Balladeer's irreverent songs touch hearts, trouble Kremlin
Vladimir Vysotsky, adored by millions and feared by the Kremlin, just won't keep quiet. He does not carry a gun or give political speeches. He totes a seven-string Russian guitar and sings -- sings, among other things, of the foibles of Soviet society, the human underside of official mythology.
This weekend, amid watchful Soviet police, he played a series of return engagements for thousands of friends and fans.
"Do you like Vysotsky?" I asked one policeman.
"Everyone likes Vysotsky," he replied.
One other thing: Vladimir Vysotsky, intense and hard drinking, passed on exactly one year ago, briefly upstaging moscow's showpiece Olympic Games in the process.
A few days later, thousands of his admirers poured into a Moscow square to mourn a man whom most called by his nickname: "valodya." At one point a small group of mounted police skirmished with the crowd. "Shame, shame, shame," cried some of the demonstrators, according to reporters who were there.
Police sealed off the square near the avant-garde Taganka Theater, where Vysotsky had won an early reputation as an actor. The authorities vetoed plans for an open commemorative show.
The Communist Party newspaper Pravda, which generally likes to celebrate anniversaries for the deceased, printed a long tribute to Lenin's father 150 years after his birth but did not mention the irreverent songster.
But at the Taganka, the show went on. So did several packed dress rehearsals , all tolerated by officials on condition the commemoration would be by invitation only.
This year there was no repeat of a demonstration unparalleld in recent Moscow history. Thousands filed quietly past Valodya's Moscow gravesite, depositing thousands of rubles' worth of flowers.
"I swallow bitterly," howled Vysotsky's disembodied ballad from a loudspeaker inside the Taganka.
"The powers that be have declared war on me . . .
"Because I sing, sing hoarsely
Loud enough for the whole country to hear."
This is not completely true. The authorities clearly feared this balladeer who sang in the language of the street. They did not let him give a major concernt, at least not in Moscow. They recorded only the tamer of his songs.
Yet they did not ban him outright. It would have done little good. The small, all- night performances for friends were almost invariably taped, then taped again.
I passed by a government building here recently. A group of chauffeurs waited outside for officials within. One car's tape player blared at full blast: Vystosky.
He was adored largely, but not only, by the young. And not everyone loved him: "What's all this fuss about?" scoffed one woman, eyeing the crowd at the cemetery. "What's so special about him?"
But, as one official Soviet journalist put it to me recently, Vladimir Vysotsky struck a chord in many of his compatriots. "He was . . . a genius."
He was not a "dissident." Had he been, it seems likely he would never have become the idol he was and is.
His satire was the kind you hear on Moscow streetcorners and in Moscow markets. Many of his hundreds of ballads aren't that satirical at all, but gently ironic portraits of life on the streets.
At his sharpest he plucked the comic from modern Soviet mythology: the desk- chair war heroes, the athletes, the great Soviet worker. Often he seemed to laugh with them more than at them.
"I overfulfilled the plan," one ballad goes, "and they decided to send me abroad.
"They took me aside, taught me how not to act like a clod.
"Like a brother, they warned me of foreign treachery . . . .
"If there be talk over vodka, they said,
"Tell them, 'no,' brother democrats, "Only tea."
There were also the wails for freedom, but they were subtle, directionless, sometimes grafted onto Russian folk tales:
"I will run away from all the wolves in the forest," he wrote, "to a place where people live like people, where they sing instead of moan."
Intellectuals took this one way, truck drivers another, but all seemed to find their own song in it.
"There will not be another Vysotsky," says one admirer, a student, "just as there w on't be another Pushkin."