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Vladimir Vysotsky, 1979.
|Born||25 January 1938|
Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
|Origin||Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union|
|Died||25 July 1980 (aged 42)|
Moscow, Soviet Union
|Occupations||Singer, bard, songwriter, actor|
|Instruments||Seven-string guitar, vocals|
Vladimir Vysotsky, 1979.
|Born||25 January 1938|
Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
|Origin||Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union|
|Died||25 July 1980 (aged 42)|
Moscow, Soviet Union
|Occupations||Singer, bard, songwriter, actor|
|Instruments||Seven-string guitar, vocals|
Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky (Russian: Влади́мир Семёнович Высо́цкий; IPA: [vlɐˈdʲimʲɪr sʲɪˈmʲɵnəvʲɪt͡ɕ vɨˈsot͡skʲɪj]; 25 January 1938 – 25 July 1980) was a Soviet singer-songwriter, poet, and actor whose career had an immense and enduring effect on Soviet and Russian culture. He became widely known for his unique singing style and for his lyrics, which featured social and political commentary in often humorous street jargon. He was also a prominent stage and screen actor. Though his work was largely ignored by the official Soviet cultural establishment, he achieved remarkable fame during his lifetime, and to this day exerts significant influence on many of Russia's popular musicians and actors who wish to emulate his iconic status.
Vladimir Vysotsky was born in Moscow at the 3rd Meshchanskaya St. (61/2) maternity hospital. His father, Semyon Volfovich (Vladimirovich) (1915–1997), was a colonel in the Soviet army, originally from Kiev. He was Jewish. Vladimir's mother, Nina Maksimovna, (née Seryogina, 1912–2003) was Russian, and worked as a German language translator. Vysotsky's family lived in a Moscow communal flat in harsh conditions, and had serious financial difficulties. When Vladimir was 10 months old, Nina had to return to her office in the Transcript bureau of the Ministry of Geodesy and Cartography of the USSR (engaged in making German maps available for the Soviet military) so as to help her husband earn their family's living.
Vladimir's extraordinary theatrical inclinations became obvious at a very early age, and were supported by his paternal grandmother Dora Bronshteyn, a theater fan. The boy used to recite poems, standing on a chair and "flinging hair backwards, like a real poet", often using in his public speeches expressions he could hardly have heard at home. Once, at the age of two, when he had tired of the family’s guests’ poetry requests, he, according to his mother, sat himself under the New-year tree with a frustrated air about him and sighed: "You silly tossers! Give a child some respite!" His sense of humor was extraordinary, but often baffling for people around him. A three-year-old could jeer his father in a bathroom with unexpected poetic improvisation ("Now look what's here before us / Our goat’s to shave himself!") or appall unwanted guests with some street folk song, promptly steering them away. Vysotsky remembered those first three years of his life in the autobiographical Ballad of Childhood (Баллада о детстве, 1975), one of his best-known songs.
As WWII broke out, Semyon Vysotsky, a military reserve officer, joined the Soviet army and went to fight the Nazis. Nina and Vladimir were evacuated to the village of Vorontsovka, in Orenburg Oblast where the boy had to spend 6 days a week in a kindergarten and his mother worked for 12 hours a day in a chemical factory. In 1943, both went back to their Moscow apartment at 1st Meschanskaya St., 126. In September 1945, Vladimir joined the 1st class of the #273 Moscow Rostokino region School.
In December 1946, Vysotsky's parents divorced. In 1947 Vladimir went to live for two years with Semyon Vladimirovich and his Armenian wife, Yevge′nya Stepanovna Liholatova, whom the boy called "aunt Zhenya". "We decided that our son would stay with me. Vladimir came to stay with me in January 1947, and my second wife, Yevgenia, became Vladimir's second mother for many years to come. They had much in common and liked each other, which made me really happy," Semyon Vysotsky later remembered. Vladimir spent 1947–1949 with his father (then an army Major) and "aunt Zhenya" at a military base in Eberswalde in the Soviet-occupied section of post-World War II Germany (later East Germany). Here living conditions, compared to those of Nina's communal Moscow flat, were infinitely better; the family occupied the whole floor of a two-storeyed house, and the boy had a room to himself for the first time in his life. In 1949 along with his stepmother Vladimir returned to Moscow. There he joined the 5th class of Moscow's School #128 and settled at Bolshoy Karetny, 15 (where they had to themselves two rooms of a 4-roomed flat), with "auntie Zhenya" (then just 28), a woman of great kindness and warmth whom he later remembered as his second mother. In 1953 Vladimir Vysotsky, now much interested in theater and cinema, joined the Drama courses led by Vladimir Bogomolov. "No one in my family has had anything to do with arts, no actors or directors were there among them. But my mother admired theater and from the earliest age... each and every Saturday I've been taken up with her to watch one play or the other. And all of this, it probably stayed with me," he later reminisced. The same year he received his first ever guitar, a birthday present from Nina Maksimovna; a close friend, bard and later well known Soviet lyricist Igor Kokhanovsky taught him basic chords. In 1955 Vladimir re-settled into his mother's new home (at 1st Meshanskaya, 76). In June of the same year he graduated from school with five A's.
In 1955, Vladimir enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Civil Engineering (МИСИ), but dropped out after just one semester to pursue an acting career. In June 1956 he joined Boris Vershilov's class at the Moscow Art Theatre Studio-Institute. It was there that he met the 3rd course student Iza Zhukova (who four years later became his wife); soon the two lovers settled at the 1st Meschanskaya flat, in a common room, shielded off by a folding screen. It was also in the Studio that Vysotsky met Bulat Okudzhava for the first time, an already popular underground bard. He was even more impressed by his Russian literature teacher Andrey Sinyavsky who along with his wife often invited students to his home to stage improvised disputes and concerts. In 1958 Vysotsky's got his first MAT(Moscow Art Theatre) role: that of Porfiry Petrovich in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. In 1959 he was cast in his first cinema role, that of student Petya in Vasily Ordynsky's The Yearlings (Сверстницы). On 20 June 1960, Vysotsky graduated from the MAT theater institute and joined the A. S. Pushkin Moscow Drama Theater (led by Boris Ravenskikh at the time) where he spent (with intervals) almost three troubled years. These were marred by numerous administrative sanctions, due to "lack of discipline" and occasional drunken sprees which were a reaction, mainly, to the lack of serious roles and his inability to realise his artistic potential A short stint in 1962 with the Moscow Theater of Miniatures (administered at the time by Vladimir Polyakov) ended with him being fired, officially "for a total lack of sense of humour".
Vysotsky's second and third films, Dima Gorin’s Career and "713" Requests Permission to Land, were interesting only for the fact that in both he had to be beaten up (in the first case by Aleksandr Demyanenko). "That was the way cinema greeted me," he later often joked. In 1961 Vysotsky wrote his first-ever proper song, called "Tattoo" (Татуировка), which started a long and colourful cycle of artfully stylized criminal underworld romantic stories, full of undercurrents and witty social comments. In June 1963, while shooting Penalty Kick (directed by Veniamin Dorman and starring Mikhail Pugovkin), Vysotsky used the Gorky Film Studio to record an hour-long reel-to-reel cassette of his own songs; copies of it quickly spread and the author's name became known in Moscow and elsewhere (although many of these songs were often being referred to as either "traditional" or "anonymous"). Just several months later Riga-based chess grandmaster Mikhail Tal was heard praising the author of "Bolshoy Karetny" (Большой Каретный) and Anna Akhmatova (in a conversation with Joseph Brodsky) was quoting Vysotsky's number "I was the soul of a bad company..." taking it apparently for some brilliant piece of anonymous street folklore. In October 1964 Vysotsky recorded in chronological order 48 of his own songs, his first self-made Complete works of... compilation, which boosted his popularity as a new Moscow folk underground star.
In 1964, director Yuri Lyubimov invited Vysotsky to join the newly created Moscow Theatre of Drama and Comedy on the Taganka. "'I've written some songs of my own. Won’t you listen?' – he asked. I agreed to listen to just one of them, expecting our meeting to last for no more than five minutes. Instead I ended up listening to him for an entire 1.5 hours", Lyubimov remembered years later of this first audition. On 19 September 1964, Vysotsky debuted in Bertholt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan as Second God (two minor roles besides). A month later he came on stage as a dragoon captain (Bela's father) in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. It was in Taganka that Vysotsky started to sing on stage; a new War theme having now became prominent in his musical repertoire. After having appeared in the experimental Poet and Theater (Поэт и Театр, February 1965) show, based on Andrey Voznesensky's work and then in Ten Days that Shook the World (after John Reed's book, April 1965), Vysotsky was commissioned by Lyubimov to write songs exclusively for Taganka's new II World War play. The Dead and the Living (Павшие и Живые, premiered in October 1965) included Vysotsky's Stars (Звёзды), The Soldiers of Heeresgruppe Mitte (Солдаты группы "Центр") and Penal Battalions (Штрафные батальоны), the striking examples of a completely new kind of a war song, never heard in his country before. As veteran screenwriter Nikolay Erdman put it (in conversation with Lyubimov), "Professionally, I can well understand how Mayakovsky or Seryozha <Yesenin> were doing it. How Volodya Vysotsky does it is totally beyond me". With his songs – in effect, miniature theatrical dramatizations (usually with a protagonist and full of dialogues), Vysotsky instantly achieved such level of credibility that real life former prisoners, war veterans, boxers, footballers etc. simply refused to believe that the author himself had never served his time in prisons and labor camps, or fought in the War, or been a boxing/football professional, etc. After the second of the two concerts at the Leningrad Molecular Physics institute (that was his actual debut as a solo musical performer) Vysotsky left a note for his fans in a journal which ended with words: "Now that you've heard all these songs, please, don't you make a mistake of mixing me with my characters, I am not like them at all. With love, Vysotsky, 20 April 1965, XX c." Excuses of this kind he had to make throughout his performing career. At least one of Vysotsky's song themes – that of alcoholic abuse – was worryingly autobiographical, though. By the time his breakthrough came in 1967, he'd suffered several physical breakdowns and once was sent (by Taganka's boss) to a rehabilitation clinic, a visit he on several occasions repeated since.
Brecht's Life of Galileo (premiered on 17 May 1966), transformed by Lyubimov into a powerful allegory of Soviet intelligentsia's set of moral and intellectual dilemmas, brought Vysotsky his first leading theater role (along with some fitness lessons: he had to perform numerous acrobatic tricks on stage). Press reaction was mixed, some reviewers disliked the actor's overt emotionalism, but it was for the first time ever that Vysotsky's name appeared in Soviet papers at all. Film directors now were treating him with respect. Victor Turov's war film I Come from the Childhood where Vysotsky got his first ever 'serious' (neither comical nor villainous) role in cinema, featured two of his songs: a spontaneous piece called When It's Cold (Холода) and a dark, Unknown soldier theme-inspired classic Common Graves (На братских могилах), sung behind the screen by the legendary Mark Bernes.
Stanislav Govorukhin's and Boris Durov's The Vertical (1967), a mountain climbing drama, starring Vysotsky (as Volodya the radioman) brought him all-round recognition and fame. Four of the numbers used in the film (including Song of a Friend (Песня о друге), released in 1968 by the Soviet recording industry monopolist Мелодия disc to become an unofficial hit) were written literally on the spot, nearby Elbrus, inspired by professional climbers' tales and one curious hotel bar conversation with a German guest who 25 years ago happened to climb these very mountains in a capacity of an Edelweiss division fighter. Another 1967 film, Kira Muratova's Brief Encounters featured Vysotsky as the geologist Maxim (paste-bearded again) with a now trademark off-the-cuff musical piece, a melancholy improvisation called Business... (Дела). All the while Vysotsky continued working hard at Taganka, with another important role under his belt (that of Mayakovsky – or, rather one the latter's character five different versions) in an experimental piece called Listen! (Послушайте!), and was more and more regularly giving semi-official concerts where audiences greeted him as a cult hero.
In the end of 1967 Vysotsky got another pivotal theater role, that of Khlopusha in Pugachov (a play based on a poem by Sergei Yesenin), often described as one of Taganka’s finest. "He’s given this play all things that he’s been excelling at and, on the other hand, it was Pugachyov that made him discover his own potential," – Soviet critic Natalya Krymova wrote years later. In a matter of weeks, though, infuriated by the actor’s increasing unreliability triggered by worsening drinking problems, Lyubimov fired him – only to let him back again several months later (and thus begin the humiliating sacked-then-pardoned routine which continued for years). In June 1968 a Vysotsky-slagging campaign was launched in the Soviet press. First Sovetskaya Rossiya commented on the "epidemic spread of immoral, smutty songs", allegedly promoting "criminal world values, alcoholism, vice and immorality" and condemned their author for "sowing seeds of evil". Then Komsomolskaya Pravda linked Vysotsky with black market dealers selling his tapes somewhere in Siberia. Composer D. Kabalevsky speaking from the Union of Composers Committee tribune criticised Soviet radio for giving an ideologically dubious, "low-life product" like Song of a Friend (Песня о друге) an unwarranted airplay. Playwright A. Stein who in his Last Parade play used several of Vysotsky’s songs, was chastised by a Ministry of Culture official for "providing a tribune for this anti-Soviet scum". The phraseology prompted commentators in the West to make parallels between Vysotsky and Zoschenko, another Soviet author who'd been officially labeled "scum" some 20 years ago.
Two of Vysotsky's 1968 films, Gennady Poloka’s Intervention (premiered in May 1987) where he was cast as Brodsky, a dodgy even if highly artistic character, and Ye. Karelov's Two Comrades Were Serving (a gun-toting White Army officer Brusentsov who in the course of the film shoots his friend, his horse, Oleg Yankovsky's good guy character and, finally himself) – were severely censored, first of them shelved for twenty years. Small wonder Vysotsky's 1968 songs were crushingly heavy and ultra depressive. Many of them – Save Our Souls, The Wolfhunt (Охота на волков), Gypsy Variations (Моя цыганская) and The Steam-bath in White (Банька по-белому) – were immediately hailed as masterpieces. Meanwhile, at least one "proper" love song appeared in Vysotsky's repertoire for the first time, documenting the beginning of his passionate love affair with French actress Marina Vlady.
In 1969 Vysotsky starred in two films: The Master of Taiga where he played a villainous Siberian timber-floating brigadier, and somewhat more entertaining Dangerous Tour. The latter was criticized in press for having taken rather a farcical approach to the subject of Bolvshevik underground workings but for a wider Soviet audience this was an important opportunity to enjoy the charismatic actor's presence on big screen. In 1970 Vysotsky visited the dislodged Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at his dacha and had a lengthy conversation, embarked on a massive and by Soviet standards dangerously commercial concert tour in Soviet Central Asia. He then took Marina Vlady to the home of director Victor Turov to help investigate her Belarusian roots. The pair finally wed on 1 December 1970 (causing furore among the Moscow cultural and political elite) and for a honeymoon went for Georgia. Creatively, the era was among the most productive and brilliant times for Vysotsky, resulting in several dozen new songs, including the anthemic I Hate (Я не люблю), romantic The Abandoned Ship, sentimental Lyricale (Лирическая), satirical I Have Left Russia, humorous The Giraffe (Жираф), A Merry Funeral Song (Веселая покойницкая) and The High Jumper and, adding to his war cycle, He Didn't Return from the Battle (Он не вернулся из боя), The Earth Song and many others.
1971 started promisingly: Lyubimov gave Vysotsky the long sought-after leading role in his groundbreaking Hamlet play. A drinking spree-related nervous breakdown, though, brought the actor to the Moscow Kaschenko psychiatry clinic. By this time Vysotsky had been suffering from alcoholism. Many of his songs from the period deal – either directly or metaphorically – with alcoholism and insanity. Partially recovered (much due to the encouraging presence of Marina, now settled into the real life role of a guardian angel), Vysotsky embarked on a successful Ukrainian concert tour and wrote a cluster of excellent songs. But it was Taganka's Hamlet (premiered on 29 November 1971) that finally provided Vysotsky with his worthiest reason for celebration. A role – that of a lone intellectual rebel, rising to fight the cruel state machine – became an instant hit.
Then came another blow: Vysotsky's got the role in (and wrote some songs for) The Sannikov Land, an adaptation of Vladimir Obruchev's science fiction, then was scratched—for the reason of his face "being too scandalously recognisable" as a state official had put it. One of the songs written for the film, a doom-laden epic allegory called Capricious Horses (Кони привередливые), gained life of its own and became one of the singer's signature tunes. Two of Vysotsky’s 1972 film roles were somewhat meditative: an anonymous American journalist in The Fourth One and the 'righteous guy' von Koren in The Bad Good Man (based on Anton Chekov's Duel). The latter brought Vysotsky the Best Male Role prize at the V Taormina Film Fest. This philosophical slant rubbed off onto some of his new works of the time: A Singer at the Microphone (Певец у микрофона), The Tightrope Walker (канатоходец) and The Misery (a sad folky tale of a girl who became victim of circumstance, later recorded by Marina and covered by countless female performers) and others. More popular, though, proved to be his 1972 humorous songs: Mishka Shifman (Мишка Шифман), which satirised the leaving-for-Israel routine, Victim of Television (ridiculing the concept of "political consciousness" as such) and grotesquely funny The Honour of the Chess Crown about an ever-fearless "simple Soviet man" challenging the much feared American champion Bobby Fisher to a match, as well as the new "war" songs: We Spin the Earth and Black Pea-Coats.
In April 1973, for the first time since childhood, Vysotsky went abroad – to Poland and France. Imminent official permission difficulties were sorted out instantly after the French Communist party leader Georges Marchais's personal phone call to Leonid Brezhnev (who, according to Marina Vlady's memoirs, rather sympathized with the stellar couple). Having found on return a potentially dangerous lawsuit brought against him (concerning 'illegal' concerts in Siberia the year before), Vysotsky wrote a defiant letter to Minister of Culture Pyotr Demichev where he stated his right to perform officially. As a result, he was given the official status of a philharmonic artist, 11.5 roubles (an equivalent to the price of 3 bottles of vodka) per concert now guaranteed. Still the 900 rubles fine had to be paid according the court decision, which was substantial, considering his monthly salary at the theater was ~110 rubles. That year Vysotsky wrote a brilliant 30 song cycle for "Alice in Wonderland," an audioplay, where he himself was given several minor roles. His biggest hits of 1973 were: I Walked out on a Deal, The Others' Track, The Flight Interrupted, and The Monument (all pondering on his achievements and legacy).
Unable to completely ignore his musical phenomenon, Melodiya in 1974 released the 7” EP, featuring four of his war songs ("He’s Never Returned From a Battle", "The New Times Song", "Common Graves", and "The Earth Song") which represented a tiny portion of his creative work, which millions already owned on tape and knew by heart. In September 1974, Vysotsky received his first state award, the Honorary Diploma of the Uzbek SSR following a tour with fellow actors from the Taganka Theatre in Uzbekistan. Coupled with the USSR Union of Cinematographers’ membership that had been granted to him a year before, this modest Uzbek gift meant a lot. Now Vysotsky was an "anti-Soviet scum" no more; rather, an unlikely link between the official Soviet cinema and the "progressive-thinking artists of the West". More films followed, among them The Only Road (a Soviet-Yugoslav joint venture, premiered on 10 January 1975 in Belgrade)  and a science fiction movie The Flight of Mr. McKinley (1975). The latter was viewed by Vysotsky as a failure, because out of nine superb ballads that he wrote for this movie, only two made the soundtrack, and he blamed the director for it. This was the height of his popularity, when, as described in Vlady's book about her husband, walking down the street on a summer night, one could hear Vysotsky's recognizable voice coming literally from every open window.
Creatively, Vysotsky's catalog was enriched by such gems as humorous The Instruction before the Trip Abroad and At the Customs, lyrical Of the Dead Pilot, and philosophical The Strange House and Train to Heaven.
In 1975 Vysotsky made his third trip to France where he rather riskily visited his former teacher (and now a celebrated dissident emigre) Andrey Sinyavsky. Artist Mikhail Shemyakin, his new Paris friend ('bottle-sharer, rather, in Marina's terms), recorded Vysotsky in his home studio. After a brief stay in England a Transatlantic trip followed which resulted in his first Mexico concerts in April. Back in Moscow, there were changes at Taganka: Lyubimov went to Milan's La Scala on a contract and Anatoly Efros has been brought in, a director of radically different approach. His project, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, caused a sensation. Critics praised Alla Demidova (as Ranevskaya) and Vladimir Vysotsky (as Lopakhin) powerful interplay; in retrospect this short-lived duet is regarded to be easily one of the most dazzling in the history of the Soviet theater. Lyubimov, however, hated it wholeheartedly, and accused Efros of giving his actors 'stardom malaise'. 1976 Taganka’s visit to Bulgaria resulted in Vysotskys’s interview there being filmed and 15 songs recorded by Balkanton record label, leaving the boss again rather disgruntled. On return Lyubimov made a move which many thought outrageous: declaring himself "unable to work with this Mr. Vysotsky anymore" he's given the Hamlet role to Valery Zolotukhin, the latter's best friend. That was the time, reportedly, when Vysotsky, totally stressed out, started using amphetamines for the first time.
Having had another Belorussian voyage completed, Marina and Vladimir went for France, then (official permission neither given nor asked for) flew to North America: Canada and US. In New York (where he met, among other people, Baryshnikov and Brodsky), in the course of a televised one-hour interview with Dan Rather, he declared himself to be "not a dissident, just an artist, who never had any intentions to leave his country where people loved him and his songs." At home this unauthorized venture into the Western world bore no repercussions: by this time Soviet authorities were divided by the "Vysotsky controversy" up to the highest level; while Suslov detested the bard, Brezhnev loved him to such an extent that once, while in hospital, was listening to his songs performed live into a telephone, in daughter Galina's home. 1975 brought some of Vysotsky most dazzling philosophical creations: The Domes, The Rope, and the entire "medieval" cycle, including breath-taking The Ballad of Love, Free Archers, and Children of Books.
In September Vysotsky made a trip to Yugoslavia with Taganka (Hamlet there won the annual BITEF festival's first prize) and then to Hungary for a two-week concert tour. Back in Moscow in another ambitious Lyubimov’s venture, The Master & Margarita, he got the rather meager Ivan Bezdomny role, recompensed by an important Svidrigailov slot in Yury Karyakin's take on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Of Vysotsky's new songs of this period several stand out: a semi-biographical one-two punch of Medical Records: A Grand Mistake (a superb semi-paranoid assessment of Vysotsky's medical woes) and History of Illness (a sober take on the same subject), humorous Why Did the Savages Eat Captain Cook, and also the first version of Two Fates (a chilling, delusional, yet highly symbolic and autobiographical fable of a lazy, self-absorbed, alcoholic hero being hunted by two malevolent witches symbolizing Vysotsky's own life troubles).
In 1977 Vysotsky’s health deteriorated (problems were multiple: heart, kidneys, liver failures, jaw infection and nervous breakdown) to such an extent that in April he found himself in Moscow clinic's reanimation center in the state of total physical and mental collapse. His writing, however, hasn't withered yet: A Rush to Escape (about Soviet prison camps), My Destiny to the Finish Line, The Life Was Flying by (about nationalistic discord among the peoples of the USSR), and satirical A Letter to a TV Program from the Mental Asylum are still among his best and most mature accomplishments.
In 1977 Vysotsky made an unlikely appearance in New York City on the American television show 60 Minutes, which falsely stated that Vysotsky had spent time in the Soviet prison system, the Gulag. That year saw the release of three Vysotsky’s LPs in France (including the one that’s been recorded by RCA in Canada the previous year); arranged and accompanied by guitarist Kostya Kazansky, the singer for the first time ever enjoyed the relatively sophisticated musical background. In August he performed in Hollywood before members of New York, New York film cast and (according to Vladi) was greeted warmly by the likes of Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro. Some more concerts in Los Angeles were followed by the appearance at the French Communist paper L’Humanité annual event. In December Taganka left for France, its Hamlet (Vysotsky back in the lead) gaining fine reviews.
| The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed on YouTube film fragment.|
Sharapov (Vladimir Konkin) is outraged with the way Zheglov (V.Vysotsky) planted a purse into a thief’s pocket to get evidence by blackmail. "A thief belongs in prison. Whichever way I get him there is beside the point," Zheglov retorts.
1978 started with the March–April series of concerts in Moscow and Ukraine. In May Vysotsky embarked upon a new major film project: the The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed (Место встречи изменить нельзя) about two detectives fighting crime in late 1940s Russia, directed by Stanislav Govorukhin. The film (premiered on 11 November 1978 on the Soviet Central TV) presented Vysotsky as Zheglov, a ruthless and charismatic cop teaching his milder partner Sharapov (actor Vladimir Konkin) his art of crime-solving. Vysotsky also became engaged in Taganka’s Genre-seeking show (performing some of his own songs) and played Aleksander Blok in Anatoly Efros' The Lady Stranger (Незнакомка) radio play (premiered on air on 10 July 1979 and later released as a double LP).
In November 1978 Vysotsky took part in the underground censorship-defying literary project Metropolis, inspired and organized by Vasily Aksenov. In January 1979 Vysotsky again visited America with highly successful series of concerts. That was the point (as biographer V. Novikov argues) when a glimpse of new, clean life of a respectable international actor and performer all but made Vysotsky seriously reconsider his priorities. What followed though, was a return to the self-destructive theater and concert tours schedule, personal doctor Anatoly Fedotov now not only his companion, but part of Taganka's crew. "Who was this Anatoly? Just a man who in every possible situation would try to provide drugs. And he did provide. In such moments Volodya trusted him totally", Oksana Afanasyeva, Vysotsky's Moscow girlfriend (who was near him for most of the last year of his life and, on occasion, herself served as a drug courier) remembered. In July 1979, after a series of Center Asia concerts, Vysotsky collapsed, experienced clinical death and was resuscitated by Fedotov (who injected caffeine into the heart directly), colleague and close friend Vsevolod Abdulov helping with heart massage. In January 1980 Vysotsky asked Lyubimov for a year's leave. "Up to you, but on condition that Hamlet is yours," was the answer. The songwriting showed signs of slowing down, as Vysotsky began switching from songs to more conventional poetry, yet still crafting such masterpieces as White Waltz, The Hunt with Helicopters (a widely popular sequel to The Wolfhunt), and Aeroflot 10 Years Later.
In May 1979, being in a practice studio of the MSU Faculty of Journalism, Vysotsky recorded a video letter to American actor and film producer Warren Beatty. Vysotsky was trying to get acquainted with Beatty, while looking for an opportunity to get a role in Reds film, to be produced and directed by Beatty. While recording, Vysotsky made a few attempts to speak English, trying to overcome the language barrier. This video letter has never reached Beatty. The video was broadcast for the first time more than three decades later, in the night of 24 January 2013 (local time) by Rossiya 1 channel, along with records of TV channels of Italy, Mexico, Poland, USA and from private collections, in Vladimir Vysotsky. A letter to Warren Beatty film by Alexander Kovanovsky and Igor Rakhmanov.
While recording this video, Vysotsky was having a rare opportunity to perform for a camera, being still unable to do it with Soviet television.
On 22 January 1980, Vysotsky entered the Moscow Ostankino TV Center to record his one and only studio concert for the Soviet television. What proved to be an exhausting affair (concentration missing, he had to plod through several takes for each song) was premiered on the Soviet TV eight years later. Last six months of his life saw Vysotsky appearing on stage sporadically, fueled by heavy dosages of drugs and alcohol. His performances were often erratic. Occasionally Vysotsky paid visits to Sklifosofsky institute's ER unit, but would not hear of Marina Vlady's suggestions for him to take long-term rehabilitation course in a Western clinic. Yet he kept writing, mostly poetry and even prose, but songs as well. The last song he performed was the agonizing My Sorrow, My Anguish and his final poem, written one week prior to his death was A Letter to Marina: "I'm less than fifty, but the time is short / By you and God protected, life and limb / I have a song or two to sing before the Lord / I have a way to make my peace with him."
Although several theories of the ultimate cause of the singer's death persist to this day (including a few rather sinister ones), given what is now known about cardiovascular disease, it seems likely that by the time of his death Vysotsky had an advanced coronary condition brought about by years of tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as his grueling work schedule and the stress of the constant harassment by the government. Towards the end, most of Vysotsky's closest friends had become aware of the ominous signs and were convinced that his demise was only a matter of time. A clear evidence of this can be seen in a video ostensibly shot by the Japanese NHK channel only months before Vysotsky's death, where he appears visibly unwell, breathing heavily and slurring his speech. What follows in the rest of this section is based on accounts by Vysotsky's close friends and colleagues compiled in the book by V. Perevozchikov 
Vysotsky suffered from alcoholism for most of his life. Sometime around 1977, he started using amphetamines and other prescription narcotics in an attempt to counteract the debilitating hangovers and eventually to rid himself of alcohol addiction. While these attempts were partially successful, he ended up trading alcoholism for a severe drug dependency that was fast spiraling out of control. He was reduced to begging some of his close friends in the medical profession for supplies of drugs, often using his acting skills to collapse in a medical office and imitate a seizure or some other condition requiring a painkiller injection. On 25 July 1979 (a year to the day before his death) he suffered a cardiac arrest and was clinically dead for several minutes during a concert tour of Soviet Uzbekistan, after injecting himself with a wrong kind of painkiller he had previously obtained from a dentist's office.
Fully aware of the dangers of his condition, Vysotsky made several attempts to cure himself of his addiction. He underwent an experimental (and ultimately discredited) blood purification procedure offered by a leading drug rehabilitation specialist in Moscow. He also went to an isolated retreat in France with his wife Marina in the spring of 1980 as a way of forcefully depriving himself of any access to drugs. After these attempts failed, Vysotsky returned to Moscow to find his life in an increasingly stressful state of disarray. He had been a defendant in two criminal trials, one for a car wreck he had caused some months earlier, and one for an alleged conspiracy to sell unauthorized concert tickets (he eventually received a suspended sentence and a probation in the first case, and the charges in the second were dismissed, although several of his co-defendants were found guilty). He also unsuccessfully fought the film studio authorities for the rights to direct a movie called The Green Phaeton. The relations with his wife Marina were deteriorating, and he was torn between his loyalty to her and his love for his mistress Oksana Afanasyeva. He had also developed a severe inflammation in one of his legs, making his concert performances extremely challenging.
In a final desperate attempt to overcome his drug addiction, partially prompted by his inability to obtain drugs through his usual channels (the authorities had imposed a strict monitoring of the medical institutions in order to prevent illicit drug distribution during the 1980 Olympics), he relapsed into alcohol and went on a prolonged drinking binge (apparently consuming copious amounts of champagne due to a prevalent misconception at the time that it was better than vodka at countering the effects of drug withdrawal).
On 3 July 1980, Vysotsky gave a performance at a suburban Moscow concert hall. One of the stage managers recalls that he looked visibly unhealthy ("gray-faced", as she puts it) and complained of not feeling too good, while another says she was surprised by his request for champagne before the start of the show, as he had always been known for completely abstaining from drink before his concerts. On July 16 Vysotsky gave his last public concert in Kaliningrad. On July 18, Vysotsky played Hamlet for the last time at the Taganka Theatre. From around July 21, several of his close friends were on a round-the-clock watch at his apartment, carefully monitoring his alcohol intake and hoping against all odds that his drug dependency would soon be overcome and they would then be able to bring him back from the brink. The effects of drug withdrawal were clearly getting the better of him, as he got increasingly restless, moaned and screamed in pain, and at times fell into memory lapses, failing to recognize at first some of his visitors, including his son Arkadiy. At one point, Vysostsky's personal physician A. Fedotov (the same doctor who had brought him back from clinical death a year earlier in Uzbekistan) attempted to sedate him, inadvertently causing an asphyxiation from which he was barely saved. On July 24, Vysotsky told his mother that he thought he was going to die that day, and then made similar remarks to a few of the friends present at the apartment, who begged him to stop such talk and keep his spirits up. But soon thereafter, Oksana Afanasyeva saw him clench his chest several times, which led her to suspect that he was genuinely suffering from a cardiovascular condition. She informed Fedotov of this, but was told not to worry, as he was going to monitor Vysotsky's condition all night. In the evening, after drinking relatively small amounts of alcohol, the moaning and groaning Vysotsky was sedated by Fedotov, who then sat down on the couch next to him but fell asleep. Fedotov awoke in the early hours of July 25 to an unusual silence, and found Vysotsky dead in his bed with his eyes wide open, apparently of a myocardial infarction, as he later certified. This was contradicted by Fedotov's colleagues, Sklifosovsky Emergency Medical Institute physicians L. Sul'povar and S. Scherbakov (who demanded the actor's instant hospitalization on July 23, but were, allegedly, defied by Fedotov), who insisted that Fedotov's incompetent sedation combined with alcohol was what killed Vysotsky. An autopsy was prevented by Vysotsky's parents (who were eager to have their son's drug addiction remain secret), so the true cause of death remains unknown.
No official announcement of the actor's death was made, only a brief obituary appeared in the Moscow newspaper Vechernyaya Moskva, and a note informing of Vysotsky's death and cancellation of the Hamlet performance was put out at the entrance to the Taganka Theatre (the story goes that not a single ticket holder took advantage of the refund offer). Despite this, by the end of the day millions had learned of Vysotsky's death. On July 28, he lay in state at the Taganka Theatre. After a mourning ceremony involving an unauthorized mass gathering of unprecedented scale, Vysotsky was buried at the Vagankovskoye Cemetery in Moscow. The attendance at the Olympic events dropped noticeably on that day, as scores of spectators left to attend the funeral. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of his coffin.
Some people[weasel words] felt that part of the blame for his death lay with the group of associates who surrounded him in the last years of his life. This inner circle were all people under the influence of his strong character, combined with a material interest in the large sums of money his concerts earned. This list included Valerii Yanklovich, manager of the Taganka Theatre and prime organiser of his non-sanctioned concerts; Anatolii Fedotov, his personal doctor; Vadim Tumanov, gold prospector (and personal friend) from Siberia; Oksana Afanas'eva (later Yarmol'nik), his mistress the last three years of his life; Ivan Bortnik, a fellow actor; and Leonid Sul'povar, head of division at the Sklifosovski hospital responsible for much of the supply of drugs.
Vysotsky's associates had all put in efforts to supply his drug habit, which kept him going in the last years of his life. Under their influence he was able to continue to perform all over the country, up to a week before his death. Due to illegal (i.e. non-state-sanctioned) sales of tickets and other underground methods, these concerts pulled in sums of money unimaginable in Soviet times, when almost everyone received nearly the same small salary. The payouts and gathering of money were a constant source of danger, and Yanklovich and others were needed to organise them.
Some money went to Vysotsky, the rest was distributed amongst this circle. At first this was a reasonable return on their efforts; however, as his addiction progressed and his body developed resistance, the frequency and amount of drugs needed to keep Vysotsky going became unmanageable. This culminated at the time of the Moscow Olympics which coincided with the last days of his life, when supplies of drugs were monitored more strictly than usual, and some of the doctors involved in supplying Vysotsky were already behind bars (normally the doctors had to account for every ampule, thus drugs were transferred to an empty container, while the patients received a substitute or placebo instead). In the last few days Vysotsky became uncontrollable, his shouting could be heard all over the apartment building on Malaya Gruzinskaya St. where he lived amongst VIP's. Several days before his death, in a state of stupor he went on a high speed drive around Moscow in an attempt to obtain drugs and alcohol – when many high-ranking people saw him. This increased the likelihood of him being forcibly admitted to hospital, and the consequent danger to the circle supplying his habit. As his state of health declined, and it became obvious that he may die, his associates gathered to decide what to do with him. They came up with no firm decision. They did not want him admitted officially, as his drug addiction would become public and they would fall under suspicion, although some of them admitted that any ordinary person in his condition would have been admitted immediately.
On Vysotsky's death his associates and relatives put in much effort to prevent a post mortem being carried out. This despite the fairly unusual circumstances: he died aged 42 under heavy sedation with an improvised cocktail of sedatives and stimulants, including the toxic chloral hydrate, provided by his personal doctor who had been supplying him with narcotics the previous three years. This doctor, being the only one present at his side when death occurred, had a few days earlier been seen to display elementary negligence in treating the sedated Vysotsky. On the night of his death, Arkadii Vysotsky (his son) who tried to visit his father in his apartment, was rudely refused entry by Yanklovich, even though there was a lack of people able to care for him. Subsequently the Soviet police commenced a manslaughter investigation which was dropped due to absence of evidence taken at the time of death.
Vysotsky's first wife was Iza Zhukova. They met in 1956, being both MAT theater institute students, lived for some time at Vysotsky's mother's flat in Moscow, after her graduation (Iza was 2 years older) spent months in different cities (her – in Kiev, then Rostov) and finally married on 25 April 1960.
He met his second wife, Lyudmila Abramova, in 1961, while shooting the film "713" Requests Permission to Land. They married in 1965 and had two sons, Arkady (b. 1962) and Nikita (b. 1964).
While still married to Ludmila Abramova, Vysotsky began a romantic relationship with Tatyana Ivanenko, a Taganka actress, then, in 1967 fell in love with Marina Vlady, a French actress of Russian descent, who was working at Mosfilm on a joint Soviet-French production at that time. Marina had been married before and had 3 children, while Vladimir had two. Fueled by Marina's exotic status as a Frenchwoman in the Soviet Union, and Vladimir's unmatched popularity in his country, their love was passionate and impulsive. They were married in 1969. For 10 years the two maintained a long-distance relationship as Marina compromised her career in France in order to spend more time in Moscow, and Vladimir's friends pulled strings in order for him to be allowed to travel abroad to stay with his wife. Marina eventually joined the Communist Party of France, which essentially gave her an unlimited-entry visa into the Soviet Union, and provided Vladimir with some immunity against prosecution by the government, which was becoming weary of his covertly anti-Soviet lyrics and his odds-defying popularity with the masses. The problems of his long-distance relationship with Vlady inspired several of Vysotsky's songs.
In the Autumn 1981 Vysotsky's first-ever collection of poetry was officially published in the USSR, called The Nerve (Нерв). Its first edition (25.000 copies) was sold out instantly. In 1982 the 2nd one followed (100.000), then the 3rd (1988, 200.000), followed in the 1990s by several more. The material for it was compiled by Robert Rozhdestvensky, an officially-laurelled Soviet poet. Also in 1981 Yuri Lyubimov staged at Taganka a new music and poetry production called Vladimir Vysotsky which was promptly banned and officially premiered on 25 January 1989.
In 1986 the official Vysotsky poetic heritage committee was formed (with Robert Rozhdestvensky at the helm, theater critic Natalya Krymova being both the instigator and the organizer). Despite some opposition from the conservatives (Yegor Ligachev was the latter's political leader, Stanislav Kunyaev of Nash Sovremennik represented its literary flank) Vysotsky was rewarded posthumously with the USSR State Prize. The official formula – "for creating the character of Zheglov and artistic achievements as a singer-songwriter" was much derided from both the left and the right. In 1988 the Selected Works of... (edited by N.Krymova) compilation was published, preceded by I Will Surely Return... (Я, конечно, вернусь...) book of fellow actors' memoirs and Vysotsky’s verses, some published for the first time. In 1990 two volumes of extensive The Works of... were published, financed by the late poet's father Semyon V. Vysotsky. Even more ambitious publication series, self-proclaimed "the first ever academical edition" (the latter assertion being dismissed by sceptics) compiled and edited by Sergey Zhiltsov, were published in Tula (1994–1998, 5 volumes), Germany (1994, 7 volumes) and Moscow (1997, 4 volumes).
In 1989 the official Vladimir Vysotsky Museum opened in Moscow, with the magazine of its own called Vagant (edited by Sergey Zaitsev) devoted entirely to Vysotsky’s legacy. In 1996 it became an independent publication and was closed in 2002.
In years to come, Vysotsky's flower-adorned grave became a site of pilgrimage for several generations of his fans, the youngest of whom were born after his death. His tombstone also became the subject of controversy, as his widow had wished for a simple abstract slab, while his parents insisted on a realistic gilded statue. Although probably too solemn to have inspired Vysotsky himself, the statue is believed by some to be full of metaphors and symbols reminiscent of the singer's life.
On 25 July 1995, in Moscow the Vladimir Vysotsky monument was officially opened at Strastnoy Boulevard, by the Petrovsky Gates. Among those present were the bard's parents, two of his sons, first wife Iza, renown poets Yevtushenko and Voznesensky. "Vysotsky had always been telling the truth. Only once he was wrong when he sang in one of his songs: "They will never erect me a monument in a square like that by Petrovskye Vorota", Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov said in his speech.
The Vysotsky business center & semi-skyscraper was officially opened in Yekaterinburg, in 2011. It is the tallest building in Russia outside of Moscow, has 54 floors, total height: 188.3 m (618 ft). On the third floor of the business center is the Vladimir Vysotsky Museum. Behind the building is a bronze sculpture of Vladimir Vysotsky and his third wife, a French actress Marina Vlady.
In 2011, a controversial movie Vysotsky. Thank You For Being Alive was released, script written by his son, Nikita Vysotsky. The actor Sergey Bezrukov portrayed Vysotsky, using a combination of a mask and CGI effects. The film tells about Vysotsky's illegal underground performances, problems with KGB and drugs, and subsequent clinical death in 1979.
Shortly after Vysotsky's death, many Russian bards started writing songs and poems about his life and death. The best known are Yuri Vizbor's "Letter to Vysotsky" (1982) and Bulat Okudzhava's "About Volodya Vysotsky" (1980). In Poland, Jacek Kaczmarski based some of his songs on those of Vysotsky and dedicated to his memory the song ”Epitafium dla Włodzimierza Wysockiego” (Epitaph for Vladimir Vysotsky).
Every year on Vysotsky's birthday, festivals are held throughout Russia and in many communities throughout the world, especially in Europe. Vysotsky's impact in Russia is often compared to that of Bob Dylan in America, or Brassens and Brel in France. In Germany, he has been compared to Wolf Biermann, who — although more overtly political — came from a similar ethnic background and played a similar outsider's role.
After her husband's death, urged by her friend Simone Signoret, Marina Vlady wrote a book called The Aborted Flight about her years together with Vysotsky. The book paid tribute to Vladimir's talent and rich persona, yet was uncompromising in its depiction of his addictions and the problems that they caused in their marriage. Written in French (and published in France in 1987), it was translated into Russian in tandem by Vlady and a professional translator and came out in 1989 in the USSR. Totally credible from the specialists' point of view, the book caused controversy, among other things, by shocking revelations about the difficult father-and-son relationship (or rather, the lack of any), implying that Vysotsky-senior (while his son was alive) was deeply ashamed of him and his songs which he deemed 'anti-Soviet' and reported his own son to the KGB. Also in 1989 another important book of memoirs was published in the USSR, providing a bulk of priceless material for the host of future biographers, Alla Demidova's Vladimir Vysotsky, the One I Know and Love. Among other publications of note were Valery Zolotukhin's Vysotsky’s Secret (2000), a series of Valery Perevozchikov's books (His Dying Hour, The Unknown Vysotsky and others) containing detailed accounts and interviews dealing with the bard's life’s major controversies (the mystery surrounding his death, the truth behind Vysotsky Sr.'s alleged KGB reports, the true nature of Vladimir Vysotsky's relations with his mother Nina's second husband Georgy Bartosh etc.), Iza Zhukova's Short Happiness for a Lifetime and the late bard's sister-in-law Irena Vysotskaya's My Brother Vysotsky. The Beginnings (both 2005).
The multifaceted talent of Vladimir Vysotsky is often described by the term "bard" (бард) that Vysotsky has never been enthusiastic about. He thought of himself mainly as an actor and poet rather than a singer, and once remarked, "I do not belong to what people call bards or minstrels or whatever." With the advent of portable tape-recorders in the Soviet Union, Vysotsky's music became available to the masses in the form of home-made reel-to-reel audio tape recordings (later on cassette tapes).
Vysotsky accompanied himself on a Russian seven-string guitar, with a raspy voice singing ballads of love, peace, war, everyday Soviet life and of the human condition. He was largely perceived as the voice of honesty, at times sarcastically jabbing at the Soviet government, which made him a target for surveillance and threats. In France, he has been compared with Georges Brassens; in Russia, however, he was more frequently compared with Joe Dassin, partly because they were the same age and died in the same year, although their ideologies, biographies, and musical styles are very different. Vysotsky's lyrics and style greatly influenced Jacek Kaczmarski, a Polish songwriter and singer who touched on similar themes.
The songs—over 600 of them—were written about almost any imaginable theme. The earliest were outlaw songs. These songs were based either on the life of the common people in Moscow or on life in the crime people, sometimes in Gulags. Vysotsky slowly grew out of this phase and started singing more serious, though often satirical, songs. Many of these songs were about war. These war songs were not written to glorify war, but rather to expose the listener to the emotions of those in extreme, life-threatening situations. Most Soviet veterans would say that Vysotsky's war songs described the truth of war far more accurately than more official "patriotic" songs.
Nearly all of Vysotsky's songs are in the first person, although he is almost never the narrator. When singing his criminal songs, he would adopt the accent and intonation of a Moscow thief, and when singing war songs, he would sing from the point of view of a soldier. In many of his philosophical songs, he adopted the role of inanimate objects. This created some confusion about Vysotsky's background, especially during the early years when information could not be passed around very easily. Using his acting talent, the poet played his role so well that until told otherwise, many of his fans believed that he was, indeed, a criminal or war veteran. Vysotsky's father said that "War veterans thought the author of the songs to be one of them, as if he had participated in the war together with them." The same could be said about mountain climbers; on multiple occasions, Vysotsky was sent pictures of mountain climbers' graves with quotes from his lyrics etched on the tombstones.
Not being officially recognized as a poet and singer, Vysotsky performed wherever and whenever he could – in the theater (where he worked), at universities, in private apartments, village clubs, and in the open air. It was not unusual for him to give several concerts in one day. He used to sleep little, using the night hours to write. With few exceptions, he wasn't allowed to publish his recordings with "Melodiya", which held a monopoly on the Soviet music industry. His songs were passed on through amateur, fairly low quality recordings on vinyl discs and magnetic tape, resulting in his immense popularity. Cosmonauts even took his music on cassette into orbit.
Musically, virtually all of Vysotsky's songs were written in a minor key, and tended to employ from three to seven chords. Vysotsky composed his songs and played them exclusively on the Russian seven string guitar, often tuned a tone or a tone-and-a-half below the traditional Russian "Open G major" tuning. This guitar, with its specific Russian tuning, makes a slight yet notable difference in chord voicings than the standard tuned six string Spanish (classical) guitar, and it became a staple of his sound. Because Vysotsky tuned down a tone and a half, his strings had less tension, which also colored the sound.
His earliest songs were usually written in C minor (with the guitar tuned a tone down from DGBDGBD to CFACFAC), using the following chord shapes:
|Chord name||Fret numbers (bass to tenor string)|
|C minor||[0 X 3 3 2 3 3]|
|A sharp 7 rootless||[X 0 5 5 3 5 5]|
|A major||[X 5 5 5 5 5 5]|
|E major||[X X 6 X 5 6 7]|
|F 7 rootless||[X X 7 7 5 7 7]|
|D minor||[X 0 8 8 7 8 8]|
|F major||[2 2 2 2 2 2 2]|
At around 1970, Vysotsky began writing and playing exclusively in A minor (guitar tuned to CFACFAC), which he continued doing until his death. The main chord shapes he based his songs on were:
|Chord name||Fret numbers (bass to tenor string)|
|A minor||[X X 0 4 4 3 4]|
|A major||[X X 4 4 4 4 4]|
|D minor||[X X 5 5 4 5 5]|
|E 7||[X X X 4 3 2 2]|
|F major||[2 2 2 2 2 2 2]|
|C major||[X X X 0 2 3 4]|
|A 7 rootless||[X X 4 4 2 4 4]|
Vysotsky used his fingers instead of a pick to pluck and strum, as was the tradition with Russian guitar playing. He used a variety of finger picking and strumming techniques. One of his favorite was to play an alternating bass with his thumb as he plucked or strummed with his other fingers.
Often, Vysotsky would neglect to check the tuning of his guitar, which is particularly noticeable on earlier recordings. According to some accounts, Vysotsky would get upset when friends would attempt to tune his guitar, leading some to believe that he preferred to play slightly out of tune as a stylistic choice. Much of this is also attributable to the fact that a guitar that is tuned down more than 1 whole step (Vysotsky would sometimes tune as much as 2 and a half steps down) is prone to intonation problems.
Vysotsky had a unique singing style. He had an unusual habit of elongating consonants instead of vowels in his songs. So when a syllable is sung for a prolonged period of time, he would elongate the consonant instead of the vowel in that syllable.
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Vladimir Vysotsky. 1980. Moscow. Sampo, 1998. 272 p.