Today marks the 75th birthday of the iconic Russian singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, who died in 1980 at 42.
His death, according to Wikipedia, likely resulted from an advanced coronary condition caused by years of cigarettes, alcohol and drug abuse—and the stress of government persecution (he was criminally charged after a car crash and for allegedly conspiring to sell unauthorized concert tickets) and an intense work ethic. An autopsy was never performed, so the real cause of death is unknown.
Yet Russians today still celebrate Vysotsky, whose death was marked by an unprecedented and unauthorized mass gathering of tens of thousands lining the streets to see his coffin make its way to Vagankovskoye Cemetery on the outskirts of Moscow, where many arts and sports legends are buried. Attendance at the Moscow Olympics dropped precipitously as many present left to attend the funeral.
Vysotsky’s grave has a lifesize statue of the artist, acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. To this day pilgrims bring a bottle of vodka, cups and a pack of cigarettes. They light up a smoke, pour a cup of vodka, take a few sips then cast the remainder at the statue's feet, then leave the rest of the pack for Vysotsky’s spirit.
It’s all very much akin to visiting Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, for Vysotsky, a poet and prominent stage and screen actor as well as singer-songwriter, remains similarly idolized in death.
But Vysotsky was most often seen as a Russian Bob Dylan, due to his unvarnished singing voice and self-accompanied acoustic guitar folk song format—and lyrics that took on social and political issues. And while he was for the most part not an officially sanctioned Soviet artist (in fact, he was labeled “anti-Soviet scum” by a Ministry of Culture official), he was also, remarkably, loved by Soviet Union leader Leonid Brezhnev.
“I've come to believe that the Soviet Union collapsed primarily not because of any material reasons, but because the people got tired of official lies,” says Andrei Sitov, Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the Russian ITAR-TASS news service, who wrote a Vysotsky 75th birthday piece that went out today.
“And Vysotsky was a voice of truth,” Sitov continues. “Singing his songs and staying in the country, he proved that each of us individually can remain true to oneself and act as a decent human being regardless of what's happening around. This was--and still is--a great lesson.”
Sitov adds, “And of course he was capable of real magic with words. After all, true art is not about what is done, but about how it's done. Scores of his lines are proverbial now in Russian. In the language, at least, Vladimir Vysotsky will live forever.”
Vysotsky managed to make it to the U.S. briefly, and had even been interviewed by Dan Rather and appeared on 60 Minutes. But this was before MTV, of course, and even in the music video era, very few non-English speaking music acts have made it here “Gangnam Style”—especially with just an acoustic guitar.
This is too bad, as Ruby J. Jones, a Ph.D. scholar and translator of Russian who is based in Memphis, suggests.
“While learning Russian in the [U.S.] Army, my instructors introduced the students to the music of Vysotsky,” says Jones. “The sounds of his voice reminded me of the blues that I grew up listening to in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. Later, I found that his topics were also similar: the suffering of people powerless before a callous government, unfaithful women, dead-end jobs, life, prison, etc.”
After Jones retired from the Army, she entered grad school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she furthered her Russian studies and wrote her dissertation about using the music of Vysotsky in the teaching of Russian language and culture. In Memphis, she helped set up today’s celebration of Vysotsky’s 75th birthday at the Russian Cultural Center, which seeks to bridge the gap between the U.S. and Russia through education, increased understanding, and fostering friendship.
Thirty-three years after his death, the music of Vladimir Vysotsky, who would be 75 today, remains the perfect place to start.
[The Examiner has contributed to ITAR-TASS, and thrown half a cup of vodka on Vladimir Vysotsky's grave.]
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