Vysotsky, Vladimir Semyonovich

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(January 25, 1938July 25, 1980), poet, actor, singer.

Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky was born and brought up in central Moscow. He made his living as an actor, joining Yuri Lyubimov's company at the Taganka Theatre in 1964 and performing there to the end of his life. He was a mainstay of the theatre's ensemble style, but also took the leading role in several epoch-making productions, notably as Galileo in Brecht's play, and then as a generationdefining Hamlet. Besides the theatre, Vysotsky regularly appeared in films, usually playing "bad boy" roles. Part of his stock-in-trade as an actor was the performance of songs to guitar accompaniment, and it was in this genre, delivering his own words, that he became more famous in his own lifetime than any other Russian creative artist.

The beginning of Vysotsky's professional life coincided with the appearance of guitar poetry, which in its turn was enabled by the availability of the portable tape recorder in the USSR. Vysotsky's songs could therefore be recorded free of

official controls, and the results duplicated. The popularity of these homemade tapes, and the semi-legal appearances Vysotsky made in clubs and other institutions, brought him to the attention of the authorities. He was subjected to harrassment because, in official eyes, the content and especially the style of his songs, saturated with robust humor, were unacceptable even within the relatively permissive boundaries of Socialist Realism in its later phases. Vysotsky was regularly censured by various official bodies, but, shielded by his unprecedented popularity, he was never subjected to serious reprisals.

Vysotsky was a prodigious creator of lyrics, consistent with his extravagant, extravert personality. His songs fall broadly into two successive chronological phases and two generic categories. In the earlier phase, he created hundreds of songs in which the author speaks through a persona. They include songs about military life, which formed the most officially acceptable segment of the repertoire and were in many cases created for theatre productions or films. Then there were songs about sport (running, soccer, weightlifting, even chess). There was also a series of love songs, which portray relationships in either a disenchanted, even cynical manner, or else idealize the female. The most dubious songs from the official point of view concern criminals; they are violent in their actions and crude and direct in their thoughts. The second, and on the whole later, segment of Vysotsky's repertoire consists of songs in which the author speaks from an explicitly autobiographical stance. These songs express mounting frustration and despair; they were driven by Vysotsky's addictive personality and the ravages it inflicted on his physical and mental stability.

While there was constant disagreement during his lifetime about whether Vysotsky was a mere entertainer or merited serious consideration as a poet, his work illustrated the arbitrariness of this distinction. The literary establishment regarded him as an embarrassment, often out of envy and resentment for his genuine popularity, and connived with their political masters in denying Vysotsky access to the public media. His spectacular marriage, his third, to the French film star Marina Vlady was another source of friction. Vysotsky made a few records in the USSR, most of them bowdlerized, but he was never allowed to publish a book. This attitude changed only after his death, especially with the onset of glasnost; a small collection of lyrics appeared in 1982, and since then there has been a torrent of publication and discussion.

Vysotsky's songs imply a crude but coherent system of values whose core is masculinist individualism. The consequences may be tragic for him, but he still rises to the test. The appeal of this hero, to men and women alike throughout the social spectrum of Soviet Russia, made Vysotsky an idol who was felt to speak for the people more genuinely than any other contemporary; there is no more telling case of the discontinuity between popular acclaim and official recognition in the Brezhnev period.

See also: dissident movement; music; okudzhava, bulat shalovich


Beumers, Birgit. (1997). Yury Liubimov at the Taganka Theatre, 19641994. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.

Shkolnikova, Mariya. (1996-2002). Vladimir Vysotsky: The Official Site. <http://www.kulichki.com/vv/eng>

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

Gerald Smith

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Vysotsky, Vladimir Semyonovich

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