Moscow. July 25, 1980. The Olympics in the Soviet Union. The crowds were busy enjoying their sporting event, engineers were working, students solving math problems when Soviet officers were seen taking off their hats in respect. The crowds quickly asked them about the reason and the answer was simple: "Vysotsky is dead". Thousands were seen leaving the stadiums and factories, with expressions of grief on their faces, heading to their hero's funeral. Who was this one man, this unoffical celebrity of the Soviet Union?

Vladimir Vysotsky (Владимир Высоцкий) was born in Moscow, 1938. His father was a soldier and his mother was a translator of the German language. The actor and musician started his career by singing the Blatniye Pesni - songs about the romance of the russian streets (gangs, crime, drugs, prostitution, the secret KGB agents). Vysotsky certainly had enough material to work with, because the Russian streets at the time made the New York downtown look like a church. These songs are almost all written and sung from the first person point of view, and described the Soviet Underground so well that many believed that Vysotsky actually did all of the actions in his songs. The songs might have been about crime, but they were also about honour, strength of character and resistance against oppression and it is no wonder that the Russian public quickly fell in love with this rough and passionate singer.

Later on in his short life, Vysotsky moved on to writing songs about other issues - far more serious than his street songs. Many of his newer songs were dealing with World War II. His realism was perfect, capturing the pain, heroism and depression of the war in such words that made the listener believe that he was on the battlefield. Even when listening to Vysotsky's war songs today people feel their blood boil as they see the world through the eyes of a dying soldier, or a simple man who's friend did not return from the battlefield (in the beautiful song 'Yesterday, He Did Not Return From Battle'). When hearing Vysotsky's songs, war veterans burst into tears because the poet was singing about what their souls wanted to tell the world, in a way that they never could.

Vysotsky was not like the other Russian bards - some do not even see him as a bard today - in the sense that his songs were more rough, more powerful and more bold. It is clearly visible through his choice of words that are like fire, steel and stone, creating such fierce poetry that makes even the passive and calm listener sweat. Even without knowing the language it can be easily understood just how different Vysotsky really is by hearing his voice. Stained by years of drinking and smoking, his voice was rough and broken, not one that would normally be considered as valid for a singer. His guitar playing and choice of chords is also not one of a professional musician, and yet they seem just perfect for the songs just as his voice was.

In 1975 Vysotsky got married to a French actress named Marina Vlady. This gave him many new opportunities because as the husband of a foreign celebrity he was far more immune to prosecution for treason (his songs were obviously illegal for publishing in the strict Soviet Union due to their references to crime and resistance to the power) and also had the right to travel to different countries - something that he did quite often since. Many of Vysotsky's songs from that time deal with Paris and other foreign cities.

Vysotsky was not only a poet and musician but also a nation-famous actor - both on stage and in film. One of his most famous appearances on stage was in the role of Hamlet in a Russian production of the play by the Taganka theatre (of which he was an active member). He appeared in 26 motion pictures.

It should be noted once again that most Vysotsky's songs were illegal and were recorded on tapes by his friends, and during his concerts in clubs, factories and universities. The tapes spread quickly and were passed between friends to be copied, reaching areas all over the Soviet Union.

I translated one of Vysotsky's songs for you, but please note that the Russian language is extremely difficult to translate, especially when it comes to poetry, so much of the power of the song is gone.

He Did Not Return From Battle
Он не вернулся из боя

Why is everything not right?
Everything is just the same
The same sky, blue as always
The same forest, same air - same water again
But he did not return from the combat

Now I can't understand
Which one of us was right
In our arguments, with no sleep or rest
I started missing him only now
When he didn't return from the combat

He would fall silent for no reason, and sing out of tune
He always spoke of something else
He wouldn't let me rest
He got up with dawn
And yesterday - did not return from combat

Lately the spring broke free, as though from a cell
I called him by mistake
"Friend, leave me a smoke"
But no answer came
Yesterday he did not return from combat

That it's empty now
It does not matter at all
I just noticed that we were two
For me it was a wind that blew the fire out
When he didn't return from the combat

Our dead - they will not leave us in peril
Our fallen - they stand on watch
The sky is reflected in the forest like water
And the trees stand blue and tall

We had space enough for the two of us
And the time was flowing for both
Now it's all for myself, but it seems as though
it was I who did not return from combat

More translations of Vysotsky's songs can be found at and some (well, very few in fact) are quite good. My favorite translations are those of Alex Lvovsky, because he manages to make them rhyme just like in the original songs.

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