Vladimir Vysotsky

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

On July 24, 1980 Vladimir Vysotskii, the most popular actor of his time, troubadour of a declining Soviet society, fast liver, hard drinker and inveterate smoker, died of a heart attack. Voice of dissent but not a dissident, a movie star whose poetry and songs were never acceptable to the Party, Vysotskii voiced the desperate passions of a disillusioned generation. Born in 1938, he graduated from the Moscow Art Theater school of acting in 1960, and immediately plunged into writing the songs that would become underground favorites circulated from tape recorder to tape recorder throughout the Soviet Union. In 1964 he began working at the Moscow Theater of Drama and Comedy, popularly known as Taganka for the district of Moscow it graced, and scored a string of starring roles that included Hamlet and the Russian poet Sergei Esenin … His chiseled features, gravelly voice, and acting skills brought him to the attention of film directors and television producers, such as the detective series The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed.

Vysotskii the legend is as important as Vysotskii the actor and singer. Many of his songs were sung in the voice of a former prison camp inmate, which led many fans to assume that this had been his fate as well. Although Vysotskii was the darling of Soviet cultural institutions and moved comfortably among the Moscow elite, he embodied for his compatriots a defiance of social convenient that many mistook for dissidence. Although he bemoaned the spiritual vacuum of Soviet life, and flagrantly tested the boundaries of cultural expression, he never questioned or even addressed the foundations of the Soviet order.

From the moment of his death, Vysotskii assumed the dimensions of a cult object, perhaps even a martyr to the Soviet way of life. His gravesite became a site of pilgrimage, the record maker Melodiia which had spurned him during his life made a fortune on his recordings after death. Celebrated in memory, movie and song, he was celebrated by a second generation in website as well. All along the main guardian of his legacy has been Marina Vladi, his French-born wife whose Russian roots, French acting career and good looks endeared her to the Russian audience.

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