(No. 11/2004 - March 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock

Once again, Vitaly Charny has presented a picture of cultural life in Belarus and Russia, this time in the person of a contemporary 20th century popular musical artist, Vladmir Vysotsky. A cultural icon in the Soviet Union, Vysotsky's name derives from Vysotsk, a village of Grodno gubernia near Slonim.

Vitaly tells us that listening to Vysotsky sing was almost a supernatural experience, difficult to describe in words. His use of Russian words and idioms was so perfect that efforts to translate his songs into English result in pale reflections of the original.

We thank Vitaly for his many contributions to our knowledge about noteworthy Jews of Belarus and for his permission to publish the article here.

This article is copyrighted by Vitaly Charny

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Vladimir Vysotsky,

Russian actor, poet and folksinger


by Vitaly Charny

"I'd like to say a few words about these songs of mine. Many years ago, I was with my closest friends. From my various travels I have brought back for them... well, impressions, impressions in verse set to a sort of rhythm. So I took my guitar in hand and began to strum away. And what emerged was something like a song. But it was not a song. It was the way I see it, poetry recited with musical accompaniment. In short, poetry set to rhythm. I remember the atmosphere then. It was the atmosphere of trust and unconstrained freedom, and, what's more important, friendship." V. Vysotsky

Vladimir Vysotsky has no comparison in America. To remotely explain him here, you would have to combine the deep feeling of Bob Dylan with the mass appeal of Elvis Presley, and describe him with a collection of idioms and expressions that are typically used only with reference to some kind of Holy Scriptures. He was more than a Superstar.

If one would select the most significant figure of Russian culture in the 20th century, many would name Vladimir Vysotsky. He wasn't the best actor or singer or songwriter or poet. Yet, he was a genius, a phenomenon in the field of human self-expression and certainly he was the most comprehensive representative of contemporary Russian society. For years Vysotsky was the embodiment of the Russian language, the voice of the Russian people, the living soul and conscience of his time. Through over a thousand of his songs and poems, Vysotsky expressed what each Russian wanted to, but could not, either due to lack of talent or fear of repercussions.

Vysotsky's father came from a Jewish family that originated in the city of Brest-Litovsk, (now Brest, Belarus) where his grandfather was born. His father Semyon Vysotsky served in the military and stories about WWII became the important catalyst for many of Vladimir's songs. His mother was a Russian. The parents got divorced and Vladimir lived with his mother, growing up in tough reality of Moscow's tenements. After graduating high school, he studied engineering for a year, but quit to join the Nemirovich-Danchenko Studio School of the Moscow Art Theatre. Vladimir graduated in 1960 with a diploma of a professional actor. In 1964 he joined the Moscow Theatre of Drama and Comedy on the Taganka, starring in such famous roles as Hamlet. During his lifetime, Vysotsky was also featured in 26 motion pictures. Vysotsky was married three times and had two sons, but the most inspiring and long lasting was his last marriage to a French actress of Russian descent, Marina Vlady.

Vysotsky's great popularity as an actor was greatly exceeded by his popularity as a songwriter. Soviet officialdom permitted few of his songs to be sung on television, or in films or to be recorded. His lyrical fame spread from appearances in clubs, factories, and universities and through the mass distribution of homemade tape recordings and publications ("Samizdat"). The rhyme of Vysotsky's songs is flawless, the rhythm is strong and oftentimes unforgiving, yet the songs come across as a conversation between the singer and his friends. The text is full of idioms and speaks to the listener in a living, spoken language of the Russian people. Due to impeccable structure and catchy phrases, his songs are easy to remember and recite, while serving as a bottomless source of citations for any situation in life.

Admired by people of all ages and from all walks of life, the characters of Vysotsky's songs also came from all sorts of people. He impersonated in songs all characters from delinquent drunks to sophisticated artists and inspired scientists. He wrote about the war with such precise feeling of reality that war veterans couldn't believe that he wasn't one of them. He became an immensely popular figure who is revered by the Russian people even after his death. His songs are the best vocabulary of living Russian language - each line is full of Russian idioms and expressions. Whether or not it was the intent, Vysotsky played a very political role in the Russian pop culture of the time. In his songs, he lashed out against the close-mindedness, stupidity, and ugliness of the system in which he was born, while celebrating friendship and Freedom.

Several of Vysotsky's songs look at the issues of anti-Semitism in Russia, ban on immigration, and job discrimination. However, if his songs were simply a protest to the system, they would likely be sung only at the dissident rallies and left unknown to most people. That is not the case. Vysotsky's songs are much more profound than simply an angry protest - they gave and continue to give people the strength to live, to laugh, to work, and to love. The Bard's poems (as Vysotsky and his style came to be known in Russia) continue to touch millions of hearts all over the world.

Vysotsky died at the age of 42 of a heart attack, brought on, it was said, by his well-known carousing, hard-drinking life-style. He died during the Moscow Olympics, and people abandoned their stadiums and TV sets to participate in a spontaneous memorial service. Though there had been no announcement of his death in the press, within hours everyone in Moscow knew of it, and thousands gathered near the theater, where his legendary guitar was displayed, to recite his poems and honor his memory. In the late 1980s the Soviet government began allowing the publication of his poetry and song lyrics.

It came as no surprise that one of the stamps in the set commemorating the greatest Russian singers, issued by the Russian postal authorities in 1999, was dedicated to Vladimir Vysotsky. Earlier in 1989, a postal envelope was issued with a cachet depicting Vysotsky' s memorial next to Taganka Theater in Moscow and with attached self made overprint of Russian definitive stamps with portrait of Vysotsky.

Copyright 2004 Belarus SIG and Vitaly Charny

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