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July 24, 2004

Guest Posting -- Tatyana on the Russian-Bard Scene

Dear Vanessa --

Honest now: did you have any idea that there's a substantial Russian-bard scene in America? What's a "Russian-bard scene," you may ask? Why, Russian poet-troubador-singers who have a substantial, mostly-emigre fan base, what else?

I know a tiny bit about this because 2Blowhards visitor Tatyana told me about it. Tatyana's an amazingly interesting person -- a Russian emigree with an engineering degree who works in Manhattan as an interior designer. I've been lucky enough to swap a lot of emails with her, and to spend a couple of lunches gabbing with her too. I've gotten a lot out of comparing notes; I've even managed to get her to do some personalized art-coaching. Up next on the Netflix queue, for example: "Masters of Russian Animation." Tatyana tells me that one of the animators whose work is included is really brilliant.

I've badgered Tatyana a few times about putting some of what she knows into print. So I'm pleased she's taken the time to pull some info and thoughts toether, and that she's given me permission to run her words on the blog.

[Editor's note: I lifted the images in this posting from this site here. I hope that's OK -- if it isn't, I hope someone from the site will let me know. I'll take them down pronto. Nice photos, though!]

Here's Tatyana on the Russian-bard scene in America.

It is all true, you see. There is a Russian conspiracy in this country. Thousands of people on both coasts (and between, in ever-increasing numbers) belong to the network. Old, veteran members form the compact organizing nucleus, and although they are not being paid themselves, they collect fees from the regulars for various organizational needs. What's more, Russians from other countries are involved. Networks in different parts of Europe, the Middle East, Canada and, I suspect, Australia know of each other and coordinate their activities.

All right, I see you're sitting on needles. I want to introduce to you the Club of Self-Written Song of the U.S., aka the Bards Club Of America. Or: the Club of the Self-Created Song; or the Author's Song Club; or the Singing Poets Club, etc.

See, there is a long-standing disagreement about of what the proper name should be. I’ll call it KSP, by Russian abbreviation. I am afraid that my pen is unable to present in compact prose the detailed history of the movement. There is plethora of available material on the subject I'm having a hard time organizing in a concise manner. I'm sure there are many erudite people out there who’ll be shocked by my grossly inadequate outline. Let's just say that I'm writing this as a first introduction to the subject.

So, the history of the bard scene, or how I see it.

In the country formerly known as the Soviet Union, everybody led a double existence. And in this multilayered world, songs by bards were part of the hidden, sincere, human, core side of our lives. Like contraband books by old and new writers that official critics labeled anti-Soviet and that we read only in Samizdat, songs written and sung by Bulat Okudjava, Yury Vizbor, Veronica Dolina, Vladimir Vysotsky and hundreds of others were a sort of underground soul food, a reflection of reality that was unavailable through the usual channels.

It started in the late 50's, after survivors from Northern and Siberian camps started to trickle back to populated parts of the country. Very few of them could write like Solzhenitsyn or Varlaam Shalamov, but many more could sing prison songs. The so-called blatnye pesni were written by career criminals, and songs based on the experience of the camps were written by political prisoners, but in form resembled the former (sometimes even using the same melody).

Society's attitudes towards prisoners changed during the "Thaw" years of the 1960’s. Political "ZK" (inmates), who were previously considered "the enemies of the People," became human again. Suddenly Pushkin's line about "mercy to the fallen" was quoted in Pravda; public debates about "physicists vs. lyricists" filled the arenas with audiences. And the first shy voices of social and political dissent started to appear semi-publicly.

Vysotsky started with songs imitating blatnye pesni, and soon became the best-known Russian bard. (Here's a page about him. See also the excellent Sasha Voloch article here.)

Another source was the tradition of so-called "urban romance," a 19th-century melodramatic musical form mostly of love triangle-themes. There were some folk influences, too, but negligebly few. The first here was Bulat Okoudjava. Songs in his tradition by different authors are the best in whole KSP movement.

At the same time it became desirable to choose "manly man" professions not associated with the Party, Communist ideology and such. Spending a field season in the tundra as geologist was considered a more romantic and masculine thing to do than to be a literary critic in a state publishing house. Being a journalist was interesting only if he was writing about people of "self- dependent professions": pioneers of Siberian exploration, mountain climbers, sailors, commercial pilots, submarine officers, etc.

One such journalist, Yury Vizbor, was writing reports for newspapers and also poems about the people he'd written about in his articles. Vizbor also sang his poems, accompanying himself on the guitar. He became one of the patriarchs of the so-called "Tourist Song" ("tourist" meaning mostly camper and/or hiker -- in Soviet conditions). His songs are considered classics of the genre. Links to some of them can be found here. There are 342 recordings listed, some of the more famous titles being "Snowstorm," "North Fleet," "I lost my heart in Fan Mountains," "3 minutes of Silence," "Ocean," "Don’t feel sorry for me" -- you get the idea.

When I feel sentimental, I tend to mumble his "Forest Sun" under my breath:

… Quiet and sad the creek by the amber pine
Ash on the morning embers
Everything’s ended, words are useless now
My sweet, my forest sun
Where and in what land will I see you again?

(You can see more here. Scroll down to "Forest Sun.")

Those were people at the cradle. This year is a commemorative one for three authors: Okudjava, Vizbor and Klyachkin. (I know, I know, how the hell to pronounce "Klyachkin"? That’s why I didn’t say anything about him -- but believe me, he’s very good, too).

There are thousands of bards now, in Russia and abroad: people who write their own lyrics and music and sing it, too. These are bards in purest sense, like Vadim Pevzner (here), who lives simultaneously in New York and Moscow. And then all possible variations too: people who perform somebody’s songs but are not singers by profession; people who use somebody’s verses as lyrics for their own songs and sometimes sing them, too, etc. The ruling principle from the beginning was that all these people were amateurs, and had unrelated professions and/or earned their living by some other means. There were three or four exceptions, which obviously only confirms the rule.

Things have changed now, what with the fall of the Soviet Union, with the impossibility of finding work in certain fields (mostly science and research), with emigration, etc. Looking at some of the biggest names (living and not): Sergei Nikitin, PhD in Physics, Moscow State University, scientist. Yuri Vizbor -- as I said above, journalist, but also a screenwriter, alpinist, and radio personality. Viktor Berkovsky -- he graduated from the "aristocratic" Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys, and is a metallurgist and pedagogue. Alexei Brunov -- an engineer-geologist, he has degrees from two universities. Veronika Dolina -- professor of French. Yuli Kim -- professor of Russian, Social Sciences and History, screenwriter and playwright. Aleksandr Mirzayan -- scientist, Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics.

All of them are widely-known authors/performers. There are duets, trios and solos on international tours now too. Some are larger musical groups, with a varied selection of instruments; purists call any instrumentation more complex than a solo guitar an abomination. There are vivid discussion on hundreds of KSP forums on all related issues. (For example, here -- in Russian, alas.)

And there are slets, or festivals. Some are small. But some are huge: true Woodstocks of the Bard Song.

A month ago I was standing at the Center Jersey train station, on my way to a slet. I was very unpleased with myself. So much preparation, endless phone conferences, lists of who takes what, schedule synchronizing, counting of vacation days -- and here I am, circling around an unfamiliar station where I was told I'll be picked up by a stranger. The rucksack was heavy on my back and my supposed ride was nowhere to be seen -- and I even forgot to print the e-mail with the guy’s cell number!

I'd missed the previous event last winter. I was torn between two unrelated gatherings, and of course the one I finally chose, in the city, turned out to be a total waste of time; the person I'd most wanted to see didn't even show up. So this year, I decided to go the woods no matter what. Normally, sleeping in the woods is not my idea of great time: insects, shaky tents with their illusion of privacy, bumpy ground under the sleeping bag (I'm no princess, but I still prefer a reasonably comfortable mattress for my sleeping accomodations). Besides, when it’s dark, my not-ideal vision gets even worse, and I expect herds of threatening night animals to jump at me from behind any tree.

So why am I … -- ah, here, my ride just arrived, an SUV packed with camping gear, one dog, one wife, two guitars and one junior. And quickly we're on the road to the Pokonos, Indian Head campground, home of the Summer slet of the Bard Club of the East Coast. (You can see their logo here -- and feel free to browse the section for more photos). Incidentally, those three famous heads are not Marx, Engels and Lenin, as you might think, but founding fathers of the genre: Vizbor, Okudjava and Klyachkin. The reason they're portrayed together is because this year happen to be their memorial year. Thus the name of the slet: "Memorial."

Slets on the East Coast have been taking place for seven years. The first one consisted of 150 people; there were no visiting stars, just amateurs and admirers of tradition. Some of them had known each other since their college days in the Old Country, where they were members of the local clubs or simply listened to the tapes of their favorite authors. Or they met during one of the big festivals back in Russia, for example "Grushinsky" (or simply "Grushinka") in Samara on Volga, with its floating on water stage in the shape of a guitar. Grushinsky has been held for 31 yrs, and last year there were about 200 thousand attendees. (See here.)

I never went to any of the big slets even in my 20's, in my first college years. I knew about the movement, of course, and admired the songs, as well as the ideas behind them. I gladly attended any concerts available in my Ural University city (official and unofficial alike) by visiting celebrities. In fact, it was me who introduced my younger sister to the whole idea.

But there were some personal exterior circumstances (as well as differences in our personalities) that left me a mere occasional listener and made her one of the organizers in her college club. Oh, the stories she used to tell me. A Moscow slet during one of the summer breaks: it snowed in June and temperature fell to minus C deg. Forest meadow became a snowfield, and the occupants of her tent had to warm up the beer bottles all night on their own bodies to keep them from freezing and exploding (and to have something to cure them in the morning, of course). Or another one: when given the wrong directions, their group wandered into some military territory and had to explain themselves to the major (and eventually share their fuel supplies to get released) ... Well, these stories could fill up couple of volumes. Perhaps another posting.

So it was with some mild reservations that I agreed to finally make acquaintance with the local KSP scene. I imagined a handful of middle-aged guys, channeling their middle-age crisis the safe way -- into a nostalgic pool of their cool youth memories, their middle-aged wives happily accompanying them on a "no-kids-present" trip. Not that anything would be wrong with that, mind you.

I found something I didn't expect, though. We arrived on Friday afternoon, handed our tickets at the parking gate to scary-looking guards with walkie-talkies in full camouflage with bulging pockets on their uniform (called GOP, no relation -- simply means Security Group). We found our site, I saw my sister, and I carried my stuff to her tent.

It was the usual camping atmosphere: about 10 tents surrounding a fire pit, folding table and chairs, people in shabby clothes unloading coolers. Introductions: I immediately mixed up names, cities, professions, who is currently whose wife (and boy, was it fun afterwards figuring out supposed connections!). There were hundreds of similar sites around, adding up to around 2,500 people present. (I was told there were about 500-600 people who didn't manage to get tickets … )

There was one huge central stage at the soccer field (not very good pic, but you can see S. Nikitin here), with a schedule of big concerts pinned to the pole: 3-4 every day/night of the weekend, not counting impromptu "guitar-around-the-circle" events at every site.

From first concert on Friday night and for two more days (and nights) I didn't have a spare moment to reflect. Instead, I soaked up poetry, music, and new people like a desert soil under the rain. I didn't even know I had this need in me until I started listening. Maybe because I wasn't expecting much I was totally captivated and became so enthusiastic I didn't recognize myself. There wasn't even that much vodka in me, honest; besides, summer nights are quite cold in the Poconos, so warming up is essential.

Some pictures from my memories. Here's the so-called Pentagon (I was told the name comes from its geometrical shape) -- gigantic pieces of tree trunks surround a huge camp-fire with improvised sound apparatus on one side and a long procession of singers. And what a performance! The stars of the evening -- guests from abroad, live. S. Nikitin (solo and with his son, who lives in the US with his American wife, doing scientific research). Psoy Korolenko (a real scream, see his site here ). Local celebrities Vladimir Muzykantov (a serious scientist, MD, professor of medicine, here -- an outstanding, exquisite poet and songwriter (see here; track 9, "Nostalgia"). From his other song:

What force throws us to the cushions
We are dying in our last kiss
And above us our souls are flying by
To the paradiz, to the paradiz, to the paradiz …

Arkady Dubinchik (a programmer and software writer, Washington -- sorry, no tracks of his beautiful songs at his site, only his great poetry: youll have to take my word for it ). Alik Alabin (here --click on tracks for sound samples ). Oh, there is no way I can list everybody -- I don't know the names of three-quarters of them!

Three hours of sleep a night on average; breakfast, smoothly flowing into an early lunch ... Food and drink offered by strangers. An orange campfire in pitch-blackness. Lena S., with her 10 yrs-younger girlfriend in the shadow behind, handling Lena's glass, sweater, cigarettes while she sings her angelic songs -- nobody knows the girl's name despite her being Lena's companion of six years and present on all the slets. Nikitin with sore throat at our site at 2:30 a.m., with all of us humming along. The famous song "Key" by Alabin and Shvets (they hadn't sung together for a long time, but made an exception for this slet). A guy who gave me a ride telling us a story about how he went to Reagan's funeral -- and thus triggering political discussion over kebabs. Somebody unknown wandering to our site with all ingredients for gin and tonic (even ice cubes in thermos), asking only for our glasses to fill (by than started to dawn). After lunch: photojournalist Yury L. reading aloud his daughter's short stories next to our tent (she's a paralegal deployed to Iraq) …

What surprised me the most was how many young people were there -- at least 50%. And they not only knew the old songs and authors of the past generation. Instead, they were singing their own -- in Russian! -- around their own campfires.

Sunday morning my sister found me a direct ride to Brooklyn -- Olya, an economics student at Carnegie-Mellon, 21. I arrived home with my head full of new voices and faces, with random poetic lines in my ears, and completely out of voice myself. I was fighting a severe allergy attack (something's always blooming in the forest) and an aching back. And I haven't been that happy for a very long time.

I got out of the car. On the corner a girl was waiting for cars to pass: black skirt to her heels, studded with metal and applied cords, military boots, a torn violet Goth top, magenta lipstick and … a Muslim headdress. Welcome back to reality.

For further browsing, try here, here, here, and here.

Many thanks to Tatyana.



posted by Michael at July 24, 2004


Thank you for an interesting article :)

Posted by: claire on July 25, 2004 05:56 AM


It is always dangerous to talk in generalities about any "people." That said, Russians seem to have a particular susceptability to oceanic feelings; what you call sentimentality in your post. There's a kind of tidal wave of emotion barely held in check.

The flip side of that is a sense among many Russians that without a stern "father" they will run amok.

Or am I off the mark?

Posted by: ricpic on July 25, 2004 11:26 AM

you're right and wrong.
I'm not ethnic Russian, so I'll leave the talk of "mysterious Russian soul needing strong father figure" to them.
If we're talking in generalities- we, Russians often feel lack of human emotion in Americans. As if they are some robots, programmed HOW humans should react in any given situation, trying to imitate people but somehow totally lack the persuasion. Over or under, but rarely on the mark.
When I mentioned sentimentality, I referred to myself only and to my own feelings about one particular song and what recollection of my 20+ it brings to me. In general (ah, generalities again), I am not a sentimental person.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 25, 2004 12:02 PM

Thanks a lot, Tatyana!

ricpic, what you call a wave of emotion is something that runs way deeper. Everyone misses, or should miss their youth. Gib meine Jugend mir zurück and all that.

I wouldn't underestimate the emotionality, so to say, of the average American: experts in advertising, movie-making and politics should provide some proof. Russians are on average no more emotional than black Americans or white Southerners. Moscow yuppies seem as coldly shallow to me as their counterparts elsewhere. When I was a yuppie, it wasn't like that.

Posted by: Alexei on July 25, 2004 03:18 PM

Thank you for the post Tatyana,

Would the Bard Movement have gotten as far as Hollywood? It seems like lots of movies feature Russian technology geniuses who also have a deeply humane or artistic side. I just saw a Nick Nolte movie where he is a drug addict in Marseilles (sorry I don't know the name of the movie). He cleans up in order to stage a high tech heist in Monte Carlo. The guy who designed the security system (and knows how to crack it) is a Russian high tech guy who also loves playing soulful wild electric guitar. The movie was just OK. I think it was a vehicle to let an old man (Nolte) walk off into the sunset with a young actress (don't know name) one last time.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on August 5, 2004 01:47 PM

Doug, thanks for your interest.
I don't watch movies as much as I'd wanted to, I haven't seen the one you're describing.

Don't know, may it's a sign of start of yet another Hollywood cliche (along with old and wise Indians, nerdish Jewish HS seniors and delicate as flower petal Asian women who turn out to be holders of black belt in karate).

But there must be something right at the heart of the rumor - and it applies not only to the Russians (or rather Russian-speaking) - to Americans as well. You only have to google "culture blogs" or some such and check out the ocupations of the hosts - you'll see the same phenomenon.

In fact, I think bard movement was sort of "proto-blogs", the way for people with wide interests to communicate their ideas, their interests in poetry, humanities, politics, etc. It could happen that this inner communicative need will be channelled into the blogs - as I see happening already.
I'm blog-surfing Live Journal networks and the Russian part of it - people of the same "make" - successful professionals who write poetry, discuss poltics, economics or languages (which is not their ocupations)on the professional level.
For example, close to you, in Redmont, Wa, there is a LJ user Ilya Vinarsky, who writes software for Amazon. Knows 3-4 languages in addition to Russian and English (he started Hindu recently). Look at his "interests" on this page. And he's not an exception, rather typical case...

Posted by: Tatyana on August 6, 2004 10:42 AM

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