Three years after his demise, Soviet balladeer Vladimir Vysotsky remains one of the greatest enigmas of contemporary Russian society. The mystery of his popularity as a performer, a personality, and a protest symbol is explored in an extraordinary special edition of PBS's ''Inside Story'' called ''A Voice From Russia: The World of Vysotsky'' (Wednesday, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for various repeats).
Together with producer Joseph M. Russin, anchor Hodding Carter has pulled together several fascinating elements in the life and times of this popular actor-poet-satirist-balladeer, whose irreverent songs mocked Soviet authority, pinpointing some of the unpleasant realities of Soviet daily life. The mystery is not so much why he became so popular in a country in which any criticism is regarded as unpatriotic dissension, but how.
Authorities never permitted his songs or his poetry to be widely recorded, published, or even broadcast on radio or TV. So Russian citizens were forced to record him surreptitiously, hear him in underground clubs or at unpublicized meetings, pass the word about him along to other like-minded Russians. He was a cult figure before passing on at the age of 42, but from the time of the demonstrations at his funeral services, his enormous underground popularity came to the fore, and now he seems to be universally revered throughout the Soviet Union. So much so that the authorities have finally had to acknowledge him to a certain extent as thousands bring flowers to his grave on the anniversary of his death every year.
''Inside Story'' has acquired the rights to a documentary by Danish Television's Moscow correspondent Samuel Rachlin. Viewers finicky about reading English subtitles may have a little difficulty, but believe me, it is worth the trouble. Additional footage of the intense Vysotsky at work and with friends and associates has been added, and Hodding Carter has added several interviews with prominent Russian emigre admirers, who try to help the rest of the world understand the sources of Vysotsky's power, then and now.
What emerges is an inspiring sketch of an artist who, even in a country where limited freedom of expression is a gift bestowed on only a favored few, managed to couch effective protests in songs. He mocked the evils in Russian society, although it was always clear that he did so out of love for his country and its people, if not its government. Although difficult to translate effectively, it becomes obvious to viewers that Vysotsky's power stems from one source: the need of the Russian people to find some outlet for their thoughts about the bureaucracy.
''A Voice From Russia'' is an inspiring documentary, because it celebrates not merely a man, but the power of truth.
Chat with Hodding Carter
''Vysotsky was a little bit of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley, with a lot of Walt Whitman,'' says Carter from a telephone booth at the Lincolnville Beach ferry slip on Penobscot Bay on the Maine coast.
He is enthusiastic enough about this ''Inside Story'' special edition to interrupt a hard-earned vacation after a rather successful season on PBS.
''There simply has been no comparable figure in the USA.,'' he continues.''Vysotsky was not really a political dissenter. He did not stand up there and protest against the government as a political activist. He was speaking as an ordinary Russian citizen. He always told his audiences that he spoke for the people, not for Russia. The real mystery for me is how he managed to survive for so many years. He had to have connections very high up who somehow protected him, who respected him.''
Carter says that even among his most beloved friends, there is no paranoia about Vysotsky's death. ''He abused himself with alcohol, that is very clear.''
One of the facts about Vysotsky not generally known is that he was married to French-Russian movie star Marina Vlady. ''He married her around 1968. She was allegedly a figure in the French Communist Party, a French emigre of White Russian parentage. She returned to the USSR; they made a few films together and then got married. It may be that her fame helped protect him.''
How did word spread about Vysotsky within Russia?
''He was part of the intellectual world of Moscow, which meant that everything he did became part of the network of intellectuals who somehow manage to communicate with each other throughout the country. Also, he would get invitations to entertain at factories and committee meetings - would appear quietly, sing, and be gone. Often he would be taped, the grapevine would spread the word, the tapes would be exchanged. They loved him because he was verbalizing in song what other Russians thought but dared not say aloud.
''And don't forget, he never said that he thought they ought to do things the way we do things in the West. He said this is the way we do things here - and it stinks.''
One of the songs heard in this special concerns a group of people waiting in line. Important people arrive and are taken to the head of the line. It is a protest about abuse of privilege.
''When I was in Moscow,'' Carter says, ''a group of us went to dinner at a Georgian restaurant with the Russian assistant producer. As is the custom when the Russians are trying to impress foreigners, we were taken to the head of the waiting line. Suddenly, the assistant producer clapped his hand to his forehead and said, 'My God, Vysotsky.' And then he proceeded to sing us that song.''
As a good skeptical reporter, Carter says that he even questioned the validity of Vysotsky's anti-establishment credentials.
''Why couldn't he have been an agent of the KGB, used to channel protest into an acceptable form?'' he says. ''But all my Russian friends laughed at that suggestion -Vysotsky was absolutely the real thing, they insisted.
''However, you must realize that not everything in Russia is absolute. There does exist some kind of breathing space between the official line and prison or exile.''
Will the Vysotsky legend continue to grow?
''More so with every year. He is now a serious cult figure, so much so that the Russian cultural establishment feels compelled to release some official versions of some of his most insipid and banal songs with commercial-type violin orchestrations. He would never have allowed that. There is no question but that he is a more popular national figure now than he was when he was alive. His death has made it more acceptable for a lot of people to lionize him. You can be sure the state will be working very hard to co-opt him . . . with those terrible records.''
For viewers who want to hear the best of Vladimir Vysotsky, there are several records available in the US and Canada: ''Vladimir Vysotsky'' (Intermusic); ''Vladimir Vysotsky in Toronto'' (Kismet); and in France ''Le Vol arrete'' (Le Chant du monde).
Carter was able to give me one more piece of information before he had to dash to catch the ferry to vacationland: A one-hour special on Nicaragua to air on Oct. 23 is now in preparation by ''Inside Story'' staffers. It will be followed by reruns with updates of past ''Inside Story'' editions until January, when there will be an uninterrupted run of 20 new shows. Premieres shift
Only a few months ago, the three commercial networks were agreed that the new season would start the week of Sept. 26. But now the preseason schedule maneuvering has begun in earnest, with several new shows scheduled to premiere in the next few weeks. Subject to last-minute change, this is the schedule of premieres of new shows: NBC:
''We Got It Made '' (Thursday, Sept. 8, 9-9:30 p.m.)
''First Camera''(The new version of ''Monitor'') (Sunday, Sept. 18, 7-8 p.m.)
''Mr. Smith'' (Friday, Sept. 23, 8-9 p.m.)
''For Love and Honor'' (Friday, Sept. 23, 9-11 p.m.)
''Boone'' (Monday, Sept. 26, 8-9 p.m.)
''Manimal'' (Friday, Sept. 30, 8:30-10 p.m.)
''The Rousters'' (Saturday, Oct. 1, 8:30-10 p.m.)
''The Yellow Rose''(Saturday, Oct. 1, 10-11 p.m.)
''Jennifer Slept Here (Friday, Oct. 21, 8:30-9 p.m.)
''Bay City BLues'' (Tuesday, Oct. 25, 10-11 p.m.) ABC:
''Lottery'' (Friday, Sept. 9, 8-9 p.m.)
''Webster'' (Friday, Sept. 16, 8:30-9 p.m.)
''Hardcastle and Son'' (Sunday, Sept. 18, 9-11 p.m.)
''Just Our Luck'' (Tuesday, Sept. 20, 8-8:30 p.m.)
''Arthur Hailey's Hotel'' (Wednesday, Sept. 21, 8-9 p.m.)
''Trauma Center'' (titled changed back from ''Medstar'') (Thursday, Sept. 22, 8-10 p.m.)
''Oh Madeline'' (Tuesday, Sept. 27, 9:30-10 p.m.)
''It's Not Easy'' (Thursday, Sept. 29, 9:30-10 p.m.)
CBS, with only five new shows, has not yet revealed its premiere-scheduling strategy. However, the new shows with their regular days and times are:
''Emerald Point, N.A.F.'' (Mondays, 10-11 p.m.)
''After M*A*S*H'' (Mondays, 9-9:30 p.m.)
''Scarecrow And Mrs. King'' (Mondays, 8-9 p.m.)
''Whiz Kids'' (Wednesdays, 8-9 p.m.)
''Cutter To Houston'' (Saturdays, 8-9 p.m.)