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Vladimir Semyonovich Vysotsky (January 25, 1938 – July 25, 1980) was an iconic Russian singer, songwriter, poet, and actor whose career has had an immense and enduring effect on Russian culture. The multifaceted talent of Vladimir Vysotsky is often described by the word bard that acquired a special meaning in the Soviet Union, although he himself spoke of this term with irony. He thought of himself mainly as an actor and writer, and once remarked, "I do not belong to what people call bards or minstrels or whatever." 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. His Jewish father was an army officer and his mother a German language translator. His parents divorced shortly after his birth, and he was brought up by his stepmother of Armenian descent, whom he called "aunt" Yevgenia. He spent two years of his childhood living with his father and stepmother at a military base in Eberswalde in the Soviet-occupied section of post-WWII Germany (later GDR). In 1955, Vladimir enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Civil Engineering, but dropped out after just one semester to pursue an acting career. In 1959, he started acting at the Alexander Pushkin Theatre where he had mostly small parts.
Vysotsky's first wife was Iza Zhukova. He met his second wife, Ludmilla Abramova, in 1961. They were married in 1965 and had two sons, Arkady and Nikita.
In 1964, on invitation from director Yuri Lyubimov, who was to become his close friend and mentor, he joined the popular Moscow Theatre of Drama and Comedy on the Taganka. Vladimir made headlines with his leading roles in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Brecht's Life of Galileo. Around the same time, he also appeared in several films, which featured a few of his songs, e.g., "The Vertical", a film about mountain climbing. Most of Vysotsky's work from that period, however, did not get official recognition and thus there were no contracts from Melodiya, the monopolist of the Soviet recording industry. Nevertheless, his popularity continued to grow, as, with the advent of portable tape-recorders in the USSR, his music became available to the masses in the form of home-made reel-to-reel audio tape recordings, and later on cassette tapes. He became known for his unique singing style and for his lyrics, which incorporated social and political commentary into often humorous street vocabulary. His lyrics resonated with millions of Soviet people in every corner of the country; his songs were sung at house parties and amateur concerts.
After his divorce, Vysotsky 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 USSR, 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 USSR, 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.
By the mid-1970s, Vysotsky had been suffering from alcoholism for quite some time. Many of his songs from the period deal – either directly or metaphorically – with alcoholism, insanity, mania, and obsessions. This was also 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 Vystotsky's recognizable voice coming literally from every open window. Unable to completely ignore his musical phenomenon, Melodiya did release a few of his songs on vinyl in the late 1970s, which, however, constituted only a small portion of his creative work, which millions already owned on tape and knew by heart.
At the same time, Vysotsky gained official recognition as a theater and film actor. He starred in a hugely popular TV series “It is not to change the place of meeting “ about two cops fighting crime in late 1940s Stalinist Russia. In spite of his successful acting career, Vysotsky continued to make a living with his concert tours across the country, often on a compulsive binge-like schedule, which, it is believed, contributed to the deterioration of his health. He died in Moscow at the age of 42 of heart failure.
Vysotsky's body was laid out at the Taganka Theatre, where the funeral service was held. He was later buried at the Vagankovskoye Cemetery in Moscow. Thousands of Moscow citizens left the stadiums (as it was the time of the Olympics) to attend the funeral. Although no official figure was released, it was later estimated that over one million people attended Vysotsky's funeral. The Soviet authorities, taken aback by the unexpected impact on the masses of the death of an underground singer, ordered troops into Moscow to prevent possible riots. Vysotsky was posthumously awarded the title Meritorious Artist of Soviet Union.
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. 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.
Years after her husband's death, urged by her friend Simone Signoret, Marina Vlady wrote a book about her years together with Vysotsky. The book pays tribute to Vladimir's talent and rich persona, yet is uncompromising in its depiction of his addictions and the problems that they caused in their marriage. The book was written in French and translated into Russian in tandem by Vlady and a professional translator. It is widely read in Russia by fans seeking to understand the man who gave them so many beloved songs.
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