Soviet Underground – Part 3


I’ll sit down on a very white horse
During a yellow-green sunset in Fall . . .
Quietly touch on the new fallen snow,
Write to me in West, I’ll be happier there.

Slowly I’ll ride through the Ural mountains,
Gallop through the Volga,
Splash through the Don.
I’ll gallop through Poland,
Gravely and sternly.
I’ll turn to the South
Where they painted Madonnas.

Like a brave hidalgo in a mindless joy
I’ll whistle on top of a windmill in La Mancha.
In Marseilles the hotels will gleam with carousels.
In Germany I’ll weep to the songs of the gypsies.

I’ll see a tower, and very sharp roofs,
I’ll remember a quite ancient chanson.
And I’ll ride slowly on the left side of Paris,
Let the Parisians watch their morning dream.

. . . And the horse will get tired of all of this rhythm,
I’ll fall on my back in a forest of pine . . . .
And start looking up at the heavens like Whitman,
I’ll carry his cosmos away with me.

Through the blinding colors of Los Angeles,
Through the Hollywood yellow from golden stars.
I’m galloping there,
To the openness of Alaska,
And in fear the bison
Run like small rabbits away . . .

– Alexander Dolsky,
Around the World Adventure

Exhaustive as the list seems, by the 1980s there was a true movement with a true foundation. It had started in the fifties as a student movement in the cities, the kitchens, and the universities. Now it was a mass movement, it had left its mark on the youth and become a part of the national spirit, the national language, a part of nature itself, and as naturally Russian as possible.

The death of Vysotsky had a tremendously devastating effect on the whole movement. It had seemed that the system, the government, which had wanted to destroy this close group of writers had finally struck them in their most sacred place. the heart of their movement: Vysotsky. However famous the bards got, the 80s were perhaps the slowest and hardest time for the bards. It was a time when Dolsky looked at the future and saw absolutely nothing, not the slightest hope of ever being published or recognized as a poet; Okudzhava had almost stopped writing and performing. Kim remembered Okudzhava saying, I’m dying. I’m stagnating and dying.

Alexander Bashlachev wrote

Today doesn’t change anything.
We’re balding real quickly.
And drinking real slowly.
Today on the street it horribly stenches,
Reeks from somewhere something that’s rotting.

We’ll take off our pants, but remain in our hats,
Turn off the lights, but put out the fire.
On the street there’s a harsh stifling scent.
Tell me where is this stench coming from?

It seems, to me, that somewhere a big egg has went rotten . . . .

Of what we can imagine is completely absurd,
And yet we allowed each other to dream.
We waited for the appearance of a magical bird,
Which was able to fly fast and beautifully.

It seemed, that a fantasy was becoming the past,
And the rest was funny and old,
That the bird would unfold its glorious wings,
And drop one of its feathers perhaps.

The whole world would be amazed by this birdly marvel,
The whole world in awe would lift up its face. . .
And now this stench is almost everywhere now,
No . . . this stench is definitely everywhere.
It seems that somewhere a giant egg has gone rotten.

Bashlachev was born on the 27 of May in 1960 in Chernopovts. He lived for most of his life there, except for the last two years of his life which were spent in Moscow, Sverdlovsk, and Saint Petersburg. He was known as SashBash, and his story is short and amazing.

He is considered a bard by the scholars and experts, but his independence was beyond those of the bards. Growing up in Chernopovts he fell in love with the works of Vysotsky and others. Poetry fascinated him as well. From 1978 to 1983 he attended a university to become a journalist in Sverdlovsk. He visited Chernopovts frequently and wrote lyrics for the rock band Rock-September. One time during a party at one of his friends apartments he met with a young man, Artem Troitsky, with whom he shared his poetry. Artem invited him to come to Moscow. From 1984 he began an almost countless amount of home-concerts in Moscow, Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and Sverdlovsk. Home-concerts were simply concerts given in the homes of his friends, to which many youths attended — it was less space then a concert-hall with less censorship.

(Alexander Bashlachev with his guitar in the 1980s)

Sashbash was probably the first Russian who tied the painful nerve of rock with Russian poetry, the first who understood rock’s meaning and temperament and its natural association with the painfully sad poetry that rang from his generation. His fascination with the “word” and the art of breathing allowed his talent to expand beyond the bounds created by the bards of what a song/poem should be. His poetry has a true originality and youthful indifference shown usually in the poets that represent Russia’s youth. However, I don’t think that Sashbash wanted to stand for anything and represent anyone — he was an individual, whose dangerous experiments with words, music, and life led to damaging his psychological state. From 1984 onwards he suffered from great depression and in 1988 he committed suicide. Andrei Burlaka, for the Musical Gazette wrote of him, “He left just like he sang, impetuously and irrevocably.”

His poem “Today Doesn’t Change Anything”, captured the mood of the 80s, it was a time after Brezhnev’s death when people realized that there could not be a Soviet Union anymore. Times were changing, the world was changing, the only way out was some other way. and not through the old Communist Party regime. In 1988 Yevtushenko wrote

We Can’t Go On

When the country almost went off the rails,
We brabbed her wheels with our teeth,
And understood,
As we tried to apply the brakes:
We can’t go on this way!
How did he make his way to power
through party cells,
through the whole cadre network
their cadre
not some other?!
We can’t go on this way!
– was the guide
gnawing at his whole conscience.
There is a peak to the shame of moral venality.
Icons cannot be hung in a bordello.
Was able to on only,
With a huge
We can’t go on this way!

(Albert C. Todd translation)

Hope was being lost. Artistically it was not a time to be worried, there were greater problems — there was no food in the stores, people began losing their jobs, anger towards the government that had pressed them for so long was building nervously in the new generation, the generation whose fathers marched to the battlefields. It was time for them to fight for their freedom, much like their fathers and grand-fathers had for their future, for themselves as human beings. Vladimir Frumkin, the author and translator of the Okudzhava’s song in the West wrote:

“The new quality in Okudzhava’s poetry of the 80s can also be sensed in its overall tone — the colors became darker, and in the poet’s typical soft sadness the light hues became fewer. His humor became more bitter, his irony more caustic, his emotional contrasts more sharp:

Smiles and embraces are flouring there outside nothing but sadness and loss can be found in my cave.

. . . Hope. Until recently, this word used to be one of the most important words in the poetic world of Bulat Okudzhava. In the reader’s consciousness it was associated with the indisputable good and the few things that help one to endure and go on living. “Don’t aband
on hope, maestro”, the poet either implored or evoked, addressing Mozart himself, and his generation.

The word “hope” almost disappeared from Okudzhava’s poetry of the 1980s. In addition, in one the poems it turned out that our hopes were not, in fact, our own. They, as well as everything in us and around us- our fates, souls, and motherland “were formed by the unkind hands of the omnipresent Kremlin mustached one”:

For many days he works without end
Creating me, my hopes and my friends,
Our motherland . . . and we stand ready.

What can I say? Thus I stood ready too.
. . . My evil age has almost burned me through.

It was easy to see that the Soviet world was living a made-up lie — lies everywhere, lies about the history, culture, news, etc. Who was creating the future? Who was creating the past? Lies stunk up the system — lies where the rotten egg. Even the optimist Dolsky, whose poetry and songs were always in the glow of peace and gentleness, sounded darker and evoked a sense of warning:

For a long time I listened attentively,
And from lies I’m barely alive.
A deadly dangerous falsity
Has accumulated
And sometimes the liars scream out
“Happily lie!”
Try to say something true
and they shut you up.

Parents lie to their children.
Children lie to their parents.
Husbands to their wives,
and a friend will easily swindle
his friend.

. . . Big falsehood and small, hungry and horrible,
private and social all do a great deal of work.
And they settle down in our homes,
Where a one-sided truth lives,
And like the elements of comfort
They create a family-like coziness.

But to that small number, that extremely low number,
Who wish to unravel the truth?
Are considered insane in the end . . . .

The politics of the country were beginning to be mixed up with one another. Grigori Medvedev, author of No Breathing Room, wrote in his introduction: “This was an era of superficial greatness for the Soviet Union”. Its economy was aptly described by a Western scholar as that of a first-world military power with a third-world economy. A highly centralized state, the Soviet Union could dispatch unmanned capsules into space yet, since the Khrushchev period, had been unable to harness its vast resources to feed its own people or to provide them with basic goods. . . . .There was, of course, some opposition to this state of affairs. It consisted of what Georgii Arbatov once referred to as a few hundred troublemakers who refused to participate in the Soviet system. Dissidents. In almost all cases, it was alleged, such troublemakers were operating at the behest of foreign powers. As long as they did not break the law, they were left alone. However, most of them were being encouraged by Western news agencies and soon took actions that contravened the criminal code. How else could the KGB react but by taking action to protect innocent citizens from these recalcitrants? Many of the dissidents were declared to be insane. They opposed the party, which represented the Soviet people, and were thus clearly unbalanced. Former war heroes among them General Petro Grigorenko, were dispatched to insane asylums. The fact that these dissidents embraced a wide spectrum of Soviet society was studiously ignored. There were Marxist-Leninists (Roy Medvedev, Petro Grigorenko), Ukrainians (Vyacheslav Chornovil), Jews (Anatolii Schransky), Russians (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), writers (Aleksandr Tvardovsky), and prominent scientists (Andrei Sakharov). People whose names would become household words in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union were regarded as parasites under the Brezhnev regime.

In 1983, Okudzhava explained his reasons for not writing, “I stopped writing poetry for a long time because somehow I couldn’t. I couldn’t produce anything. Of course, I do not mean this literally because, after all, I am a professional and I could have written five poems a day. Bad poems. But why? In my soul, I regretted my inability to write good poetry and — although I worked intensely on my novels — I felt a need to write poetry. Finally, last year something inside of me awoke and poems began to materialize again. This made me very happy because when I complete a poem I take my guitar and, although I don’t play it very well (in my life I have only learned five chords), I make up a melody. That’s how a song appears. These past few years, I’ve often picked up the guitar but nothing came to me — nothing, just nothing. Well maybe now it will be easier.”

Even though it was a stagnating time Okudzhava had four big records produced and distributed in the U.S.S.R. by the largest record company Melodia. One in 1981, simply titled “Songs by Bulat Okudzhava”, another in 1985, “Songs and Poems About the War”, performed by Bulat Okudzhava. Finally, in 1986 a completely new record with completely new songs called simply “New Songs”. This 1986 recording included Okudzhava singing with the accompaniment of his guitar and a violin, the tracks sounded beautifully and sadly. Two of the songs on that record were dedicated to Vladimir Vysotsky.

In the late 80s Vysotsky’s image began to reappear and people finally understood what a phenomena this was. Melodia began to produce a large series of records called, “At the Concerts of Vladimir Vysotsky” which were the recordings made at many of his concerts from the 1960s to the 1980s.

In the 1980s many records came out by the bards, produced nicely by Melodia. Egorov had a record, Dolina, Gorodnitsky, the bards overall had a collection that was very rich. Although Vysotsky was still highly preffered by the youths, many people began paying closer attention to the Nikitiny, a bard/singer Aleksandr Berkovsky, and the bard Aleksandr Rozenbaum.

Rozenbaum was born in September 1951 in Leningrad, Stalin still had two years of power. He attended a musical school, and then graduated from the university of Leningrad and worked for some years as an emergency nurse. While still a little kid living in Leningrad he began playing guitar, immediately got a hold of Vysotsky’s and Okudzhava’s illegal recordings and began playing them to his friends. By the 1980s he had written some of his own songs. In 1981 his first recording came out under the title “Home Concert”, it contained songs of his early writing. His songs were fresh, different from the freshness of Dolsky, Rozenbaums songs had the wave of the new generation, the generation that grew into adulthood in the late sixties and seventies. Throughout the years he came out with over 30 records, with songs that have shaped a new generations understanding of what bard music is. His classic “Boston Waltz” for example:

On a carpet of yellow leafs,
In a simple little dress,
Out of a wind given as a gift of crepe de Chine ,
Autumn danced in the gateway the Boston Waltz.
The warm day would fly away,
And the saxophone quietly played.

And from all walks of life people came to us,
And from all the neighbors roofs birds would fly to us,
The dancer flapped his golden wings . . .
How long ago, how long ago there was music there.

How often I see this dream,
This wonderful dream,
Where autumn is dancing the Boston Waltz.

There leafs fall down,
The players spins the records,
“don’t go way, be with me, my caprice” . . .

In the 80s he became one of the most popular bards, mainly because of his open compassion for the Soviet soldiers entering Afganistan and the Afgans themselves. His belief in the need for all humans to be one, and wars are useless. This is perhaps why he didn’t change his Jewish last name, Rozenbaum, as the Jewish-Russian bard Alexander Ginsberg changed his to Galich. In 1987 Melodia came out with a wonderful record of Rozenbaum’s songs, entitled “Alexander Rozenbaum: My Yards”, on which “The Boston Waltz” wa
s the first song. In the introduction to the record Mikhail Zhvanetsky wrote, “He didn’t hurry to change his last name, cause we’re all the same. Well no, we’re different: Russians, Georgians, Jews. But we live in the same country and with our stories, last names, songs we not only help each other live, but so often help each other survive in this hard life. He is a real man. And if there’s something missing in our land, it’s real men.”

Musically speaking the composition of his songs are not on the highest level, and even Vysotsky, whose melodies lacked musically overall, had some better melodies. His singing style also seems to have taken much from Vysotsky, for many times he performs his songs with a deep gruff yell, which was the style that Vysotsky had developed and was recognized for. Nevertheless his popularity had soared to great heights, and Rozenbaum came into the last few years of the Soviet Union’s existence as perhaps the final true
“bard” of the USSR’s movement.

Conclusion of the Bard Generation

When the USSR crumbled in the early 1990s, life changed completely for the bards. Many minor bards, or friends of bards emigrated — either as Jewish emigrants to Isreal, or illegal aliens to Western nations. Many of the real bards such as Gorodnitsky, Kim, Okudzhava, Dolina and Dolsky remained in Russia.

Okudzhava remained active as a poet/bard in the new Russia. In 1991 he was awarded the Governmental Prize by the USSR. From the 1990s Okudzhava published five books of song and poetry and four of prose. Two CDs came out, one in 1994, and one in 1997. In the 1990s Okudzhava performed several times, but rarely due to severe health. He traveled through Europe and performed in New York City to a large audience. In 1997 in Paris Okudzhava died of heart failure. This was the end of the Bard Generation. 1998 the Russian Federation established the Presidential Prize of Bulat Okudzhava. Alexander Gorodnitsky was the first to be awarded this prize by Boris Yeltsin. Receiving the award Gorodnitsky donated it the following day to the museum of Bulat Okudzhava in Peredelkino. In a 2002 Russian Magazine interview Gorodnitsky recalled: “I told the President [Yeltsin], Boris Nickalaevich, thank you, that this kind of award has become possible. Because of course you know that Galich, Vysotsky, and Okudzhava received nothing but trouble in their life. And because this first prize has been awarded to me I understand that it isn’t for me, but for my face — for those who didn’t live to see this. And he answered me, “Right”.

Gorodnitsky continues to travel extensively, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union he visited every major place on earth, writing about his experiences in poems and publishing them. Several CDs began to come out with the collected works of Gorodnitsky, and he started writing songs for plays and theater productions in both Moscow and Leningrad. Today Gorodnitsky spends his time traveling and writing, and not so much time on expeditions for the lack of money and funds. He still performs quite often, giving tours in Europe and in 2000 and 2002 he gave a tour of America, stopping in New York’s Brighton Beach, Cleveland, Ohio, New Jersey, Chicago, Milwaukee, and cities in California — all American cities with a large Russian population and following. In 2002 he came back to America, he was asked if since his last visit he has created anything new. “Of course there are new songs. I recorded several records, and a new book of my memoirs has just come out. I perform very often in Russia and outside of Russia. Sometimes I am amazed that I still have strength for all this never ending travels, airplanes, countless concerts in different cities and countries. For example only in Germany I gave 28 concerts. But I cannot do it otherwise.”

Kim also traveled widely and spent lots of time in Israel, produced several records and gave many concerts in Europe, Russia, and America. Dolina performed in France, and still performs in Russia, and has performed in Canada. In the spring of 2002 she made a US tour of New York, Illinois, Utah, and California. Many of her CDs have come out, including a French cd, in which she performs some of her best-known songs in French.

Alexander Dolsky, the poet who never fit in among the bards, continues to work, and his popularity has grown. “There was a time in the 80s,” he said at a concert, “when I thought that I would never, never be published.” Today his poetry is being taught in the Russian schools, as well as German, British, and American university. Writers and historians have cited Dolsky in their works. Today the Pushkin Society publishes his books of poetry. He translates from American and French. He paints for a hobby, and has published a book of poetry with his own illustrations. His three sons Petr, Aleksandr, and Pavel, whom he sang about in the late 80s, are growing up and Dolsky among with the rest of the bards is aging and falling deep into Russia’s rich cultural literary history.

There has always been a question circulating among this society, which follows and believes in the ideas of the bards: is the movement dead, has it done all it had to do, or is there just no good talent left? Personally I believe the bard movement is dead or is on the verge of death, much like many literary movements come and go and the remaining few attach themselves to some talented young, and the talented young attach themselves to nobody and the movement dies. As for talent, there will definitely be no one in comparison to Vysotsky, Okudzhava, and Dolsky/ I am speaking only of the sheer power of their musical and poetical performance. Dolina, Gorodnitsky, Kim, Egorov, etc., would not have received fame if it were not for these great artists.

Personally, I think that the movement came out of the repression of the Soviet regime, such songs and poems and ideology can only be born out a state of fear, and a need for freedom. The poetry and song of the bards is still widely sung, is played on the radio every day, in theaters, in films, and all over the world. The style and genre is fading into a much larger form of society — it has ceased to be underground and exclusive, it has entered the mainstream and lost its individuality, its personality of rebellion. The bards rose out of repression, loss, humiliation, stagnation, and stood for only one cause: freedom. As Vysotsky said, “Yesterday they gave me freedom, what am I going to do with it now?”

Give some meat to the dogs
Maybe they’ll fight.
Give the drunks some kvass
Perhaps they’ll fight each other.
So that the crows don’t get fatter
Place a much larger scarecrow.
But so that the lovers love each other
Give them seclusion.
Throw seeds in the earth
Maybe you’ll see some growth.
Fine! I’ll be obedient
But then give me freedom!
They gave pieces of meat to the dogs
But the dogs didn’t fight!
They gave kvass to the drunks
But they refused it.
People scare the crows
But the crows aren’t scared.
People try to unite pairs,
But they would rather be single.
They poured water onto the ground,
But there was no growth — amazing!
Yesterday they gave me freedom
What I am I going to do with it now?

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