Bulat Okudzhava

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Late in 1961 a literary anthology published in Tarusa, a tiny town nestled not far Moscow on the Oka River (Kaluga Province), caused a major rush on bookstores. Alarmed cultural guardians quickly ordered the 75,000 copies of the book removed from stored shelves, but not before many had been bought and begun to circulate among readers. A courageous defense by the older writer Konstantin Paustovskii prevented any further measures from being taken. An already celebrated poet appearing for the first time in prose in the collection was Bulat Okudzhava. Okudzhava had already endured hard times from the literary establishment in the 1950s for his guitar poems, which he sung himself in a less than perfect voice, accompanied on a guitar for which he knew no more than a few chords. Sung first for friends who made homemade recordings, copied and recopied again, the songs eventually reached an underground audience of millions across the Soviet Union before being officially recognized and distributed. Tape recorders were a brand-new consumer technology, which authorities had not yet thought to regulate.

Okudzhava sang of the sweet and melancholy moments in life, of comfortable corners and uncomfortable ironies. His songs about his wartime experience, told from the confused and saddened viewpoint of the seventeen-year old he was when he volunteered for the front in 1942, had a power that bombastic official works could not. Though he rarely ventured into politics, his wistfulness and sincerity were so immense that official writers and composers found him a threat. But Okudzhava did not depend on official recognition, and his popularity protected him. When he died in 1997, he was mourned as only the most cherished representatives of Russian culture could be.

Born in 1924 to an Armenian mother and a Georgian father who was shot in the 1937 purges, Okudzhava was a man of Russian culture and the quintessential Muscovite. In this he was a Soviet person. The folkways of his beloved home city are celebrated in many of his songs, perhaps most famously in his “Arbat.” Long after much of that tangled old district fell to builders in the 1960s and 1970s, it lives on in Okudzhava’s songs. And his example gave birth to the bard movement, singers of guitar poetry who would forever elude official control, and whose intimate songs distributed by modern tape technology opened a space for free discourse in Soviet society.

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