CHARLIE CONNELLY looks back on the short and troubled life of Vladmimir Vysotsky, dubbed the Soviet Bob Dylan for his tranportive storytelling which captured melancholy Russian soul.
On June 12 this year, Russia Day, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested in Moscow while demanding charges be brought against the police officers who had fabricated drugs offences against the investigative journalist Ivan Golunov. It was symbolic that on a day Russia celebrated the best of itself the protestors had gathered in the centre of their capital around a statue of a man standing with his arms outstretched, palms upwards, his face turned to the sky, a mane of hair tumbling down his back, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder and his mouth open in a defiant cry to the heavens. On Russia’s national holiday, as these peaceful protestors were shoved to the ground and their hands cuffed behind their backs, it was almost as if the statue’s pose was a howl of anguish in response to the events playing out in front of it.
The man honoured by the statue has been dead for nearly 40 years but so potent is his memory that his grave is permanently festooned with fresh flowers and there are similar sculptures to him in parks and squares across the former Soviet Union. During his short, troubled life he seemed almost to take on the accumulated melancholy of the Russian soul itself, making Vladimir Vysotsky a hero in his homeland and quite possibly the most famous Russian you’ve never heard of.
With his gravelly voice accompanied by a finger-picked seven-string Russian folk guitar Vysotsky has often been labelled the Soviet Bob Dylan but there was far more to him than that. He came from a particularly Russian tradition of ballad singers, his pathos-infused compositions telling stories of the dispossessed and disillusioned, soldiers and factory workers, the downtrodden and imprisoned, and if he could be compared to anyone in the Western popular canon it would be a combination of Dylan, Tom Waits and Billy Bragg with a little James Dean and John Belushi thrown in. He wasn’t a protest singer as such, he was a storyteller in music capable of capturing and invoking the lives, hopes and heartbreaks of ordinary Russians, illuminating by implication and insinuation the vagaries of life under an authoritarian regime.
What made him even more exceptional, and what drew him into the hearts of the people in a way that keeps his songs and memory fresh even in the Russia of today, was the combination of the personal demons that led to his early death at the age of 42 and the fact his musical career ran parallel with being one of the Soviet Union’s best-known film and theatre actors (at the time of his death he’d been playing Hamlet on the Moscow stage in a run dating back more than 200 performances over nine years). Although never officially sanctioned by the state it would be an exaggeration to say that Vysotsky was tolerated by officialdom: he was effectively so famous that attempting to prevent him performing would have been a spectacular own goal.
He came to prominence in the late 1960s in a period of cultural flux after the post-Stalinist thaw of Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership and before the further relaxation of state control under Mikhail Gorbachev. During his lifetime, he was never permitted to release his music on the official state record label Melodia, other than one album shortly before his death, and while he received posthumous official releases his work was so successfully bootlegged nationwide that it almost didn’t matter. He also undertook concert tours in the farther reaches of the country, away from the surveillance glare of Moscow, performing in far-flung venues ranging from concert halls to factory canteens to people’s homes.
He worked relentlessly, almost as if he was worried he’d never justify his immense talent. And like many of the most gifted people, he fretted constantly that his potential wasn’t being properly fulfilled. All this contributed to the alcohol addiction he developed in his early twenties that would lead ultimately to his early death.
His talent had manifested itself at an early age. Born in Moscow to a Jewish-Ukrainian colonel in the Red Army and a Russian mother who worked as a German translator he showed precocious talent as a performer and poet: at two he was giving dramatic poetry recitals at family gatherings and at the age of three he would stand outside the bathroom improvising sarcastic couplets about his father’s proficiency at shaving.
His parents divorced after the Second World War and Vladimir lived initially with his father and his new Armenian wife in the Soviet-occupied zone that would become East Germany. Returning to Moscow for his secondary education he took drama classes and in 1954 at the age of 16 was presented with his first guitar. On leaving school he enrolled as a drama student at the Moscow Art Theatre and by the late 1950s was winning supporting roles on the Soviet stage and breaking into films. Frustrated at being overlooked for leading roles, his behaviour in the theatre and on film sets became problematic and his drinking became heavier, resulting in his dismissal from several projects. He was fired from one production apparently for ‘lacking a sense of humour’.
Meanwhile, he’d begun to write songs, ballad-style stories of crime and gangs infused with wry social commentary on an acoustic guitar. When, during a break on a film set in 1963, he made a tape of some of his compositions it was disseminated widely and became a popular underground hit among the Soviet cultural elite; even the renowned poet Anna Akhmatova was heard quoting from the recording. The bootleg album having been circulated as an anonymous piece of work, in 1964 Vysotsky recorded a set of nearly 50 songs and released them himself under his own name, garnering him enough popular acclaim that by 1967 his songs were being written into the films in which he starred.
It was then that the regime began to take notice, one newspaper condemning the “epidemic spread of immoral, smutty songs” that were “glamourising criminal world values, alcoholism, vice and immorality”, while a playwright whose most recent production had included Vysotsky and his songs was told by the Ministry of Culture that he was “providing a platform for anti-Soviet scum”.
Yet Vysotsky was demonstrating that he spoke with the voice of the Russian people in a way the Party never could or would. His songs told stories of criminals and misfits sent to the Gulags while many of his compositions evoked a Second World War that was still a raw, open wound, fresh in the memory of the Soviet people. Indeed, so convincing were his lyrics that people genuinely believed them to be autobiographical, that he was himself a war veteran who had served time in the Gulags.
The turn of the 1970s saw Vysotsky hospitalised for his alcoholism before returning to the theatre in the title role of Hamlet in a Russian translation by Boris Pasternak that defined his stage career. His 1970 marriage to the French actor Marina Vlady meant he spent time abroad, something else that gently tweaked the nose of authority, but with his popularity at an all-time high the Soviet authorities had little choice but to sanction travels that on one occasion saw him perform at a Hollywood party before a clutch of A-list stars and reunite with his old friend, the ballet dancer and defector Mikhail Baryshnikov.
When he was interviewed by Dan Rather on CBS’s 60 Minutes it seemed as if Vysotsky might be about to break through the Iron Curtain to international acclaim, but as the decade progressed his drinking became more problematic and his songs tangibly darker and more introverted. He took to using amphetamines and when the Soviet regime cracked down on drugs ahead of the 1980 Moscow Olympics he found their scarcity hard to handle, leading to an increase in his alcohol consumption.
On July 21, 1980, his health was so bad he was put under medical supervision at his home but died from a heart attack within days. As news of his death spread – despite no official announcement – a crowd of up to 30,000 gathered outside the Taganka Theatre, scene of most of his theatrical triumphs. As the eyes of the world focused on the Olympic Games across the city, to the grieving people of Moscow it felt as if a part of Russia itself was gone. Shortly before his death a visibly moved Vysotsky had shown to a friend a letter he’d received from a woman who lived on a collective farm in Siberia. Everyone had laughed at her, she said, for presuming to write to him but she had felt compelled to pick up her pen. “You understand what our lives are like,” she wrote. “It is work, work, hellish work. And nothing more.”