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Вл. Новиков. Советская цензура и ее роль в творческой судьбе Окуджавы, Высоцкого и Галича. Доклад в Лионе, ноябрь 2018

Vladimir Novikov (Russia, Moscow)

Soviet censorship and its role in the creative destiny of Russian bards

Bulat Okudzhava, Vladimir Vysotsky and Alexander Galich


In the late 1950s - early 1960s, the genre of the “author's song” appeared in Russia. (These “bards” are also sometimes known as “guitar poets”.) Its main sources and symbols were censorship, the guitar and the tape recorder. I’ll explain the social context of these three key-words.

Amateur musicians had the opportunity to buy a guitar, which was inexpensive and took up little space in the apartment. Playing the guitar is easier than playing other instruments, and it was possible with its help to compose a melody for your poems and then to perform a song for friends. Often this happened in the kitchen because ordinary people did not have large living rooms and dining rooms. If your friends liked your song, they recorded it on tape.  At this time tape recorders became available to buyers. Before that, they could be found only in state studios. Tape recorder owners started rewriting each other’s songs, and in a short time, a successful song could spread across the whole country without any official permission, without censorial control.

Soviet censorship was very strict. It was called Glavlit (General Directorate for the protection of military and state secrets in the press).  People who write poems and songs do not usually have access to any military secrets. And what were the state secrets? Practically, any true information about everyday life. The secret was the fact that it was difficult to buy things, including food, because of chronic shortages, that shopping for us was standing in a long queue for several hours. The secret was the answer to the question of where children come from, because it was forbidden to describe love-making. I remember the slogan of Perestroika times: “In the USSR there was no sex”. The secret was the fact that people are sad sometimes, that they can suffer. Because Soviet poetry had to be optimistic and inform readers that all is well, and tomorrow will be better.

First there was samodeyatel’naya pesn’a (amateur song), both an artistic and a political movement of great importance; then leaders appeared, serious masters of poetry. (The transition from amateur songs to authors’ songs has been thoroughly investigated by N.A. Bogomolov.) Recognized classics among the composers of the author's song are Bulat Okudzhava (1924 – 1997), Vladimir Vysotsky (1938 – 1980) and Alexander Galich (1918 – 1977). They became much more popular and had more influence on society than the official Soviet poets.

Bulat Okudzhava was born in an international family. His father was a Georgian and his mother was an Armenian. They were victims of the Stalin regime. The poet’s father was a Communist Party functionary executed in 1937. His mother was sent to the concentration camp in Karaganda and then to Siberian exile. Young Bulat accidentally escaped prosecution as the son of an enemy of the people. He was a participant in the war, then studied in Tbilisi, then worked in Kaluga, as he was not permitted to live in Moscow. His first book of poems published in Kaluga consisted of orthodox Soviet verses that he never reissued later. They were written with the participation of the internal censor (this impersonal person played a huge role in Soviet literature).

From 1957 Okudzhava lived in Moscow, wrote poems and songs, also prose, and more or less successfully published his work. But his most daring songs came to the reader much later, many of them being printed only during Perestroika. For example, the song “The Blue Balloon”, written in 1957 but published only in 1991. The song is global and symbolic. The blue balloon is the whole world, including outer space:

A little girl’s crying: her balloon has flown away. 
People console her, the balloon flies on. 
A young maid’s crying: no boy-friend as yet. 
People console her, the balloon flies on. 
A woman is crying: her husband has left her for another. 
People console her, the balloon flies on. 
An old woman’s crying: she hasn’t lived enough (or: her life has been short).
The balloon has come back, and its colour is blue.

What was unacceptable for Soviet censorship here? It was a lie, slander from the Soviet point of view. Soviet girls are never alone. Soviet husbands do not leave their Soviet wives.

On the other hand, in the magazine “Sel’skaya molodezh” (“Rural Youth”) the really seditious “Song about a Black Cat” was published in 1966. However, by this time half the country knew this song by heart and understood that the Black Cat was none other than Stalin (“He hides a grin in his moustache”).

Here we see a continuation of the tradition of Aesopian language that existed in Russian literature in the 18th and 19th centuries. The secret word is more emotionally powerful than the direct word.  Our 19th-century classic Shchedrin said that Aesopian language allowed him to write “even better”. Thus censorship resulted in greater aesthetic expression, with a wider general impact. “The Black Cat” is a symbol of totalitarian power. Why do some people obey it, and yet for some paradoxical reason they can’t screw a light bulb at the entrance to their apartment building?

In Russia until 1917 there was Church censorship. The title of Gogol's book “Dead Souls” was unacceptable. Because of this censorship Mayakovsky had to change the name of the poem “The Thirteenth Apostle” to “A Cloud in Trousers”. In Soviet times, censorship became atheistic. The editors of Okudzhava’s poetry had contributed as actual censors to the barbaric amendment of his texts. Okudzhava was not a very religious person, but like all poets he used sacred vocabulary. He idolized Moscow, especially Arbat Street, and said in the song: “My Arbat, you are my religion." The editors demanded that he replace “religion” (religiya ) with “relic” (relikviya). When he wrote his poetic “Prayer”, it was published in the magazine “Yunost” under the name “François Villon”. The French poet has the right to pray, but the Soviet poet shouldn’t.

In general, Okudzhava beat Soviet censorship with his flexible speech. “The Roman Empire in the time of decline” (as Okudzhava called the Soviet Union in the allegorical song of 1982) collapsed. In the new democratic Russia the seditious bard became a recognized classic poet.

Vladimir Vysotsky (1938 – 1980) called Okudzhava his “spiritual father”. As a young actor, he also began to compose songs and initially addressed them to a narrow circle of friends.

His creative method was reincarnation. He sang on behalf of criminals and drunks, soldiers and sailors, animals and inanimate objects. These songs were so uninhibited both thematically and stylistically that the author at first never even thought about publication. These songs were obviously indecent.

Home recordings of Vysotsky’s songs began to be copied from one tape recorder to another. He had thousands, and then millions of fans who had never seen him and knew him only by his unique and husky voice. He gave a lot of informal concerts, most often at the invitation of research institutes. There were no posters, but the audience filled the halls. Sometimes Vysotsky had to write a paper with a list of songs he performed and specify for the censors which appeared officially in his performances and movies. In fact he also sang songs that were not allowed officially.

He willingly wrote for films, hoping thereby to make the songs legitimate, but not all the songs were used in the movies. Many of them were thrown away. In 1968 Vysotsky became an object of criticism in the Soviet press and persona non grata for official art. He described his situation in the allegorical song “Wolf Hunting”. Wolves can’t cross the line, can’t go beyond the line of red flags and therefore they are easy to kill. A lone wolf in Vysotsky’s song goes beyond the flags and thus becomes a winner. In Vysotsky’s life censorship played the role of a kind of dam, which accelerates the water flow. The ban gave him energy to work in an informal context.

In this area of freedom, he knew no thematic restrictions, wrote about everything and created a kind of encyclopedia of Soviet life. And thanks to the philosophical ambivalence of his thinking, he created a universal picture of the world. Nevertheless Vysotsky did want his songs to appear in print. For him, it would be a confirmation of the high level of his poetry from an aesthetic point of view. But by 1975 he had only managed to publish one poem about the war, in which the dangerous lines were cut. In Russia sometimes one had “to die just to publish the first book”, as was said by another bard Yuri Vizbor. Vysotsky died in 1980, and he was mourned by the whole country. And in 1981 his first book “Nerve” was published, compiled with some caution, but still authentic, because Vysotsky, unlike the censored poets, didn’t have any false poems and songs.

The book “Nerve” was the first concession of censorship, but then things went no further. In 1982, I wrote a frank article about Vysotsky for the magazine “Novy Mir” (“New World”), where I mentioned and quoted his boldest songs. The article went to a censor, a normal Soviet woman who knew Vysotsky’s songs by heart. She underlined all the bold quotes with a red pencil and banned the publication of the article. But in 1988 Vysotsky’s book “Poetry and Prose” was issued (with my preface), which included the most daring songs. I believe that Vysotsky (along with Solzhenitsyn) killed censorship control over literature in Russia, and this oppression will never return at full volume.


Aleksandr Galich (1918 – 1997) is the oldest of our three heroes. A month ago we celebrated the centenary of his birth. But he began to compose his own author’s songs rather late, at the age of forty-four. Before that, he was a law-abiding Soviet playwright and poet. He did not write anything vile and shameful, he just worked under the control of the internal censor.

In 1958 he made his first attempt to get rid of this censor: he wrote an honest play about the war (“Matrosskaya Tishina”), but it was banned. The woman from the Ministry of Culture condemned Galich because Jews act as positive characters in his play. This was an important point for Soviet censorship. The play was only staged in 1988, when the author was no longer alive.

But Galich made a decisive breakthrough in the song genre. Here, in the words of Vysotsky, he escaped “from obedience” and rushed beyond the line of red flags. Galich spoke openly in his songs about Stalin’s terror. For example, in the legendary song “Clouds” (1964), written on behalf of a former prisoner. His songs became more and more resolute. Meanwhile, the Thaw ended. In place of Khrushchev came Brezhnev. First it was recommended to say nihil about Stalin, then to start talking about him bene. The government had a project for the gradual justification of Stalin.

In Novosibirsk in 1968 Galich performed his poem “In memory of Pasternak”, a story about the persecution of the poet after the awarding of the Nobel Prize. After that, he could no longer speak publicly and sang only in friendly company. He was expelled from the Union of Cinematographers and the Union of Writers. In 1974 he was forced to emigrate. He worked for Radio Liberty in Germany, then in Paris, where he died of an electric shock on December 15, 1977.

After the departure of Galich abroad, his name was banned. It was even removed from the titles of silent Soviet movies, where he was the author of the script. The destruction of memory was a ruthless strategy of Soviet censorship. “When I return” is the title of one of Galich's most legendary songs. His return to Russia as a poet in Russia took place in the years of Perestroika, when his works were published.

The law “On the press and other media" was passed on 12 June 1990. “Censorship of the media is not allowed”. We still thank Mikhail Gorbachev for it. Then this point was repeated in the law of the Russian Federation (27.12.1991). From that moment on we have lived without official censorship. But the metastases of the old tumour penetrate into today’s social life. This happens under the guise of fighting extremism, when people are persecuted for reposting Internet information. Brainwashing and manipulating mass consciousness through television are the reality of our lives. But this process was predicted by three great bards. For example, Vysotsky has a song “Victim of television” (1974), which describes a typical viewer, going crazy from totalitarian television propaganda. The songs of Okudzhava, Vysotsky and Galich live in the minds of our compatriots and serve as a reliable antidote to the poison of propaganda.  The songs of these three poets, who worked in the fight against Soviet censorship, retain their acute relevance in the context of modern Russian social and political reality.

12.11.2019, 1000 просмотров.

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