History or narrative? 'Stalin. The Genesis' at the Alexandrinsky Theatre

Erik Alstad reports on a new play in St Petersburg.

Spoiler warning for those of you who may watch the play: this blog post discusses its ending

Vladimir Koshevoy in 'Stalin. The Genesis'. Image © Vladimir Postnov

Vladimir Koshevoy in 'Stalin. The Genesis'. Image © Vladimir Postnov

Among the theatre posters plastered all around the St Petersburg metro, one may have recently stuck out for you. There's nothing on it except the words Rozhdenie Stalina — ‘The Birth of Stalin’ (or his “genesis”, as the company's English translation would have it), set in stark white letters against a black background. It's not just the play's title but also an opening provocation.

For one, it causes double takes for not saying Smert’ Stalina. ‘The Death of Stalin’ is the ubiquitous phrase that signifies the turning point in every Russian's family and national history. Historically speaking, the birth of Stalin is virtually a non-event in comparison. At the same time, the title seems to be promising something impossible but tantalising. That is, an answer to the question of how Stalin was born out of the early years of Georgian revolutionary and gang leader Josef ‘Soso’ Dzhugashvili. Even if a comprehensive explanation could be provided within the confines of a two hour play, there may just not be enough biographical information out there, the details of his youth having been scrubbed relentlessly of anything his later paranoia couldn't tolerate.

The broadly simple plot on display here follows Soso Dzhugashvili and his gang throughout the planning stages and aftermath of the 1907 bank robbery at Erivan square in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), where 40 people were killed and the equivalent today of almost 4 million US dollars were stolen. We observe how Dzhugashvili gradually slides towards mistrust of his own associates and increasingly tyrannical leadership. The play's creator and artistic director at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, Valery Fokin, has said he drew on extensive research in writing the play, for example from the yet-partly-unpublished  memoirs of Stalin's mother. But it becomes clear very early on in the production that Fokin is not in the business of providing any sensational historical revelations.

Poster and all, the play is part of a wider Petersburg-set spectacle. As part of a run up to the show, the Alexandrinsky held a series of lectures at its modern New Stage, among them one by Aleksandr Prokhanov, one of the head editors of the ultra-nationalist newspaper Zvezda and an outspoken Stalinist. The subject was bolshoi stil’ - the aesthetic shift under Stalinism away from the avant-garde of the early Soviet period back to a near-imperialist grandiosity. You might think it's too a bold choice to repurpose the aesthetic originally used for the adulation and consolidation of Stalinist power in a portrayal of the man himself, but that's exactly the choice Fokin and his team have made.

Under Nikolai Roshchin's scenography, small mini stages are lowered down from above or rolled on to the grand main stage of the Alexandrinsky, each in turn suggesting their own epic setting: a sprawling Tiflis; a mountainous Georgian landscape; a wooden hut engulfed in darkness. The characters making up Dzhugashvili's gang are mostly broadly played types, who freeze into stoic poses when the actions shifts away from them. Vladimir Koshevoy plays Dzhugashvili with a ferocious (and arguably ahistorical) charisma, often standing in profile to echo the future Stalin's all-pervasive iconography. At points, Dzhugashvili monologues in a faux-cinematic voice-over, his voice booming through speakers behind our heads whilst he stands brooding handsomely on stage.

The play appears to fall into the trap of making Stalin a basic anti-hero, a trope which more often than not tends to romanticize asocial psychologies despite whatever cruelty they display. But Fokin gradually allows almost literal cracks to show in his bolshoi stil’ facade. We start to notice the black-clad stage hands wheeling the little sets around. Instead of taking them offstage, they start just leaving them around in the background, like scattered fragments of an epic idea, cluttering the earlier scenes' evocative minimalism.

Pyotr Semak in 'Stalin. The Genesis'. Image © Vladimir Postnov

Pyotr Semak in 'Stalin. The Genesis'. Image © Vladimir Postnov

Then the final scene brings the kicker, and exposes Fokin's play as much more about provoking questions than providing explanations. The chronology skips ahead to Dzhugashvili's first beating in a prison cell, and as he lies there weakened, in rolls 1953 Stalin (Pyotr Semak), lying on his deathbed. The two islands connect, Stalin gets up, crosses over to the young Dzhugashvili and starts giving him life advice. He eventually steps out of the mise-en-scene toward the audience, as the first character to truly inhabit the stage. To a crescendo of voices chanting his name, a massive Stalin statue rises out of the ground in front of him. Then, in a terrific anti-climax, with Stalin half-erected, the show just ends.

The image of Stalin lecturing Dzhugashvili is the kind of concluding riddle that doesn't really say anything about the actual, historical formation of the figure of Stalin. But the power that the image elicits, and the through line with the grandiosity of the story that came before it, that perhaps suggests that it's the narrative we've been watching, and not Dzhugashvili himself, that gave birth to Stalin.

As for that ending, Russian critics have offered a plethora of interpretations. Is it asking us to decide whether or not Stalin can rise again? Or is it a phallic punchline, mocking our secret excitement for a big Stalin-themed climax?

70% of Russians now reportedly see Stalin's role in their history in a positive light, and so interrogating a modern public's relation to the figure is as valid as it's ever been. A collective gasp of shock came out of the audience when Stalin rose from his deathbed, and as his statue rose the auditorium lit up with phone screens. It's hard not to read into this audience reaction as something telling, but just as hard to ignore the sensationalisation of this material that prompted them. Putting on Stalin in bolshoi stil’ may well present the opportunity for a complex self-critique, but its also the kind of marketable spectacle that helps sell tickets. The final question 'Stalin. The Genesis' leaves you with, then, may be whether or not that's something you can stomach.

'Stalin. The Genesis' will be performed next on the 6th of June at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, St Petersburg

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Erik Alstad is taking a BA in Russian Studies at UCL, specialising in literature and intellectual history. He is currently on a year abroad in Saint Petersburg, where he’s been exploring the contemporary arts scenes and travelling out deeper into Russia.

Elizabethan parody and Russian soul: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Cheek by Jowl director Declan Donnellan tells us about the company’s Russian-language production of Francis Beaumont’s 1607 play, at the Barbican 5-8 June.

Image © Johan Persson

Image © Johan Persson

Could you tell us a bit about The Knight of the Burning Pestle?

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a unique piece of meta-theatre. It is daring and centuries ahead of its time. It’s a play about a play which gets changed by frustrated audience members. They want to see something more popular, more positive, more glamorous. And now! So they take control of the drama unfolding on stage. It may be very funny but it’s also very dark. Francis Beaumont was writing at the brink of a revolution. A few years after the play’s performances, the new and highly popular nationalist government seized power through violence and closed down every single theatre. 

Why are you directing it now?

I think it’s a very important play for now and it was also for then. Everything seems new about The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Today, the fantasy that everyone can be an expert, without any experience, everyone can be a celebrity, everyone can tell the story, everyone can manipulate and control facts. Perhaps we have always been like that, only now we have the technology to make the delusion seem more real. What seems new is a confusion between democracy and capitalism. One-click government and the people have the right to get what they want. Like Amazon, like parliament.

Agrippina Steklova and Alexander Feklistov in rehearsal. Image © Johan Persson

Agrippina Steklova and Alexander Feklistov in rehearsal. Image © Johan Persson

Nazar Safronov as Rafe. Image © Johan Persson

Nazar Safronov as Rafe. Image © Johan Persson

How do you find working in different languages?

All great writers know that words are ambivalent and dangerous... They only take you part of the way on a journey of communication. But more importantly we also use words to deceive ourselves. This particular theme is an obsession with most of the writers I have ever staged. And they demand us to be alert and use our common sense and not be duped by what the characters profess. But only sometimes. It depends.

The different languages are not the "problem" — it is the very nature of language itself. So directing in a foreign language can actually very liberating in many ways. You don't get so confused by the apparent "meaning" and you approach words in a spirit of ignorant humility. Which is harder to do I feel in your own tongue. We are delighted to be working with our Russian actors again and to present this new show with the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre. We’ve been working in Russian for 20 years, most recently on Measure for Measure which was presented at the Barbican in 2015 and is still performing around the world.

Talking of performing around the world: do you notice differences in audience reactions?

If a work is alive, wherever it is performed, it will throw up contemporary references. No two Moscow audiences are the same… And their reactions to the same production will differ as much as if we play in Milan or Madrid. Of course, people are likely to see a production in the light of recent events taking place locally. Although these local differences are interesting, it is always the similarities that are almost more revealing: patterns of what is essentially human slowly reveal themselves across audiences and countries and decades. Human nature does not have frontier problems. But human culture and politics often do. Personally, I always hope the audience will have an encounter with a multi-faceted and imaginary world. And that they will have many different, hopefully conflicting responses, which we are not here to dictate.

But we really, really must try hard to resist generalisations about nationalities. It is very tempting and seems like harmless fun but no good ever comes of it. We are each of us unique. Agonisingly, frighteningly and beautifully unique. And although we all want to belong, although we all yearn never to be rejected, there is no "they" — there is no "we".

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is performing at the Barbican Theatre 5-8 June. The play is a co-production with the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre and is performed in Russian with English surtitles

Art Revolutions behind the Iron Curtain: Re-introducing Timur Novikov

Arianna Cantarelli dives into the work of the groundbreaking artist who became an underground cultural force

Apollo trampling on black square , 1991. Mixed media on fabric.

Apollo trampling on black square, 1991. Mixed media on fabric.

When nostalgia transports us back to the second half of the 20th century, one word quickly comes to mind to the tune of a pop-hit crescendo: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes! From the rock’n’roll 60s to the punk movement of the 80s and the politicalisation of the 90s, this period saw daring subcultures relentlessly erode away convention to shape the society we know and thrive in today. But we too often find ourselves shying away from acknowledging the nonconformities of the Soviet Union — perhaps because of its reputation for rigid censorship. However, rebels and creatives were operating just as intensely on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and not without significance. One of the most influential names on this subject is that of Timur Novikov (1958-2002).

An artist, philosopher, writer and musician, Novikov became an active pioneer for the development of Russian art and culture during the 80s and 90s. He found his calling as a frontman for Russia’s wild youth, fighting for concepts that had always been fundamental to his native St Petersburg: innovation and modernity. Novikov was in fact the founder of two progressive artist groups — the New Artists (1982) and the New Academy (1989) — which in turn dominated the scenes of St Petersburg’s underground culture during the perestroika, encouraging young people to embrace contemporary art as a means of social rebellion.

‘The New Artists’ (1987) — From left to right: Georgy Gurianov, Evgeny Kozlov, Timur Novikov, Igor Verichev. Taken at Kozlov’s apartment in Peterhof. Image credit: Paquita Escofet Miro

‘The New Artists’ (1987) — From left to right: Georgy Gurianov, Evgeny Kozlov, Timur Novikov, Igor Verichev. Taken at Kozlov’s apartment in Peterhof. Image credit: Paquita Escofet Miro

To say Novikov brought change to Russia is an understatement. From his early years, the artist foresaw the revolutionary potential of uniting media and art with mass-culture. His aim was not only to liberate these from their traditional boundaries, but also to liquidate them to the everyday person as a form of self-expression. Novikov was in fact the USSR’s first recipient of a prize dedicated to film design for his work in Sergey Solovev’s experimental cult film AssA (1987), making him the first Soviet media artist.

Moreover, just like his Western counterparts, Novikov began to experiment with technology in the music sphere. He collaborated with the experimental electro group New Composers for example, and even invented his own futuristic, sculpture-like instruments like the utyugon, which was inaugurated as ‘the first Russian synthesiser’. Novikov was also the unofficial ‘band artist’ for Viktor Tsoi’s popular rock group Kino, whose song Перемен (Our hearts demand changes! Our eyes demand changes!) is still sung by buskers as an anthem to freedom today. Recognising music’s power in bringing people together, Novikov was one of the first to introduce rave culture to St Petersburg, organising subversive parties at Fontanka 145 that provided youth with a new space in which they could express themselves freely, without feeling bound by political ideology or local custom.

Sea Sunrise,  1990. Acrylic on fabric.

Sea Sunrise, 1990. Acrylic on fabric.

ASSA , 1987. Acrylic on cloth (photographer’s backdrop).

ASSA, 1987. Acrylic on cloth (photographer’s backdrop).

There is no doubt, however, that Novikov’s strongest legacy is his artworks. Shockingly progressive and unusual for their time, these works were initially showcased in hidden costal towns to avoid complications with authorities. It is arguably the wall-hung textiles developed alongside his own philosophy of Neoacademism that are most compelling; their invitation to become absorbed by classical beauty boldly opposes the Soviet Union’s rejection of decor in favour of practicality. Once again, they hail the city of St Petersburg, echoing its classical architecture, reinstating it as a gravitational centre for the Russian avant-garde. Novikov’s later developments of these compositions, which now featured bold block colour and simplistic symbolic imagery, are today considered to be the beginnings of modern advertising. Indeed, it was these works that would capture the eyes of big names in the Western world, including Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.

In an interview with Joseph Brodsky, Novikov explains how the sharp horizontal lines that characterise his later works designate Petersburg as ‘a city on the edge’. At the time, this was probably a reference to a society that was on the brink of a century, looking towards that horizon, impatient for long-awaited changes… and perhaps he was not only talking about Petersburg, but about Russia as a whole. Twenty years on, Novikov’s works are not only recognised as catalysts for that cultural revolution he was fighting for. They also serve as striking reminders that beauty, culture and art never cede — not even under the pressures of government suppression or the bleakness of civil hardship.

Start (rocket) , 1989. Acrylic on canvas.

Start (rocket), 1989. Acrylic on canvas.


About the author:

Arianna Cantarelli is a third year student at UCL, undertaking a BA degree in Comparative Literature and Russian. Right now, she is living and studying in St Petersburg on her year abroad.


The possibilities of freedom - for Soviet toys in a Moscow kindergarten...

Paweł Wargan describes the historical and personal roots of his debut film

Nevalyashka - a sort of Soviet weeble - among other Soviet toys. Image credit: Museum of Soviet Childhood

Nevalyashka - a sort of Soviet weeble - among other Soviet toys. Image credit: Museum of Soviet Childhood

Rendering image for the character of Lyalya, from  A Soviet Toy Tale

Rendering image for the character of Lyalya, from A Soviet Toy Tale

Near the end of A Soviet Toy Tale, an animated short that I am co-creating with my partner Kristina Lanis, a kindergarten teacher decries the violence dealt upon her classroom by the rising tide of lawlessness that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We were promised freedom,” she says. “But all we got is freedom from responsibility” — to which her colleague, equally embittered by the “hooliganism” and “anarchy” of the early 1990s, responds: at least they got Coca Cola.

There are no staunch free-marketeers on the production of A Soviet Toy Tale - and I suspect that, in the Moscow of 1991, there were fewer than we like to imagine. In the romanticised, prevailing Western narrative of that time, the collapse of the Soviet Union came as a liberation. It was the final trickle from the Red Iceberg — as a piece of McCarthy-era propaganda called it — that ended history. A whole industry emerged to study the spectacle of Russian failure and its Western sprouts. It became rhetorical fodder for those who believe that, to quote the Iron Lady, “there is no alternative” to the illusory freedom of a deregulated market economy. Then all that was apparently interrupted by the rise of a pasty-skinned, quietly intransigent KGB apparatchik who allegedly acquired a video tape of the American President wetting the bed…

We asked the toys what it means to be free, and how much work goes into finding that freedom

All this Western pining for easy explanations ignores the very real suffering the Soviet Union’s collapse inflicted. Now, as our own political moment pushes a generation into rediscovering the possibilities of socialism — possibilities that died in the Gulag; in Prague in 1968; and again, in Moscow in August 1991 — it feels right to revisit the moment at which the Soviet Union crumbled. What, really, was lost? What, if anything, should be salvaged?

Kristina and I came to the film through our own experience of Soviet-style expropriation. In 1995, I brought my favourite toy truck to a boxy concrete kindergarten in Gdańsk, Poland. At the end of the day, I tried to take it back, only to be accused of theft. My parents were dismissed as accomplices when they came to my defence. I never went back. Kristina didn’t either, after a similar experience in a Moscow kindergarten some three years after mine. We were in Bangkok when we discovered that our distaste for authority had the same origins. Then the story wrote itself — we had to know what our lost toys would say if they could speak.

So, we pushed onto our toys the entire weight of our creative and political anxieties. We asked them what it means to be free, and how much work goes into finding that freedom — yearnings that increasingly collide with the realities of the lived world. You see, it’s not hooliganism that trashes the teachers’ classroom at the end of our film — it’s the toys’ battle over the future of their world.

Rashka (voiced by Yana Lyapunova), a big-eyed soft toy, wakes in Kindergarten No. 1678 in Moscow to find that she had been stolen from her Masha by the kindergarten teachers. She learns that she is not alone. Other toys had also been taken over the years, condemned to seeing their rightful owners in the kindergarten each morning, but unable to go back home. Together with Gagarin (Victor Averyanov), Commander (Igor Pavlovs) and Pruzhinka, Rashka plots to escape.

But as they devise their plan, Stamp and Spravka (literally, a stamp and permit, the former voiced by Liza Mercer) insist that the escape be rubber-stamped by the authorities. The other toys — a group of American-made chess pieces and a Yeltsin Russian doll — take a stand against the bureaucratic power-duo. And as our protagonists try to escape, the toys re-enact the events of August 1991 in Moscow, in which a group of Communist hard-liners tried to unseat General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev by staging a coup in Moscow. Things get bloody.

Svetlana Alexievich, the Belorussian writer whose collected accounts of that era earned her a Nobel, writes about the failed coup in Second-Hand Time. Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, one of its backers, left five neatly-stacked handwritten notes on his Kremlin desk before hanging himself from the radiator. “I cannot go on living,” he wrote in one, “while my Fatherland is dying and everything I heretofore considered to be the meaning of my life is being destroyed.” Alexievich then speaks to an unnamed Kremlin insider, N., who tries to make sense of the suicide. “He saw the young predators stirring… the pioneers of capitalism,” N. says. “Instead of Marx and Lenin, they had their minds on dollars.” The discovery of money, another interviewee says, “hit us like an atom bomb.”

None of this is to rehabilitate the Soviet Union — a regime that murdered tens of millions of its own citizens and usurped the power that it promised to spread. But it does question whether the history of the 20th century has really been written in stone.

Look, our film is about toys. It’s silly. It’s short. It pits an evil nevalyashka against a plastic Gagarin that was once made for a competition in Detskii Mir. But by going back to the drawing board (really, the 3D modelling software), we found an opportunity to delve into the convulsions of a place in transition. To take the past and collide it with the future. To channel that something in the Russian spirit that, as Alexievich said in her Nobel Lecture, “compels it to try to turn… dreams into reality.”

Our film will be out next year if we raise the money in the next few months (if you are sitting on a pile, please get in touch). Hopefully, it might make a small dent in the telling of a history that is still being written.

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About the author:

Paweł Wargan is a filmmaker, writer, photographer, and policy adviser. He is the writer and director, with Kristina Lanis, of A Soviet Toy Tale.




You can follow A Soviet Toy Tale on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Look out for our crowdfunding campaign in late May.

Vladimir Vysotsky: The greatest singer-songwriter you've never heard of

Pushkin House blog editor Rafy Hay dives into the world of Russia’s gravel-voiced bard

A Russian stamp from 1999 celebrating Vysotsky.

A Russian stamp from 1999 celebrating Vysotsky.

When you ask the average person who the greatest singer-songwriters are, the answers will be along these lines: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, maybe Carole King. If they’re more internationally-oriented than usual, you might get Jacques Brel, Victor Jara or Georges Brassens. But there’s a name missing from this list, hugely acclaimed in his home country but almost entirely unknown in the West: Vladimir Vysotsky.

Within the Russophone world he is far and away the most famous “bard” — half-poet, half-singer. His songs are standard repertoire in Russian bars and around family gatherings, and though formed in the specific conditions of the post-Stalinist Thaw and Brezhnev’s Stagnation, they carry special meaning for Russians to this day.

Vysotsky’s songs, with their mix of allegory, archetype and anecdote, appeal to the Russian sense of “Что делать?/ What can you do?” — endurance in the face of the indignities and demands of life. Paired with this, though, is the bard’s fiercely rebellious streak, as he spoke out in a cutting and lyrical way about living under an authoritarian regime. It’s perhaps for this reason that Vysotsky’s music has found some of its most ardent fans in formerly and currently oppressed countries, where his wry but humanistic commentaries ring true to people’s experiences.

Though many have likened Vladimir Vysotsky to Bob Dylan, Vadim Astrakhan, who sings translations of Vysotsky’s songs in English, argues that his style and tendencies lean more towards “a Russian blend of John Lennon, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits” than Bob Dylan’s literary style.

Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky was born in Moscow on January 25, 1938, to a Jewish Red Army colonel from Kiev and his Russian wife. His childhood was spent evacuated during WW2 and then between his divorced parents’ homes. As a young adult he tried to make his way in the official Soviet acting schools but his rebelliousness (and sometimes drunkenness) worked against him.

During his time as a student Vysotsky started performing in the underground music scene, singing first about the criminal underworld. His self-recorded tapes circulated among the unofficial artists and intelligentsia, but it was starring in the film The Vertical in 1967 which brought Vysotsky real fame. His songs, produced concurrently with his prolific career as an actor, became part of the mainstream Soviet culture.

A photo of Vysotsky from 1979 at the Taganka theatre, playing his signature 7-string Russian guitar.

A photo of Vysotsky from 1979 at the Taganka theatre, playing his signature 7-string Russian guitar.

With such immense fame, naturally Vysotsky worried the Soviet authorities. His incisive and critical songs were heard by millions as he toured the country and released records, and his (third) marriage to French actress Marina Vlady meant he was spending more and more time in the West. He walked the tightrope between officialdom and dissidence, but the authorities never pushed Vysotsky into open rebellion, preferring to keep him manageable and legal than ban him and face a riot. It is testament to his touring schedule and his songs’ power that he managed to attract so many fans despite never being allowed on Soviet television.

During his meteoric rise in the 70s Vysotsky’s problems with drink and drugs deteriorated. His wife describes the strain that his substance abuse had on their relationship in her bestselling memoir, and though details of Vysotsky’s personal life were often obscure, this is one area where the facts are more known. His work was certainly influenced by his drinking, with darker themes emerging during the late 70s, and from about 1977 he was also self-medicating with amphetamines and prescription drugs. As 1980 rolled in, and the Soviet authorities made drugs harder to acquire during the Olympic games, Vysotsky went back to hard drinking. Drug withdrawal was gruelling, though, and over a four-day period from 21st July, he went into medical supervision at his home in Moscow. On the morning of the 25th, he was found dead.

No official notice was made of his death, but tens of thousands of fans mourned him at the Taganka theatre where he had been playing Hamlet. The Soviet authorities sent the army in, fearing a riot. Vysotsky’s legend only grew in the years following his death. By 1989 his legacy was so firm that, when the Berlin Wall fell, memorials and statues to Vysotsky sprung up across Russia and the Eastern Bloc.

Vysotsky memorial in Samara, Russia. Image credit: Yuri Vantsev.

Vysotsky memorial in Samara, Russia. Image credit: Yuri Vantsev.

Vysotsky’s output was so prodigious that to narrow it down to a few “greatest hits” would be folly, but here is a selection to help get you into the poet’s music.

  1. Song about a friend / Песня о Друге

This was the first that many Russians heard of Vysotsky, as it was featured in the film The Vertical. It encapsulates Vysotsky’s grasp of idiom and metaphor, describing how hardship and opposition are the keys to telling when a friend is a true one.

2. I Don’t Like / Я не люблю

Vysotsky’s songs often build up, verse by verse, until the ironic meaning is clear. This is one such song, where the narrator’s boredom and annoyance with life are layered into a critique of Soviet society at large.

3. Wolf hunt / Охота на волков

This is one of Vysotsky’s most searing songs, and probably my favourite — the extended metaphor of the way a hunt traps wolves reflects Vysotsky’s rejection of authoritarianism and desire for new, liberated ways of thinking. His voice, like whiskey over gravel, crackles and snarls with righteous fury until it’s hard to believe you’re only hearing one man and his guitar, and not a whole symphony at full tilt.

4. Capricious Horses / Kони привередливые

The interpretation of many of Vysotsky’s songs is entirely personal — many see in this song a message of political anguish and contradiction. Personally, this song makes more sense to me as being about Vysotsky’s experiences of addiction and self-destruction, the inescapable galloping horses leading him over a cliff. Listen, and decide for yourself what it means:

Bonus: Be Grateful You’re Alive / Скажи еще спасибо, что живой

This is another wry commentary on life and its indignities, with a trademark twist at the end. The staying power of Vysotsky as a cultural icon can be put down at least in part to the way his songs can be covered by almost anyone. This video is from Vadim Astrakhan, who’ll be performing his English versions of Vysotsky’s songs (with a few Russian ones thrown in) on Thursday 18th April at Pushkin House. Tickets and further details are available here.

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Rafy Hay is Events Manager at Pushkin House, and edits the Pushkin House blog. If you have an idea for a blog submission, please feel free to email him at rafy.hay@pushkinhouse.org.uk.