Just like there is no American who doesn’t know the name of Jimi Hendrix you won’t find a Russian who hasn’t heard of Vladimir Vysotsky.
Although better known as a bard – the term Russians use to describe a poet, a songwriter, and a spoken word artist – Vysotsky was also a very accomplished theater and film actor of the Soviet era who starred in major motion pictures and belonged to Taganka Theatre of Drama and Comedy in Moscow. As with many talented artists, he did not have an easy life. An iconoclast who sometimes covertly and sometimes openly criticized the ruling class, mocking the idiocy and corruption of the political system, Vysotsky was immensely popular amongst ordinary citizens while in semi-permanent disfavor with the establishment. Perhaps the fact that the government essentially issued a ban on his songs, he became wildly known for his rebellious lyrics and unique, raspy and tormented singing style, which resonated with millions of Soviet people far and wide. His songs were sung at house parties, street gatherings, prisons, and political camps.
However, he very much thought of himself as an actor.
Born in 1938, Vysotsky grew up mostly in Moscow, with the exception of being evacuated with his mother to a small Russian village during World War II, and later staying on a military base in Eastern Germany, where his father was temporarily stationed after the war. As a child, he used to recite poems and sing songs to his family’s and guests’ amusement. In high school, he received a guitar as a birthday present and was later accepted to the School of the Moscow Art Theatre. Four years later, he joined Taganka Theatre, famous for its freethinking, avant-garde productions and frequent problems with the state censorship.
During his professional career, Vysotsky was featured in 26 motion pictures, some of which he wrote music and sang for. In 1967, he starred as Volodya the radio operator in a mountain-climbing drama, Vertikal, which gained him recognition and fame, not only because for his acting skills but also because of the deeply emotional lyrics he wrote for the film. One in particular, A Song About a Friend, (Песня о друге), became so popular, the state record company, Melodia, which had been largely ignoring his music works thus far, released his first vinyl, which, of course, contained only politically correct songs.
The politically incorrect ones were already known by heart by millions of people who copied them on their primitive reel-to-reel tape recorders and sang solo and in chorus on every clandestine gathering or next to a campfire. Astronauts took his music with them into space to remind them of home.
The role that earned Vysotsky his recognition as an actor was his lead role of Hamlet in the timeless classic staged at Taganka Theater in 1971. Not only did Vysotsky manage to deliver the character’s woes and dilemmas, but his anguished performance enabled the audience to draw subliminal parallels between the Shakespearian setting and the Soviet society. The concept of a lone dissident, taking a stand against the establishment, resonated with the Moscow intellectuals and literati so much, the play became a smash hit overnight.
A few years later, Vysotsky starred in a major motion picture The Meeting Place Can’t Be Changed (Место встречи изменить нельзя), a criminal drama that aired on the Soviet Central TV and is still a much admired oldie. In the film, two Soviet militiamen fought organized crime during the post-war era in Moscow; Vysotsky played the older detective, tough but compelling, who didn’t always play by the rules but rather established his own.
Like many celebrities, Vysotsky married several times – his last wife was a French actress of Russian descent, Marina Vladi, who, after 10 years of a long-distance relationship, joined the French Communist Party to get an unlimited-entry visa into the Soviet Union.
And, like many talented people, Vysotsky’s life was cut short at 42 in the midst of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by what apparently looked like a heart attack, but has been a point of debates and guesses ever since. Some people say he drank too much, others insist he overdosed on drugs. His most fervent fans blame the government while family members accuse his personal doctor of negligence. Whatever the cause, the officials granted his rhymes a post-mortem imprimatur and his first poetry collection, The Nerve, was published a year later and sold out instantly.
Thirty years later, Vysotsky’s songs are still played at parties and concerts, and every year on July 25th, the anniversary of his death, people show up with guitars and flowers at the Vagankovskoye Cemetery.
Vertikal: A Song About a Friend
The Meeting Place Can’t Be Changed