The Soviet Underground and the Bard Generation

An underground movement called the Bard or Guitar-Poetry movement started in the late fifties and became big in Russia in the early sixties. The people that came out of this movement have changed the idea of Russian poetry, song, and style. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, internationally recognized as a great Russian poet, wrote of Bulat Okudzhava, “popularity came to him when he picked up his guitar and started singing a very simple, and very melodic music to his poems.” Soon everyone across the USSR was singing them, students and workers in the communes, and his unofficially published records were circulating in thousands of illegal copies on tapes. Okudzhava, the father of a very immense movement of bards in the USSR, out of which came out such amazing poets as A. Galich, and V. Vysotsky.

I have attempted to explain the complex history of this movement, which later turned into more of a lifestyle. It represented freedom and beauty, and a strive towards something higher and more sensational. With all its endless history, which if needed to could be probably traced back to pre-revolutionary Russia with Alexander Vertinsky performing his songs like “The Cocaine Girl”. But its true origin is in the years after the war. The bright and twisted fifties of the Soviet Union, when the youths entered the universities seeking more then answers to their homework problems. They lived with the horrible memory of the Great War, and perhaps the idea of a world annihilated by the bomb. They lived in a century possessed by tyrants and madman; their only escape was the land of beauty — a land of imagination and creativity. And that was this land of music and poetry. They gathered in cafes to talk till dawn, hiked to the top of mountains, fled from the army, fled from the police, and fled from the country. They were an intellectual youth with a soul of a gypsy, a soul of a beatnik perhaps. Like I have stated, this is merely a small attempt at trying to relate to the public the immensely complex yet interesting, puzzling, and mysterious life of these bards — some great, some not. Still whatever it was it was a phenomenon, which came and went unnoticed in the West. The poets of the Soviet Union such as Pasternak, Akhmatova, Voznesensky and Yevtushenko were hailed all over, but ignored were the underground poets, the true poets of the Soviet Union – the people of Russia held these poets closer to their hearts then Vozenesnky, Pasternak, or Yevtushenko could ever come. It should be noted that they used to refer to themselves, the “bards” of Moscow as the Garden Circle.

This was a time in an empire that will rarely repeat again in history. It was unique, huge, and in the end became immensely popular. Today in Russia, and the former Soviet Union, countless studies are devoted to this phenomenon. Some of its greatest characters are still alive, still publishing and performing. This, I think, will one day surely be of great importance to the scholars and readers of Russian literature, and a valuable part of the sixties youth movement of the twentieth century.

Note on the Translation

It is incredibly difficult to translate Russian poetry. I have presented translations by various people (it is noted who the translators are), but most of the poems were translated by me. In translating bard poems I did not attempt to fully translate word for word for it would destroy the meaning and image of the poem — instead I took the literal translation and changed it so it would have an effect somewhat close to the original Russian version. This, I thought, would make it easier to read and understand.

Neglected Youth

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

-Bulat Okudzhava

When the Second World War ended the Soviet Union was in a state of destruction. Millions of its citizens had perished during the Stalinist purge that started in 1933, (today’s estimate of the purge is 50,000,000 people), and about 20 million soldiers in the World War. There was not one family not touched by the war or the purge. Cities were destroyed to extermination, villages burned to the ground, thousands of orphans, unemployed, homeless.

The Soviet soldiers witnessed perhaps the most atrocious battles in the history of war. Many of the soldiers who went of to war were still young kids in their teens, many good poets whom if not for the war could have contributed greatly to the world of Russian poetry or even world literature. When the war first started in 1939, the young poet Boris Smolensky wrote the following lines while in a quite moment near the battlefield:

Today I will spend the whole night
Choking in the dim fog of tobacco,
Tormented by thoughts of some people
Who died very young
Who either at dawn or at night
Unexpectedly and unknowingly
Died . . . not even finishing their crooked lines of
Didn’t finish loving,
Didn’t finish saying,
Didn’t finish . . .

Boris was killed in the war two years later at the age of 20.

This was the kind of world that the intellectual youth which became the Soviet Unions underground movement of literature in the sixties witnessed with their childish eyes.

They were born in the late twenties and thirties. Their fathers were workers, soldiers, teachers, and writers. Their fathers most definitely fought, and many didn’t return. Their mothers raised them in the apartment buildings of the Stalinist age in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and the outskirts of big cities in villages still suffering from the torment of hunger.

Every morning they woke up to the sound of their mother’s voice, with despair and misery. Outside people would fall dead in the snow because there was no food. In the distance they heard the echoes of the Luftwaffe. They knew that their fathers were out there; their brothers, their cousins, their uncles. It was a Holy War. A war that a generation eating crumbs in the bomb shelter would never forget. A poet who came out of this generation, Alexander Dolsky, was born in 1938 in Sverdlovsk. Dolsky has a strange history for he was actually a descendant of the Russian monarchy, and now was a regular Soviet youth. Years later he wrote several unbelievably moving songs dedicated to the war. No one like him expressed the childhood lifestyle of these youths as he did in “Neglected Youth”:

What disappointments and what grief
Our dull lives gave us
Raised in the harsh games of street punks
Inherited our fathers harshness

Hunger displaced us into mad groups
Of wise and angry youths,
We walked the markets and the bars
Stealing cigarettes and cucumbers

All the men left walking deadly roads,
And all of their sins were forgiven by the Holy War.
And the punks as they passed
Threw their spare change
To poor little women and miserable men.

. . . You young people,
living in warmth, becoming smarter every minute,
you passed behind us by a whole class
a class of war, and thank God!

. . . . faraway years, worrisome years . .
ran from the rear towards war these young kids.
Our homeless freedom passed us by quickly.
Four yours . . . No four centuries of war.

Dolsky goes on to add that this childhood, however miserable, was worth it. It offered them a taste of life as never lasting, momentary, and at an early age they understood. It was easy for them to grow up after such a childhood. Their maturity developed quickly, in those “four centuries of war”. Another poem entitled “Fathers and Sons” starts off:

When you marched on to the West
Under the twisted heat near Rovno,
With blood your boots were drenched,
And thirst would burn your throat,
I used to draw dead Nazis,
Many of them, and in detail.

. . . And when with a heavy boot
in a concentration camp near Prague
they tried to teach you
how to cry like a street mutt,
I, from some stupid reason
was inconsolably crying
that I even disturbed
my sorrowful mother.

Such was the raw youth during the war. They were raised on the streets, without fathers. Their dreams were filled with visions of their brave soldiers conquering the Tutonic invasion, and coming home to them. But in the mean time they would run through the dirty bars, hungry like dogs, stealing what they could to survive.

Alexander Gorodnitsky, a poet of St. Petersburg (Leningrad), who was still a small kid during the blockade of Leningrad, a 900-day Nazi assault on the city, wrote about the children of Leningrad today:

They don’t need to fear
the destruction at night.
Collecting small crumbs,
they won’t need to.
In their whole different era
it will pass them all by
the horrible word:

(Children of Leningrad Are Sketching a War, A. Gorodnitsky, Moscow, 2001).

Another famous poet of the bard generation, Yuri Vizbor, called himself and his childhood friends as “youth that arrived a little late for the war.” A war that would pass them by only by a few years, and a war that would come back to hunt them for the rest of their lives.

But it was more then just the horrid experience of a childhood at war. Take Nikki Giovanni’s Nikki-Roma (1968) and translate that into Russian war and post-war childhood. It was also growing up poor; it was growing up in a system where people vanished forever; in a land where repression reigned supreme, especially moral and sexual; as a Soviet citizen you could not leave the Union, there were no other lands. You were taught from your youth that the Soviet Union was

the fairest land in all the world
where men can breathe freely

(Soviet folk song)

And so as prisoners in a dungeon – forbidden to breathe the air of freedom – they grew up, secretly thinking that one day they will break free, one day they will leave all this behind.

They grew up with colorful eyes believing that if they all worked together, if they joined hands, stood up, and proclaimed their existence that something will change, that something will be better. They had little to lose and much to gain. They knew that a world existed out there – with all its beauty and misery, rains and mists, sorrows and kindness – they wanted to see this world and experience it, become one with their world. This, they felt, they owed to their fallen sisters and brothers in the war. The war remained as something dear and personal, not to be played with – its grief and sadness was unforgettable. Boris Almazov, a bard/poet born in 1944 Leningrad wrote about a young boy playing with a gun:

That foolish little boy was happy
In his foolish five years of age;
And from the pubs the disabled ex-soldiers
Sadly watched him go by.

(Gerald Stanton Smith, Songs to Seven Strings, 1984)

Foolish. Foolish war. Foolish guns. Foolish tyrants. War and any interest in it was gone from the minds of these children. They had seen to much to play war. Ahead they thought was a world destined to destruction. America was their number one enemy – and America had the bomb.

Continued in Part 2

(c) 2002 Robert Young

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What we're up to ...

Litkicks is 26 years old! This website has been on a long and wonderful journey since 1994. We’re relaunching the whole site on a new platform in June 2021, and will have more updates soon. We’ve also been busy producing a couple of podcasts – please check them out.

World BEYOND War: A New Podcast
Lost Music: Exploring Literary Opera

Explore related articles ...