'Soviet Poets Walk Barefoot on a Knife's Edge'

"Soviet Poets Walk Barefoot on a Knife's Edge" -- Vladimir Vysotsky

The following notes from a PBS television program, Inside Story, broadcast in 1983, blend exact words, paraphrase, and my commentary. 

PILGRIMS PLACE FLOWERS on the gravesite shrine of Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980), a Soviet-era poet who sang for the people of Russia. He was never directly condemned or persecuted. Seen first as an actor, he was officially unacknowledged by authorities, often appearing in unadvertised performances. He played the lead in "Hamlet" in an experimental theatre in Moscow. For 15 years, he performed on stage. Some KGB officers admired him, according to sources. When he died of a heart attack brought on by excessive drinking (the so-called "Russian disease"), his passing was ignored by the government. Apart from a brief obituary, newspapers did not mention his death. An admirer left a note on his guitar at his funeral: "You have no official title, but the people's recognition makes you great." More than 100,000 people gathered in a Moscow square to mourn him. The size of the spontaneous gathering stunned security officials. Afterwards, police removed photos of him and disposed of flower bouquets. The crowd yelled, "Shame!" 

"I hate the sound of iron on glass," he wrote.

When Vysotsky recited his poetry for audiences, he often accompanied himself on guitar. Across the vast country, everyone knew his voice from recordings, but many did not know his face. He shouted when he sang in a rough, fierce voice. He wrote 500 songs. His music was never played on Soviet radio. Songs were passed along from cassette recordings. Six albums were produced abroad. Finally, when the authorities could not ignore the public response to the poet, a book of songs and poems was published and a record album released -- but the approved work was described as "innocuous" by critics and considered harmless. 

"Soviet poets walk barefoot on a knife's edge and cut their naked souls to ribbons," he wrote. In the 1970s, "Vysotsky filled the role of poet-as-truth-teller." Historically, the Russian people feel passionately about the nation's poets, an intensity if not unique then rare. They believe the poet knows how to say what cannot be said in the open. One reporter explained that Russians are sentimental and emotional behind a stern facade. "You cannot understand what he meant to us," a woman explained to an interviewer. "There was no one loved as much. He was a terrifying lightning of a man." Some people were frightened by such "an incomprehensible person." 

His art was shaped by mixing with poets, painters, and musicians. Vysotsky stayed up night after night writing. He drank vodka "day and night like Balzac." He captured painful notions about the country and its people. He expressed the spirit of grace and mockery peculiar to Russia. His songs and poems covered the spectrum of life -- war, space, troubles after the world war, construction projects, soldiers, drunk tanks, greasy dives, workers -- from cosmonauts to criminals. He opposed cliches, habits, the status quo, giving voice to contemporary Russia. He wrote, "We were the first in line, but those who were behind us are already eating. It isn't fair. Let us drink to a time when there will be no jails in Russia, no camps in Russia." 

One day, walking down a street with construction workers, people opened their house windows and brought out their tape recorders to blast his songs for him. "You are one of us," they shouted. "He entered the town like Spartacus," one witness said.