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.

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