Thursday, June 30, 2011

Of Bards and Poets

In my misspent Russian youth, I passed more time in forests and tents than I did in civilization. And I think I hugged more guitars than I did people. Surprisingly, I drank more tea than vodka, which was an anomaly among the Russian bards.

The Russian bard movement goes back a long way, but it had certainly become one of the biggest underground political movements under the Soviet regime. The title “bard” could be almost synonymous with a rebel. A person walking down the street with a guitar always got a double look – a mixture of curiosity, respect, and anxiousness. People who played guitars had a tendency to write mutinous verses so contagious, the words spread through the country faster than television broadcasts.

In summer, the bard movement blossomed. Herds of young people fed up with the political status quo headed for the woods, trekking tents, sleeping bags, and sooty pots on their backs. And guitars. Every weekend, there was a bard festival somewhere, always clandestine, far from the big roads, and advertised only by word of mouth. Sometimes it was miles away from an in-the-middle-of-nowhere train station, or sometimes it was on a small island in the middle of a river, accessible only by canoes. There, in middle of the Russian woods, thick with mosquitos and stinging nettle, there were no eavesdropping devices, hidden microphones, or zealous neighbors. The only bugs you were exposed to were those that bit you but didn’t record your political jokes. Sitting on a wet log next to a campfire with a cup of tea sprinkled with grey ash for frosting, we sang songs about the idiocy of our apparatchiks, our wanderlust for the unattainable foreign lands, and the imminent fall of the Soviet colossus.

Until it finally fell.

The first few years in New York, I missed the bard movement so much, I timed my first back-to-Russia trip with my favorite festival. A few years later, I did it again. Then, over the course of the years, I slowly grew out of the movement, partially because I found other music and art forms I liked, and partially because there was not so much to rebel against. Yet my ears still tune up to the jingling melody of an acoustic guitar. There’s just something so philosophical and thought-provoking in its subtle strumming.

Americans pledged their negligence to electric guitars attached to mighty amplifiers. Where the Russians were quietly rebellious, the Americans protested with deafening authority. So I was surprised, impressed, and intrigued when at an open mike performance at eGarage, an indie theater in Long Island City, New York, Frank Giallombardo, a spoken word poet, walked up to the stage with a guitar that reminded me so much of the instrument of choice of my woodland adolescence. Even more amazingly, so did his song, a sarcastic ridicule of modern poetry – that has no poetry at all. It’s true, not everyone who claims themselves a poet is.

Frank was, and so here he is.


  1. Lina, I can so picture you in the Russian woods, sitting around a campfire and listening to these rebellious songs. Was the criticism in the lyrics very explicit, or did they write the songs so you had to read between the lines? And is any of this music available for sale today now that the Soviet Union is history?

  2. I think there was more between the lines - lots of hints, allegories, and parallels to draw. I think a lot of that music still can be found, I personally have a friend who recorded EVERYTHING starting from the early 80s, first on those huge tape reels, then on cassettes, and now probably digital. I wish I kept more pictures; I think they still must exist somewhere in my annals, maybe I'll find them one day.

  3. I hope you can track down those photos. They are not just part of your past but also part of Russian history. These musical excursions into the Russian woods are so fascinating because gives us a glimpse of what life was like for regular folks who didn't want to toe the line.