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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Myth of Vysotsky

Last month's unveiling of a monument to Vladimir Vysotsky -- one of the most outstanding and tragic figures of Soviet culture in the 1960s and 1970s -- is, it seems to me, a fairly telling event which reflects the chaos in contemporary Russian aesthetics.

The image of Vysotsky has undergone several transformations in Russia's social consciousness. He became legendary -- or, as we say now, a cult figure -- toward the end of the 1960s. At that time, he was considered not merely an actor and a bard, but a figure literally saturated with social protest. Of course, this image was really just a popular, soothing myth. Vysotsky was never one to call the people to social protest, as many Western actors and musicians of the period were. On the contrary, Vysotsky was, in his own sort of way, fully a creature of the Soviet establishment of his time.

Looking back, it seems clear that Vysotsky's artistic legacy can best be categorized as "Soviet Romanticism." Vysotsky was an absolutely Soviet cultural figure and a purely Soviet personality, who shared the basic ideals of the builders of communism. I would even say that he was himself an active builder of communism, contributing "in his own way" and lending the project a solid masculinity, a pathetic intonation and an quotidian irony. However, his psychological qualities and his personal charm were so extraordinary that he was transformed into myth even before he died, transformed into a leading opposition figure even though in reality, he was not.

A glance at Vysotsky's oeuvre shows that he was fully absorbed by the Soviet aesthetic. He sang about the sacred memory of World War II, about life as a constant process of overcoming obstacles, of the monolithic unity of people struggling for a bright future.

Moreover, if Vysotsky's art is considered not from the perspective of Soviet mythology of the 1960s to the 1980s, but from that of the experience of the last decade, some rather terrifying facets emerge. Among these is ordinary, ardent militarism which -- no matter how people might try to cover it with the guise of macho patriotism -- remains nothing more than ordinary militarism. From behind the pathos of war as a difficult, manly task that we find in many of Vysotsky's songs, there emerges a cold, cynical justification of war in general, such as was commonly heard at Party congresses and government meetings in the 1970s and 1980s.

I don't believe that Vysotsky consciously adopted this militarism. More likely, it was the subconscious result of growing up steeped in the Soviet aesthetic, which could not help but be realized in his creative work.

In addition, even Vysotsky's lifestyle belied the myth of him as a bearer of social protest. He was a leading actor in the most popular theater in Moscow, a famous film star and a renowned singer. Thanks to his marriage to the French film star Marie Vladi, he was able to freely travel abroad, a fact which at the time was nothing short of fantastic. In a word, Vysotsky made a spectacular, Soviet career.

Russian cultural consciousness found an ideal hero in Vysotsky, a knight heading out to a duel to the death against the dragon of the Soviet state. For average Russians in the 1970s, most likely, Vysotsky was more important than Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky taken together. The atmosphere at his concerts was so exalted that it resembled what happens sometimes today at the performances of evangelical preachers.

It has now been 15 years since Vladimir Vysotsky died. Why is it that his life and art remain to this day one of the most painful points of contemporary Russian culture? Why is it that the unveiling of his monument in central Moscow was such an outstanding event?

Most likely, it is because the myths of culture die considerably more slowly than those of politics or economics. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the image remained that Soviet culture had been in a sharp opposition to the Soviet regime. We continued to think of the most visible personalities of Soviet culture as the main enemies of Soviet power. The generation that was shaped in the 1960s and which today holds all the reins of political and cultural power cannot believe that the Soviet state is no more. That generation continues to battle the Soviet state, and for that generation, a monument to Vysotsky is an obligatory phase of that battle.

Contemporary Russian culture has been unable to manufacture a true personality of protest, one who would stand up against the unbridled power of money, against the power of new Russian capital, against the unfathomable links between individual personalities and state power, etc. This lack of such real figures forces us to emblazon our shields with the tried and true figures of orthodox Soviet culture.

There is a new term that has become fashionable in recent years: "rave." It refers to a whole new direction in contemporary music and the subculture of the young. I think that this word also concisely defines the overall situation in contemporary Russian culture, which is characterized by a confusion of signs from many different aesthetics, including Soviet pop culture, Soviet state culture, the culture of totalitarianism and an emerging and still unclear new Russian aesthetic.

Undoubtedly, this situation also has a direct relation to the present popularity of kitsch. And the atmosphere surrounding the myth of Vladimir Vysotsky is particularly enlightening. His art, the myth surrounding him and -- most ironically -- the newly erected monument to him in the center of Moscow are all typical examples of the new Russian kitsch.

Igor Yarkevich is a writer living in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.