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Popular Russian Balladeer Sang About Ordinary Life In The USSR


Next week marks 35 years since the death of the Soviet Union's most popular singer-songwriter. Soviet citizens loved him because he sang about their lives and frustrations, but as NPR's Corey Flintoff explains, the Soviet establishment gave him no recognition at all.


VLADIMIR VYSOTSKY: (Singing in foreign language).

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The entrance to NPR's office in Moscow is off a side street called Bolshoi Karietny, or Big Carriage Lane. Sounds quaint now, but this used to be a rough neighborhood with families packed into communal apartments and delinquent kids prowling the alleyways. Vladimir Vysotsky spent a few years of his youth here, and he remembered the place in a popular song.


VYSOTSKY: (Singing in foreign language).

FLINTOFF: "Where are my 17 years," he sings, "on Big Carriage Lane? Where are my 17 troubles on Big Carriage Lane? And where's your black pistol on Big Carriage Lane?"

There's a small plaque on the wall of the apartment house where Vysotsky lived. I know this because one evening, a slightly drunk neighbor insisted that I pause there for a moment to contemplate the singer and his fate. Vladimir Vysotsky was regarded with suspicion by the Soviet authorities, and during his short lifetime he was never recorded on any of the state-owned record labels. Yet millions of people knew his music, mostly through bootleg cassette tapes of his few concerts.

OLGA FEDINA: Copies of the cassettes would be made and they would be passed around. Everyone knew about him. Most people have his recordings.

FLINTOFF: That's Olga Fedina, the author of a book on popular culture called, "What Every Russian Knows And You Don't." She says Vysotsky wasn't really a juvenile delinquent, but he knew those dead-end kids and could inhabit their lives through his songs. His knack for impersonating characters got him a job at Moscow's avant-garde Tagansky Theater, where he quickly began playing leading roles - Hamlet and Galileo. He wrote songs obsessively - by his own count more than 600. Growing up just after World War II, Vysotsky wrote many songs about soldiers, like this one, called, "He Didn't Come Back."


VYSOTSKY: (Singing in foreign language).

FLINTOFF: It's sung in the voice of a soldier who's lost his best friend in a battle. Olga Fedina says Vysotsky got the details so right that many veterans thought he had to be one of them.

FEDINA: He got a lot of letters from the veterans who would write to him saying, you must be that very Volodya with whom I shared the trench in 1943. But of course, he was much too young for that.

FLINTOFF: Vysotsky had a comic knack for observing his contemporaries, too, like this song, called, "Dialogue In Front Of The TV."


VYSOTSKY: (Singing in foreign language).

FLINTOFF: He plays both members of an empty-headed couple as they squabble in front of what Russians today called the zombie box.


VYSOTSKY: (Singing in foreign language).

FLINTOFF: Vysotsky knew about marital quarrels. He went through two marriages before he met Marina Vlady, a beautiful French actress of Russian descent. But Vysotsky was already well along on his slide into alcoholism and drug abuse, the two things that would destroy him at the age of 42. He knew what he was doing, though he couldn't stop it. In this song, called, "Capricious Horses," he imagines himself as the driver of a Russian troika, a wild, three-horse team pulling a sleigh.


VYSOTSKY: (Singing in foreign language).

FEDINA: On the one hand with his whip, he is making his horses go faster. But on the other hand, he is making them to go a little bit slower. So this was the resume of his late life.

FLINTOFF: By the summer of 1980, Vysotsky's life was ebbing away. That was the summer that Moscow hosted the Olympic Games, an event that the United States and many other nations boycotted because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Olga Fedina says there was no official notice of Vysotsky's death, just a note on the door of the Tagansky Theater canceling the performance of "Hamlet," Vysotsky's leading role.

FEDINA: But rumors traveled very fast in those days, and tens of thousands of people came out of their houses to pay their respect.

FLINTOFF: Some say that attendance at the Olympic Games fell sharply that day as people mourned the man they thought of as their voice. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corey Flintoff
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