Bulat Okudzhava: The Russian Bob Dylan

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This post earned a “Comrade’s Corner” award from the editorial team.

Bulat Okudzhava was born in 1924 in Moscow to an Armenian mother and a Georgian father. His father, Shalva Okudzhava, served as a political commissar during the Russian Civil War and as a high-ranking communist Party member. Shalva was arrested in 1937 during the Great Purge and shortly after was executed for trotskyism. Bulat’s mother was thrown in a labor camp twice since 1939 for a total of 13 years. While his mother was in the labor camps, he moved back to Tbilisi. Russian Source

During World War II, (age 18) he started as a worker in a defense plant, but later volunteered for the Red Army Infantry and served on the North Caucasus front with the mortar team. He was wounded at Mozdok and later demobilized/discharged. After the war, he became a student at Tbilisi University and started writing his poems that he created during his time in war. These poems were play with a guitar making him a singer/songwriter and gave birth to the bard movement. He would the author to about 200 songs, set to his own poetry.

Song of the Arbat (1959) by Bulat Okudzhava –source
Translation of Song of the Arbat
You flow like a river. Strange name!
And asphalt transparent like water in the river.
Oh, Arbat, my Arbat, you - my vocation,
You - my joy and my misery.
 
Your pedestrians - not important people,
They rush to their matters, their heels knocking.
Oh, Arbat, my Arbat, you - my religion,
Your pavement rests under my feet.
 
One will not cure this love of you,
Loving forty thousand of other cobblestones,
Oh, Arbat, my Arbat, you - my homeland,
Never one walks to your end!
A Paper Soldier by Bulat Okudzhava
 
Once there lived a soldier,
Handsome and brave,
But he was just a child’s toy.
After all, he was just a paper soldier.
 
He wanted to remake the world,
To make everyone happy,
Yet, he himself hanged by a thread,
After all, he was just a paper soldier,
 
He would gladly brave fire and smoke,
To die for you twice over,
But you amused yourselves with him,
After all, he was just a paper soldier.
 
You would never entrust him
With your important secrets
And why?
Well, because
He was just a paper soldier
 
He didn’t yearn for a quiet life
But rather, cursing his fate,
Forgetting his paperness,
He asked for flame and fire.
 
Into the firing line?
Well, what the hell, Go! Are you going?
And one day, off he marched,
And there he burned up,
For nothing.
After all, he was just a paper soldier.

The cultural guardians ordered his books of poems destroyed and removed from shelves, but not before many were bought and circulated. Furthermore, with the recent invention of the tape recorder, his vocal recordings of his guitar poems were recorded by his friends and started to reach the audience of the Soviet underground. His recordings were copied and recopied because of the recorder being brand-new consumer technology and the authorities had not regulated it yet.

He rarely entered into politics, but his writings and recorders were never officially recognized by the state-controlled media, even though his popularity risen though-out the decade. Okudzhava didn’t need this approval though, for his own popularity protected him. He was admitted into the Union of Writers of the USSR in 1962 and worked a lot as a screenwriter, even though he sometimes removed himself from it. He wouldn’t be official published until the late 1970s, being like among the intelligentsia in the USSR. He heavily influenced the Russian culture during the middle of the century. His legacy is known as being the one of the most important Soviet bard singers of his time and his popularity was based on their subtle protest of Soviet control. He was one of the leaders of a informal movement that aimed to undermine Soviet reality. Source 1 Source 2

“The composers hated me. The singers detested me. The guitarists were terrified by me.”


-Bulat Okudzhava

11 Replies to “Bulat Okudzhava: The Russian Bob Dylan”

  1. Hey Peter! I wonder the impact his songs had on the general population. I liked how you attached the lyrics in your blog post. He seems to have had a lot of life experiences to draw inspiration from. Great post!

    1. People LOVED Okudzhava! Everyone knew his work.. He was a beloved “guitar poet.” That song (“Paper Soldier”) was one of the first songs I learned in Russian — and not because I liked it. My teacher was convinced that EVERYONE had to learn it. By heart.
      The comparison with Dylan is interesting. Okudzhava was perhaps not edgy enough — but Vladimir Vysotsky certainly was. He was an actor turned guitar poet with a much more turbulent relationship with the authorities and alcohol. His voice, especially in the later years, was really raspy – and harsh.

  2. Cool post, never heard of him before. I like the Dylan comparison – any information on if Dylan had ever heard of him and how he would judge this comparison?

  3. Interesting post, Peter! I think the treatment of his works during the Stalinist era, and then under Khrushchev is substantial evidence of cultural “thaw” and Destalinization. It’s notable that he seemed pretty removed from politics himself, despite all of the changes going on around him.

  4. Great post, Peter! I feel like it is important to look at things and people that shaped the culture of the nation during this time. People like this are often lost in history, but loved by the people. It is interesting to see someone protected in the country purely from the love and popularity by the people.

    1. Thanks Dylan. I’m happy you enjoyed this blog post. It definitely shows the cultural impact Bulat had on Russian society and how his criticism shaped the future of the Soviet Union.

  5. It is amazing that his writings were never recognized by the state media, but he became an absolute sensation. I consider it stunning he was so popular that it protected him from persecution. A very rare consideration. I cannot help but wonder if Bulat’s mothers time in labor camps had a direct influence on hims poetry?

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