The humble notes that hold great meaning

Katherine Wood explores the past and present of Russian bard music

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This week marks the 93rd anniversary of the birth of Bulat Okudzhava, one of the first and greatest of the Soviet ‘bards’. The bard genre which arose in Russia in the 1950s, saw poets putting their words to simple music and performing them for the public. Though largely ignored on an official level, the voices of the bards, including Okudzhava, Vizbor, the Nikitins, and the iconic Vladimir Vysotsky, became some of the loudest in the Soviet Union up to and beyond perestroika.

For many Westerners, the idea of ‘Soviet art’ evokes images of propaganda controlled and disseminated by the State. However, following the death of Stalin in 1953, the Khrushchev ‘thaw’ brought with it an atmosphere of relative freedom in the cultural world. Many artists were able to navigate the boundaries of what was acceptable, and in turn their work thrived. The bards were a prime example of this, being neither explicit dissidents nor allies of the regime. Their songs managed to express the realities of Soviet life without being overtly political—they provided a form of escapism without spelling out what they were escaping from. Yuri Vizbor, for example, has become known as the bard who ‘took a whole generation up into the hills and saved them’ from the lunacy of the Stagnation era with his songs about alpinism and the mountains. In one of his seminal songs, another idol of the generation, Vladimir Vysotsky, encapsulated the contrast between these Romantic images and the reality of life:

 

“To the bustle of cities and flowing of cars

We return—there’s no way out!

And we start our descent from the conquered peaks,

Leaving our hearts, leaving our hearts in the mountains.”

 

As a result of their independent, but ultimately ambiguous positions, the bards were treated with ambivalence by the Soviet authorities. They gained a cult following, and the way in which they shared their poetry — through live performances, word-of-mouth and amateur recordings—meant their success didn’t rely on the approval of the state. Moreover, their lack of interest in commercial returns served to increase their popularity and recognition. It meant that the bards’ songs could be unofficially copied through magnitizdat (homemade re-recordings) and distributed throughout the USSR. They gave Russians the words they needed to process their existence without asking anything in return, and their reward was a population who still know their songs off by heart today.

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Interestingly, although it was a form of popular music, the music of the Bards was predominantly enjoyed by the Soviet intelligentsia. Knowing the words of the bards’ songs became the equivalent of being well read, and everyday speech was littered with references and citations from them—a testament not only to their relevance, but also to the precision with which they expressed the feelings of a generation. Through these songs, people could fulfil their intellectual need to communicate with the like-minded, and the music created an unspoken bond between them. Young people also began to emulate the Bards. Every year, they looked forward to annual bard music festivals, and often took part.

Nowadays, it is difficult to find a middle aged person in Russia who doesn’t know the bards, and speaking to them about their songs provokes a wave of nostalgia. Tatiana, who was a teenager during the Stagnation era, reminisces: “On holidays and weekends, we’d go to the countryside and have barbecues. We’d build a campfire and everyone would drink and sing the bards’ songs for hours. The picnic scene in the famous Soviet film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears is taken straight out of Soviet reality: sitting around the fire, eating shashlik, playing the guitar, with the Nikitins’ and Okudzhava in the background. It was so fashionable for young people to play the guitar, and every friendship group would have a guitarist. We lived for those outings. There was really nothing else to live for—your dreams didn’t take you far. So you’d just enjoy nature, friendship and music. When people responded to music in the same way, it created unity, and those songs kept everyone going.”

However, bard music is not only a symbol of Russia’s Soviet past. It still has an active role in its musical world, with Bard music festivals taking place every year across the country. Eighties stars like Tatiana and Sergei Nikitin continue to perform new compositions and old favourites.

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The following poem was written by Okudzhava in 1989, just before the collapse of the USSR. In it, the bard explains the importance of his art for the people of Russia:

 

“This century that has been so fruitless

Is the work of our bitter hands,

And only through reading music

Can this malady be cured.

 

“When the people are crying in grief

And staring with horror-filled eyes,

Those humble notes on the page

Aren’t many but hold great meaning.”

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