January 01, 1999

The Singer of the Arbat

The soft, tremulous voice, singing with haunting sadness to the accompaniment of a simple melody on a guitar, touches the soul of anyone listening. This is the voice of Bulat Okudzhava, the voice that became the conscience of a whole generation of Russians and which continues to affect the lives of millions a year after his death.

Okudzhava was the father of the modern “bard” movement, from which emerged other celebrated poet-singers such as Alexander Galich and Vladimir Vysotsky. He began to sing his poems in the late 1950’s at the beginning of the Khrushchev thaw: a time when Russians were hungry for individual expression. His lone voice, which sang of human feelings and suffering, was a far cry from the Soviet romanticism of the Stalin era. In a very short time, and in spite of the fact that no official recordings of his songs were released, Okudzhava’s popularity had spread across the Soviet Union. Bootleg cassettes were food for anyone who couldn’t hear him in concert, and his words and melodies became the spiritual mainstay of the sixties generation. 

“He was in the atmosphere, part of our everyday life ... people saw the truth in him” said Natalia Ivanova, deputy editor of the literary magazine Znamya, referring to her student days at Moscow University.

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