Russian Bard, Soviet Poet: Inverting A Century Of Tradition

[This article first appeared in the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine. To hear our translated playlist of songs spanning the Russian bard tradition, click here.]

Of all the art-objects I had consumed as a child, only a few made it with me into adulthood. At 4, I was given a tape-player, a pair of headphones, and several cassettes of Soviet music—luxury items, by any metric, in the Belarusian summer of 1991, just as they would be for the kids I’d soon meet in New York. The tapes were of varying quality, often veering into bad pop and propaganda, though even these had a level of craftiness and fun missing from most pop. Sometimes, however, I’d come across an artist or a song I’d (much later) recognize as great. This would usually happen as I sat on a park bench alone with my music and a loaf of keks. Because I was rarely at school or had my time accounted for by anyone, there were opportunities to wander, all on my own schedule. My life of absenteeism—that is, my wish to be in my own little corner, of my own construct—probably arose in this period. In retrospect, it helped that the music I was unwittingly feeding my tape-player so often celebrated a rich inner life. This might surprise Western readers, but the advent of Russian bard music brought forth a level of creative disobedience not seen in decades. The effect of musical agitprop—most obvious via Alexander Alexandrov’s “The Sacred War”—was, on the one hand, something for the state to tap, but on the other, would inevitably find its way into the grip of ordinary people. That guitars and voice lessons were hard to come by proved not only irrelevant, but downright supportive of the new art. If this sounds counterintuitive, a deeper understanding of the Soviet bard tradition can help explain some broader principles of art, so that today’s bards (almost always a posthumous honorific) can be better recognized.

It has often been said that the most dangerous time for an autocracy is the period of reform. It is, arguably, also its most fruitful, for it means that everything which was once curbed begins to prowl for an identity. One can see this in pre-Bolshevik Russia, when new poets—as if pointing to upheaval—began to supplant Russian classics. This was put to an end with the murder of Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva, but decades later, such repression merely pushed Russia into yet another crisis. Labeled the ‘Silver Age poets’ only in the 1960s, the Soviet Union had thus identified its own Golden Age with the previous century: a decidedly regressive, even counter-revolutionary sentiment. Perhaps this was an admission that the USSR had taken more than it had replaced. Or perhaps this was simply a means of getting the scent off of its own day—off of men, mostly, without real musical training, drawing on the lessons of war-era agitprop to agitate for their own, more personal (and impersonal) views.

One of the best Soviet bards, Vladimir Vysotsky (Владимир Высоцкий), also happens to be Russia’s most popular and emblematic. Westerners used to their own brand-names, such as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, might be shocked at how comparatively modern Russian songwriters were and how much ground they were able to cover. Vysotsky pioneered not only rap-like song structures and freewheeling topics, but eschewed the use of choruses and other commercial markers. A professional actor, his songs were theatrical and unsanctioned. Russians had to travel to Moscow to pick up the bootlegs, and although news of his 1980 funeral was suppressed, tens of thousands—maybe more—showed up for several days of mourning. One sometimes thinks of how he must have been perceived by other artists. Several years their junior, he was also one of the first to die, with no clear successor to his exoticism as well as to his accomplishment. Consider, for instance, his earliest composition, 1961’s Татуировка (“Tattoo”). While not in league with his best songs, it nonetheless features many of Vladimir Vysotsky’s writerly hallmarks:

Татуировка

Не делили мы тебя и не ласкали,
А что любили – так это позади.
Я ношу в душе твой светлый образ, Валя,
А Леша выколол твой образ на груди.

И в тот день, когда прощались на вокзале,
Я тебя до гроба помнить обещал,-
Я сказал: – Я не забуду в жизни Вали.
– А я тем более, – мне Леша отвечал.

А теперь реши, кому из нас с ним хуже,
И кому трудней – попробуй разбери:
У него твой профиль выколот снаружи,
А у меня – душа исколота внутри.

И когда мне так уж тошно, хоть на плаху, –
Пусть слова мои тебя не оскорбят, –
Я прошу, чтоб Леша расстегнул рубаху,
И гляжу, гляжу часами на тебя.

Но недавно мой товарищ, друг хороший,
Он беду мою искусством поборол,-
Он скопировал тебя с груди у Леши
И на грудь мою твой профиль наколол.

Знаю я, друзей своих чернить неловко,
Но ты мне ближе и роднее оттого,
Что моя, верней – твоя, татуировка
Много лучше и красивше, чем его.

Tattoo

We didn’t share you, nor caress you,
And how we loved you — that is all behind.
I carry in my soul your bright image, Valya,
And Lyesha gouged your profile into his chest.

And on that day, parting at the station,
I promised to recall you to the grave.
I said: “I will never forget you, Valya,”
“And I, especially,” Lyesha added.

And now decide for whom it’s worse,
More difficult — try and figure it out:
He has your profile pricked on the outside,
While my soul is punctured from within.

And when I feel sick, as if at [my] execution,
(Do not let my words insult you)
I ask Lyesha to unbutton his shirt,
And stare, stare for hours upon you.

But recently my comrade, a good friend,
He fought my plight with art:
He copied you from the chest of Lyesha,
And on my chest tattooed your profile.

I know that to ink your friends is vulgar,
But you are closer and more dear to me because
My — no, more rightly, your — tattoo
Is much better and more beautiful than his.
My — no, more rightly, your — tattoo
Is much better and more beautiful than his.

Soviet bards—and Vladimir Vysotsky, in particular—would often invert the ‘saying goodbye to friends’ genre to plumb some darker themes. Just as Islamic love-poems are often ‘really’ (albeit implicitly) about God, unspecified departures in the Soviet bard tradition are often about gulags. There was a sinister politesse to state action in this regard, with better-known ‘enemies of the people’ sometimes given a date of departure and the ability to deal with loose ends. In one infamous case, Alexander Galich, who had transformed himself from a wealthy, social-climbing artiste into a full-blown dissident and poet, was given twenty-four hours to evacuate the Soviet Union. In “Tattoo”, however, there is neither dissidence nor compulsion, with only the song’s controlling image indicating permanence. Just as Lyesha’s departure is ostensibly forever (“I promised to recall you to the grave”), so is the tattoo—and so is the rivalry between friends, who are using this event as a kind of bargaining chip amongst themselves.

The song features a startling mix of elements, from poetic, emotive imagery with sexual undertones (“I ask Lyesha to unbutton his shirt/ And stare, stare for hours upon you.”), to the use of irony which circles back to a self-absorption that everyday life exacerbates. The professed value is friendship, yet it’s of a peculiarly masculine sort: the need, as example, for Art to give his friend longevity, the continued competition—even “to the grave”—and, finally, black humor, which rounds these values out with a value all its own. If this be a dissident song, it’s an unconventional one, for it presents its own Russian tovarischi as petty and foolish. Then again, given how high the stakes of masculinity were, the perceived need to continually tap them can be a kind of social critique in and of itself. That such layers were already possible in 1961, years before the multiplicative leaps in Western songwriting had begun, suggests there was something strange happening in Soviet Russia—a transitional regime which, by loosening its rules just enough for art’s re-emergence, but not enough to totally prevent self-censorship, goaded its artists into novel forms of expression.

Side-by-side photos of Russian bards Yuri Vizbor and Ada Yakusheva.

Russian bards Yuri Vizbor and Ada Yakusheva, via ETVNET.

To Russians of a certain generation, the Soviet bard Yuri Vizbor (Юрий Визбор) is almost as well-known as Vladimir Vysotsky. His father fell to Stalin’s purges, thus limiting Vizbor’s own educational and career prospects—something that, ironically, might have spurred his own artistic talent rather than destroy it. After growing up in de facto Siberian exile, he worked a number of jobs which required extended periods of aloneness in the wilds. Many of his best songs draw on this experience, such as the 1960s classic “Khamar-Daban”:

Хамар-Дабан

Забудь про все, забудь про все,
Ты не поэт, не новосел,
Ты просто парень из тайги –
Один винчестер, две ноги.

Тайга вокруг, тайга – закон,
Открыта банка тесаком,
А под ногами сквозь туман
Хрустит хребет Хамар-Дабан.

И жизнь легка, под рюкзаком
Шагай, не думай ни о ком,
И нету славы впереди,
А впереди одни дожди.

За перевалом умер день,
За перевалом нет людей,
И вроде нет на свете стран,
Где нет хребта Хамар-Дабан.

В мешочек сердца положи
Не что-нибудь, а эту жизнь,
Ведь будут тысячи столиц
Перед тобою падать ниц.

И будут тысячи побед,
А снится все-таки тебе
Одно и то же: сквозь туман
Хрустит хребет Хамар-Дабан.

Khamar-Daban

Forget it all, forget it all:
You’re not a poet, nor a pioneer.
You’re just some guy from the taiga,
One Winchester, two legs.

Taiga all around; taiga is law,
A can opened with a hatchet,
And under the legs, through fog,
Crunches the ridge of Khamar-Daban.

And life is easy under a rucksack:
You march, thinking of no one.
And there is no glory up ahead,
And ahead — only rain.

Across the pass, the day died,
Across the pass, there are no people,
And it is as if there are no nations
Where there is no ridge of Khamar-Daban.

In the heart’s little bag, place
Not just anything, but this life:
There will be a thousand capitals
To prostrate before you,

And there will be a thousand victories
But still you dream
Of only one thing: through the fog
Crunches the ridge of Khamar-Daban,
Crunches the ridge of Khamar-Daban.

In just a few short lines, the first stanza delimits what’s possible (or perceived to be) in Soviet dream. In contrast to the growing conflation of art and ‘personal expression’ in the West, Russians came to the same opinion of poetry that black Americans would later claim for rap music: a hyper-competitive craft where talent not only mattered, but could and should be adjudicated. In both cases, the stakes are high: the murder of poets in Russia, and America’s systematic destruction of black men, who would gravitate towards art as a constructive form of peer competition. Yet the first two lines reject two of the narrator’s claims to dignity—that he could do anything more than the pettiest work in the taiga, and that he could then write about it. The final line reduces him to Siberia’s sheer physicality, while he himself wishes to be more than just “One Winchester (rifle), two legs”. It is almost as if, once gulags are liberalized, the issue is no longer repression of the body, but a state-sanctioned mission to wipe out any drive towards talent and differentiation in higher spheres.

Yet what starts as a desire to transcend the wilds just as quickly pays respect to them: “Taiga all around; taiga is law”, followed by the song’s first manipulation of Russian terseness and grammatical inflection to its advantage. The phrase “a can opened” is enjambed with a pause followed by “with a hatchet”—three words which, in the original Russian, is only one: тесаком, the -ом ending (instrumental case) being sufficient to denote this meaning. The last two lines make use of both alliteration and onomatopoeia: “Hrustit hrebet Hamar-Daban”—not sound merely for the sake of sound, but for establishing the song’s distinct, controlling image. There is no longer the mention of poetry and art, nor even the pretense of being a “pioneer”, for there is no physical presence to compare oneself to—no means to leave one’s legacy through snow. In fact, in one arresting couplet, this is taken as a positive: “And life is easy under a rucksack/ You march, thinking of no one.” The narrator has such a craving for solitude (whether native to his mind, or slowly engineered by his line of work) that life feels “easy” despite ice and baggage. One assumes that, with people, the baggage is worse, while the lack of “glory up ahead” drives home the idea that striving for some wider society is pointless. In fact, the fourth stanza’s deft use of enjambment almost suggests that society does not exist: “It is as if there are no nations”—only to renege on this entirely by insisting that it is really this mountain ridge which contains all the world, thus allowing the re-introduction of art into the song’s ending. As before, however, it is art engendered and mediated by the wilds: a perceived need to dream of, and get beyond, a mountain pass, engage in labors few will see, and test oneself for no other reason than testing. The artist who spends time on his craft understands this connection intuitively, but for everyone else, there is still ‘a nice song about the Russian taiga’.

At her best, Ada Yukasheva (Ада Якушева), Yuri Vizbor’s first wife, was a great Soviet bard with novel ideas. Although lacking the dynamism and range of her better-known contemporaries, she excelled at both love songs and meditations on nature. One of her best compositions, “In The Stony River”, combines both:

В речке каменной

В речке каменной бьются камни,
По гранитным скользя камням.
Древними каменными глазами
Смотрят горы на меня.
Древними каменными глазами
Смотрят горы на меня.

Смотрят горы сквозь серый вереск,
Заклиная наперебой.
Я каменею, почти поверив
В их могущество над тобой.
Я каменею, почти поверив
В их могущество над тобой.

Я немею, поверив словно
В риск на каменном краю.
И в ледяную немногословность,
Так похожую на твою.
И в ледяную немногословность,
Так похожую на твою.

И с протянутыми руками
В этой каменной стране
Я бы навек обратилась в камень,
Чтобы ты поклонялся мне.
Я бы навек обратилась в камень,
Чтобы ты поклонялся мне.

In The Stony River

In the stony river, stones are beating
On sliding granite stones.
With ancient stone eyes
Mountains look at me.
With ancient stone eyes
Mountains look at me.

The mountains look through gray heather,
Vying for incantations.
I turn to stone, almost believing
In their power over you.
I turn to stone, almost believing
In their power over you.

I go mute believing
In risk, as if on a stone’s edge,
And in an icy reticence
So much like your own.
And in an icy reticence
So much like your own.

And with outstretched hands
In this stone country
I would forever turn to stone
For you to worship me.
I would forever turn to stone
For you to worship me.

A natural counterpart to Yuri Vizbor’s own “Ты у меня одна”, both songs express unrequited love with a self-destructive edge. Both characterize their respective lovers as belonging to the wilds, with Vizbor ascribing cosmic and metaphysical qualities to love, while Yakusheva taps nature as a source of jealousy. Notice how, in the first stanza, there is little sense that the song will even deal with love: it is simply a clever tongue-twister (“V rechke kammenoy byutsa kamni/ Po granitnim skol’zya kamnyam/ drevnimi kamennimi glazami…”) which ends with the implied majesty of the natural world. The second stanza builds on this observation, further personifying mountains as sorcerers working against the speaker, followed by a quick turn to the song’s addressee. In some ways, it is a neutral turn—the narrator might simply be marveling over nature while continuing to tap the song’s operative word, which is камень (stone), in ever-diversifying forms. Let us count them: каменной (“stone” as a singular adjective, feminine), камни (“stones”, plural), каменными (“[with] stone/stony”, plural in the instrumental case). Then, when one thinks it’s over, Я каменею (“I petrify [lit. ‘become stone’”, a verb) in the next stanza, на каменном краю (“on a stone edge”, adjective, masculine, prepositional case) in the next, В этой каменной стране (“In this stone country”—back to the feminine adjective), and, finally, the song’s only unadulterated form of камень: Я бы навек обратилась в камень (“I would forever turn to stone”, uninflected noun).

This sort of wordplay is rarely even considered by most songwriters, while Ada Yukasheva’s escalations of adjective, gender, noun, and verb are only possible in an inflected language like Russian. However, rather than employ it as disconnected wordplay, she taps its intellectualism to trap the narrator in a willful misunderstanding of her own problem. The narrator forces herself to see the natural world as yet another world of people, ruled by social logic, but it might very well be that her lover does not, and is thus attracted to the world of mountains—as opposed to a world of lovers—because of it. In fact, the song’s ‘actual’ thrust only becomes apparent later by way of a jealous comparison: “…an icy reticence/ so much like your own.” Just as Yuri Vizbor’s love has hard, at turns cosmic, at turns domestic qualities—for instance, what does it mean for a love-star to illuminate one’s “mak[ing] the bed”?—Yukasheva’s speaker is just as willing to rush into something she does not understand. She only knows that her love “worships” mountains. The Russian word поклоняться is built on a tangible image: that of bowing, which takes on a richer meaning given how mountains impose and overwhelm. The final, uninflected “stone” (“I would forever turn to stone/ for you to worship me”) leaves a Russian listener with the image of природный камень—organic stone—as if to emphasize that a natural process has found its end-point. Yet natural for whom? For the unrequited, I suppose, as well as for those only too willing to ossify themselves at the behest of power.

A stylized photo of Russian/Soviet bard Oleg Gazmanov, shirtless and screaming (as is typical).

The pandering, jingoistic, virtually talentless Oleg Gazmanov was still capable of at least one great song.

To wit: Oleg Gazmanov (Олег Газманов) is both the youngest artist in this essay, and the artist with least claim to being a Soviet bard. He is, first of all, a pop singer, which means the bard’s more typical lack of musical pretense cannot save him from the worst demands of Russian pop—a cheap sound, the aping of Western fads years too late, and silly song topics. Second, he is often little more than a regime propagandist, changing ideologies according to the needs of his handlers. This hasn’t gone unnoticed in the West, as Gazmanov’s Wikipedia page disapproves of his 2005 song “Made In The USSR” not because it is so poorly constructed, but because, per typical Russian identity, he “glorifies the communist past of today’s Russia while presenting Lenin and Stalin as national heroes, under whom millions of Russians were imprisoned, executed or died of starvation.” Imagine Wikipedia discussing, in these terms, a book or movie highlighting the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers—one assumes it would be considered needlessly sanctimonious, even if George Washington owned slaves or America had killed off millions of natives. Perhaps it is the relative slowness of America’s own virulent processes that makes them more difficult to name? Ironically, the very callowness of the West on this and other fronts not only encourages criminal states outside of the West’s orbit, but, by asphyxiating art and refusing to deal with it as art, destroys all ability to mount an effective critique of both geopolitical and artistic phenomena.

And yet, for all of his faults, Oleg Gazmanov does have one (and perhaps only one) song worth examining, a song which perfectly captures the logic as well as the logical end of the Soviet Union:

Эскадрон

Эскадрон моих мыслей шальных,
Ни решёток ему, ни преград.
Удержать не могу я лихих скакунов,
Пусть летят, пусть летят!

Мои мысли, мои скакуны,
Вас пришпоривать нету нужды.
Вы аллюром несётесь
И не признаёте узды.

Мои мысли, мои скакуны,
Словно искры, зажгут эту ночь.
Обгоняет безумие ветров хмельных
Эскадрон моих мыслей шальных.

Никому меня не удержать,
Мои мысли умчат меня вдаль.
Может быть, я обратно уже не вернусь,
Как ни жаль, как ни жаль.

Эх, залётные мысли мои,
Вы, как годы, уноситесь прочь.
От рассвета – в закат, от заката – сквозь ночь
Мчитесь прочь!

Мои мысли, мои скакуны,
Словно искры, зажгут эту ночь.
Обгоняет безумие ветров хмельных
Эскадрон моих мыслей шальных.

Мои мысли, мои скакуны,
Словно искры, зажгут эту ночь.
Обгоняет безумие ветров хмельных
Эскадрон моих мыслей шальных.

Squadron (Cavalry)

Squadron of my wild thoughts,
No bars for it, nor any partitions.
I can’t restrain the dashing horses —
Let them fly, let them fly!

My thoughts, my (galloping) horses,
There is no need to spur you.
You rush [carried by your own gait],
And don’t recognize the bridle.

My thoughts, my (galloping) horses,
Just like sparks will ignite this night,
Outrunning the madness of drunken winds,
Squadron of my wild thoughts.

And no one can restrain me,
My thoughts whisk me into the distance.
Perhaps I won’t return now —
I don’t regret it, I don’t regret it!

Oh, my stray, (fleeting) thoughts,
You are carried away like the years.
From sunrise to sunset, from sunset
Through the night, and across…

My thoughts, my (galloping) horses,
Just like sparks will ignite this night,
Outrunning the madness of drunken winds,
Squadron of my wild thoughts.

My thoughts, my (galloping) horses,
Just like sparks will ignite this night,
Outrunning the madness of drunken winds,
Squadron of my wild thoughts.

Recorded in 1989, this was the first song I ever remember listening to—a song which was still ubiquitous ten years on, both in Russia as well as in Russian émigré communities. Although I only understood the words’ import much later, the shock of their writerly excellence was even less than the shock of realizing how well the words mirrored my own upbringing. Did I somehow absorb it on the park benches of Belarus, unwittingly receiving a blueprint for both the richness and the pitfalls of my own life? Regardless, the song’s sense of the world as an ever-expanding cone was (despite propaganda to the contrary) a prominent feature of Russian identity after the 1940s. It ended abruptly not upon the dissolution of the USSR, but within a few years of it, as Russians came to understand the meaning of ‘liberal reforms’. These ranged from shock-therapy imposed on a nigh-stateless society run by a dozen or so criminal cartels, to America’s 1996 electoral interference on behalf of Boris Yeltsin—facts which colored Russian understanding of both Western democracy as well as the West’s intentions towards Russia. That they directly led to the rise of Vladimir Putin is now viewed as irrelevant, yet I still remember a distinct uptick in the times “Эскадрон” was played after Putin’s ascent. Thoughts of the future were permissible again—thoughts which émigrés had long enjoyed, thus peppering my own (limited) understanding of America. Nothing was as it seemed then, and the two nations would continue to mirror one another in the new century:

Squadron of my wild thoughts,
No bars for it, nor any partitions.
I can’t restrain the dashing horses —
Let them fly, let them fly!

Yes, there is a sense of triumph in Oleg Gazmanov’s writing, but it is of the vainglorious sort more closely associated with drugs and political delusion than with a measured understanding of some inner world. Alongside the music itself, his “squadron” has the militaristic edge of obedience and abandon. The speaker is decidedly not in control of his thoughts, but allows them to dominate him and even celebrates this fact. Uncharacteristically for Gazmanov, one of the strategies here is technical variety. The “squadron” of the first line—a nonspecific but muscular image—gives way to “dashing horses”, and the “I can’t…” of the initial verse is later explained by way of spur and bridle. The poetry of the third verse should be self-evident (“outrunning the madness of drunken winds”), yet even here, there is a gnawing sense of limitation in the speaker’s own mind. Why is this “night” special, and can it be replicated? Is the narrator building up the events of one night to reverberate forever? Is ‘one night only’ the actual point, or is this one night among so many others just like it? Do they lead to realization, or to a dead end? The speaker continues to play with such tensions, knowing full well that he is responsible for the provenance, content, and, ultimately, the morning’s dissipation of his own mental flow:

Oh, my stray, (fleeting) thoughts,
You are carried away like the years.
From sunrise to sunset, from sunset
Through the night, and across…

In the end, there is no permanence to Oleg Gazmanov’s “night”—the only perpetuity seems to be its repetition. Yet this idea gets built up slowly and against the backdrop of jubilee. Just as Russian bards did not care for cultivating a ‘pleasant’ voice, the fact that Gazmanov’s pop-musical choices are cheap and dated even by the standards of 1989 is irrelevant to how well they support a prideful, military-style march to nowhere. There is, perhaps, no Russian who does not know this song, but even so, given its role in the illusions of the 1990s, one doubts that the nature of the last verse is understood. It is not a happy song though it sounds like one. It is a song which suggests the sameness of each night—of every future. This would take on fresh meaning for Gazmanov, who’d soon give up all desire to create real art. It is as if the warning in his first and best song was ignored in favor of its sound. This could be forgiven in a strict English speaker, but not in a Russian. I did not know what this meant in 1991. It was a summer of rumors, but to me, it was summer, nonetheless. I knew only some of the words I was hearing, and would only later learn that this was true of everybody. Looking back, not one prediction from that era has panned out. Yet this does not stop today’s prognosticators—not those prophesying about Russia, nor those making their amaranthine plans for art. As for the artists? If only they could stay themselves on that one bench. They don’t have to absorb the rumors, merely observe them. After all, they are just words, lost in translation.

* * *

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