Vladimir Vysotsky the Russian Bob Dylan

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge MD

I still recall the words of one of my teachers Mr. Vethali Ivanovich who introduced me to the songs of Vladimir Vysotsky in 1986. He said “if you want to learn the Russian soul listen to Vysotsky” A poet, songwriter and actor, Vladimir Vysotsky was the most famous Russian bard. He is adored by millions of Russians today.

Vladimir Vysotsky, who began performing in the 1960s, was quite critical of the regime, highlighting bureaucracy criticizing the unfair privileges of the elite and objecting the repression. His lyrics took position on the Soviet status quo. But he loved his country and he was a true Russian. Vladimir Vysotsky could be considered as the Russian Bob Dylan. He was the voice of the silent generation of the Soviet Union.

In Capricious horses (Russian title: Koni Priveredlivye ) Vysotsky sings as follows.

By the edge, near the cliff, at the very, very limit
I am beating at my horses with my arm, a whiplash in it.
I’m not getting enough air – drinking wind, the fog imbibing,
And I scent with deadly rapture: I am dying, I am dying!

Just a little slower, horses, little slower now!
Do not listen to the sharp whip, it is wrong!
But the horses that I got are capricious ones
I can’t live to the end, I can’t finish my song.

Ironically Vysotsky sings about a strange land. The song is called “The tale of the wild mammal” (the Russian title Pro dikogo vepria ) This song was banned during his time.

In a kingdom where everything was quiet,
With no cataclysms, no wars and no shocks,
A monstrous animal came as a plight,
A kind of buffalo, a bull or an ox

The king had stomach trouble and asthma
Frightening everyone to death with his cough
In the meantime the terrible monster
Ate up people, or carried them off.

His songs were popular in the West. The famous movie White Nights (Colombia Pictures) carried the Academy Award winning song “Say you Say Me” by Lionel Richie and a rebellious song by Vladimir Vysotsky. Although he was the living soul and conscience of his time his songs were forbidden to play and his poems went unpublished.

This is another song by Vysotsky which is called “Some one saw the fruit” (Russian title: Prervannyi polet)

Someone saw the fruit that could not get ripe
They shook the trunk – it fell, just so…
Here’s the song of him who did not finish his song
And that he had a voice – he did not know.

Perhaps he was not on good terms with fate,
And on bad terms with circumstance
And the tight string lay on a fret
That was broken in single place.

From his songs people drew strength to live, to work, and to love. Vysotsky’s songs were more profound and carried the message of love and truth. He openly fought against the hypocrisy and double standards. But he paid a heavy prize. Vysotsky was branded a subversive under the system and none of his works had been recognized by the state. In the later part of his life he was isolated and made more inactive. The crusader Vladimir Vysotsky died in 1980 at the age of 42. He was eventually rehabilitated during the cultural liberalization during the Perestroika in 1985.

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