Bulat Okudzhava and Aleksandr Dol’skii emerged in the Soviet Union as underground singer-songwriters whose work was always prone to literary interpretations and considerations rather than musical ones. The two represent, unofficially and perhaps unwillingly, two distinct generations and styles of performance, whose literary universe is comprised of highly different themes and issues. Okudzhava represented the older first generation of bards, made up war veterans such as Aleksandr Galich (1918-1977) and Mikhail Ancharov (1923-1990) who were professional writers and members of the Union of Writers.

This first-generation of bards were influenced by the lyrical poetry of Pasternak, Slutsky, Akhmatova, and Blok, in their songs the guitar served more as an accompaniment to song, a basis for rhythm and the creation of an emotional atmosphere, relying on simple chord structures and progressions. [1]

Dol’skii is of the second generation born in the 1930s such as Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980), Aleksandr Gorodnitskii (1933-), and Aleksandr Dulov (1931-2007). These bards were not official members of the literary community, Dol’skii received his graduate degree in engineering and mathematics, Gorodnitsky is a scientist, and Dulov was a chemist. The second generation was skilled musically, and relied on the guitar far more than the earlier bards, even though for most of them Okudzhava, Galich, and Ancharov were major influences.

In this paper I will introduce the historical and social conditions under which the bards emerged onto the Soviet creative scene, focusing on the works of Bulat Okduzhava and Aleksandr Dol’skii, and analyze their work in order to gauge the function of the past in their works addressing the period known as the “terror” of the 1930s in the Soviet Union. We will see that though their works exhibit rather opposing attitudes toward the relationships between the author, the people, and power, a complex and at times vague attitude towards socialism, and a fundamentally different creative worldview, the two authors share a similar moral sense of loss when addressing the particular past.

Artists and musicians not privileged to be members of the top creative unions could not officially exhibit or earn a living from their work. The introduction of the tape recorder and the magnetic tape into the easily accessed market challenged the seemingly absolute dominance of the official censers. Social anthropologist Alexie Yurchak describes this phenomenon known as magnitizdat:

Tape recorded music became easily accessible to most young people, even those who did not own a recorder. The songs of bardy (bards) – poets singing to an acoustic guitar – became the first nonofficial cultural objects reproduced in millions of copies and dispersed all over the country be means of home tape-recording (Barker 83).[2]

The bard genre was a cross between literature and music. Many of the authors could barely play the guitar, and to this day this primitive aspect remains a vital aesthetic of the genre. Nor were many of the author’s officially recognized poets.[3] The primary element of the song were the lyrics–in this respect the bards are considered a literary phenomenon first and a musical one second.

Magnitizdat offered the bards an outlet to express themselves creatively in a sphere not limited by Soviet censorship. The fact that these recordings became extremely popular was proof that whatever the bards were singing about was in demand from the Soviet people.

By the 1960s however, the “sincerity” and “honesty” that Pomerantsev and other liberals had hoped would enter official culture dissipated almost immediately after Khrushchev’s famous tirade at an exhibition of unorthodox artists at the Manezh Gallery in 1962.[4] Shortly afterwards several Stalinists were restored to prominent cultural posts, while conservatives demanded that all artists be herded into one monolithic union that would be easier for the authorities to police (Taubman 590). What resulted was a struggle between the liberals and the conservatives, a struggle that continued throughout most of the later Soviet period.

By this time however it was impossible to stop the dissemination of the magnitizdat. In 1960 only 128,000 tape-recorders were made available to the Soviet public, by 1965 nearly 500,000 were available, and by 1970 their number topped 1 million (see Smith 95). The compact recorders, whose cost was roughly equivalent to an engineer’s monthly salary, moved, incognito, from one kitchen concert to the next, nestled inside backpacks on the their owners’ backs (Daughtry 183).

The officials were quick to sense the danger of such illegal distribution, for many of the songs distributed did not fit the official standards of Soviet ideology. It was impossible to arrest the thousands of people involved in the production, reproduction, and distribution of these tapes, as was the impossibility of arresting the millions of devout listeners. The only method of silencing the bards was through official channels of banning unofficial concerts which were often held in apartments, factories, and open fields in the countryside. Another affective method of keeping the bards from officialdom was to deny access into the Union of Writers or to force them out (as was the case with Okudzhava in 1972), thereby denying the bards the status of being acknowledged artists, thus labeling the movement amateurish and lacking any social value or competence.

Bulat Shalavovich Okudzhava was born in 1924 in Moscow to a Georgian father Shalva, a high-ranking member of the Georgian Communist Party, and an Armenian mother Ash-ha. He lived in the Arbat section of Moscow, and remembers his youth fondly, recollecting that he grew up as a regular Russian boy. Throughout the 1930s Shalva opposed many party practices and policies of Beria, then leader of the GPU, and in 1937 was arrested and executed under the false accusation of being a German-Japanese spy. Ash-ha was arrested in 1938 and sent to a Soviet labor camp and later exiled until released during the massive rehabilitation processes in 1955.[5] After the personal family catastrophe of 1937-8 Okudzhava was sent to Tbilisi where he attended high school and lived with relatives until at the age of 17 when he volunteered to fight in World War II. From all the sources that we have available Okudzhava was a loyal Soviet citizen and soldier, and a believer in Communism throughout these years, which was typical of most Soviet youths at the time. Okudzhava recollected: “When I first went to war, I had a yearning to defend, to participate, to be of use. This was the youthful romanticism of a youth not burdened by the responsibilities of a family. I don’t remember that regular people went happily to the front. There were volunteers, if you can believe it, intelligent volunteers, but to this day we shamefully keep quiet about this. But overall the war was an absolutely brutal duty.” (Bykov 157)

This “brutal duty” came to defy much of Okudzhava’s poetry after 1945. Though the war was victorious, Okudzhava’s work never glorified it, and often explored its “horror and destruction of souls.” (Ibid) At the same time, the war influenced Okudzhava’s worldview significantly, after the war his political and social outlook was more sympathetic to objectively analyzing society, and his works took on a rather hidden anti-war and anti-authoritarian aesthetic.

In 1943 Okudzhava wrote his first song, which unfortunately has not survived, and in 1945 his first poem “До свиданъя, сыны” was published under the pseudonym A. Dolzhenov. From then on Okudzhava set his goal on becoming a writer and poet. In 1950 Okudzhava graduated from Tbilisi University with a dissertation on “The Great October Revolution in the Poetical Works of Mayakovsky.” Between 1950-1961 Okudzhava published poems in literary journals and a volume of his poems was published. In 1961Okudzhava was accepted into the prestigious Union of Writers.

In fall of 1959 Okudzhava’s underground career had begun when his first magnitizdat recordings were created in the apartments of literary critic Lev Anninskii and actress-singer Alla Rustaikis. Between 1959 and 1967 Okudzhava wrote a series of bard songs, and became increasingly popular. Many works appeared in magnitizdat form, some collections of songs appeared in samizdat form, and several collections appeared in tamizdat form. Throughout this time, Okudzhava, along with other liberal writers, signed several letters of protest, including one regarding the arrest of Sinyavsky and Daniel in 1966. These singings, the foreign publications, and his fame as an underground singer brought Okudzhava’s career very close to disaster (Smith 117). In 1972 he was forced to denounce his works published abroad in tamizdat, and in June of that year was expelled from the Communist Party. Okudzhava did not start publishing new songs until 1976. With glasnost and perestroika official books and vinyl records were released in the USSR. Okudzhava died in 1997 while on a trip to Paris, France.

Okudzhava’s creative worldview is marked by a philosophical concept that life is a melancholy affair, but it is not tragic, nor is it absurd (Smith 144). Okudzhava relies on a set of urban and natural symbols and images in order to express subjective notions and assert moral attitudes. A common theme in Okudzhava’s work is the city-as-metaphor for existence, a genre that can be seen in the cycles of works by Bruisov, Blok, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and other Russian poets, in these works there is a light-hearted influence of the Parisian chansons of Yves Montand. These city-as-metaphor for the world is the dominant theme of Okudzhava’s work throughout the late 1950s, most 1960s, and early 1980s, where the city “flows like a river” and the city courtyard (двор) assumes the characteristics of a nation and a set of cultural references associated with it, for example the privileged Imperial soslovie of the nobility, dvorianstvo.[6]

Movement through the city becomes symbolic of the cyclical movement of life, as Gerald S. Smith explains the stroll as metaphor for the individual life, where everything will come back to where it began, changed only by the deprivations of experience (Smith 144). These “strolls” often occur at nights, such as Полночный троллейбус (1957) Дежурный по апрелю (1960) Песенка об Арбате (1959), the urban night becomes a metaphor of the universe, in its dark vastness the author is free to associate himself with a all things; eyes become stars, the city transforms into a river, Moscow becomes something fluid on which and through which one is able to float between heaven and earth.[7]

Okudzhava’s city-elegies are his most well-known works, yet they compose only a part of his poetic world. Movement as metaphor for the cycle of life is seen in works that do not touch on the urban theme; they deal instead with the historical and the autobiographical. These songs and poems could be categorized as intimate-lyrics asserting moral attitudes in context of individual trials and experiences. One such poem is Okudzhava’s 1983 “Собрался к маме,” written in the year of his mother’s death and the year he visited Georgia.

Собрался к маме – умерла,
К отцу хотел – а он расстрелян,
И тенью черного орла
Горийского весь мир застелен.

И, измаравшись в той тени,
Нажравшись выкриков победных,

Вот что хочу спросить у бедных
Пока еще бедны они:

Собрался к маме – умерла,
К отцу подался – застрелили…
Так что ж спросить-то позабыли,
Верша великие дела:
Отец и мать нужны мне были?..
…В чем философия была?

Went to see mother – she has died,
When to father – but he is shot [A1]
And the shadow of a black eagle [A2]
from Gori [A3] has covered the whole world.
And bedraggled [A4] in that shadow,
gorging on the battle cries of victory[A5] ,
This is what I wish to ask of the poor people[A6]
while they are poor still:
Went to see mother – she has died,
Went to father – they shot him long ago,
So this is what you forgot to ask
while creating your great deeds[A7] :
did I not need my father and mother?
. . . in what lay your philosophy[A8] ?


[A1]Okudzhava uses the Russian word “rastrelen” (расстрелян) which means to be executed by weapon fire.
[A2]Eagle – king of birds, symbol of freedom – a black eagle symbolizes a evil.
[A3]Stalin’s birthplace in Russia.
[A4]Becoming filthy in Stalin’s shadow.
[A5]The clichés, slogans, chants of Communism and Marxism seen everywhere during Soviet life.
[A6]The narod, similar to German volk – the Russian people.
[A7]Great deeds – this is a nod to Soviet concepts of great deeds, that deeds are far more important then peoples lives.
[A8]Marxism-Leninsm, Communism and Socialism

In the first stanza of the first quatrain, Okudzhava informs us that when desiring to go visit his mother and father he is confronted with the reality that they have both passed. His mother has died; his father has been executed by firing squad (расстрелян). Exile and incarceration are a kind of death to the outside world. Ash-ha died from a heart-attack on 5 July 1983, the same year the poem was written. Earlier that year in February Okudzhava visited Tbilisi performing and speaking at the University and at Gruzinform agency. Though we cannot be certain, it is probable the poem was written after Okudzhava’s visit to Georgia and his mother’s death in July – thus making the poem autobiographical in the sense that both of his parents were indeed gone. It is important to note that the author uses the word расстрелян, which nods the terror of the 1930s, and the execution of his father in 1937. In this poem movement is both physical and emotional, though the author desires to go and see his parents such an action is impossible, in this way the individual hero’s lack of movement is felt as lack of power.

И тенью черного орла
Горийского весь мир застелен.
In the second two stanzas of the first quatrain, the author writes how the shadow of a black eagle overcasts the entire world. Several unifying symbols reach a haunting emotional truth for Okudzhava – the black shadow of Stalin has covered, obscured, clouded-over, the whole earth. The authors’ relationship to power is expressed as one that is cowering beneath the shadow, while the black eagle soars, moving freely, casting its shadow. The eagle is the king of birds, the symbol for power and freedom, the eagle’s vision is also known for its power of sight, its all-seeing eyes, thus the symbolic reference to a society of surveillance. Because the eagle is from Gori, it is an obvious reference to Stalin, who was a native to Gori, Georgia. Here Stalin is portrayed as “black,” the color of hate and vile, the opposite of white, yet is nonetheless allowed to fly in its wicked glory.

И, измаравшись в той тени,
Нажравшись выкриков победных,
Вот что хочу спросить у бедных
Пока еще бедны они:
In the second quatrain Okudzhava writes that being bedraggled (измаравшись) in this shadow, full from gorging (нажравшись) on the battle cries of victory (выкриков победных), he has a question to ask of the poor people (бедных), while they are poor still (еще бедны они). This quatrain touches upon memory, the past, and the present. Using word измаравшись, Okudzhava implies not only a physical filthiness but also moral degradation. By using the term нажравшись, which is a rather vulgar word whose root is the slang жратъ, Okudzhava implies that there was inherently something brutal, vulgar, and low-brow about the method by which people participated in this social battle-cry, influenced, soiled, and disgraced by the over-seeing shadow of Stalin. The bedraggling of a people could of course refer to any particular period in Soviet collective memory – the revolutions, the terrors of the Civil War, collectivization, and the purges of the 1930s, etc. In this poem they are all appropriate, a bedraggled people implies a collective disgrace as well as victimization.

The role of the people requests the reader to question the authors’ perceptive meaning of time and space. Though the poem does not directly state what class of people the author is addressing, we can assume he is addressing the whole “poor” Soviet population, the Sovetskii narod. By stating that they are “poor still,” the author addresses that the condition of the people, morally and physically, is just as poor as they had been during the flight of the eagle in the 1930s-50s. By using invoking the experience of the past, Okudzhava is positing concerns for the present. By relating that his father was executed by the customary execution method – a single shot in the back of the head – Okudzhava establishes a historical period: the purges.

Stating that he wishes to ask the people, not the eagle, addresses the authors perceived relationship towards the narod as either having an answer, or more importantly lacking one, for the former and current status of the people. Being a part of the narod, Okudzhava’s relationship with the “people” becomes complicated. The poem is partly an implication of the people’s obedience to brutal authority and partly a judgment on the moral consciousness of those who took part in the orgy of the shadow. Okudzhava is thus referring to those who lived through the terror and who gained power through it, as well as the new generations. In Okudzhava’s moral judgment the narod is implicit in the deeds of destruction.

Собрался к маме – умерла,
К отцу подался – застрелили…
The final stanza reiterates the loss of his mother, with the first stanza being identical to the first in the first quatrain, while the second stanza has been changed. In the first quatrain it reads: “wished to see father – he’s been shot,” while in the third quatrain it reads: “went to father – they shot him.” Whereas in the first quatrain the author was immobile, in the last the author is actually going to see his father, yet it is too late. Here there is an implication, and they are the narod – the only ones mentioned in the poem as implicit in acts of frenzy.

Так что ж спросить-то позабыли,
Верша великие дела:
Отец и мать нужны мне были?..
…В чем философия была?

In the third stanza, Okudzhava does not ask a question as he implied in the second quatrain, but in fact tells the people what they had forgotten to ask in the midst of creating great deeds. The question is sobering: “Did I not need my father and mother?/ What was the basis of your philosophy?” The term великие дела refers again to the slogans and “лозунг” of Stalinism. The judgment of the author is that the philosophy lacked any foundation or basis. Mother and father are representations not only of close familial bonds, but they are the foundation of life and symbolic of normalcy. Lacking the ability to understand this fundamental natural foundation, the philosophy is thus baseless, useless if it does not embrace the needed elements of life.

Whether Okudzhava’s poem is a direct indictment of Marxism-Leninism or of Stalinism or both is not of the greatest importance, nor is it the point. By simply reading his poems, stories, and interviews it becomes clear that Okudzhava’s opinion of Stalin was one of disgust. The issue is the past and the present; the fundamental message is irreversible loss and social apathy and compliance. The author’s relationship with the people falls into two camps: on a collective level he is guilty with the narod, either through active participation or through unconscious apathy; on an individual level the experience is one of personal loss. The author’s relationship with power, with Stalin, is that of someone being able to distinguish good from evil on an individual level, powerless on a collective level, and seeing Stalin as a representation of an all-powerful evil, which to this day covers the world.

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Dol’skii was born in 1938 in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). Dol’skii’s father, Aleksandr Viktorovich was a fairly known opera singer and actor at the Sverdlovsk Academy of Theater named after A.V. Lunacharsky, as well as a performer at the Kuibishev Theater of Opera and Ballet. Dol’skii’s mother, Elizabeta Aleksandrovna, was a ballerina and a graduate of the Leningrad Academy of Choreography named after A. Ya. Vaganova. Coming from an intellectual family, Dol’skii was exposed to music and literature from an early age, and by the time he was in high school he was composing poetry, playing the guitar, the saxophone, and the violin. In 1954 Dol’skii composed his first song “Плакала девчонка, слезы не унять.” From 1956-57 Dol’skii worked as a mechanic at the Sverdlovsk factory Uralelektroapparat, while in his spare time playing in a jazz band in steal-town of Nizhny Tagil.

From the late 1950s to the early 1960s Dol’skii played for a variety of small local jazz and blues bands, and by 1959 was being personally tutored on the guitar by famed guitarist Lev Voinvov. His studies with Voinov resulted in Dol’skii mastering the six-string guitar, becoming a virtuoso in classical, jazz, flamenco, and other forms of performance. In 1969 Dol’skii graduated from the Ural Polytechnic Institute, and taught mathematics at the university until 1974. While working as an academic, Dol’skii continued to write poetry, songs, publishing them in local university journals and performing locally. Like many youths of the 1960s Dol’skii was influenced by Okudzhava’s songs and quickly took up the genre. By the late he was 1960s performing them in festivals, and in 1968 astounded crowds at the First All-Union Festival of the Author’s Song in Akademgorodok.

In 1975 Dol’skii resettled to Leningrad where he has remained to this day. Though Dol’skii became popular in the 1970s and 1980s, and appeared on television, as well as had records produced during glasnost and perestroika, none of his works were allowed to be published, and the first publication appeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the mid 1980s Dol’skii was employing a specific set of symbols from mysticism, philosophy, and history in order to tackle the emergent primary theme of his work, Russia and the “I” (я) as “poet-singer” in relation to Russia and the world around him. Dol’skii’s songs can be predominantly characterized as lyrical-confessions, philosophical-historical elegies, and cynical-social-criticisms.

The 1988 song “Письмо Матери” also called “Письмо к сыну” can be categorized as a historical-philosophical-elegy, dealing with Stalinism and particularly addressing collectivization and terror. Dol’skii’s uses a specific set of natural and symbolic themes creating an emotional environment in order to deduce the author’s moral-ethical indictment of history.

Я пишу тебе, сыночек,

из деревни нашей тихой.

Все у нас пока в порядке.

У соседки Насти лихо.

Муж ее не пил, не дрался,

не гневил отца и Бога…

Почернел, покрылся корью,

не отходит от порога.



I write to you, sonny
from our quite village
everything so far is in order
things aren’t good with our neighbor Nastia
her husband didn’t drink, didn’t fight
didn’t provoke father and God . . .
Became black, covered in measles
doesn’t move from the doorstep
and Natalia is awaiting
a certain divorce from her husband
but for the brother-in-law (Sasha) and his grandfather
their hearts are falling into their hands
Verka’s newborn
came flowing onto the bedsheet
we now sow the fields
for the three-headed calf.
But in the woods cranberries grow
from the fist of baby Kostia
which the sister on the other weekend
buried in the churchyard
All the grass is now up to our waist
and the crows are as large as turkeys,
I bcome tired and barely
make it to the pillow
It’s not exciting to live
no appetite, there’s languor
In general, everyone has left,
I was afraid to tell you.
Kolya’s father-in-law has left
and even my brother Kolya himself has left,
bleeding white blood
and some kind of plant grew
from the sister-in-law in the field.
So the village has died out
even the janitor uncle Sasha,
even I, my dear son,
even I – your mother (mamasha)
These words were written
by the leader of the kolhozh Sveta,
but of course, if being honest,
and even she is no longer on this earth
But this letter was written
by the secretary of the raikom Kumin,
but it was mentioned in the letter
that “I died on the 15th.”
So you see, Andruisha,
how tragically and quickly
everything has happened,
I hope you catch the meaning
of the minster.
I’m conveying sympathy, that is co-disease
and on this note I end
our heartrending tale
I, of course, also died
and my wife and children
and at the end stood a signature
known to all on the earth
But the letters did not arrive
at their destined address
the mailmen, the roads, and the transport
was all put into a radiant burial cloth
and now stand before the Spasskaya Tower
wagons filled with letters
a Lonely Emperor
wrote millions of them
Since this song is referred to as a “Mother’s letter” as well as a “Letter to a Son” we immediately conclude that the narrator is a mother, writing from a “quite” village. The mother states that the “for now all is in order,” but soon begins to list a catalog of problems in the village such as Nastia’s husband falling ill with measles (покрылся корью) and being on his deathbed (не отходит от порога). The concept that all is in order when everything is falling apart is not new in Dol’skii’s vocabulary, in an earlier song Dol’skii sings: “Все чудесно, все в порядке/ если карта снова бита/ Кто добился жизни сладкой/ тот живет без аппетита.” (1981) “All is wonderful, all is in order/ if the map is bombed/ he who has achieved a sweet life/ lives without an appetite.” (1981)

И Наталья ожидает

с мужем верную разлуку,

а у шурина и деда

выпадает сердце в руку,

Новорожденный у Верки

вытек жизнью на пеленку,

Запасаем нынче сено

трехголовому теленку.

By using specific images the reader can begin to deduce the time and space that that the author is describing, primarily the villages that were geared towards collectivization, the time most likely being during the Famine of 1932-33. Verka’s newborn has “flown out with life on the bed sheet,” meaning children are not being born; a reduced mortality rate is a sign of malnutrition and starvation. Exhaustion, a symptom of starvation and depression, is also mentioned later: “Устаю и еле-еле/ добираюсь до подушки.” The step-son and the step-father’s hearts are “falling into their arms.” By “falling into their arms,” Dol’skii is using the image of one holding their arm up their chest in fear. Fear is the dominant theme which references the 1930s.

People are now storing their grain for a “three-headed calf” implies that they are not storing for it for themselves as customary, which was happening with the passage of the Law of the Spikelets of 7 August 1932. The “three-headed calf” summons images of mutation, of a monster which has not fully matured. Historically the most likely candidates for the “three-headed calf” are the 25,000’ers, the thousands of young, fanatic, urban communists sent to the villages all across the USSR to supervise the kolhoz.

Вся трава теперь по пояс,

а вороны, как индюшки…

Dol’skii continues the letter with a description of the destruction and degradation of the village. The grass has risen to waist-length, thus nobody is taking care of the village. The crows are as large as turkeys. Crows and ravens have been known to consume human flesh particularly on battlefields and during Famine.

Так что вымерла деревня,

даже сторож дядя Саша,

даже я, сыночек милый,

даже я – твоя мамаша.

Эти строки написала

агроном колхоза Света,

но конечно, если честно,

и меня на свете нету.

А писал письмо, сыночек,

секретарь райкома Кумин.

Но отмечено в райзагсе:

я пятнадцатого умер.

Dol’skii begins concluding the song with a statement that the village has “died out,” but not only the village, but the village sentry, and also her, “your mother” (твоя мамаша). We learn that these lines were written by the agronomist of the kolhoz, Sveta, but if we are to be honest, then Sveta is also not “on this earth.” The letter, it turns out, was written by the Secretary of the regional committee, someone called Kumin mentioned in the dossier that “I died on the 15th.” This is one of the most complex quatrains in the song, because the author adopts the voice and identity of three different characters, while at the same time seemingly maintaining the same character and overall message.

At first the letter is from the mother, later we learn the “lines” were written by Sveta of the kolhoz, which might imply that the mother dictated the letter. In the above quatrain we learn that the mother and Sveta are no longer living, then we learn that the letter was written by the Secretary of the regional committee, Kumin’, and in the official document it is mentioned that “I died on the 15th.” But who actually died on this date? It is most likely that the “I” in the stanza is referring to Kumin’.

Я, конечно, тоже умер.

И моя жена, и дети…

А в конце стояла подпись,

всем известная на свете.

Но письмо до адресата не дошло,

поскольку сам он,

почтальон, дороги, транспорт –

все легло в лучистый саван.

И стоят у Спасской башни

писем полные вагоны…

Одинокий Император

написал их миллионы.

The final quatrain engages the themes that are most familiar with the terror and Stalinism: an entire eradication of families and villages, letters of denunciation, Stalin’s signature at the bottom of a list of those destined for execution. The author states that the letters did not reach their destination; instead the letters, along with the mailman and the transport, were all “laid into a radiant burial cloth.” The “radiant” (лучистый) burial cloth, or body-bag, is a nod to the false slogans of Stalinism, or what Okudzhava called the “battle cries” in his poem.

Like Okudzhava, Dol’skii’s message is one of irreversible loss; however Dol’skii’s moral indictment does not target the “people” but certain aspects of the population, particularly Stalin – the “Lonely Emperor,” and the 25,000ers – the “three-headed calf.” Okudzhava creates a world where the people acquire the single dimension of being “poor” and the individual acquires a multi-dimensional characteristic of having the ability to ask fundamental questions, of being able to ethically distinguish between past deeds, present problems, and have a sense of shame, guilt, and introspection.

In Dol’skii’s poetic world all the people, even Stalin, acquire a multi-dimensional characteristic, becoming relatable to the reader. Even though the 25,000ers are portrayed as sub-human a creature whose monstrosity has not yet matured, they are later portrayed on an individual level as Sveta, the agronomist of the kolhoz, which at that time could only have been one of the 25,000ers. Even Kumin’ is portrayed in a rather sympathetic light, unable to escape the wrath of the “Lonely Emperor.”

In essence the two authors are addressing the same issue –loss. For Okudzhava loss is that of an essential part of human existence, the need for a mother and father. With the destruction of the family unit there is a collective destruction of dignity and morality. For Dol’skii the loss is similar: the family unit is destroyed either through denunciation, starvation, or political execution; this destruction is exemplified in the death of the village, the village being the symbol for the hundreds of years of tradition, faith, and culture sustained by the peasantry and articulated by the intelligentsia.
The concept that the village sustains certain elements of ethnic culture can be found in much of the Eastern European nationalist discourse of the 19th and 20th centuries, and is peppered throughout much of Dol’skii’s work. For Dol’skii the village represents the philosophical center of eternal Russian truths and mysteries which the author yearns to understand and discover, most of the time the journey of discovery is done in vain because so much has been destroyed.[8] An example of such a song is the 1988 song Земля which begins: “Не напрасно о деревне плакал/ Пажитей соломенных певец,/ Предвещая пахаре в уплаху/ Деревянной житницы конец.”
Dol’skii’s theme of the Soviets being the destroyers of Russian culture is a fundamental part of the authors creative world and moral outlook, as expressed in the song “Уходите” (1982): “Господа коммуноверцы / вы не любите России,/ вы ее убили в Сердце/ овладев в грязи насильно.” The village being “eternal” and thus natural makes those who destroy agents of something unnatural; those agents themselves are a mutation, thus the “three-headed-calf.” Just as the Soviets were unable to comprehend the natural importance of a mother and father in Okudzhava’s poem, the Soviets were unable to understand the importance of the village in the 1930s.

In order to understand Dol’skii’s “yearning” for the village, we must analyze his attitude towards Russia. In works beginning in the mid 1980s Dol’skii develops a somewhat sententious relationship with Russia as an idea, fusing himself into its destiny as a wondering poet-bard, who is eternally tied to the land (земля), whose body is composed of an aching heart that is Russia and who will continue to elegize its glory even when he is no longer living.[9]

From this poetic worldview and the established personal relationship of the author with Russia and its “eternal beauty and grief” it is fair to say that Dol’skii’s philosophical assessment of the tribulations that occurred in the 1930s and expressed in the “letter” are partly due to the terror and evils of socialist philosophy, as well as with the nature of Russian history and Russia’s destiny. Therefore the horrors of the 1930s are not an anomaly but a tragedy that recurs out of an “endless struggle” to survive with one tyrant replacing another. In this sense, Dol’skii’s relationship to power is anarchistic; the author sees it as an eternally corrupt force, a force that poisons the “gentle narod.”[10]

By employing the themes and symbols of the past, Dol’skii and Okudzhava urge the listener and reader to question and seek out parallels with the present, the intentions of the leadership and the motivations of its lackeys (xолуи).[11] Thus the function of the past becomes one of social introspection, criticism, and a sobering call for moral consciousness, which can all be understood in the era of perestroika and glasnost, when most of these songs were being composed. In this sense the two authors of different generations, social and ethnic categories, as well as different performance and writing styles, share a similar sense of loss in context of Russian-Soviet history.

Over time many of these songs have become narodnye pesni , or songs that have entered the national collective culture, often sung by people without knowledge of the authors identity, attributing these songs to an earlier period then originally composed. Many of the socially conscious songs, such as the ones discussed in this paper were composed in the 1980s and 1990s, and it is difficult to judge whether they will be part of this collective culture.

The political, philosophical, and historical nature of these songs begs to question what role they will play in the collective Russian subjectivity towards the past. What role does song play when it enters into the newly emergent dialogue of a past whose historical facts have yet to be fully settled? After asking such a question one is confronted by an obvious tension between the past and the present. In Dol’skii’s work we see the representation of the past produced by present concerns and anxieties. In Okudzhava’s work the past is also produced out of present concerns, yet it is also produced from personal experience with it, thus the past is shaped and determined by a particular perspective based on memory and its subjective dimensions. Such analysis is perhaps more suitable for anthropologists rather than historians, yet such research would shed light on the relationship between history, personal and national experience, and the production of popular music that deals with both.

Okudzhava and Dol’skii were able to use their literary and musical talent, as well as the fame acquired through a large underground following, to create songs that touched upon the most traumatic aspects of Russian history. They were able to do this in such a way that maintained their integrity as intellectuals and as original authors, establishing themselves not only as Russian bards and poets, but as unofficial critic-philosophers whose authority to judge society was bestowed to them by an adoring public. Inspired by the Russian folkloric form of melody and refrain – either in the mode of a narodnaya, blatnaya, kriminal’naya, or soldatskaya pesnya – Dol’skii and Okudzhava were able to inject these songs with a high standard of lyrical symbolism, making the experience of sorrow and loss intimate while at the same time refreshing and universal.

[1] Most bards see the the Silver Age poets and the Revolutionary Era poets as their literary heros.

[2] Barker, Adele Marie. Consuming Russia: popular culture, sex, and society since Gorbachev. 1999. P. 83

[3] The bard movement has thousands of members, and some of them were indeed official poets and writers – most notably Aleksandr Galich, Novella Matveeva, and Bulat Okduzhava. Even though they were recognized, their songs were still illegal.

[4] Historians such as Taubman (589) and Caute (589-611) argue that the infamous “outburst” by Khruschev at the 1 December 1962 Manezh exhibition was due to the agitation of official conservative artists who had prepped Khruschev prior to the exhibition.

[5] Ash-ha Okudzhava was arrested in 1938, sentenced to 5 years in GULag, and 5 years in exile. Sent to the Batyk camp in Kargal. Ash-ha was released in 1947, only to be re-arrested a few months later and sent to exile again until 1955.

[6] Okudzhava practically stopped writing poetry between 1969-1979. In the 1959 poem Песенка об Арбате Okudzhava talks of Moscow as a river: “Ты течешь, как река. Странное название! / И прозрачен асфальт, как в реке вода.” The concept of the city as a courtyard, as well as a “court” in the sense of a noble court is found in Okudzhava’s 1982 song Надпись на камне: “Я – Дворянин с арбатского двора.” Okudzhava often uses the noble soslovie in association with himself.

[7] “Мы плывем ночной Москвою/ между небом и землей.” В день рождения подарок. 1981

[8] Dol’skii gives mention to this village-centered philosophy in the 1987 song Ты музыка, сын мой: “Но словом, мой сын, что издревле / точнее стрелы и свинца… / Оно от Земли и Деревни / От Звезд и другого Отца.” In the song Моя Земля Dol’skii mentions that the land has certain mysteries that it presents to the poet: “земля открыла мне свои тайны.”

[9] Dol’skii uses the term Russia instead of heart in several poems, most notably in the 1982 Там где сердце: “болит у меня Россия” instead of “болит у меня сердце” and in the same song expresses his eternal destiny with Russia, that he will lament over it even when he is no longer living: “и о Родине вечной, прекрасной и горестной/ буду петь я всегда, даже и не дыша.”

[10] Dol’skii has addressed this eternal struggle in his 1971-89 song Вагонные куплеты: “Россия живёт в бесконечной борьбе.” The replacement of one callous person with another is addressed in the 1992 song Ощущение Серого: “и забавляет хамов хам.” Dol’skii’s anarchist outlook upon power and authority is exemplified again in Ощущение Серого with line “И снова смуты перманентны/и власть ворует, пьет и врет.” The “gentle narod” quote is form the 1991 song Пастораль: “А монахи и монархи новоявленных баронов/ Закоулками епархий травят ласковый народ.”

[11] Xолуи – a term often used by Dol’skii to describe lackeys, also used by Galich in songs.

Information on Dol’skii and all of the poems used in this paper came from Dol’skii’s official Russian website: http://www.dolsky.ru

The text to Okudzhava’s poems used in this paper came from the verified Russian bard site:


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