Russian Music Legend Vladimir Vysotskii

Ahem. And now, I would like to present to you… the first of the Russian “bards,” the cornerstone of the anti-establishment movement in the Soviet Union, and the greatest musical legend Russia has ever know, Vladimir Vysotskii!

Bards, A (Brief) History

The late 1950s and early 1960s were marked by an era in Soviet history known as the Thaw (the time after Stalin’s death when Khrushchev was in power). During this time, Russian culture began to produce singer-songwriters known as “барды (bardy)” or bards. Bards wrote, accompanied, and sung their own songs called “авторксая песня (avtorskaya pesn’a)” or “author’s songs.” This type of music focused on the words rather than the chords — in fact, chords were often the same from one song to the next. Most of these songs were about social or political commentary, which was often deemed anti-Soviet.

Bards published their works through the “самиздат (samizdat)” or underground self-publications. Prosecuted by the Soviet government, they performed their music not on the official stage, but wherever they could — in factories, clubs, and private apartments. Their music wasn’t recorded in studios, but by the very people whose apartments they performed in, and then transmitted from one person to another on illegal homemade cassettes (you know, those little reels of tape they used before CDs came out?). The greatest bards managed to “go viral” this way despite being constantly on the run from the KGB.

Vysotskii

Vysotskii's Grave

The most well known Soviet bard, and perhaps the most influential Russian musician of all time, is Vladimir Vysotskii. Writing about politics, war, love, and the human condition, Vysotskii epitomized the Russian concept of bard (although he preferred to call himself a poet).

His unique singing voice, musical style, and honest attitude towards Soviet life cemented his position as a musical legend in Russian culture. Although his music was never officially sanctioned by the government (with the exception of a few non-political pieces) or taught in schools/universities, his songs are nevertheless memorized by heart and sung to this day.

Vysotskii wrote literally hundreds of songs, most of which he performed with only self-accompaniment on the Russian seven string guitar. Much of his music contains difficult-to-translate idiomatic expressions or slang, as well clever political jibes or witticisms and difficult-to-grasp Soviet cultural concepts.

So why is this important?

When you travel to Russia, you’ll probably be invited to some parties or meet-ups. Invariably, these parties have guitars… and where there is a guitar, there is Vysotskii. Vysotskii is a household name across Russia — even today, many Russian anti-establishment musicians idolize Vysotskii and strive to emulate his effortless and honest musical style — so it’s important to know who this person was!

Sing-along!

Practice your Russian by singing along with this video! This haunting war song called “Он не вернулся из боя (On ne vernuls’a iz boya)” or “He didn’t return from battle” is about losing a comrade in battle, and only learning to appreciate him after he is gone.

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Want more?

Those of you who are more advanced in Russian, or just want to hear some more music from Vysotskii should check out this Grooveshark playlist of Vysotskii’s songs.

For a comedic song, check out “Сказка о несчастных сказочных персонажах (Skazka o neshchasnykh skazochnykh personazhakh)” or “A story about unfortunate fairy tale characters.” For a song about cold Russian winters, listen to “Гололёд (Golol’od)” or “Sleet.”