Alternately ignored and vilified by the Soviet authorities during his short lifetime, singer, actor, poet and drunkard Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) was called, during his lifetime, ‘the Bob Dylan of the Soviet Union” and now, forty years after his death, he’s Russia’s most beloved cultural figure. He inspired Mikhail Baryshnikov and Nobel laureates Boris Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky. His death provoked a spontaneous outpouring of grief, his funeral attracting the largest crowds since Stalin was buried, and his grave is the most visited in Russia. Why is he not better known beyond Mother Russia? Dan Bowen ponders this for PKM.
Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) was the Soviet Union’s Renaissance Man: poet, songwriter, novelist, screenwriter, singer, musician, stage actor, movie star, alcoholic, drug addict and philanderer. Yet, for all his accomplishments and all his flaws, he was effectively treated as a non-person in his own country. Other than to make his life more difficult at virtually every opportunity (cancelling concerts without notice, banning him from appearing in movies, trying to frame him for rape and murder, and other more subtle insults), the authorities took only intermittent public notice of him until he died at the age of 42. From their point of view, he was too dangerous to honor and too popular to exile. So they pretty much ignored him and hoped his behavior wouldn’t embarrass them too much.
Even his death went officially unnoticed. The announcement taped to the door of the theater where he was performing read: “Tonight’s Performance of Hamlet Has Been Cancelled.” It did not even mention that the actor playing Hamlet had died. Only when he was safely in the grave for seven years did the government award him a State Prize. Nineteen years after his death, the Soviet Union’s successor, the Russian Federation, put his face on a stamp; nineteen years after that, they issued a coin in honor of his 80th birthday, and President Vladimir Putin visited his house on Taganka Street the day before this anniversary. It had become a very popular museum.
Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky was born in Moscow, January 25, 1938, and, like countless others in pre-war and post-war Russia, would spend much of his childhood living in a cramped, communal apartment, where what privacy there was came from curtains hung on ropes. He would later describe the place in a song: “There was only one amenity: One bathroom for 40 occupants.”
Volodya, as he was known throughout his life, was a precocious child; blessed with a phenomenal memory and theatrical flair. Later, his mother described his earliest performances this way:
By the time he was two he had learned a great many poems by heart…. Reciting, he would always climb on some kind of dais, mostly a stool. In July 1941, when Volodya was three, the Germans began to bomb Moscow. I took my son to an air-raid shelter, and there he would find something to climb on and recite poems, loudly and with expression.
Like Walt Whitman, Samuel Beckett and a few others, Vysotsky claimed to remember his time in the womb. In case you are wondering, “Nothing there is worthwhile,” he sings in his “Ballad of Childhood.”
In 1941, soon after his public debut in the bomb shelter, young Volodya was evacuated with his mother, Nina Maksímovna, to Vorontsovka, a village in the south of Russia, near the border of what is now Kazakhstan. There, he went to kindergarten six days a week, while his mother worked 12-hour days in a chemical factory. In 1943, after the German invasion had been repulsed, and Moscow was free from bombing raids, they returned to the communal apartment. But, after the war, his father did not join them. He had a new wife. In 1947, Volodya went to live with his father and his father’s second wife at the military base in East Germany where his father was stationed. This decision was made because his father’s rank as a major in the Red Army entitled him to a large apartment with real walls. For the first time (and one of the few times) in his life, Volodya had a room to himself. When his father’s tour of duty ended two years later, Volodya moved back with his mother to the one-amenity apartment. He would live with his mother for the remainder of his childhood and adolescence, and off and on over the years, through two marriages and two divorces; until after he met his third wife.
When it came time to go to the university, his family talked him into enrolling in the School of Civil Engineering at the prestigious Moscow State University, but he dropped out after one semester to pursue an acting career.
He enrolled in the Moscow Art Theater. This school, founded in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavski (he put the “method” in “method acting”), was still the premier drama school in Russia. After graduating, Vysotsky joined the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre but left after a series of run-ins with his superiors occasioned by his heavy drinking, which he blamed on the lack of serious roles offered him and his inability to realize his artistic potential; failings for which he then blamed the Theater’s administration, and which the administration blamed on his drinking.
Around this time, he started writing songs and recording them on a reel-to-reel machine. He encouraged people to make copies of his music—how underground music was produced and distributed in the Soviet Union. To protect his identity (since this was illegal), the tapes carried no name. As a result, his songs were attributed to the anonymous Russian folk tradition, and his singing to an unknown performer; albeit one with a vocal style all his own. Recordings of Vysotsky’s songs were also made “on the ribs,” as the saying went. Lacking access to vinyl, some inventive Russians mastered the art of recording, in the same manner as LPs, on old x-ray film. Chest x-rays were the most commonly used, hence the name.
Without their having any idea as to who he was, Vysotsky acquired admirers ranging from Latvian Chess Grandmaster Mikail Tal to the poet Anna Akhmatova, as well as large portion of the general public. Later, in 1968, when his songs had acquired the name of a singer and composer, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (the most popular poet in the Soviet Union) listened to the song “Wolf Hunt.” He sent Vystotsky a telegram: “Heard your song twenty times running. I bow down before you.”
The translated refrain to this song is:
“There’s a hunt for the wolves. There’s a hunt / For the mothers and their pups. / The beaters scream, dogs bark until they vomit / There’s blood on the snow and stains on the red flags.”
This was Vysotsky’s mother’s favorite song. Yevtusheko and others saw it as a comment on the Soviet Union’s attempt to keep its undesirable citizens locked up in the Siberian Prison Camps (The Gulag Archipelago whose history was recorded by Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a one-time prisoner in the Gulag under Stalin) and make sure they obeyed all their rules. When the prisoners tried to escape, they were hunted down like wolves and forced to stay in the boundaries established by the walls decorated with red flags of the prison camps. Some saw the song as calling the whole of the Soviet Union a prison camp, where “wolves” were confined and “dissidents” hunted down.
This use of animal fables to criticize the Russian government while avoiding the censors dated back more than a century and a half to the writings of Ivan Krylov (1769-1844). It was a valuable tool (sometimes the only tool available) to the Russian intelligentsia in their struggle against the autocracy of the Tsars. Under Soviet rule, it allowed the critics of the system to shape their comments in a way that made fun of the government yet gave them “plausible deniability.”
In 1957, Vysotsky met a fellow acting student, Izolda Konstantinova Zhukova. Three years later, Iza, as she was known, became his first wife. They divorced in 1962 after he started an affair with another actress, Lyudmila Abramova. They met on a movie set. Lyuda had two boys by Vysotsky before they were married in 1965. They would divorce in 1970.
In 1964, Vysotsky was invited by the founding director, Yuri Lyubímov, to join the ensemble cast at the avant-garde Taganka Theater. He was to retain his association with the Taganka for the remainder of his life. At his audition, which Lyubimov expected would last five minutes, Vysotsky told him, “I’ve started writing songs. Would you like to hear one?” An hour and a half later, Vysotsky had a job and a new career writing songs for the plays the theater put on.
While still married to Lyudmila, Vysotsky began an affair with an actress at the Taganka Theater, Tatiana Ivanenko.
In 1965, Vysotsky appeared in a couple of plays at the Taganka; The Poet and the Theater, based on the poetry of Andrey Voznesénsky, and Ten Days that Shook the World, based on John Reed’s book about the Bolshevik Revolution. (Reed was later the subject of Warren Beatty’s film Reds and is one of the few foreigners buried in the Kremlin Wall). Vysotsky was then commissioned by Lyubimov to write songs for a play about The Great Patriotic War that Lyubimov was in the process of developing for production. For this play, The Dead and the Living, he wrote the “Song of the Stars”:
This song is unique in many ways. It is a war song, written to a romantic waltz rhythm, with the last two lines of each stanza repeated. Nobody writes war songs in three-quarter time, and few people write songs sung by a dead narrator (“Long, Black Veil” is an exception). The use of the last two lines as a refrain echoes Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad” and Phil Ochs’ “Joe Hill.” After hearing the song multiple times, it finally hits you that this song about stars was meant by the dead soldier to have been a gift to his son, as if he had survived. He hopes his son gets his star.
On May 17, 1966, Vysotsky appeared in his first starring role at the Taganka: the title role in Berthold Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. Lyubimov had shaped his interpretation of the drama into an allegory of the perils faced by the Soviet intelligentsia. In spite of the fact that, in this play, Vysotsky would nightly recite a long monologue while standing on his head, the production and his performance earned mixed reviews. However, it proved popular with Russian audiences and brought him once again to the attention of movie directors and producers. This led to him being offered starring roles in several films, but first he had to sober up.
The role of Galileo also made Vysotsky the company’s “leading man.” Thus began a period of intensive work and equally intensive drinking, where he alternated acting in plays at the Taganka, with getting drunk, making films (for which he usually wrote a song or two which he would illegally record), getting drunk, performing in concerts, getting drunk, writing songs and poems, getting even more drunk and drying out. The end result of all this working and drinking was that he became a cultural hero. He was adored by the people of the Soviet Union for his true to life depictions, on screen and in song, of life in their country and watched closely by the authorities for the same reason (and for his drinking which even by Russian standards was excessive).
The first film for which Vysotsky wrote a set of songs was Vertical, a movie about mountaineering. The songs were released on an album, the only recording made by Vysotsky released in the Soviet Union during his lifetime. One of the songs, “Farewell to the Mountains,” became his first hit. The title even became a catch phrase in Russia.
Прощание с горами (Farewell to the Mountains)
In 1967, Vysotsky was given the role of Khlopúsha in Púgachev, a play based on a poem by Sergéi Yesénin. During the initial run of this play, Vysotsky’s drinking got completely out of hand; so bad that, in spite of his immense popularity, he was let go before the play ended its run. This started a new phase in his relationship with Lyubimov and the Taganka Theater. He would drink until he lost control of his life and missed or screwed up his performances, get fired and sent to rehab, sobered up, came back, beg for forgiveness, was forgiven and started the whole process over again.
The fact that he was allowed, time after time, to return to the Company was ultimately due to his artistic excellence and popularity as an actor. It also greatly upset some of the other actors in the company who felt he was being offered favorable treatment at their expense.
It was in 1968 that Vysotsky appeared in two movies that upset the authorities and brought his film career to a temporary halt. The films were Intervention and Two Comrades Were Serving. The former was not released for twenty years until the Soviet Union was stumbling, like a drunkard, through the derelict last stages of its existence, and the latter (in which the character he plays – a gun-toting White Army cavalry officer in the Russian Civil War – shoots his best friend, shoots another character, watches his horse drown and finally shoots himself) was heavily censored. Years later, his third wife, Marina Vlady, recalled Vysotsky’s opinion of this movie:
You were particularly proud of this role because it allowed you to play a psychologically tormented man who, in the depths of despair, nevertheless remains strong and proud to the end. He only commits suicide because he understands, after seeing his horse drown in front of his eyes, that his whole world has collapsed and that he no longer has any reason to live…. The censors realized how powerful your portrayal was, so they cut and cut again! For reasons no one needed to explain, the hero of the film had to be a soldier in the Red Army. [The Soviet Union had been founded by the Red Army after their victory over the Whites.]
After a performance of Pugachev, Vysotsky met Marina Vlady, a French actress of Russian descent. In spite of the fact that he was still married to Lyudmila and still involved with Tatiana, he and Marina began a long-distance love affair and marriage that would last, despite frequent arguments and long separations, until his death.
Vlady was as big a star in her home country as Vysotsky was in his. Her parents were Russian immigrants; her father an opera singer and artist (and, like Vysotsky, a thoroughly charming drunk with the same first name), and her mother a dancer. Vlady began her movie career at 10 and, at 15, played Marcello Mastroianni’s love interest in the film Jours d’Amour (Days of Love), while flirting with him off screen. At 16, she played the title role of the film, La Sorcière (The Witch), which won the Silver Bear for “Outstanding Artistic Contribution” at the Berlin Film Festival and became a cult classic; very popular in Russia.
Yuri Lyubimov tells the story that when Vysotsky saw Vlady au
natural on the screen in this movie, some time in 1965, he leaned over and said, “I’m going to make her mine.” One night a couple of years later, when she was in Moscow for the film festival, where she was a judge, she and another actor went to see the Taganka’s production of Pugachev. After the play, they went to the restaurant next door to eat. Vlady recalls the moment this way. Vysotsky came in:
Your eyes are tense, frantic. You stare at me openly. Then, you come up to me and say: “I’ve met you at last.” You say you want to leave this place and sing for me. You are sitting at my feet and singing for me alone. Then, all of a sudden, you say you have loved me for a long time. That once you saw La Sorcière, but never expected to see me in person. I laugh and then say seriously that you are amazing, but I am here for only a few days. I have three kids, and Moscow is far away from Paris. You reply that you too have a family and kids, but it won’t prevent you from marrying me. Stunned by this impudence, I agree to see you the next day.
They were married in 1970, after Vysotsky finalized his divorce from Lyudmila.
Over the course of her career, Vlady (who is still alive) has appeared in more than 100 films. In addition to being a movie star, who spoke several languages and acted in each of them, she was also a stage actress, a singer, an accomplished sculptor, the author of fifteen books, an activist for women’s rights and a single mother who raised three boys. If Vysotsky was a Russian Renaissance Man, Vlady is a French Renaissance Woman.
She was also a devoted wife.
One night in the early years of their life together, when she was staying with Vysotsky in the Moscow apartment they shared with his mother, Vlady fell asleep watching TV and waiting for her husband to come home. In the wee hours of the morning, she was awakened by the ringing of the phone. She answered to hear a voice she didn’t recognize telling her Vysotsky was raving drunk and she needed to come pick him up immediately. She called a cab which took her to the address she had been given. The driver dropped her in front of “a dimly lit staircase that smelled of cat piss.” In the apartment upstairs, she found her husband
sunk down in a couch, grimacing pathetically. The floor is covered with bottles and cigarette butts…. You try to get up. You reach out to me. I am shaking from head to foot. I take you by the arms and drag you home.
This is my introduction to your other world; my first descent into the sordid universe of those who are drinking themselves to death.
Over the next twelve years, this scene would be repeated, with variations, more than 70 times by Vlady’s count. Often the calls came when Vlady was on location shooting a film, and had to hurriedly get a visa (not an easy process in the days of the Soviet Union), fly to Russia, find Vysotsky, drag him home and either sober him up herself or have him hospitalized.
The story of their marriage is told in Vlady’s memoir, Vladimir, ou le vol arrête (Vladimir, or the Interrupted Flight); which unfortunately has not been translated into English. Additionally, the documentary film The Last Kiss, written and directed by Natalia Guguyeva and Arkady Kogan, gives an account of the one movie in which they briefly appeared together. It was filmed in the middle of one of their many separations, not long before Vysotsky’s death.
In 1968, just in time for Vysotsky’s thirtieth birthday, the Soviet authorities finally got around to chastising him for his “immoral smutty songs.”
The year 1971 saw two important events in Vysotsky’s career: one as an actor, the other as a songwriter. As an actor, he premiered his interpretation of Hamlet. Under Lyubimov’s direction, he played the character as an intellectual rebelling against the oppressive machinery of the state. The translation of the play used in this production was the one made by Boris Pasternak, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Doctor Zhivago. Each evening, Vysotsky would come out on stage with his guitar before the performance began, sit with his back against the upstage wall, and would sing the poem “Hamlet” that Pasternak had written.
He would later describe his relation to this role:
The Hamlets that I had seen… kept searching, during the whole of the play, for proof of Claudius’ guilt, in order to kill him and to justify himself, to justify his revenge. On the contrary, I keep looking for proof of the King’s innocence…. I do everything for blood not to be shed.
He always performed the role wearing black jeans and a black sweater,
He would play Hamlet more than 200 times in his career at Taganka. It was during one of the many revivals of this play that he died. Vysotsky also wrote a poem about the character Hamlet.
“My Hamlet”-Vysotsky reciting his poem.
The other event is more confusing to describe. He was offered the leading role in a film called The Sannikov Land, based on a science fiction novel by Vladimir Obruchev, and asked to write songs for the movie. He wrote the songs. However, the state film authorities objected to his being cast for a role in the movie. They said his face was “too scandalously recognizable.” However, one of the songs he wrote for this movie, “Unruly Horses,” became his most famous song. It is the one that referenced (by the images of horses) on the coin honoring his 80th birthday, and, much to Vlady’s disgust, on the monument placed over his tomb.
In the 1985 movie White Nights, Mikail Baryshnikov (a friend of Vysotsky who sought asylum in the West) dances to this song order to demonstrate why his character left the Soviet Union. He wanted to be free to dance the way he wanted; to dance the way Vysotsky sang. “I want to scream like he does,” says Kolya, the character played by Baryshnikov.
This song was interpreted by Vysotsky’s fans as an allegory, where the horses (by running along the edge of a cliff, evading disaster by luck, skill or both) represent the people who take the risks entailed in their search for freedom of expression. By allowing themselves free rein, they put their lives (and the life of anyone who helped them) in danger. Like the two-headed eagle that was the symbol of Imperial Russia, this song has a bi-polar feel to it (quite common among Russians): the narrator wants the horses to be free to pull him along the edge of the abyss, willing – at any moment – to “disappear” into the void that beckoned each person who broke the rules in the Soviet Union, yet at the same time wants them to slow down and make it to the next stop; he wants to survive. Such was the dilemma faced by Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Barishnikov, Nureyev and countless others less well-known people under Soviet rule. Such was the dilemma faced by this Hamlet with a Guitar.
The song can also be interpreted as a self-commentary on his addiction to alcohol, and later to drugs. He liked to live life on the edge of the abyss. For him this meant a life enhanced by booze, drugs and beautiful women, a life that challenged the limits of human behavior. He knew his addictions were killing him, but he could not control them. However, there were times when he wanted to sober up and live a quiet, comfortable life; a life surrounded by family and friends.
In 1974, after Vysotsky received permission to travel abroad, Vlady drove him to her home in France. After passing through the borders of Poland and East Germany, they stopped for the night in West Berlin and Vysotsky decided to do some window shopping. He was surprised by “a display of wealth [he had] never seen before.” He stopped in front of a grocery store to look at shelves overflowing with meat and other goods unavailable anywhere in the Soviet Union. Suddenly, he bent over and vomited. “How can this be?” He asked Vlady later that evening. “The people who lost the war have all these goods, and our people who suffered so much have nothing!”
During the summer of 1975, Vlady made a visit to Moscow:
In the evenings, we loved to roam the streets of Moscow. There was one thing that always struck me and amazed me – you could say it won my heart – you could hear Volodya’s songs out of nearly every window.
Vysotsky had become the most popular singer in Russia.
On a later trip, in the fall of 1976, Vysotsky and Marina went to France together. From there they traveled without official permission to New York, where they met with Mikail Baryshnikov and the exiled Russian poet (and future Nobel Laureate) Joseph Brodsky among others. During his stay in New York, Vysotsky was interviewed by Dan Rather for 60 Minutes.
The interview was more Rather than Vysotsky, and Rather got at least one fact wrong. He said Vysotsky had spent time in a Soviet prison, which wasn’t true. Rather asked Vysotsky: “You like to describe yourself, I know, and your work, as protest, not revolution. Where is the line between a protest singer, or poet, and a revolutionary singer or poet?” Vysotsky responded:
Well, let’s put it this way. I’ve never defined my songs as songs of protest or songs of revolution. But as to your question, well, you probably could say the different types of songs are written at different times. In revolutionary times, people write revolutionary songs. And in normal ordinary times, they write songs of protest – the kinds that are produced everywhere in the world – when people want things to be better than they are right now, when they want tomorrow to be better than today.
After quoting from Vysotsky’s song, “I Do Not Like,” (“I do not like cold cynicism. I don’t like strangers reading my mail. I hate tattletales and slanderers. I don’t like people being shot in the back, or in the front. I’m upset when the innocent suffer. All of these things I do not like. These things I will never like.”) Rather remarked, “In a way, Vysotsky plays a dangerous game. But he seems confident that he’ll get away with it. He’s not defiant, but he’s also not submissive.”
As a Russian journalist remarked to New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith,
Vysotsky [survives] because he knows the limits. The KGB themselves collect his songs. They know all those [prison] camp tunes of his. They like the jargon of thieves that he uses – they are thieves themselves. Vysotsky knows you can criticize different things here and there, but you can’t criticize the system, the Party, and you can never touch them (the bosses) personally.
Or, as Vysotsky himself put it, “Since everything is prohibited, they will approve anything.”
On his return to the Soviet Union, Vysotsky did in fact “get away with it.” Vysotsky was a figure of such note in his home country that his trip to America was discussed by the people who ran the Soviet Union. In spite of the fact that some members of the Politburo were upset at Vysotsky’s behavior (after all, he had traveled to New York without a visa and been interviewed on a widely watched television program by a reporter known not to be friendly towards the Soviet Union). They wanted him punished. However, it turns out that he had the one admirer who counted most. Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev, who was hospitalized at the time, asked Vysotsky if he would play a concert at his daughter’s house. Vysotsky obliged and Brezhnev listened to the concert on the telephone from his hospital bed. In this way Vysotsky succeeded in pissing off the authorities and getting away with it.
Vysotsky’s fans were not limited to the upper levels of the Soviet bureaucracy. A group of Cosmonauts, who were then preparing for mission in space, requested that Vysotsky perform for them at their secret Space City. He did. Later, at Vysotsky’s request, the same Cosmonauts wrote a letter to the film board, asking the board to allow Vysotsky to appear in a particular film. They wanted to see him on screen. The board could not say no to their space heroes and permitted Vysotsky to appear in films again. Another time, when Vysotsky was on a vacation in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi (site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games), thieves broke into his hotel room and stole some of his belongings and documents. Vysotsky immediately reported this to the police who said they would look into the matter, but did not offer much hope. Such robberies, they told him, were quite common and generally went unsolved (meaning the cops wouldn’t look too hard because the robbers cut them in on the profits). Fortunately, their help was not needed. When Vysotsky returned to his room the next day, he found the thieves had again broken into his room, but this time they returned most of what they had stolen. They also left a note of apology, “Excuse us, Vladimir Semyonovich, we didn’t know whose belongings were these. Unfortunately, we have already sold the jeans, but we return you the jacket and the documents safe and sound.” From Cosmonauts in space, to the head of the Soviet Union, to thieves who stole clothes from vacationers, to the Secret Police officers who collected his records, to people who simply watched his films and played his music, Vysotsky was loved and respected by everyone.
In 1978, after performing a series of concerts in Moscow and Ukraine, and thanks to the Cosmonauts who had put him in the Government’s good graces again, Vysotsky got his most famous acting role, that of Gleb Zheglov in a police procedural titled The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed. The show was so popular Vysotsky later claimed “that Russia stopped breathing when it was broadcast.” Vlady confirmed his account: “It is true. I saw this happen: there was no one out on the streets on the evenings when you appeared on the small screen for the first and only time.”
[This made for TV movie is available on YouTube, in five parts, with English subtitles. Running time is a little over one hour per part; six hours total.]
Here is Part 1:
Seven years after his death, Vysotsky would receive a Soviet State Prize. His performance in this drama and the recordings of his songs would be cited as the reasons for this award. Apparently, his face had miraculously stopped being “too scandalously recognizable” and his songs were no longer considered “immoral” and “smutty.”
Echoing Ronald Reagan, who famously used a Clint Eastwood line in one of his speeches (“Go ahead. Make my day,”), President Putin once quoted a line spoken by Vysotsky in this program: (”The place for a thief is in prison.”). Putin was referring to the oligarch Mikail Khodorkovsky whom he had recently jailed. It definitely sounds more ominous in Russian, especially when spoken by a former colonel in the Russian Secret Police.
In 1979, Vysotsky made his second trip to America with Marina where he performed a series of concerts. He even performed at a party for the Hollywood elite; where the applause was led by Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli, still in their costumes from filming New York, New York. This tour opened Vysotsky’s eyes to a new world, of sobriety, success and freedom. It tempted him. But, back in Moscow without Marina, he drifted back into his old ways; the frantic schedule of acting and performing to the accompaniment of women, booze and drugs. The latter were now supplied by his personal physician, whom he had hired by the theater company to take care of “his health” (read: drug needs).
In the summer of 1979, while the theater was on hiatus, Vysotsky embarked on a concert tour of Russia and Soviet Central Asia. One stop was Izhevsk, the capital of the autonomous Republic of Udmurtia. In the audience was a young woman, Nadezhda Mitroshina. Having listened to Vysotsky’s music for years, she was thrilled to see him perform in person. She found him very modest (constantly shushing the applause of the audience), yet very forceful in his singing. Forty years later, she still remembered this concert clearly.
On July 25, 1979, during this tour, Vysotsky collapsed after a performance in Samarkand. His life was saved by his doctor with an injection of adrenalin, like the soldier’s star in his earlier song, “straight into [his] heart.”
In January 1980, his performances became more erratic, but he persevered and managed to record a concert for Soviet TV. Due to his heavy use of drugs (morphine and amphetamines) and alcohol, he was confused, and, unusual for him, took several takes each to get a decent recording of each song. This concert would not be televised until eight years after his death, when it was presented in commemoration of his 50th birthday. Of the more than 700 songs and poems he wrote, only one was published in the Soviet Union during his lifetime.
The person with Vysotsky at the time of his death (which occurred one year to the day after the incident in Samarkand) was his latest girlfriend, Oksana Afanasieva. They had met in 1977, when she was 18. Vysotsky had offered to divorce Vlady so he could marry Oksana, but Oksana talked him out of it. She realized that Vlady was Vysotsky’s closest friend and still had an important place in his life.
Vysotsky’s funeral was an event unlike that for any private citizen in the history of the Soviet Union. The Washington Post said it was impossible to estimate the size of the crowds at either the Taganka Theater, where his body was put on view, or the cemetery where he was buried. It was said to be the biggest crowd since Stalin’s funeral in 1953. And all this occurred with no official notification. Soviet authorities had only allowed a four-line obituary to be printed, with no mention of the time or location of the funeral.
Then there was the internment itself to deal with. The authorities wanted Vysotsky buried in a distant suburb of Moscow, where his tomb would be difficult to reach, and thereby be unable to serve as a rallying point for discontent. In concert with Vysotsky’s friends, Vlady decided that he should be buried in the Vagankovo Cemetery, near the apartment where she and Vysotsky had lived during the last years of his life and where he had died. They arranged a meeting with the director of the cemetery. When Vlady and her friends arrived at the director’s office, one of Vysotsky’s friends, the Soviet singer Josif Kobzon, reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a huge roll of hundred-ruble notes and said, “We need a place for Vysotsky.” Most of the people in the room were aghast; not because a bribe was being offered in front of them (that was an everyday occurrence in the Soviet Union), but because they had never seen so much money in their lives. The director of the cemetery, in the very emotional manner typical of Russians, fell to his knees and, sobbing, complained, “How could you think that I would want any money? Russia has just lost one of its greatest poets. I lost him just like all of you. It is not a place that I am going to give you, it is the best place, right in the front, at the entrance, so that the crowds can come and pay their respects to him just as he deserves.”
The director was true to his word. He took no bribe; he gave Vysotsky the place described (Plot Number 1); and, for his troubles, was fired from his job.
As Vadim Tumanov, one of Vysotsky’s closest friends, described the scene of the funeral:
Flowers hit against the glass of the hearse like clumps of earth. They came flying from every side, thrown by thousands of hands. The car could not start…. The driver could not see the road. The flowers covered the whole of the windshield. It became dark inside. Sitting next to Volodya’s coffin, I felt as if I was being buried together with him. No one had expected anything of the kind. Marina’s hand convulsively pressed my elbow.
[She said,] “I’ve seen the funerals of princes and kings – I could never have imagined anything like this.”
Vlady had flown to Moscow the day after she learned of Vysotsky’s death. When she arrived at their apartment, she found his parents had gotten there first. His office was a shambles. They had gone through virtually every drawer and removed everything that might in the least way compromise their son; by mentioning his run-ins with the State, his drinking, and, most importantly, his drug usage. Fortunately for Vlady’s peace of mind, they had also removed any signs of Oksana’s residence in the apartment. The only place that hadn’t been touched was Vysotsky’s desk. This was the point at which the shame felt by his parents at their behavior in invading their son’s posthumous privacy, finally kicked in. They would not touch the sacred place where he did his writing.
Here, without realizing it, Vlady found what his parents had been so desperately searching for, the poems and song lyrics that Vysotsky had written over his twenty-year career. Vysotsky took meticulous care of his writings. Without thinking much about it, Vlady put these documents in a suitcase which she gave to one of Vysotsky’s friends, with instructions to keep it some place where his parents could not find it. Later, Vlady would be accused by his parents of “stealing” these papers. It was an accusation that went nowhere, even in the Soviet Union, due to the fact that Vlady had been named the sole legatee of Vysotsky’s estate. She could do whatever she wanted with any and all of his property. What she chose to do with his writings was donate them to the Soviet State; technically to the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art that serves as the custodian of Russia’s greatest poets and their works.
This dispute did not end Vlady’s conflict with her husband’s parents. The two sides could not agree on the memorial to be put on top of Vysotsky’s tomb. This time the parent won.
Vlady wanted a small meteorite, inscribed with Vysotsky’s name and dates of birth and death set upon his tomb. The meteorite was to symbolize the brief brilliance of his life. His parents preferred a more traditional (Soviet-style) sculpture. When the memorial was dedicated, five years after Vysotsky’s death, Vlady was not even informed of the decision or invited to the ceremony. His parents got what they wanted. When she finally saw the monument, Vlady did not approve:
From now on, on your tomb will be the throne of a golden and arrogant statue, a symbol of socialist realism, of everything which caused you to vomit during your lifetime. And being less than two meters tall, you look like a kindly gnome with the faces of horses serving as your hump. A guitar hangs over you like a halo around your shriveled face. It is ugly, beyond measure, and utterly ridiculous.
More than forty years after Vysotsky’s death, it is the most visited grave site in Russia.
[Author’s note: Thank you to my friend, Yuliya Abasheva, for researching Russian sources and contributing additions to the text and improvements to the translations; her mother, Nadezhda (Mitroshina) Abasheva, for sharing her memory of the concert by Vysotsky she attended in 1979, and George Kleymenov (father of The Judo Champ, Natasha) for suggesting this article on Vysotsky in the first place. The books most heavily relied on in this article are: Vladimir ou le vol arrêté, by Marina Vlady (Paris: Fayard, 1987) and Hamlet with a Guitar, Compiled by Yuri Andreyev and Josef Boguslavsky. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1990.)]