Okudzhava, Bulat Shalovich

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(19241997), Russian poet, singer, and novelist.

Bulat Okudhava's parents were both professional Party workers. In 1937 they were arrested; the father was executed and the mother imprisoned in the Gulag until 1955. At age seventeen Okudzhava volunteered for the army, saw active service, and was wounded. After the war he graduated from Tbilisi University, then became a schoolteacher in Kaluga. In 1956 he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and moved to Moscow. He worked as a literary journalist, and joined the Union of Writers in 1961. He made his name as a prose writer with the controversially unheroic war story "Goodbye, Schoolboy," and followed this with a series of historical novels depicting various episodes from nineteenth-century gentry life.

In the late 1950s Okudzhava pioneered "guitar poetry" songs performed by the author to his own guitar accompaniment. This genre drew on long-established traditions of Russian drawing-room art song ("romance"), student song, and gypsy song, as well as that of the French chansonniers, who became well known in Russian intellectual circles in the late 1950s (Okudzhava's favorite was Georges Brassens). Okudzhava cultivated an amateur-sounding performance manner. In actual fact, he was an extremely gifted natural melodist, creating dozens of original and unforgettable tunes. Okudzhava's songs are suffused with nostalgic, agnostic sadness. They deal with three principal themes: love, war, and the streets of Moscow. In his treatment of love he is an unrepentant romantic, idealizing women and portraying men as subordinate and flawed. In his treatment of war he is anti-heroic, emphasizing fear, loss, and mankind's seeming inability to find a more humane way of settling disputes. In his treatment of Moscow he looks back to a time before the city became a Soviet metropolis, when it offered refuge for the vulnerable and sensitive in its courtyards and neighborhoods, especially the Arbat district. His treatment of war and Moscow were particularly at odds with official notions about these matters. At about the time that Okudzhava created his basic corpus of songs, the tape recorder became available to private citizens in the USSR, and the songs were duplicated in immense numbers, completely bypassing official controls.

By the mid-1960s Okudzhava had become, after Vladimir Vysotsky, the most genuinely popular figure in the literary arts in Russia. He was unique in that, while he remained a member of the Party and the Union of Writers, his work was published abroad (without permission) and circulated unofficially in Russia, while continuing to be published officially in the USSR. Shielded by his popularity and his fundamental patriotism, he was never subjected to severe repression. From the mid-1980s until his death he was something of a Grand Old Man of Russian literature, the doyen of the "men of the 1960s." In 1994, his novel The Closed Theatre, a barely fictionalized account of his parents' life and fate through the eyes of their son, won the Russian Booker Prize.

See also: journalism; music; union of soviet writers


Smith, Gerald Stanton. (1984). Songs to Seven Strings: Russian Guitar Poetry and Soviet "Mass Song." Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Makarov, Dmitriy; Vardenga, Maria; and Zubtsova, Yana. (2003). "Boulat Shalvovich Okoudjava." <http://www.russia-in-us.com/Music/Artists/Okoudjava>.

Gerald Smith