I was the soul of bad company: Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980)
“Vladimir Vysotsky was the greatest bard in Russian history whose influence and popularity among Russian people during the second half of the 20th century was unprecedented and is still not understood in full, even now more than 30 years after his death.
Vysotsky was born in Moscow on January 25, 1938 in the family of a military officer. As a child he spent several years in Eastern Germany with his father’s family. After his return to Russia he lived in the hideous creation of the Soviet regime, the communal apartment, with several other families on Bolshoi Karetnoy Street. He studied at an actors’ school, and after his graduation worked as an actor in several theaters.
Where are your seventeen years? On Bolshoi Karetnoi
Where are your seventeen troubles? On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
Where is your black revolver? On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
And where are you not today? On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
He started to write and sing songs as a student in the 60’s. It was his “courtyard hooligan” songs which made him famous very fast.
I was the soul of bad company. And I can tell you, that
My last, first and middle names Were well known to the KGB”
By 1967 the entire country already knew about Vysotsky. Sometimes there were the dubious texts, but their simplicity and humor made them popular very quickly:
I happened to be walking around
And I hurt two people by chance,
They took me to militia grounds
Where I saw her…and broke down at once.
It was like a gift from above to Vysotsky that, in the midst of his popularity as an actor and bard, among all turbulence of his life, in 1968 he met Marina Vlady, a beautiful French actress of Russian origin. Marina became his soul mate. They were married in 1970; it was the third marriage for both of them. Their life together was described in Marina’s memoir Vladimir or the Interrupted Flight; it was one of the poignant love stories of the 20th century. Marina was his guardian angel until his death. A lot was said about her by the Russian media, but her love kept him alive for twelve years.
With smiles they were breaking my wings, My scream sometimes was like a wail.
And I was numb from pain and helplessness, And could just whisper: thanks to be alive!
Who were “they” in this famous song? During his lifetime, the authorities’ oppression of Vysotsky was tremendous. As the actor Bortnik from Taganka remembered, it seemed as though the invisible evil of Soviet empire was trying to suffocate Vysotsky at every level. Marina wrote that his poems were never published in Russia during his life; his songs were removed from soundtracks, his concerts canceled, his book and record deals revoked at the last moment.
But I am certain of what is false and what is sacred, I understood it all a long time ago.
My way is straight, just straight, guys,
And luckily there is no other choice!”
His humor and ability to laugh through the most difficult times as well as the connection with the ordinary people from all corners of Soviet Union helped him to overcome the failures but the level of stress was enormous.
What Vysotsky did in these conditions would not have been possible for anybody else: over thirteen years he held more than 400 personal concerts in the Soviet Union. From 1973 he started traveling abroad, first to France and Europe, then to the USA in 1978 and 1979, Canada and other countries. In New York he met with Joseph Brodsky and two of them spent a lot of time together. Ironically, the meeting of two of the last greatest Russian poets of the 20th century happened in America.
Vysotsky stated in his last poem to Marina in summer 1980 that his mission in life was fulfilled:
…I have a lot to sing to the Almighty. I have my songs to justify my life…
Vysotsky’s manuscript last poem on a britol card appeared publicly in a French auction sale held at Hotel Drouot, Paris (Kapandji-Morhange, 17 November 2015) attracting general attention when it reached a price record equivalent to Bob Dylan’s or Beatles’ memorabilia.