wrote plays, short stories, and many screenplays. Along with Vizbor there appears a female bard, Ada Yakusheva, whose songs were very simple and pleasant “and almost written by what one might call a ‘female Vizbor'” she had a very soothing feminine voice and also sang about mountains and forests. She is remembered as someone who worked alongside of Vizbor in the 60s, and they wrote many songs together. However, she never gained the reputation of a serious bard, or at least a phenomenon that changed
something in the movement.

During the 70s he was a popular figure, for he performed in a countless amount of festivals and concerts. He appeared as an actor in many Soviet films, including a role as the Nazi general Herman Goering in the film The Seventeen Moments of Spring. His love for nature drove him to the mountains — he participated in many expeditions and hikes. Perhaps the openness of the mountains gave him the freedom that was lacking in the city — there him and his friends could set up camp fires, stay up all nights drinking, reading poetry, and of course — singing. His style was simple; his poetry was light and easy. One of the most famous poems is called “The Nightly Road”:

There’s no wiser and no greater remedy from stress
Then the song of nightly tires.
With a very long gray thread of worn down roads
We wear down the wounds of the soul.

Don’t believe in separation, old friend,
its circle is but a dream, thank God!
New times will come, my friend,
Just believe in the road.
There’s no end to the road except its result:
Roads are difficult, but it’s worse without them.

As if someone’s cigarette — a stop sign in the night:
Someone also believes in the path.
Stranger — hello and goodbye!
I can only flash my car lights.

Either a blue star will hang over my car,
Or the rain will drizzle on the glass.
Two of your tracks are behind my back . . .
That means your life didn’t go by without a trace.

The road leads to two ends, but don’t lie to yourself
We cannot go back.
Thank god, old friend, that we have enemies
That means that we probably have friends.

The road — the endless road of life, the road that leads to unknown destinations, loneliness and adventure, bliss and despair. The road has been a constant image in Russian poetry, it always symbolized life and lifes search. Its origins can probably be attributed to the gypsies, who made a big contribution to Russian literature in an informal way in the mid nineteenth century. The “gypsy song” is a big part of Russian culture, the song of despair and wild romanticism, and usually in the gypsy the road had some part to play. Eventually the road, life, and song somehow got mixed all into one and have the exact some abstract philosophic meaning. Okudzhava has a song about this, which in its own abstract way is very true to the meaning of sung poetry in Russia, how it affects the Russian soul and lifestyle.

Song as short as life itself
Somewhere heard on the road
She has piercing words
And a melody that’s almost enlightening

She appears suddenly with the sun
She wasn’t taught to delay or lie
She is like hope from experienced hands
Given as a gift from nature

From door to door, window to window,
Following your path she drags along.
All will pass that was destined to pass
Only she will remain with you.


Another major character that simply cannot be ignored is that of Vladimir Vysotsky. He was a phenomenon which at first seemed normal, for his lyrics were pure and true and recognizabley original, but only in a matter of a few years his name grew to mythic proportions in Russia’s culture. Vladimir Vysotsky was born in 1938 in Moscow. His father was a soldier in the Great Patriotic War, and his mother was a translator of German. Growing up in Moscow among the raw youth of the late forties and early fifties it was easy to get mixed up in bad situations, and Vysotsky was the kind to get mixed up in things that he shouldn’t have. His friends were his schoolmates and the punks who ran around the city streets stealing cigarettes. They enjoyed sneaking into movies, getting into fights, and other adventurous things that normal kids in the cities did. In 1959 he began working in the theater by the name of A. S. Pushkin as an actor for small roles, and then in 1960 started performing in Soviet films. But in 1964 he joined the Taganka Theater of Drama and Comedy, directed by Yuri Lyubimov, where Vysotsky reigned supreme as Hamlet, and many other roles.

From the early 60s he started performing his songs among the company of friends. These songs, guitar-poems, where regular poems to the beat of a guitar in the background. The first song that he ever wrote and sang was called the “Tattoo” (1961).

His first songs were “street songs”. They were what are called in Russia blatnye pesni, which means songs about the streets, the drunks, drug addicts, pimps, thieves, prostitutes, killers, spies, etc. These were what he called a “street romance”, the romance of the Russian streets. An example of

He Whose Been With Her Before

That night, I didn’t drink, I didn’t sing
I stared at her and didn’t blink,
As though a child, as though a child
But he, who’s been with her before
He told me, I should simply go,
He told me, I should simply go,
I’d face denial!

And he, who’s been with her before
He talked so coarsely and he swore
But I remembered–I wasn’t drunk then
And as I tried to walk away
She told me, “What’s the hurry, stay!”
She told me, “What’s the hurry, stay,
It isn’t late yet!”

But he, who’s been with her before
Remembered and did not let go
And once in fall, and once in fall
I’m with my friend, they blocked our lane
They stood together in a chain,
They stood together in a chain
Eight men in all

With me–my knife and I decide
I won’t go down without a fight
Watch out you fools! Watch out you fools!
Why should I wait to be submersed?
And so, I chose to strike them first
And so, I chose to strike them first
Those were the rules

But he, who’s been with her before
He planned and plotted a fierce row,
Severe and grave, severe and grave
Right from behind, someone attacked
And Johnny warned me, “Watch your back!”
And Johnny warned me, “Watch your back!”
It was too late

For all eight sins–one resolution
A prison clinic–my conclusion
I lied there flat, I lied there flat
The surgeon cut across and down
He told me, “Man, just hang around!”
He told me, “Man, just hang around!”
I did just that!

The time flew by during my term
She did not wait for my return
But I’ve forgiven, her–I’ve forgiven
Yes her, I surely do condone
But him, who’s been with her before
But him, who’s been with her before
I won’t be leaving
With him, who’s been with her before
With him, who’s been with her before
I will get even!

(1962, translation by Andrey Kneller)

It wasn’t long until Vysotsky’s youthful interest in drugs and street punks vanished and he began working on more serious poetry. From 1964, his poems start to deal with the World War II. Real, intense, sophisticated, and deeply philosophical songs appear like “Stars”:

This battle is impossible to forget,
Death has seeped through the air . . .
But from the sky with a silent rain
stars were falling.

Again a star fell – and I made a wish:
to live through this battle –
this is how wickedly I tied my life
to a dumb star.

When songs like these traveled from Moscow in the underground cycle to the cities of the USSR, veterans who heard these recordings broke into tears. A very powerful song called “Brothers Grave” would probably be his best war song. “Brothers Graves” is the eternal flame for the 20,000,000 young Russian soldiers that perished in the fight against fascism, the Russians held their memory so dear that the generation of Vysotsky was proud to call them “brothers”.

They don’t put up crosses at the graves of the brothers,
And widows don’t come here to weep.
dy brings them a bouquet of flowers
And lights an Eternal flame.

Here the earth would stick out of the ground,
And now — granite flagstones.
Here there is no personal fate
All fates are mixed into one.

Within the flame — you see explosions of tanks,
Russian homes burning.
A burning Smolensk and a burning Reichstag,
The burning heart of a soldier.

At the graves of the brothers there are no widows in tears,
Stronger people go here.
They don’t put up crosses at the graves of the brothers . . .
But is that any better?

The main thing about Vysotsky was his style — his voice was deep and gruff, it was not a “singers voice”. It was stained by long years of smoking and drinking, and near his death at the age of 42 it got deeper and coarser. His guitar was not amazing in the sense of its mastery — it was simple and direct, something that is comparable to the power chords used by the punk rockers — a direct hardcore beat — and that was, probably, its greatness. His singing was intense that moved high into a pitch that seemed all-powerful and grand. His words were also direct and vivid — not soft and mellow like many bards, but words of metal and fire.

(Vysotsky at a concert in the late 1960s)

Because he was a trained actor Vysotsky used his skill in incorporating his songs into films in plays. “Brothers Graves” was placed into the play “The Living and the Fallen” (which was performed at the Taganka), and in the Soviet film “I Was By Birth From Childhood”, both dealing with the war. His fame spread faster then that of Gorodnitsky or Okudzhava, and in today’s standards Vizbor or Gorodnitsky are merely stars in the sky compared to he glowing sun of Vysotsky’s fame.

In 1975 he married the famous French actress Marina Vlady, and this had a tremendous affect on the rest of his career. Being married to a foreign woman, especially a major international celebrity, he had the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union many times, he even had the opportunity to emigrate. From 1975 to the year of his death, 1980, he had performed all over Europe and America, with major concerts in Paris, London, Berlin, New York, L.A., and Chicago.

After his tragic death from an overdose in 1980 Marina Vlady published the memoir of her life with Vysotsky, entitled “Volodya: Or A Flight Cut Short.” In it she remembers a truly sensitive scene when they were both in Berlin. Walking along the clean streets Vysotsky was fascinated by the cleanliness, the wonderful cars parked along the streets — Porsches, Mercedes’s, Volkswagons, etc. — he noticed the stores filled with all the kinds of foods one could eat, stores filled with wonderful clothes and products. Marina noticed that Vysotsky felt ill and so they went back to the hotel room. When they came in Vysotsky fell down on the bed in tears, shaking. “What’s wrong! What’s wrong!” Marina asked. “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” He yelled, “They lost! And we won! They did such horrors to us, and we are starving like animals in our own country! It’s not fair!” Such was the affect of the West on the most famous man in the Soviet Union.

Back in the USSR his concerts attracted thousands of people, stadiums, concert halls, open fields, factories, hospitals — he was earning the kind of cash that only Brezhnev earned. His popularity became phenomenal, he could not go a single day without at least 40 people begging him for his autograph. At the same time he was hassled by the KGB, jealous friends, and people who wanted something from him.

He became the ultimate superstar of Soviet history in the eyes of the public from the late 1960s to the end of his life in 1980 he was greater then Stalin, greater then Mayakovsky. His career in films was immense, performing in over 20 major motion pictures, writing screenplays, performing in plays such as Voznesensky’s poem-play Anti-Worlds, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Esenin’s Pugachev, and his most famous role ever: Shakespeare’s Hamlet (based on the translation by Pasternak). Sooner or later showing up to see Hamlet at the Taganka meant not seeing Hamlet but Vysotsky, for he embodied the tormented Prince, tormented by lies and greed and power — he symbolized the soul of the nation — angry, repressed, tortured, tired, and wild. His gaze was stern and fixed, his gruff voice was the reflection of years of drinking and smoking, and screaming and crying and singing. His voice is a symbol of repression and angst, sinking deep into the poles of insanity and destroying the borders of normality and conformity — out of this madness appeared a dashing music of resistance and life, awareness and victory. A voice that sent soldiers to tears, and the heartbeat of the Soviet Union seemed to choke itself through his voice. This was his greatest accomplishment — what he did for the culture of the Soviet Union.

Vysotsky would probably be the definitive example of counter-culture in the Soviet Union in each possible way. His interests were wide and varied, he collected large amounts of records from the West: jazz, rock, blues. In his three-bedroom apartment in Moscow there was a large library, filled with books on literature and the war. His favorite poet was Pushkin. His favorite bard was definetly Okudzhava. One often wonders what it would have been like if Vysotsky lived beyond his 42nd year. If not for the drugs and the over exhaustion of constant travel and performance perhaps a good twenty or thirty more years could have been spent on creative work? But it seems that Vysotsky was destined to die. Much like Pushkin and Lermontov, Vysotsky seems to have been the martyr of the bard generation (and perhaps it was his death that gave them a true sense of who they were, and that their life was not a waste. “Two of your tracks are behind my back . . . That means your life didn’t go by without a trace” wrote Vizbor, and this was true to all who followed this code of life. The code of being open and honest — true and loving. Vysotsky was open and honest. He gained this reputation, this immense super-star status purely on his own, he did not play kiss-ass to anyone, which cannot be said for the greater part of the most famous Russian-Soviet poets, who definitely played on satisfying the establishment.

He died on July 25 1980, during the Olympics in Moscow. It has always been remembered as the hottest day in the year, stadiums were packed with the Olympics taking place. Then suddenly people began to notice that policeman would take off their caps after speaking into their radios. “What’s the problem?” Citizens would ask. “Vysotsky’s dead!” It was a strange site — thousands of Russians left the stadiums, their workplaces, their homes, and schools and went in a massive procession to the Taganka theater where Vysotsky performed Hamlet, gathering on the roofs of buildings, staring out of windows, people began crying and singing Vysotsky’s songs. At his funeral one of his friends remarked, “It’s impossible to die now.” Vysotsky’s funeral was a funeral of an era. The time of Okudzhava and Vysotsky was over — one of the greats had left. Among the thousands of people who showed up to mourn the death of a living god, Okudzhava delivered a small speech: “He is a true poet, and his bright and wide name is the greatest weapon against lies, horror, and what is called ‘mass culture.’ Not long ago we met in the Garden Circle. He was going from the Taganka to Kursk. For me he is still alive.”

Fellow actor from the Taganka, Yuri Trifonov, also gave a small speech: “He brought a strength, a love for life, and a deep meaning to the music of our 60s and 70s. He sang so much sadness about our time and about us, he blessed us — those who with love collected his recordings, who sang with him his songs, who heard them by accident from windows wide open — he blessed us with poetry, sadness and masculinity, the kind that is needed in life. He was the poe
t of legendary temperament, and he left . . .”

Among the others that wrote great essays and speeches on Vysotsky was Novella Matveeva, a female bard of Okudzhava’s generation; Yuri Andreev a close friend of the circle; Yuri Vizbor, whose article on Vysotsky’s death was published several times in several books on Vysotsky, the essay is short but has a deep sense of grief and shock at the death of such a young talent, “Vladimir Vysotsky was a loner,” it starts, “A bigger loner than many would believe . . . . . all his life he battled with officials and bureaucrats, to whom Vysotsky’s work was never really considered as work. With those who saw what they wanted to see in Vysotsky — the vulgar, the drunk, the hysteric, the seeker of cheap popularity, the god of drunks and punks. . . . . there were no limits to his songs — thank God that there are tape recorders for sale in stores. He screamed his poetry, and this tape recorder scream hung over the whole nation “from Moscow to the very outskirts. For his strength, for his truth, all was forgiven. His songs were the nations songs, and he himself was an artist of the nation.”

Suddenly after his death, hundreds began praising him “our poet, our poet!” The very same poets who before had wished not to speak to him either out of jealousy or hate. Of all who were considered the greatest Russian poets of the time, each wrote a poem in his honor: Bella Akhmadulina, Andrei Voznesenksy, Valentin Gaft, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Rima Kazakova, Evgeny Klyachkin, Yuri Lores, Yuri Lyubimov, Vladimir Makarov, Aleksandr Tkachev, and Lenoid Filipov. Among the bards who dedicated great songs in his honor: Boris Almazov, Aleksandr Bashlachev, Yuri Vizbor, Alexander Gorodnitsky, Alexander Gradtsky, Veronika Dolina, Alexander Dolsky, Vadim Egorov, Yuliy Kim, Yuri Loza, Andrei Makarevich, Alexander Mirzyan, Bulat Okudzhava, Alexander Rozenbaum, and Mikhail Scherbakov.

Vysotsky knew he was going to die — everyone knew he was going to die, or at least those who watched him die. It wasn’t the drugs — it was the repression. It was the knowledge that his poetry was not published — and there was no conceivable way that it could be published in his lifetime — and that is perhaps the poets greatest sadness — that his art can only go around illegally underground. He was buried in the cemetery of Vagankov in Moscow — a big ugly bronze statue was put up in his honor, where flowers have been brought to since. Gorodnitsky wrote in a song:

At Vagankov dried leafs are burning.
The sun reflects in domes — it burns the eyes.
Come over here and quietly start praying
Even if this is your first time.
A heavenly flock of clouds flies over
The bleak tiny police station . . . .
And the lone guitar has gotten quiet,
Like a dog over a masters gravesite.
Black branches stir the winds around
Over the lucid motionless water. . . .
And timelessly forgotten poets
Smile – with a youthful smile . .

(1980 fragment)

Vysotsky’s departure was a shock to the nation. But it made people more aware of the importance of the bards and their contribution to Russian culture. More and more bards began to stand out, such as Yulij Kim. He is interesting in the fact that there is nothing truly great about him and his work and yet he is considered one of the greats — this I think is mainly due to the hype built up by Okduzhava. Kim, who was of Vietnamese descent, began writing poetry and singing to it in college, and then when in Moscow somehow got involved in the circles of Okudzhava and they both became very good friends. Since Okudzhava was not the type of person to talk bad about his friends he never mentioned that Kim’s songs were childish compared to those of Vysotsky and the other figures as Gorodnitsky and Vizbor — instead he always said he enjoyed Kim immensely. Kim represented a more pop version of the bards — his songs did not deal with the important issues of the day, such as Okudzhava’s or Vysotsky, they did not even investigate the mysteries and beauties of nature and adventure as Gorodnitsky and Vizbor did – they were simple, and almost idiotic. Along with Kim there appeared a husband and wife team — the Nikitiny. They mainly wrote the music to the poems of the bards and performed on stage — they were, and still are, a major success — Sergei Nikitin and his wife had two perfect voices — the male was young but not professional, and the female was feminine but also not a professional singer — and that was their appeal. They have some very nice pieces but the majority of them would be considered mindless and idiotic in content and style.

Vysotsky wasn’t the only bard that fell under the harshness of the Soviet regime. There was also Alexander Galich, who is of great importance in the movement of freedom in the Soviet Union. Born in 1918, Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine) with his Jewish name Ginsberg. He lived in Sebestopal until in 1935 he moved to Moscow to study in drama and acting in the University under the name of Stanislavsky. He graduated from the theatrical studio in 1939. He was an actor, a poet, and a writer. During the 40s and the 50s he became successful with writing plays, and as the author of over 20 plays and films in the USSR. His fame was growing by the late forties and by the early fifties; he began writing some very popular songs and was awarded a large number of awards, which even included the Medal of Stalin. His songs where of a very different style then those of Vysotsky and Okudzhava, he didn’t really posses a singing voice — and Vysotsky gruff was perhaps even more musical then Galich’s noteless singing. His songs, however, had a deep philosophical leaning, and this was immediately evident to the intellectual population of Moscow. His unorthodox form of poetry was what made the people of the sixties see their reflection in his ideals. Gerald Stanton Smith, perhaps the only Western writer to ever truly write about the bard movement, wrote a in the introduction of his beautiful book Alexander Galich: Songs and Poems: Galich’s songs of the 1960s put before us a catalogue of disaster, failure, and guilt, in which there are no positive characters and nothing left of any ideals. The one note of consolation is an appeal to the effectiveness of dissent (however belated), and the immortality of the poetic word. The ultimate statement of this faith is “We’re no Worse than Horace” This complex song, working on several planes at once in Galich’s customary way, contrasts two kinds of dissent; on the one hand, there is seeming dissent which is part of the privileged, in group life, “making V-signs in your pockets.” But there are also genuine dissenters, whose activity is low-level and undemonstrative, but effective, despite its minuscule scale:

There’s no hall, no red-plush auditorium,
And no swooning claque to clap uproariously;
Just an ordinary tape-recorder, but
It’s sufficient, there’s no need for more than that.

It was the statement and others like it that made Galich a principal artistic spokesman for the heroic Soviet dissidents of the 1960s and his work the most concrete expression of their views. The faith that motivated them all was that something actually could be achieved through resistance and truth-telling, however humble and insignificant the means might seem when compared with the mighty state apparatus against which they were ranged. (pp.30-31)
If it was not for a 1968 winter concert in front of two thousand people then he would probably have never been remembered that greatly. He performed a song of his called “In Memory of Boris Pasternak”, it criticized the Soviet regime and its treatment of the great Russian poet. The authorities held out for a while, but finally in 1971 he was kicked out of the Union of Writers, and later from the Union of Cinematographers. In 1974, he was given 24 hours to leave the Soviet Union — and never return.

. . . Here I sit, a poor pe
Chuckle, rumble, chortle, roar . . .
And the next-door state informer
Hides his tape deck in its drawer . . .
(Translation by G. S. Smith)

He lived for a year in Oslo, where he made a record (
(“Screaming in Whispers”). In 1975 he worked at a radio-station called “Freedom” in Munich, and in 1976 he ended up in Paris. There he made a movie, Runaways of the 20th Century and worked as an editor of a newspaper. Through 1977 he worked hard in Paris, trying to write a novel, and broadcasting on Radio Liberty his “Galich reads the Soviet newspapers in Paris.” In late 1977 he went to Italy several times, performing in Rome, and finally his final performance was in 1977 in Venice. He had performed all over Western Europe by now and in the USA.

On December 15 1977, he came home to Paris flat and tried turning on his new radio receiver. Something went wrong with the wires, he was electrocuted and died. He was 59 years old. A week later his book When I Return (Paris, 1977) was published. The very last poem in the collection reads:

Afterword to When I Return

That’s all!
Sergei Eisenstein used to tell his pupils that they should shoot every single frame of their films as if it was the last frame they’d ever shot in their lives. I don’t know how appropriate this commandment is for the filmmaker’s art, but for poetry it’s a law.
Every single poem, every line, and even more every book is the last one.
It follows that this is my last book.
Although at the bottom of my heart I hope all the same that I’ll manage to write something more.

Paris, 10 April 1977
(G. S. Smith translation)

Galich’s death was in no comparison to Vysotsky. The loss to the world of Russian poetry, also, not that significant. Today he is remembered a vital character in the bard genre, but always an outsider — the dissident who finished his life beyond the borders of Russia. His influence is not that great, I feel, for his works are not melodic and the whole basis is satire and a morbid kind of philosophy.

In 1971 a young girl began writing her own songs. She was 15 years old. Her guitar was young and so were her poems. Three years later, her friends knew her as an 18-year-old poetess with a guitar, a miniature bard. On the way to a birthday party, she got off at a Moscow metro to write a song and give it as a present for her friend. She did not know that 25 years later she would be singing that song to thousands of people.

Veronika Dolina was born in Moscow in on January 2 1956. Not much is known about her biography, except that she finished the university in Moscow in 1978, and taught French. She appeared on the stage in the early seventies and was immediately hailed as one of the first members of the post-okudzhava bard movement. Her voice was young and feminine; her poetry was individual and fresh. Her guitar accompaniment was nothing special, it followed the style of Okudzhava, but there was something different in her style. In a 1984 interview with Okudzhava in the Leningrad House of Writers Okudzhava said: “Veronika Dolina is a young talented poet who sings some of her poems to guitar accompaniment. I wrote some encouraging words about her in your Leningrad magazine Avrora. And I don’t believe I was mistaken. She takes her work very seriously. She’s not over preoccupied with her own popularity, and she’s often dissatisfied with her work. That’s a good sign. The future will show us how talented she is.”

These were good things to hear from the most loved bard in the nation. And quickly Dolina rose to fame. The articles that were published on her, and still are published, are strange and lack any serious literary criticism or biographical information about her life. What is known is that she remained and remains one of the most influential bards of the era. Becoming close friends with the “Garden Circle”. Some of her most famous poem songs are “Formula”, “House of Chaikovsky in Klima”, “Flying Woman”, “Candle”, and “Don’t Let a Poet Go To Paris”.

I don’t fear tragedy or restlessness,
Not a long boring winter day,
But I was just visited by something
That in all seriousness troubled me.
I awoke from this kind of scream
But the family was breathing in peace.
“Veronika!” They scream “Veronika!”
I am your final song.

“What do you want?” I quietly asked,
“See my husbands asleep, so’s my child.
And I am tired from work.
Just tell me who you are, and don’t joke.
But no patch of light, and no bright face.
And around me total darkness.
“Veronika!” They scream “Veronika!”
I am your final song.

Why you circle in your own night?
Are you a judge over me?
I have remained who I am,
Can’t you hear me, my stupid song?
I’m hunched a little from heaviness,
But I don’t search for a different life.
Oh my wild muse,
I loved you, and I still love you!

And nothing appeared from the gloom.
And I walked towards the light of the window.
But in the darkness the dog started barking
I was bothering a dogs dream.
And perfection seeped into me
And lightly patted my shoulder.
“Veronika!” in whispers “Veronika!”
I will visit you again . . .


As Vysotsky, Okudzhava, Gorodnitsky, Vizbor, Yakusheva, and Kim fascinated the youths with their poetry and song, a certain poet appeared who distinguished himself greatly from the rest of the bards. His name was Alexander Dolsky. Born in Sverdlovsk in 1938 he brought a certain twist to the bard movement; he was, I think, truly a phenomenon that Russia was not yet ready to deal with. There was something international about him — something immensely Russian and non-Russian. Coming from a long line of intellectually noble families, his grandfather was a popular artist who sketched such figures as Nicholas II, and the opera singer Shalyapin. His father dazzled the Sverdlovsk opera scene in the 50s, and his mother was a magnificent ballerina. In an interview he discussed his inspiration and his first poetic attempts: “I began writing poetry very long ago, of course I didn’t know back then that I was able to sing them. At the age of 10 I first read Esenin and suddenly started composing melodies to his poems. This was amazing, and I was not only singing Esenin, but also Pushkin and Blok, and what seemed incorrect to me I changed. What I didn’t understand I made understandable — I didn’t yet know about authors rights. I took these poets in like air, like water, like the forest, which always existed, which was ours, which was dear to us. If I want to sing this then I will change it to what I want and Lermontov will hear this and say, “O wonderful kid! You truly changed it magnificently!” I thought that Lermontov and Esenin would not be upset. Now imagine this: I’m ten years old and in the house we lived in there was a courtyard filled with black coal — we used to play in it. And so I return home, all dirty from the coal, what kind of a face I had you can only imagine!, I would take the guitar and start singing:

Oh what a night — I can’t go on
I cannot sleep there’s such moonlight,
Within the soul as if on an island
A youth wasted long ago

Starting to play guitar at a young age gave him a much better skill — today he is considered a virtuoso, his guitar moves beautifully from classical to jazz to blues to flamenco. It is truly un-Russian, for non of the bards played jazz or blues — and Dolsky, with the exception of Mirazyan (another bard), is perhaps the only Russian bard who ever created a whole cycle of songs based on jazz, blues, and American music. His story of jazz is interesting: “It all started in Lower Tagil [a small northern Russian town, near the Urals, primarily known for its major steel factories]. There was a small jazz orchestra near the city park, they were good solid musicians, who were in Nazi camps during the war. The officials wouldn’t allow us to play in the capital, and so they lived in small little cities like this. A few of these fellows were drug addicts — but these were wise people and d
id their drugs privately. Only a few young people got mixed up and lost their lives. But later when I was a student they invited me to join their orchestra. Simon Konom, a great jazz pianist, was asking me to play guitar in his band — but I couldn’t just drop my university. There were two major sides pulling at me: one was artistic and the other conservative. The conservative side was telling me that I must go to the university and obtain a solid profession, and that is why I performed only on vacations and after I got out of school.” However, jazz didn’t offer much money in the Soviet Union and so Dolsky had to work in restaurants among other things to earn a living. In the 1950s he was the first laureate after the war to get a prize in the art of performing guitar on stage. In 1963 he graduated from the University in the name of S. M. Kirov with a degree in economic-engineering and guitar. He quickly joined the flood of youths writing and singing their poetry to the rest of the world. There is something in Dolsky’s poetry which seems innocent — something timeless and pure. His style is very intellectual in that he writes about all that fascinates him — jazz, poetry, art, music, life, family, skies, travel, rains, sorrow, happiness. His most popular song is “A Star on My Palm”, and it has also entered the national song genre even though it is somewhat different in its style from the traditional national song:

A star fell upon my palm
I asked her, “where are you from?”
“Let me rest for just a little
I flew down from such a height!”

And then, glistening, she added,
I swear I heard a bell begin to ring:
“Don’t look at the fact that I am small
I am able to do so many things

It is only necessary for you to remember
The most important things for you on earth . . .
I can make any wish come true
This is what I do.”

I know what is necessary
I don’t need a long time to decide
I wish to love and to be loved,
I wish that my mother wont be sick,

So that on this grieving planet
Only stars would fell out from the skies,
Everyone was as innocent as children,
And all loved rains, woods, and flowers

So, like long ago, they hacked the grass,
Everyday we flew up to the Moon
Carried women on our arms,
And there would be no disease or war

So that friendship wouldn’t be a hardship,
So that trust wouldn’t be a burden . . .
So that old age very lightly
Fell with wisdom on my heart

So that round a fire seeped in smoke
Quietly this song people would sing . . .
And I also wish to be loved and also love,
And that my mother won’t be sick.

I talked long but in vain,
I talked long, I talked very long . . .
Without answering me the star faded,
She didn’t have enough of strength.

When Dolsky toured America in the summer 2000 he performed in all the major cities, at one of the concerts at which I was present Dolsky confessed that he wrote this song at the age of sixteen and it gave him immense pleasure that people still come up to him to say how much this song means to them. It isn’t difficult to believe him, his talent is immense, and such a talent begins at an early age.

Unfortunately by many he has been tagged as an “intellectual” bard, whose songs only some can understand — but that would be a lie, because his songs are deep but there is nothing intellectually one-sided about them. They are as pure and international as real poetry can get. What is strange about Dolsky is that he has never been accepted by the bards themselves (the tight circle of Okudzhava, Vystosky, Kim, etc) as a true bard. In an 1984 interview in the Leningrad House of Writers Okudzhava was asked what he thought of Dolsky’s work to which Okudzhava replied, “As far as Dolsky is concerned, I have a very high opinion of him as a man, but as an artist . . . For the time being I can’t say anything really serious about his work because, in my opinion, he hasn’t proven himself as a literary phenomenon yet. Let’s hope Anything can happen. He’s a young man, therefore with diligence, effort, and desire, of course . . .” This statement seems strange to a scholar of the Russian bard movement, for by 1984 Dolsky had composed some of the greatest poems in the last half of the twentieth century in the bard genre. Such songs as “Wish”, and “An Amazing Waltz”. Perhaps the only thing one might come up with is that there seemed to be a strange jealously towards Dolsky, for his mastery of the Russian language, for his virtuosity of the guitar, and his soft, young, mellow voice which pronounced poetry clearly and with deep emotion. I am not the only one who notices and places Dolsky among the great bard-poets of Russia, Vic Marinovsky, a Soviet journalist and writer, was present at the Grushin Festival in 1985, a very famous bard festival held in honor of Valery Grushin: “It was among the most amazing concerts that I’ve had the chance to be present at. When the moon shined like a street-light over the lake, the projectors captured the bridge coming out of the gloom that led to the platform of the performs, made in the shape of a guitar. Its frame was set to the background of two sail boats, colored in many different light bulbs, and on the mast one could see the flag of the singing festival . . . almost till dawn the singers exchanged the stage amongst each other, singers [guitar-poets] from many parts of the country. The last was a blonde-haired bard, with bluest eyes. He came upon the stage right from the thicket , touched the strings and began singing. A soft intimate baritone touched something deep within us. A gentle, pastel melody was flowing freely and willingly. . . . This was in the early 60s during the Grushin Festival. (1985, “Isskustvo”). But the impression of young poets writing in literary magazines didn’t do much for Dolsky’s respect. In 1989 Rima Kazakova, a very famous female Russian poet, published an articled entitled “And To Believe In Good Examples” . . . (a quote from one of Dolsky’s poems) in which she wondered why Dolsky isn’t getting the recognition he deserves. It was 1985 Kazakova and Dolsky had just left the concert of popular comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky: “Me and Sasha [Russian short for Alexander] walked around Moscow at night, and instead of continuing our laughter we walked in a nervous and sad silence. It was incredibly sad for us: we finally understood that we weren’t being made to laugh, we weren’t amused, instead we were listening to the truth of our time, about ourselves, about us. I remembered this story not by accident. The lyrical, pastoral, Dolsky, the glory of our bards, singing beautifully, speaking peacefully, with the intellectuality and understanding of Petersburg, – he also possess the tight string of a nervous feeling, with the deep hardship of life which he has lived through, translated into the pure happiness of existence.” Kazakova goes on to evaluate some of his poetry, demonstrating their power and individuality. For example a very famous philosophical piece: “Farewell Twentieth Century”:

. . . . And Atlantians would vanish,
and dynasties, and gods . . .
It’s impossible through science
to understand the goal of time . . .
The age group of our century
fell tightly in two epochs:
Forever he’s eighteen
and for a century forty-five.

Farewell twentieth century,
horrible and beautiful,
Farewell twentieth step
into an uncountable height.
Farewell twentieth century,
great and disgusting,
Glimmering above earth
in blood and poverty.

We hurried and flew off
towards unknown reaches,
And fearlessly we ventured
into emptiness and time.
All that we could learn we learned,
and what we couldn’t, we theorized,
Only our hearts, – we couldn’t understand.

The twentieth century will pass us,
a third thousand w
ill follow,
And in love and disappointments
the years will flow again . . .
An old book will be read,
from century to century re-read . . .
Our youth in our century stays forever.


But whatever the “fathers of the bard generation” said of Dolsky, it did not stop him from gaining a greater and more profound reputation as both musician and poet.

Dolsky wasn’t of course the only great bard that wasn’t part of the non-mainstream mainstream bard movement. There were hundreds of poets all over Russia, primarily in the outskirts of the big cities, who with their guitars and notebooks of poems, ventured into the mountains to perform among their friends. Dolsky represented the movements evolution into a greater era, and the “fathers” failed to realize that.

Continued in Part 3

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!