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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Okudzhava Sang in a 'Simply Human' Tradition

In response to "Of Trolleybuses, Streets and Soldiers," June 21.


It was very pleasant to see a nonliterary English-language newspaper devote so much attention to the Russian writer Bulat Okudzhava. The approach that the article took on his art and influence, however, was perplexing.

Imagine if I took the works of an American playwright such as Tennessee Williams to show that they were a hidden protest against an imperialistic government during the McCarthy and post-McCarthy eras. I think that the reaction of most American readers would be to advise me to seek psychiatric help. Others would see such statements as a remnant of Soviet Cold War propaganda and recommend that I look around and remember what year it is.

Why then does the Western world stubbornly persist in seeing only anticommunism and protest against totalitarianism in everything that was good during Soviet times in Russia? Perhaps it is based on an assumption that the main occupation of an honest Soviet person was to discuss political problems in the kitchen to the crackling sounds of jammed Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasts. But this is no more than a myth. Most Soviet people spent a significant part of their lives in communal apartments, where the kitchen was used only for its stated purpose. Indeed, far from all people had shortwave radios. But this did not stop them from living, loving, suffering, striving to be honest, kind and just, regardless of whether they believed in Jesus Christ or in a "bright communist tomorrow."

And Bulat Okudzhava helped them with his songs, verses, novels and his life to be and remain people. The picture of the culture of Soviet times is very murky in the West, where unfortunately only Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov and a few emigrant writers are widely known. Generations were raised not only on official art -- and the avant garde, underground and dissident trends that were clearly in opposition to it -- but on artists whose talented and interesting work was "simply human."

Okudzhava's songs did not appear out of nowhere. There were wartime lyrical songs, the so-called dvorovye pesni, or street songs and old urban romances, a genre which, I believe, the poet revived on a new basis, at a new time and for new people.

It is true that this seemed to many at the time to be banal and dilettantish. "Be careful, banality!" was the name of the article on Okudzhava's first public performance. But the roots of such a rejection of his work, in my view, should be sought in poets' manifestoes of the '20s and only after in the "ideology of totalitarianism." Okudzhava's records could be freely bought throughout the '80s.

In general, a person who is sufficiently familiar with the culture and psychology of the Soviet period would have avoided giving such an unjustified political slant to the work of a writer, who represents one of the most interesting generations in Russia's history, as the author does in her article. Finally, it was disheartening to see that no mention was made in the caption of the group photo of not only very well known people, but above all the poet's muse, Olga.

Tatyana Matsuk

Arbat's Soul Survives

In response to "Arbat's Lost Soul," June 21.


Having walked along the Arbat for the first time, I thought it was pleasing to have a piece of history, a place of attractions preserved as a traffic-free pedestrian zone, for whatever reason or decision. Indeed, the only traffic you need on the Arbat is pedestrian, when you have the Novy Arbat in today's topsy-turvy Moscow.

I still don't understand why some people claim that the Arbat has lost its soul, as it had been said for Carnaby Street in London. It may be true that aristocrats who lost their privileged lifestyle may be in demand nowadays to revive the Arbat's so-called lost soul. Yes, the traces of noble Russian culture or aristocracy, whose members measured their wealth by the number of souls (male serfs) that they owned, cannot be seen through Arbat's artisans, actors, singers and among its renovated buildings, museums theaters, shops and cafes. But after all, one should bear in mind that in today's circumstances, you need the latter, together with strolling tourists and free pedestrians to sell or revitalize a dead soul in a city besieged with phantoms of a recent era.

Gokhan Harmankaya

Visas Are a 2-Way Street

In response to "Footloose but Not Free," June 21.


I feel sorry for the procedures many embassies have for Russians who want to get a visa for a visit to some Western country. What your author fails to mention is that the same ridiculous procedures apply for any visitor who wants to visit Russia from abroad as well.

For someone not associated with a company or booking himself into a ridiculously expensive hotel, it is impossible to get a visa for Russia. An invitation through a Russian company organization helps, but then he will find himself confronted with outrageous fees imposed by Russian embassies for processing the visa application.

In diplomacy, much of the way countries behave toward each other is covered by reciprocity. If you create hell for my citizens trying to enter your country, we will do the same for your citizens. Russia never eased up its visa procedures after the end of the Cold War. The only thing that went up was the fee involved. So many foreign countries responded accordingly.

Only pressure on both sides can help reduce the mile-high barrier of bureaucratic tape in force on both sides to make visiting each other's country easier for everyone involved.

The Moscow Times should try to address the problem for both sides, not just accept complaints from one side. It's very much quid pro quo in this matter.