Flashing Back

The rest is silence…

Continent Marina Vlady

Dreaming of Heaven but having to live on Earth, his angels sang in “angry voices.” He was upright in everything — in song, on stage, in love, in friendship. He was real big on that as “without love there’s no life and no breath!” His last poem is about his love for Her, his wife and muse who “kept him safe the last 12 years.” Marina Vlady flashes back to Vladimir Vysotsky’s friends.

“I think poetry knows no borderlines as the issues topical for me are equally resonant with everyone else in the world. I’d like to make known another aspect of oeuvre in my country — bard music aka author song. I hope the language barrier won’t be too much of an impediment to understanding it. Most of all I enjoy singing for my friends so every new song I first put to their judgment.”

Volodya had many friends. Some of them saw him every day, some were lucky to see him on stage while others could only listen to his songs on tape. Anyhow, his friends they all, indeed, were. 

Sometimes we visit Boris Pasternak’s dacha. This country house contains treasures of the brilliant and tragic 1920s & 1930s. We head for Peredelkino Graveyard to pay our respects to Pasternak’s grave. He never surrendered. His bas-relief profile on the tombstone expresses pride and boldness he was famous for.

Then we make a detour by Bella Akhmadulina’s dacha filled with all kinds of lumber but cosy nonetheless. The atmosphere here is absolutely special. It’s obvious the exterior of the house does not matter to its owners whatsoever. A pinned up old photo shows Bella’s two close friends: Bulat Okudzhava in a black suit and his wife with big hair wearing a short skirt. “This is what we looked like back in 1960 when we were old,” Bulat used to say. Bulatik, as we call him between us, was your “first in the team,” i.e. the first to get in trouble as a singer-songwriter, a profession officially nonexistent in the USSR. He was one of the few always supporting and protecting you. 

If Bella is at home everyone is silent listening to her admirable voice. Her pale tragic face is uplifted, her neck tense and the veins about to burst with pain, anger, and love. After a drink of wine she bursts into crisp and happy laughter while time, having been stopped for a moment by her talent, resumes its flow.

Among your favourite performers there’s one for whom your tenderness is limitless. It’s Leonid Yengibarov, “the clown with sad eyes.” He’s young and wonderful in everything. His poetic, intellectual circus play makes his audience, both children and adults, not only laugh but cry too. This magician revolutionized the art of clownery by introducing lyrical and melancholic tones into traditional buffoonery and grotesque sequences. He stole the palm of victory from ageing Oleg Popov and many other traditional carpet clowns with their big red noses, striped pants, huge shoes, and messy pieing. He uses none of those, but when he smashes plates the audience stop roaring with laughter and fall silent im­mediately with a strange lump-in-throat feeling to wipe off their tears discreetly. 

One day you receive a phone call, and I see your face go black. You hang up and burst into sobs, weeping chokingly like a child. I put my arms around you while you cry, “Yengibarov is dead! This morning he had a heart attack in Gorky Street, and no one helped him! They all thought he was drunk! He died like a dog right there on the pavement!

One man remained your friend for ever and a day. When you introduce us to each other I already know he returned from places where a lot of people lose their lives on a regular basis. Sentenced to a senseless term of 170 years and granted amnesty after the XXth congress of the CPSU, he had served 16 years in prison camps. 16 years of hardest forced labour in Siberia for an innocent letter with a quote from disgraced poetry! Nonetheless, this strong man managed to survive! Greeting me, he shamelessly puts out his disfigured hand which, as I learn from you later, he fearlessly put into the camp fire with red-hot torture tools in it and told his extorters, “You’re just wasting time! It’s no use torturing me!” Even those villains couldn’t help admiring his courage.

Now he is a geologist heading a team of ex-prisoners for whom city life is intolerable. Wanting more space, air and freedom, they spend most of the time in the vast Siberian taiga. A helicopter transports them and the equipment necessary for mineral prospecting into the middle of nowhere. They build makeshift huts and live a hard, almost monastic, life without women and vodka.

One day they come to visit us, listen to your songs based on their stories nodding their heads with tears in their eyes, and hug you without saying a word.

Enter Yuri Petrovich Lyubimov. You meet him in 1964 when the renowned Taganka Theatre is being established. You grew up practically fatherless so he becomes somewhat of a father to you. You admire and fear him a little. He loves you like a talented son, even though, at times you’re a trouble-maker and pain in his neck. The two of you take turns exploding to explain yourselves, gesticulating furiously. At some point you both seem to be about to start fighting. Still, somehow or other, he and you never quarrel for real. A few days before the dress rehearsal everything finally falls into place. On the first night you act aggressively till you’re blue in the face. You seem to reach your limit. Suddenly you go well beyond the top notch, and an unimaginable depth opens up! ­Every time it’s a miracle, be it Galileo, Pugachyov, Mayakovsky or Hamlet. What an array of characters you and Lyubimov created! He was a friend of yours for the rest of your life, forgiving you all your shenanigans which sometimes put him in quite a predicament. The audience flying into a fury not seeing you on stage… Your colleagues so jealous of Lyubimov’s condescension to you, even more so, of your success with the public and their love for you… Excepting your friends: Demidova, Zolotukhin, Shatskaya, Filatov and Dykhovichny…

Your Hamlet will never take an instrument he can’t play. You must say things you’re expected to, but you refuse and shout your truth even louder than ever. The impression of your acting is that of a terrible and merciless battle. Yes, there’s death in the end, but, first and foremost, the truth gets the upper hand when, mortally wounded but revenged, Hamlet utters his last words, “The rest is silence!” Complete darkness…The audience crushed with pain unable to move for a few minutes… You, bare-chested, trembling like a stallion after an exhausting race and gaunt-looking after a life you’ve lived on stage back on your feet… So ends the play. 

That premiere I will never forget. So long was the road to it! The next decade you spent approaching Hamlet and cleansing him by your humanity. It was truly top class dramatic art, and such was each performance until the fateful day in July 1980 when you, guitar in hand, were to appear on stage again, but did not. No play… No refunds claimed, all the tickets kept as the most precious memorabilia…

On 27 July 1980 I see Lyubimov, suddenly grown old and bowed down by grief. He fulfills his duties to the bitterest end taking care of all minutest details. He boldly and iron-handedly forbids all “public speakers” access to your body. Later he will write in his memoirs, “Pasternak’s, Akhmatova’s, and Vysotsky’s poetry evokes a lot more than admiration. It evokes love!”

Your friends coming to encoffin you… Waves of grief completely overwhelming… Weeps… Yells… Whispers and lost voices repeating your name… Silence… All your near and dear are here. The rest is silence.