Russians remember late dissident poet Vysotsky


25 January 1998

MOSCOW, Jan 25 (Reuters) - Russians flocked to the grave of actor-poet Vladimir Vysotsky on Sunday to commemorate what would have been the 60th birthday of a man who became the voice of a silent generation in Soviet times.

People queued solemnly to lay flowers and light candles in the snow at Vysotsky's grave in Moscow's Vagankovskoye Cemetery. Others stood in groups nearby singing his songs or reciting his poems once suppressed as anti-Soviet.

"He embodied all that is Russian. He was Russia", said Vasily Ovchinnikov, a 43-year-old market seller clutching his guitar at the cemetery after a rendition of one of Vysotksy's songs.

In a sign of his enduring appeal, many films starring Vysotsky have been shown on Russian television in the last week and the anniversary made the front page of some newspapers.

Vysotsky was branded a subversive under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and none of his works had been published in book form when he died of a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 42.

But his work was familiar to millions of people through unofficial cassette recordings of his private recitals and through typescript home-made books. Russians would read, sing or listen to his work at night in the privacy of their homes.

The social criticism and biting satire which made him a target for the authorities won him the admiration of ordinary people who said he voiced the thoughts and feelings they could not express openly in Soviet times.

His performance as Hamlet at the avant-garde Taganka theater in Moscow in the 1970s was also widely acclaimed.

Vysotsky, who was married to French actress Marina Vlady, was eventually rehabilitated during the cultural liberalization after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985.

A gala concert by top Russian performers singing his songs was planned for Sunday evening. A Vysotsky museum was being formally opened and a conference held to discuss his work.

Even Russian President Boris Yeltsin got in on the act by ordering the government to support the celebrations.

"He gave me strength in Soviet times and he gives me strength now. When I come home exhausted from work at night, I put on his music and it makes me feel better", market seller Ovchinnikov said of Vysotsky.

Alexander Kortashev, 40, said the gravel-voiced singer and poet remained a vital inspiration for him even today.

"He saw life as it really was. What he sang and wrote about still has meaning for us now", said Kortashev, a poet, after reciting some of Vysotsky's verse near his hero's grave. (Reuters)