Vladimir Vysotsky and DDT’s Underground Resistance: Towards a Russian Musical Aesthetic of the Unsaid 

By: Tanya Landau


As a Jewish daughter of Soviet immigrants growing up in a small town in the United States, I’ve always felt a disconnect between a culture of place and the imagined community attached to my heritage and cultural upbringing. Throughout my exploration of Soviet-era Russian bard music, also known as avtorskaia pesnia, I’ve come to understand how vital concepts such as belonging, meta-knowledge and the imagined community play into musical expression of culture and identity. This paper explores the complexities and nuances found within the music of Vladimir Vysotsky, a pioneer of 20th-century Russian bard music. Through cultural understanding and reified material, Vysotsky hid in plain sight from the oppressive regime of the Soviet government. His expression of cultural identity “with fire behind [his] back” manifests in the aesthetic of the unsaid, a liminal space occupied by musical and contextual qualities that shape group identity as created through resistant music making. In addition to Vysotsky, this paper explores one of his musical descendants, the popular rock group DDT. While each performer is unique in how they approach musical expressivity within an oppressive environment, they are each interconnected and the third space aesthetic of the unsaid manifests and develops in unique ways. Through both auto-ethnographic exploration as well as textual and musical analysis, this paper highlights the depth and complexity of an under-explored and appreciated genre, while also establishing a connection between manifested identity and subtextual musical expression sounded and heard within an oppressed population. 

The Tapes:

(Figure 1, Landau Family Archives)

Somewhere in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in a communal housing building, inside a small apartment, there is a box of tapes. These tapes lay dormant, resisting both time and space as they lay undisturbed for decades. As the dust collects and years go by, the music stored within them begins to fade into nothing more than memories, moments, and experiences long since past. 

My grandfather still lives in the apartment, the same one that my mother grew up in. The same apartment that my grandmother once filled with the scent of home-cooked food and the sounds of tears and laughter. This life seems like an alien world, somewhere far away and difficult to imagine and yet richly preserved in my mother’s memory. I, myself, do not share in the richness of her experiences, and yet the apartment in Russia becomes a part of me as I share in the culture and upbringing that my mother experienced. 

As I imagine the apartment, and the memories contained within it, the box of tapes itself becomes more liminal. It exists, and yet it doesn’t. The only glimpse I can get of this space is through video chatting with my grandfather, an event that only takes place once or twice a year. As I gaze through the computer screen, I see old couches, dusty bookshelves, and abandoned china cabinets. I’m fascinated by the space as it seems to have remained exactly the same as my mother left it, back in the early 1990s. She doesn’t seem to be affected by the sight of it, but then again, she had to detach herself from it in order to protect herself against the disembodied experience of immigration. I, on the other hand, feel as if I am looking into a portal through time, to another life, one that I will probably never get to experience, yet one that I feel very much connected to.

(Figures 2 and 3, Elena M.)

So much of this space feels essential to my identity. Even though I’ve never been to Russia, so much of the culture and language has been embedded in my upbringing that I can’t help but feel drawn to the images of the apartment, or the blurry and out-of-focus view of Russia that my grandfather shows us outside his window. My imagination runs wild, imagining my mother sitting on the couch listening to the tapes that remain such a mystery. She must’ve gotten them from a friend, perhaps one from university, who may or may not share her same ambivalent feelings towards Russia and its government. Whether or not they have these feelings is irrelevant, however, because the music of Vladimir Vysotsky speaks to them of the collective experience of being Russian. The voices of the bards, such as Vysotsky, speak directly to the listener, and each listener who borrows, copies, or steals the tapes has an intimate, personal relationship with each song and with each singer. Perhaps this is a private experience, and my mother doesn’t even want to share the music with her own mother, as it may not speak to her the same way. Or, perhaps, her mother is the reason why she’s listening to the tapes in the first place. A generation soaked in grief after the second world war may find comfort in the preservation and proliferation of memories, folklore and experiences presented by the Russian bards. 

The voices themselves are rough, harsh, and brimming with emotion. They speak in metaphors, parodies, and hidden meanings, all designed specifically for my mother’s generation and their understanding of Russian culture and literature. She may pass the tape on to another friend, who may copy it in turn and pass it on again. The tapes spread amongst the youth, carrying with them the knowledge that we are not alone, we are here and we are listening. As expression becomes hidden in subtleties and implied meanings, the messages still come through to those who have the background to understand them. It’s resisting change and the order to stay in line and be silent. Much in the same way that that singular box of tapes, somewhere deep in a closet or at the back of a dusty bookshelf, resists the passage of time. 

I wonder, what will become of those tapes? Are they already gone? Did my grandfather throw them away like we suspect he did with my grandmother’s letters? What will become of them once he passes on? I will probably never know, but in my imagination, I see a rich history and the voice of a generation that has been preserved in them. Maybe someday I will get to listen and I may get a glimpse into a world that now seems too distant to touch. 

Being born in Israel to Soviet-era Jewish parents, who left the USSR in the early 1990s and moving to Boise, Idaho in 2003, I began to question very early on in my life whether I had a homeland at all. My search for belonging has been a lifelong struggle, one that manifested itself in my discovery and now passion for music. This search inspired the question: what role does music play in the story of my own search for belonging? As I began to explore this question I realized that, in reality, the Russia that I imagined as a child does not exist. The music, ballet, literature, and art I grew up with became essentialized in my mind as quintessentially Russian. However, as I grew up, I witnessed my own mother’s struggle to connect with those who had a similar upbringing. What struck me was her inability to connect, on a personal level, with those from the same Russian generation and I began to question further whether I had any real sense of belonging. 

The diaspora of both the Russian and Jewish people is vast and complex, with many different peoples coming from all areas within eastern Europe and beyond. I believe that many of my feelings surrounding a lack of belonging were brought about by the small town I grew up in, given that the communities themselves in which I may have found belonging, were limited. My parents carry no nostalgia for their upbringing in the Soviet Union, but they maintain powerful feelings of connection with the Russian language, culture, and art. It could be argued that much of their experience relates directly to those artists who left Russia in order to seek freedom of expression. Thus, they’re disconnected from their homeland, even though feelings and memories of their upbringing are still a part of who they are as immigrants. 

The community I will discuss is one that is essentially imagined, but there’s no shortage of significance that can be found and understood within imagined communities. Benedict Anderson suggests that nation states and nationalism as a concept both come from an imagined sense of community that was developed through print media and the establishment of vernacular language. As proposed in Imagined Communities, “nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came into being.”Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2016): 12. Imagined communities develop as a result of power dynamics within nation-states and as the Soviet Union, for example, exerts its power over the people, an imagined sense of community is formed through shared values, beliefs and education. Educational structures are particularly vital to point out when exploring avtorskaia pesnia (“author’s song”) as the literature and poetry that is built into the structure of Soviet education becomes a major part of the community’s meta-knowledge. Through resistance against societal norms and expectations, an imagined community is formed amongst the intelligentsia of the Soviet youth. This concept can also be found within my experiences of my culture as a displaced individual, and in particular, my parent’s generation of Russian immigrants who found meaning within the music of the Russian bards of the 1960s and beyond. Because of the richness of the sociological and cultural experiences surrounding avtorskaia pesnia I have found myself exploring methodologies outside of traditional approaches to musicological research. Particularly when discussing the ethnographic and cultural importance of Russian bard music, concepts such as location, education, meta-knowledge, identity creation, and community, nuance and add depth to the music and music making.  

The Kitchen:

(Figure 4,  Landau Family Archives)

When you enter a Russian household, the first question you’ll be asked is: would you like a cup of tea? The conversation will, inevitably, lead you to the kitchen, where the ritual will commence. The water will be boiled, the tea and cup selected, and the beverage brewed. You’ll take your cup of tea and sit down at the dining table where you will continue your conversation over homemade biscuits or chocolates that can only be purchased in your small town’s one and only European market. 

Much of my childhood was spent in the kitchen, sitting at the table, watching my mother cook while I worked on homework or chatted about life. Thus, the kitchen, as a physical space, becomes much more than a location to cook food or make tea; it is the center of gravity for community, family, and culture. The kitchen is a place to feel comforted and to feel at home. Filling the home, or a 300-square-foot apartment, with the smell of home cooked food, serves as a vital ritual of belonging and identity. It is how I connect with my culture and my family’s history. I cook not only to feed myself, I cook because it feels like home. 

The Russian kitchen is vital to a culture that has always sought to find space for creative expression and free thought, in a political environment that prioritized sameness and obedience. In Vladimir Vysotsky’s music, it becomes abundantly clear just how important kitchens are, as they were one of the few private spaces that Russians reliably had access to. There is a kind of mutual trust and understanding that develops within these “underground” spaces, as groups of friends meet to talk, recite poetry, and listen to tapes. The music of the Russian bards lived within the walls of these kitchens and within the minds of those who had the knowledge and upbringing to understand the deeper meaning behind seemingly unassuming folk poetry.

The songs are a part of a genre known as avtorskaia pesnia, which roughly translates to “author’s song.” This community and musical genre is one that is underexplored within musicological literature, with articles and dissertations currently published in English, by Rachel Platonov,Rachel Platonov, “Bad Singing: ‘Avtorskaia Pesnia’ and the Aesthetics of Metacommunication,” Ulbandus Review 9 (2005). Sarah Moir,Sarah K. Moir (2012), “The People’s Phenomenon: “Author’s Song” in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union,” Constructing the Past: Vol. 13 : Iss. 1 , Article 6. Available at: https://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/constructing/vol13/iss1/6  ​​Danijela LugarićDanijela Lugarić, “Living vyne: The example of Bulat Okudzhava’s and Vladimir Vysotskii’s “avtorskaia pesnia”” 2018. “https://www.academia.edu/40701987/Living_vnye_The_example_of_Bulat_Okudzhava_s_and_Vladimir_Vysotskii_s_avtorskaia_pesnia_  and others. Meaningful research surrounding the cultural and musicological significance of avtorskaia pesnia is still being developed. My research, as well as discussions with those personally familiar with the genre, suggests that these songs emerged in Soviet Russia in the 1950s. Among one of the first great Russian bards was Bulat Okudzhava,Izaly Zemtsovsky, “Okudzhava, Bulat,” Grove Music Online. 2001; https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000052225. who established the tradition of avtorskaia pesnia as a means of poetic expression. Vladimir Vysotsky would inherit this tradition and popularize it throughout his life.

The genre’s early origins are found within songs that were typically sung by students in university housing, known as “obshezhytie,” and by those traveling by train throughout Russia. I find that the genre is characterized by the solo voices of each bard, dense lyricism and simple guitar playing.  In addition, the DIY nature of how the songs were composed and disseminated add to the sociological and cultural importance of the genre. With distribution of the arts carefully controlled, DIY “author’s song” tapes served as a form of underground cultural resistance. Because the recordings were done by amateurs, the tapes themselves have a unique sonic aesthetic that helps to establish the landscape in which it was created. In the background, you hear whispered conversations, glasses clinking, and these sounds of people moving around in a small space. As this tradition does not rely on a physical score, the sonic qualities become the most important aspect in understanding the significance and impact of “author’s song.” By exploring Vladimir Vysotsky’s work, unique sonic, textual and cultural characteristics emerge.

Vysotsky consistently follows simple chord patterns, including i-V-iv-i or IV-I-V-I patterns, and most songs are in a minor key. In addition, songs in major keys often emphasize minor chord structures, creating a sonic space that suggests minor even within a major context. One particularly interesting feature of Vysotsky’s songs is that they almost always end on a major chord even if the song is in a minor key. The Picardy third is interesting to find within Russian folk music, as it grants the work a kind of sarcastic ending. Depending on the context of the song and its delivery, the Picardy third can signify a kind of satire. A representative example is seen in the song “Wolf Hunt.” On the surface, this piece seems like a simple song about a hunt, but it serves as a greater allegory for the people of the Soviet Union being stuck within the hunters’ boundaries, much like the wolves, unable to escape and waiting to be inevitably shot. This allegory is explored through lines such as: “Why do we rush to the bullets? Never trying to escape? Wolves must not, they cannot! And here I’ve run out of time: The one to whom I am destined, with a smile slowly lifted his gun.”Translation by the author.

(Vysotsky’s visceral performance of Wolf Hunt)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1_0fi831Vk&t=4s

All my strength I will use, every tendon,
But today and again like yesterday
I’m encircled by men, I’m enveloped,
They chase me happily towards numbered flags.
Рвусь из сил, и из всех сухожилий,
Но сегодня опять, как вчера,
Обложили меня, обложили,
Гонят весело на номера.
From the spruce trees twin-barrels are rumbling: There are hunters who hide in the shade. In the snow, many wolves now are tumbling: Living targets for shooting they’ve made.
Из-за ели хлопочут двустволки,
Там охотники прячутся в тень.
На снегу кувыркаются волки,
Превратившись в живую мишень.
The hunt is open for the wolf, the hunt is open! For silver predators: both mothers and pups. The beaters scream, and dogs bark till they vomit. The snow is stained with blood and scarlet-red are flags.

Идет охота на волков, идет охота.
На серых хищников – матерых и щенков.
Кричат загонщики, и лают псы до рвоты,
Кровь на снегу и пятна красные флажков.
The hunters don’t play fairly with the wolves and their hands do not tremble! They denied our freedom with flag lines and beat us confidently and assured.Не на равных играют с волками
Егеря. Но не дрогнет рука!
Оградив нам свободу флажками,
Бьют уверенно, наверняка!
For the wolf cannot break with custom,
Since childhood, like blind pups
We, used to suckle our mother,
And we sucked up: “You can’t pass the flags!”
Волк не может нарушить традиций.
Видно, в детстве, слепые щенки,
Мы, волчата, сосали волчицу
И всосали: нельзя за флажки!
The hunt is open for the wolf, the hunt is open! For silver predators: both mothers and pups. The beaters scream, and dogs bark till they vomit. The snow is stained with blood and scarlet-red are flags.
Идет охота на волков, идет охота.
На серых хищников – матерых и щенков.
Кричат загонщики, и лают псы до рвоты,
Кровь на снегу и пятна красные флажков.
Our legs and jaws are quick.
Will you tell us, head wolf:
Why do we rush to the bullets?
Never trying to escape? 
Wolves must not, they cannot! 
Here I’ve run out of time:
The one to whom I am destined,
With a smile slowly lifted his gun.
Наши ноги и челюсти быстры.
Почему же, вожак, дай ответ,
Мы затравленно рвемся на выстрел?
И не пробуем через запрет?
Волк не должен, не может иначе!
Вот кончается время мое:
Тот, которому я предназначен,
Улыбнулся и поднял ружье.
The hunt is open for the wolf, the hunt is open! For silver predators: both mothers and pups. The beaters scream, and dogs bark till they vomit. The snow is stained with blood and scarlet-red are flags.
Идет охота на волков, идет охота. На серых хищников – матерых и щенков.
Кричат загонщики, и лают псы до рвоты,
Кровь на снегу и пятна красные флажков
But, I’m done with compliance:
Past the flags: the thirst for life is stronger, Only from behind I gladly heard 
The astonished cries of the throng.
Но а я из повиновения вышел,
За флажки: жажда жизни сильней,
Только сзади я с радостью слышал
Изумленные крики людей.
All my strength I will use, every tendon,
But today and again like yesterday
I’m encircled by men, I’m enveloped,
They chase me happily towards numbered flags.
Рвусь из сил, из всех сухожилий,
Но сегодня не так, как вчера.
Обложили меня, обложили,
Но остались ни с чем егеря!
From the spruce trees twin-barrels are rumbling: There are hunters who hide in the shade. In the snow, many wolves now are tumbling: Living targets for shooting they’ve made.
Идет охота на волков, идет охота.
На серых хищников – матерых и щенков.
Кричат загонщики, и лают псы до рвоты,
Кровь на снегу и пятна красные флажков.

In this context, the Picardy third serves as a sonic signifier of resistance as it’s used as a means of sarcasm and satire to imply the positivity that must be maintained on the surface of public conversations. It is commonly believed amongst those personally familiar with the genre, that many Russian government officials listened to Vysotsky,Through allegories and word of mouth amongst the intellectuals of Russia at the time, it’s been suggested that some Soviet-era government officials indulged in Vysotsky’s music on their own time and it would be difficult to truly punish someone of his social status since he stood as a cultural symbol for the people of Russia. One article from the New York Times in 1973 suggests that perhaps there’s more concrete evidence to suggest that some Soviet officials enjoyed his music: “In the cultural world of Moscow, he is a favorite for private parties, and even Communist party and Government officials of middle rank admit discreetly to having tapes of some of his risque songs.” Hedrick Smith Special, April 2nd, 1973: “Soviet Reproves Singer of Underground Songs.” It should be noted that this is an American source from the Cold War, however, I think that this perspective is still important to keep in mind, particularly as he’s being viewed by outsiders in this case.  but it’s not entirely clear whether they understood the deeper meaning behind his music. Either way, when confronted with ideas about anti-government sentiments in his music, Vysotsky could’ve, perhaps, argued his innocence since much of his text comes from already established and reified material, such as well-known excerpts from famous poems, fairy tales, and folklore/mythology. In addition, he was also a semi-protected figure as he was a very well-known and respected actor. It could be argued that his fame and artistic connections would have provided him with a degree of protection. 

The rhythm Vysotsky employs in many of his songs is a pattern that can be found in many examples of folk music throughout the world. In particular, this pattern is reminiscent of the type of rhythm found in Romani music throughout eastern Europe, which has influenced many different musical styles including flamenco, jazz Manouche, Russian “romances,” Balkan (not to mention Middle Eastern) music, Hungarian czardas, as well as fusions with jazz, hip hop, Western art music and numerous national “folk” genres.Iryna Myroniuk, “So What is Romani Music?” 05-01-2017: https://rozvitok.org/en/so-what-is-romani-music/ The beat is characterized by swung eighths, eighth-quarter triplets, and off-beat repetition to create a hypnotizing and accessible guitar accompaniment that pairs in unique ways with the Russian language. Examples are shown in the following figures:Transcriptions by the author.

The Russian language is vital to creating such rhythmically distinct music and as linguist and musician Jennifer Ronyak explores, rhythmic signifiers within a language are essential to the corporeality and realization of meaning within text. She states: “The experience of co-performing a Lied involves not only one’s linguistic identity- and how that identity is lodged in one’s body—but also depends on additional somatic (corporeal) aspects of linguistic and musical rhythm that are alternately tied up with and not dependent on one’s linguistic identity.”Jennifer Ronyak, “Meeting Barthes at Fisher-Diskau’s Mill: Co-performance, Linguistic Identity, and a Lied” Journal of Musicology 34:1, (2017): 47. There is a distinct rhythmic quality to the Russian language, which Vysotsky uses to his advantage as a native speaker. Throughout his realization of “Wolf Hunt,” for example, he emphasizes the characteristic Russian rolling of the ‘r’ such as in the word номера (numbers). This exaggeration of the rolled ‘r’ emphasizes the end of the poetic phrase by extending it, giving more time to the final word. A further example is seen in the word Превратившись (to turn into) where he takes extra time on both ‘r’s (expressed as ‘p’ in the Cyrillic alphabet) to add intensity and feeling to the poetic line as he sets up the intention and expression of the piece to come. He also emphasizes the characteristically dental quality of Russian consonants throughout his realization, such as in the word предназначен (intended), where Vysotsky not only extends the rolling of the ‘r’ but also essentially doubles both ‘n’ sounds (expressed as ‘h’ in the Cyrillic alphabet). His exaggerated use of the language, sonically reflects the violence presented in the text. This effect emphasizes the tragic fate of the characters, allegorically the Russian people, within the poem. 

The rhyme schemes found within traditional Russian poetry, such as those used by Pushkin, influence Vysotsky’s vocal production of the text, as well as how he manipulates and changes it. Linguist Rachel Platonov argues that: “Vysotsky reworks Pushkin’s prologue on numerous levels, inverting meter and structure, mixing colloquial, ungrammatical, and sometimes vulgar expressions with highly literary language, and totally transforming the folkloric personages who appear in the original.”Rachel Platonov, “Bad Singing: ‘Avtorskaia Pesnia’ and the Aesthetics of Metacommunication,” Ulbandus Review 9 (2005) 98. Vysotsky’s use of colloquialisms and dialect allow him to connect with a specific community whose meta-knowledge is based on their shared experiences. Platonov underscores this idea stating: “The speech of Vysotsky’s narrator is conversational, sometimes vulgar, and mistake ridden; this is further accentuated in Vysotsky’s performance by a range of non-normative dialectal pronunciations, and contrasts sharply with the elevated and elegant language of Pushkin’s verse.”Ibid, 100. By using literature that is already widely accepted in the Russian canon, Vysotsky uses the validity and credibility of the poetry to hide meaning within subtext and performative aspects. He’s essentially hiding in plain sight, expressing his identity without putting himself and his loved ones in danger. This type of underground cultural resistance creates a phenomenon that I call “the aesthetic of the unsaid.” 

The Unsaid:

There are certain tactics that are born out of the need to communicate the unsaid. While the musical manifestation of the unsaid has certainly been explored within the traditional Western canon, such as in the works of Shostakovich, Prokoviev and others, the music of the Russian bards is an underexplored example of how meaning and resistance lives within text and location in addition to the music. The community that the music was being written for is also one that is niche in nature as Vysotsky never intended to comment on society in an explicitly public way. He was writing not as a globalized composer with intentions to express universally but, rather, he wrote for himself and those who were closest to him. His popularity and fame came as a result of the music connecting deeply with individuals who then distributed and shared his songs through word of mouth and illegal tape copies. 

One of Vysotsky’s particularly vital tactics is his utilization of parody, humor, and satire as a means of hiding in plain sight, communicating connotation and meaning that is only understood by those who have the meta-knowledge to understand. In the case of the Russian bards, reified literature and poetry is used as means of referencing their experience without stating it explicitly. Vysotsky alters the rhythm and cadence of the poetry, removes diminutives, and transforms fairy tales into twisted versions that reflect the struggle of his, and the people’s, collective existence. One example of how the unsaid is realized through Vysotsky’s manipulations is seen in the song “Lukomor’ia bol’she net” (The Sea-Cove is No More).Both translated segments of “The Sea-cove is No More” by Vysotsky are by the author and the original Pushkin text comes from the poem Ruslan i Ludmila. The translations of Pushkin’s verses are done by the author.  Vysotsky takes Pushkin’s whimsical text and transforms it into a twisted version that reflects a harsher reality. According to Platonov, “the wood-goblin is transformed into an alcoholic and a wife-beater, whose speech is peppered with non-standard grammatical forms and highly colloquial expressions:Platonov, “Bad Singing: ‘Avtorskaia Pesnia’ and the Aesthetics of Metacommunication,” 101.

Pushkin’s Original Text (Russian): 
Cказал Фарлаф:
Я так нашел ее недавно
В пустынных муромских лесах
У злого лешего в руках;
Там совершилось дело славно;
Три дня мы билися; луна
Над боем трижды подымалась;
Он пал. 
Vysotsky’s Lyrics (Russian):
Нету мочи, нету сил – Леший как-то недопил,
Лешачиху свою бил и вопил:
“Дай рубля, прибью а то, я ж добытчик, али кто?!
А не дашь, тоды пропью долото!”
Pushkin’s Original Text (English):
Farlaf says: 
“I found her, not long ago, in 
the deserted Murom forests in
the hands of an evil goblin;
there the work was accomplished
We fought for three days; the moon
rose above us three times;
He fell.”
Vysotsky’s Lyrics (English):
No patience, no strength,
The wood-goblin somehow didn’t finish drinking!
Beat his wood-gobliness and howled: 
“Give me a ruble or I’ll flatten you, Am I the bread winner or what?! If you don’t give it to me, then I’ll drink away my tools!” 

Vysotsky alters the rhythm and cadence of the poetry, removes diminutives, and transforms fairy tales into twisted versions that reflect the struggle of his, and the people’s, collective existence.

He continues his manipulation of the text in the following verse as a major transformation is seen in a central figure from Pushkin’s prologue: the “learned cat” from whom Pushkin’s narrator hears the fairy tale told in Ruslan i Liudmila. ​Rather than appearing as a charming, gentlemanly narrator, Vysotsky’s cat is an alcoholic who tells anecdotes instead of fairy tales, who pawns the gold chain, and whose drinking binges have a most unpleasant consequence:Ibid.

Pushkin’s Original Text (Russian): 
У лукоморья дуб зеленый,
Златая цепь на дубе том:
И днем и ночью кот ученый
Всё ходит по цепи кругом;
Идет направо — песнь заводит,
Налево — сказку говорит.
Vysotsky’s Lyrics (Russian):
Там и вправду ходит кот, как направо – так поёт, А как налево – так загнёт анекдот.
Но учёный сукин сын цепь златую снёс в tоргcин,
А на выручку – один в магазин…
Как-то раз за Божий дар получил он гонорар,
В Лукоморье перегар на гектар.
Pushkin’s Original Text (English):
By the sea cove, the oak is green,
And on it is a golden chain,
And night and day a learned cat 
Walks around the chain in circles;
To the right he walks, and sings a song;
To the left, he tells a fairy tale….
Vysotsky’s Lyrics (English):
There really is a cat here–As he goes to the right, he sings, — As he goes to the left, he fires off an anecdote, but the learned son of a bitch, took down the gold chain in torgsin– And with the payout, went to the store. Once upon a time he sold God’s gift for a fee, In the Sea-Cove it reeked of alcohol, across a hectare! 

By using Pushkin, Vysotsky is able to tap directly into the collective consciousness of the Soviet youth. The meta-knowledge and consciousness that they share in is extremely specific to their upbringing, one that valued a ‘high cultural education’ and these dynamics are played out not only through textual content but also through the use of location, in this case, the Russian kitchen. Everything is important in their identity creation, from what they’re drinking and eating, to what they’re listening to, to how they even found out about the gathering in the first place. As I’ve spent time with recordings, particularly those from the 1960s, a rich landscape of sound, sight and smell comes to mind.The recording that inspired the following narrative can be found here: Владимир Высоцкий – Концерт для друзей 1965 (Vladimir Vysotsky- A Concert for Friends 1965) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNWK5qUJGhs&list=LL&index=22&t=2490s: 26:30 It becomes easy to imagine what the room may look like where the gathering will take place, and how it’s not dissimilar to my own constructions of the kitchen as an important touchstone for connection with my family and our rich cultural background.

(Figure 5, Landau Family Archives)

(Figure 6, Landau Family Archives)

I imagine myself as one of the young women preserved in the tape, sitting in the kitchen, listening to Vysotsky sing about the Russian experience. Perhaps I found out about this ‘concert’ from a friend that I know from university. She may have told me that her friends are getting together tonight to drink and hangout. As I arrive at the communal housing building, known as a ‘kommunal’naya kvartira’ or ‘kommunalka,’ I walk through the gate and into the closed off courtyard. There are walls on all four sides that contain small apartments, sometimes shared by multiple families at a time. There’s no privacy or sense of ownership, everything is shared and there is so little to share to begin with. As my friend and I walk into the apartment, I smell cigarettes and I hear the clinking of glass bottles being set on the table. We enter the kitchen and I see a collection of young people around me. At the sink stands a man holding a guitar, smoking. I assume that he’s the entertainment this evening and I sit down amongst my peers. I notice on the table that we’ve managed to scrounge together some zakuski. Small pieces of meat and herring, pickles, and half a loaf of bread. Looks like we got lucky at the shops today. Everyone pitches in and shares what they have, there’s no selfishness, no room for it as everyone here is just as poor as the next person. 

While they may be poor in resources, there’s no shortage of ideas and knowledge that can be shared, and they will be, as by the end of the night, a community and identity will be formed that is potent enough to be remembered by those who left their country over twenty years ago. As the final individuals arrive, everyone is encouraged to drink and eat as the man at the sink takes up his guitar and begins to play. As he finishes the first song, a young woman speaks up and asks: “What was that song about? Seems completely ridiculous…” The man takes a drag of his cigarette and smiles: “Don’t ask me, I didn’t write it.” The woman turns to someone seated next to her and begins to discuss what the song may have meant. Perhaps they’ll share their individual experiences and discover that they have a lot more in common than they initially thought. The man at the counter is completely unaffected by the questioning of his audience, in fact he encourages it. They ask him questions, chat privately in the background, and drink more and more as the evening wears on. 

By nature, the aesthetic of the unsaid exists in a liminal space occupied by certain musical and contextual qualities that shape group identity as created through resistant music making. This aesthetic manifests in unique ways within Vysotsky’s work and many of the textual and musical qualities that I discuss in this paper, serve in manifesting a unique cultural identity. The realization of his work within the context of private performance exists within what is called the third space. As discussed by Soja: “Thirdspace is about going against the norm. It’s about the right to difference and it creates a space of collective resistance which becomes a meeting place for all peripheralized or marginalized subjects wherever they may be located.”Edward W. Soja, Thirdspace: Toward a New Conciousness of Space and Spatiality (Routledge, 2008) 51. This concept pairs convincingly with Vysotsky’s musical manifestations within the Russian kitchen. By creating a space that is open for free thought and expression, young people are able to communicate their emotions and ideas through reified material and meta-knowledge, without ever having to be explicit and risking government retaliation. 

I find myself frustrated with the idea of defining the aesthetic of the unsaid in any kind of practical way, as the third space essentially dissolves when it is concretely defined. According to Bhabha, “the third space is deprived of its potential power as soon as it is represented…as soon as it is thought of as an element of a series of discrete and bounded spatial units which have condensed alongside distinctions.”Julia Lossau, Pitfalls of (Third) Space: Rethinking the Ambivalent Logic of Spatial Semantics (Routledge, 2008) 70. Lossau paraphrases Bhabha. Vysotsky’s aesthetic of the unsaid establishes a third space that is undefinable, it exists in a space between realization and perceived reality. Even the language we use to talk about third space and spatial relationships are filled with identifying, reifying and objectifying elements that affect the concept. Because of these complicating factors, when exploring third space aesthetics, they are best understood through self-observation and not as a spatial unit; otherwise it’s converted from a marker of difference to an element of traditional identity politics.Ibid, 72.

Such subjectivity is vital to the manifestation of Vysotsky’s musicking and what it means in cultural context. Third space has always been occupied by resistant thinkers in rebellion against societal norms. Many of the oppressive societal expectations placed on young people in the Soviet Union became necessary qualities to possess for survival within an oppressive environment. Through their music making, they’re able to create a space that exists outside of cultural norms and boundaries, one in which they’re able to express themselves freely. Edward Soja summarizes the importance of fluidity and resistance within third space:

Everything comes together in Thirdspace: subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday life and unending history. Anything that fragments third space into separate specialized knowledge or exclusive domains- even on the pretext of handling its infinite complexity- destroys its meaning and openness.Soja, 54.

As in the third space, everything comes together within Vysotsky’s work, from the subjective viewpoints of my own experience to the objective reality of Soviet Russia. The real and the imagined are twisted through the lens of dense lyricism and reified material, and my own narrative spins between real analysis and imagined perspectives. Vysotsky utilizes repetitive, hypnotic rhythmic structures that interplay both consciously and unconsciously with his realization of the Russian language, as everyday life and unending history is reflected through the candor of his words and the roughness of his voice. 

The Next Generation:

(Figure 7, Landau Family Archives)

(Figure 8, Landau Family Archives)

One of the most popular groups to inherit and develop the tradition of “authors song” comes out of late 20th century Russian popular music. Known as DDT, named after the insecticide, this group straddled the line between sanctioned “official” performers and underground artists.Lara Pellegrinelli, “DDT: Notes from Russia’s Rock Underground”, https://www.npr.org/2008/02/06/18752518/ddt-notes-from-russias-rock-underground, 2008.  In the 1980s, underground music was still spreading amongst the Russian youth through the magnizidat, amateur tape recordings that could be easily duplicated and shared. Tapes were often given from person to person but they were also often bought and circulated on ‘chernye rynki’ (black markets).Anastasia Sherstobitova, “In the footsteps of the legends of Ufa rock and roll.” https://web.archive.org/web/20160917164243/http://resbash.ru/stat/2/7230, February 26th, 2015. (Source originally in Russian) While DDT was signed by a record label and widely distributed, their music shared the aesthetics of the underground scene and their musical, lyrical and performing style can easily be compared to the Russian bards. However, being a so-called “mainstream” group, fundamentally changes the aesthetics of the music itself. DDT’s music is easily approachable and employs many features present in 1980s popular music. The harmonies are simple, the melodies are catchy, and the lyrics are more explicit in how they communicate themes and ideas. There’s a mass appeal to this kind of music making, one that can be commodified and distributed to a large audience with plenty of oversight and control by either record labels, the government or both. The lyrics are not as densely filled with hidden meanings, satire or implied understanding as in Vysotsky’s work. Rather, DDT serves as a transitory group between the hidden and implied meaning of the Russian bards and the explicit government denunciation that would later be found in the group Pussy Riot. DDT were among the first groups to start testing the water, to see what they could get away with in terms of political and societal commentary within their work. However, by the time they reached a high level of popularity, their music started to face government censorship. 

While DDT were successful in public performances and recordings in the early 80s, after they recorded their album Periferia (Periphery) in 1984, some members of the group were placed on the KGB watch list and were subjected to government persecution.Patrick Jackson, “Russian Rock Band Keeps the Faith,”  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3568405.stm, March 25th, 2004.  Because of this, the band’s music was banned, forcing them to go completely underground.Paula Zamorano Osorio, “From Then Until Now: The Best of Russian Rock,” https://theculturetrip.com/europe/russia/articles/from-then-until-now-the-best-of-russian-rock/, December 6th, 2016.  Ironically for the Russian government, this actually served to increase their popularity among young Russians, as instead of having to purchase their music through official channels, albums could now spread through illegal copies and amateur tape recordings. What started as a popular, officially sanctioned group, quickly turned into the continuation of an underground movement that was started by Vysotsky and others in the 1960s.

To this day, Yuri Shevchuk, the lead singer of DDT, remains highly critical of Putin and the undemocratic nature of Russian politicsOlga Larinova, “Protest sign. Interview with the leader of the group “DDT” Yuri Shevchuk,” http://www.religare.ru/2_41464.html, May 14th, 2007. (Source originally in Russian) and he is one of few public celebrities who aired oppositionist grievances including at a face-to-face meeting with Putin. In addition, in 2008, he participated in a Dissenters March in Saint Petersburg against the presidential elections in which no real opposition candidates were allowed to run. One of his most controversial songs, “Kogda zakonchitsya neft,” (When the oil runs out),Юрий Шевчук (ДДТ) : Когда закончится нефть (Yuri Shevchuk (DDT): When the oil runs out): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoW254dYTG0 contains lyrics that explicitly criticize Putin’s obsession with wealth and power at the expense of the suffering of his people. This commentary is seen in the second verse: “When everything is over, there will be a gold century and we will fly again without fire behind our backs. Our wings will be stronger and our dreams will become clear, when all the money is over and all the banks are empty.” We see this type of commentary throughout the full lyrics below:Translation by the author.

When the oil runs out,
You will be with me again.
When the gas runs out,
You’ll be back to me in the spring.
We will plant forests and we will make our paradise 
When everything is over
There will be volume in a soul. 
Когда закончится нефть, ты будешь опять со мной
Когда закончится газ, ты вернёшься ко мне весной
Мы посадим леса и устроим рай в шалаше
Когда закончится всё, будет объём в душе!
When oil runs out, our president will die!
And the world will become a little sadder, and the tears will make the Greenland ice.
Когда кончится нефть, наш президент помрёт! И мир станет немного печальней, а слезами – Гренландский лёд
Losing this battle, Mercedeses will give their keys,
And saddling up their horses again
the heroes will take out their swords. 
When everything is over 
There will be a gold century
And we will fly again, without fire behind our backs 
Проиграв эту битву, мерседесы сдадут ключи, И вновь седлая коней, герои вынут свои мечи
Когда закончится всё, настанет век золотой
И мы снова будем летать без огня за своей спиной
Our wings will be stronger and our thoughts will become clear
When all the money runs out and all the fucking banks are empty. 
Наши крылья окрепнут, а помыслы станут чисты
Когда закончатся все деньги и все банки, мать их, будут пусты
The fish will eat the flies of global projects in the rivers 
And the country will heal with its own language
All danger and envious eyes will be destroyed 
We will breathe easier when the gas runs out
Мух глобальных проектов рыба сожрёт в реке, 
И страна заживёт на своём родном языке, Рухнет вся безопасность и зло завистливых глаз
Нам будет легче дышать, когда закончится газ
We will begin to love again and be in tune with our heads
And free services and our eternal disputes with you will end 
All mermaids and fairies will pray for us (Long live modernized scientific industries!)
When we drink all oil, when we smoke all the gas!      

Мы вновь научимся любить и дружить со своей головой
И прекратится халява, и наши вечные споры с тобой
Все русалки и феи будут молиться за нас
 (Да здравствуют модернизированные наукоёмкие производства!)
 Когда мы выпьем всю нефть, когда мы выкурим полностью газ!

Despite the lineage of Vysotsky, here the unsaid takes a different path. Instead of using reified material and meta-knowledge, DDT utilizes the contrast between positive sonic signifiers and aggressive vocalization to produce social commentary. “When the oil runs out” is upbeat and major in tonality, seemingly signifying a kindof positivity, while simultaneously, Shevchuk’s vocalizations indicate frustration and discontent. The jazz-like ensemble, within the context of the song, perhaps even indicates a lighthearted or playful aesthetic. While the song may appear lighthearted on the surface sonically, Shevchuk’s delivery of the text indicates the opposite as he utilizes many of the same vocal techniques heard in Vysotsky’s realizations. He emphasizes the rolling of the Russian ‘r’, powerfully implodes consonants, and employs vocal fry, which gives his singing a raw, guttural sound. In addition, the lyrics also indicate development within the aesthetic of the unsaid. While Shevchuk is certainly not being as explicit in his denouncement of the government as he could be, it would’ve been unthinkable in Vysotsky’s time to release a song that contains the line: “When oil is over, our president will die!”  

While Shevchuk doesn’t hold anything back in the sonic quality of his voice, there is still careful consideration given to the where and when he will perform these songs. The way the music is distributed is also carefully controlled, as fear for his life and his family is always present in the back of his mind. In addition to location and distribution, the audience must also be considered, as societal expectations shift as modernity develops. Technology, access to Western art and culture, and changes in political leadership all affect how the music is sounded and heard within the population. While it could be argued that much has changed in Russia since the 1960s, the group continues to face prosecution and censorship, particularly as Shevchuk has openly criticized the ongoing war in Ukraine.Alyssa Lukpat, “A Russian rock singer was charged after condemning the Ukraine war at a concert,”https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/19/world/europe/russian-rock-musician-charged.html, May 19th, 2022. His commentary can be seen in his recently released single titled “Стая” (flock or pack) which comments on the socio-political consequences of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

ДДТ – “Стая” (DDT – The Flock)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRNMTOmGOqE

The War, February 24th, 2022, Chicago: 

I vividly recall a video about an elderly woman who chose not to leave Kharkiv, Ukraine. She continues to wait every day for the war to end, even as most of her neighbors and friends had already left the country to seek asylum. She says that she doesn’t see a point in leaving as what kind of a life would she have? She feeds her cat and sits in her bunker through the airstrikes as she waits for soldiers to bring her aid. She speaks Russian to the interviewer and tries to do what she can every day to comfort herself as she goes through a living hell. I feel tears streaming down my cheeks as I listen to her story and my heart breaks. She looks exactly like my grandmother. 

I am in a liminal space that is both attached and detached to the conflict, leaving me hanging in the balance between genuine sympathy and real empathy at any given moment. I am both deeply connected to and completely detached from the war. On the one hand I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about when I speak about Ukraine, but on the other, how am I not connected to this woman who looks like me, speaks like me, and shares in the same family rituals and values? These events are happening thousands of miles away and yet when I look at this woman, I can’t help but see my grandmother, and I suddenly feel that I am very much a part of this story and connected to the tragedy that is taking place. To further complicate matters, my father was born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine, but he would never call himself Ukrainian and nor would the government. To add to the frustration, my family has been residing in Ukraine for generations even before my father or grandfather were born, however, because of their Jewish heritage, they would not be considered officially Ukrainian. This leaves my father and I in the bizarre circumstance of simultaneously being Ukrainian in some senses but also not in others. Regardless of all of these confounding factors, we share in the culture, language and identity of the country, which means that we are connected, to a certain extent. So, I exist in my liminal space, not really belonging to any one place and discovering that perhaps it doesn’t matter after all as I come to see the answer to my identity as multitudinous rather than as singular and definitive.

The war in Ukraine has brought about a severe cultural and societal reckoning for many Russians, particularly those who left the country after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many of them, including my parents, have questioned whether they can continue to call themselves Russian at all. My father struggling with his own geographic origin in Ukraine brought into question my personal conception of identity. As I went searching for answers I found myself at the center of this research. Each segment of my cultural heritage becomes a part of my complete story and the expressivity and nuance that I found when exploring avtorskaia pesnia led me to find a home within the imagined community that I explored. I found kindred spirits within the photographs, recordings, and conversations that I’ve had throughout this process.

So, where do we go from here? There’s still much to learn from the bards and the ways in which they developed and manipulated their cultural identity through music making. Perhaps there’s a bridge that can be found back to one’s origins and heritage through the process of coming to terms with complex emotions and difficult situations. Expressivity is in the eye of the beholder and at the same time twisted by perceptions from the outside world thus, surface level understanding of music making will only get one so far in understanding a composer’s work. By placing oneself within the work, I believe that there are far more interesting and profound ideas that can be found. Towards the end of writing this narrative, I was moved to find that the tradition of community building, group understanding and honest expressivity continues to this day. 

(Figure 9, From the Facebook album of “Author’s Song Club, Jerusalem Meridian” with permission by Ariella Marina Melamed. Caption: A photo from a recent event commemorating Vladimir Vysotsky in January 2023)

There is a group of friends in Israel, known on Facebook as “Author’s Song Club, Jerusalem Meridian,” that meet a few times a year to perform the works of Vystosky, Galich, Okudzhava and others. They write, perform and proliferate avtorskaia pesnia as a means of preserving their cultural heritage and language. While they all live in Israel and speak Hebrew, all of their community interactions and lyrics are in Russian.As they sit together and perform for one another, they create and maintain a community, one that is connected through meta-knowledge and understanding that is idiomatic to their musical expression and realization. I would like to join them someday so that I can truly experience the entire sonic and physical landscape of their performances. While I will always, to a certain extent, be an outsider; I believe that I would also experience a kind of true belonging that can only be understood through my own memory and experience as an immigrant who has never felt they belonged in a specific place. 

About the Author:

Tanya Landau is a second-year graduate student in vocal performance at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. While completing her undergraduate degree at Arizona State University, she began composing works that have premiered with the Arizona Women’s Collaborative Project. She recently completed a fellowship through Roosevelt University’s Office of Student Research working with Dr. David Kjar. She went on to present her work on Vladimir Vysotsky at the American Musicology Society Midwest Chapter Meeting as well as the University of Toronto Graduate Student Conference.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2016. 

Jackson, Patrick. “Russian Rock Band Keeps the Faith.”  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3568405.stm, March 25th, 2004. 

Larinova, Olga. “Protest sign. Interview with the leader of the group "DDT" Yuri Shevchuk.” http://www.religare.ru/2_41464.html, May 14th, 2007. (Source originally in Russian) 

Lossau, Julia. Pitfalls of (Third) Space: Rethinking the Ambivalent Logic of Spatial Semantics (Routledge, 2008) 70.

Lugarić, Danijela. “Living vyne: The example of Bulat Okudzhava’s and Vladimir Vysotskii’s "avtorskaia pesnia"” 2018. “https://www.academia.edu/40701987/Living_vnye_The_example_of_Bulat_Okudzhava_s_and_Vladimir_Vysotskii_s_avtorskaia_pesnia_ 

Lukpat, Alyssa.“A Russian rock singer was charged after condemning the Ukraine war at a concert.”https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/19/world/europe/russian-rock-musician-charged.html, May 19th, 2022. 

Moir, Sarah K. (2012) "The People's Phenomenon: "Author's Song" in Khrushchev's Soviet Union," Constructing the Past: Vol. 13 : Iss. 1 , Article 6. Available at: https://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/constructing/vol13/iss1/6 

Myroniuk, Iryna. “So What is Romani Music?” 05-01-2017: https://rozvitok.org/en/so-what-is-romani-music/

Osorio, Zamorano Paula “From Then Until Now: The Best of Russian Rock.” https://theculturetrip.com/europe/russia/articles/from-then-until-now-the-best-of-russian-rock/, December 6th, 2016. 

Pellegrinelli, Lara. “DDT: Notes from Russia’s Rock Underground”. https://www.npr.org/2008/02/06/18752518/ddt-notes-from-russias-rock-underground, 2008. 

Platonov, Rachel. “Bad Singing: ‘Avtorskaia Pesnia’ and the Aesthetics of Metacommunication.” Ulbandus Review 9 (2005): 87–113. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25748155.

Ronyak, Jennifer. “Meeting Barthes at Fisher-Diskau’s Mill: Co-performance, Linguistic Identity, and a Lied” Journal of Musicology 34:1, (2017): 47. 

Sherstobitova, Anastasia. “In the footsteps of the legends of Ufa rock and roll.” https://web.archive.org/web/20160917164243/http://resbash.ru/stat/2/7230, February 26th, 2015. (Source originally in Russian)

Soja, W. Edward. Thirdspace: Toward a New Consciousness of Space and Spatiality (Routledge, 	2008) 51.

Special, S. Hedrick. April 2nd, 1973: “Soviet Reproves Singer of Underground Songs.” https://www.nytimes.com/1973/04/02/archives/soviet-reproves-singer-of-underground- songs-2-who-were-punished-a.html 

Zemtsovsky, Izaly. "Okudzhava, Bulat." Grove Music Online. 2001; https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000052225.


ДДТ - "Стая" (DDT - The Flock), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRNMTOmGOqE

Шевчук, Юрий. (Shevchuk, Yuri) (ДДТ) : Когда закончится нефть (When the oil runs out): 	https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoW254dYTG0

Vysotsky: “Lukomorie Bolshe Net” The Sea Cove is No More, recording by Navigator Records: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBPRAJJJfAo&t=200s 

Vysotsky: “Ohota na volkov” Wolf Hunt recording from around 1970:  	https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1_0fi831Vk&t=4s

Высоцкий Владимир. - Концерт для друзей 1965 (Vladimir Vysotsky- A Concert for Friends 1965) https://www.youtube.com/watchv=fNWK5qUJGhs&list=LL&index=22&t=2490s:41:30.