Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Vysotsky Came to Teach

When Alexander Chutkoy was 16 years old, his life changed forever -- and he felt like a fool.

In 1968, his first acting teacher, a dynamic, iconoclastic man, not only taught him steady breathing and stage presence, but also how to question authority at a time when Party dogma reigned supreme. Little did he know that it was a message soon to reach millions.

When the course ended, Chutkoy was shocked to hear that the small-statured teacher, Vladimir Vysotsky, was a folk hero, the very same bard who wrote the underground songs that Chutkoy and his friends sang on weekends in kitchens, in parks and on street corners.

"I was young and ignorant," said Chutkoy, 50, a jolly, fat man as he stood among unpainted wooden props on the stage of the Russian Army Theater, where he is an actor. "I listened to what I was told and followed orders. So when I saw [Vysotsky], at first all I saw was my drama teacher. I had a feeling he was great, especially when I first heard his deep powerful voice."

That was 30 years ago, when Vysotsky was still a little-known actor and a covert songwriter. He never mentioned his songs in acting class at Moscow's Union of Folklore. All the while, his music was becoming wildly popular with the unofficial circulation of low-quality bootleg recordings, on which his scratchy baritone voice boomed politically controversial lyrics through the tape hiss. For the next 20 years, Vysotsky wrote hundreds of songs and poems, starred in dozens of films, and maintained an irreverent style that won him millions of fans. He died in 1980 at age 42. Chutkoy will always remember Vysotsky as his first acting teacher.

Chutkoy will celebrate Sunday what would have been the actor and balladeer's 60th birthday by acting the part of the commander in Pushkin's play "Don Juan," an honor, as Vysotsky himself performed the title role in the film version of the play.

"You'd never imagine that such a small man could play that role," said Chutkoy, pushing back his wispy white hair. "But Volodya was wonderful."

Even today, Vysotsky's fame is of heroic proportions. Television channels all week have been showing documentaries and tributes to Vysotsky, while hordes of fans visit his grave in Moscow.

Chutkoy met the one-time acting teacher in a start-up class for amateurs. He remembers Vysotsky -- a striking man with a large nose and great bulging eyes -- as humble and volatile, quick with sarcasm and also with kindness.

"If he was angry, it was because he cared. He needed only show it for a few seconds, and you understood," Chutkoy said. "But then he could bend back quickly and be your greatest friend."

Vysotsky, then 25, asked Chutkoy one day what poem he would be reading in that evening's student stage production. When the student showed him a sheet of Soviet-sanctioned "propaganda in verse," Vysotsky scolded him: "'Have you gone out of your mind? Why are you reading this garbage. I thought I told you about Pushkin!'" Chutkoy remembered. "And he had, and it changed my life." He was shocked and hurt, disappointed that he had let Vysotsky down.

The teacher insisted his students call him "Volodya," and introduced them to Russian literary works such as those by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Boris Pasternak, which were not emphasized in Party-dictated curriculae. Vysotsky invited his friends who had spent time in Stalin's prison camps to talk about their experiences.

He advised them to get to know their characters -- their ages, upbringing, relationships and dreams -- so well they could completely forget it all when they started acting. He would say, "All the best improvisation takes three months to prepare," Chutkoy recalled. Vysotsky, himself sometimes struggled for film roles when disgruntled officials told directors not to cast "the troublemaker," said Chutkoy, the only one of the class to become an actor.

Ultimately, though, Vysotsky's magic emerged in his music, Chutkoy said. "His acting was like a wide filter under the sun, through which all his experience and feelings passed. He could try them on as roles, and be everyone at once. But his music and poetry, that was his real art -- the thin, bright ray of truth that burned whatever it hit."