Vysotsky in English: Bringing Russia’s Biggest Icon to the English Culture

Interview with Vadim Astrakhan

By Ilya Galak

Vadim Astrakhan. Moved to the USA in 1991, currently resides in New York / New Jersey. Translator / singer / guitarist / leader of the project “Vysotsky in English” (www.vvinenglish.com). Firmly believes that, by translating Vysotsky, he is changing world’s culture. Other than Vysotsky, loves heavy metal and Russian rock. Also loves hockey, soccer, history, and traveling.

Vadim Astrakhan

Vadim Astrakhan

Vladimir Vysotsky. Russian actor / singer / songwriter / poet / cultural icon. In his 17 year career, wrote over 800 songs and poems, played in 15 theater productions (including signature roles of Galileo and Hamlet) and 28 movies (including the national blockbuster “The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed”). His sudden death at 42 caused nationwide mourning. Numerous monuments across Russia are raised in his memory. His importance for Russian culture is hard to overestimate.


For our American audience: who was Vladimir Vysotsky?

Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) was Russia’s greatest singer / songwriter. He was and still remains an icon of the Russian culture of the 20th Century. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s there were few Russian households without his tapes. By virtue of exceptional productivity, relentlessness, cult cinema and theater roles, storytelling talent, and, above all, his outstanding honesty and courage, Vysotsky captured the souls of millions of Soviet people. He was also probably the best performer Russia has ever known: onstage he was a real rock star in sheer power and domination.

Vladimir Vysotsky

Vladimir Vysotsky

The scope of Vysotsky’s poetry was staggering: he covered almost every aspect of his era, and did so with passion, credibility, and accuracy. Soldiers thought he was a war veteran. Sailors thought he was a sailor. Truck drivers thought he drove cargo. Miners thought he worked in mines. Thieves thought he did time. He told tales of scientists, knights, farmers, hippies, test pilots, space pirates, witches, vagrants, and madmen. He wrote from the viewpoints of widows, microphones, jet fighters, sculptures, and race horses. He wrote fairy tales and tales of prison camps. He wrote songs about Alice in Wonderland, James Bond, Virgin Mary, and Hamlet. His humorous songs provided relief and an opportunity for people to smile in the bleak Brezhnev era, but beneath even the funniest pieces, like “The Scapegoat,” “A Letter to the TV Show from the Mental Asylum,” and “Morning Exercise,” laid bitter irony and social criticism. Many of his songs, such as “The Wolfhunt” and “Children of Books,” became spiritual guidance for the disillusioned Soviet generation of the 70s. Finally, his love songs left people breathless.

What were the relations between Vysotsky and the Soviet authorities?

Vysotsky was not an anti-Soviet dissident, as some people try to paint him. But in a society of total “unfreedom” he was free. Free in speech, free in movement, free in artistic expression. He was not anti-system. He was beyond the system. He “got away with it”: in part because of his overwhelming popularity, and in part because of his French wife (his third and main marriage was to a French cinema star, Marina Vladi). He was smart enough to play by the rules: in concerts he did not perform his most “subversive” songs like “Bath in White,” “The Life Was Flying By,” and “The Medical Records.” Those songs were mostly written and played for his friends. But even his “softer” songs were so genuine and so different from the official Soviet music that the general public swallowed them whole. The authorities, on the other hand, allowed him a lot of wiggle room: thousands of concerts, theater roles, and foreign travels. What they could not allow was books, records, and movies.

He was almost never published and out of his 800 songs only a 4 song EP was released officially. One has to understand the way the Soviet system operated: a man could do almost anything, if undocumented, with the system looking the other way, but to release his recorded works (“a hard evidence,” so to speak) would equate to official ideological approval. The State simply could not allow it.

Almost every song by Vysotsky depicted some kind of a conflict. The Soviet society was, according to the official propaganda, “conflict-less” (with some token exceptions), so this approach was suspicious. Moreover: the conflicts in his songs could, in fact, be interpreted as one’s relentless fight for freedom. Yet they were so cleverly disguised – a wolf vs. hunters (“The Wolfhunt”), a plane vs. its pilot (“Song of a Fighter Plane”), a racehorse vs. its jokey (“Ambler’s Run”), an athlete vs. his coach (“Ballad of the High Jumper”), etc. – that there was nothing for the censors to put the finger on directly. Part I of the song “The Medical Records” (“A Grand Mistake”), for example, talks about a man being arrested and tortured, only to realize that he is in fact being treated in a hospital, and the whole thing is just his delusion. Alexander Galich, another famous singer-songwriter and an exiled dissident, would have probably written about torture. Vysotsky wrote about paranoid delusion and, even though it was not, strictly speaking, a “protest song,” it was unmistakably non-Soviet.

Vladimir Vysotksy and Marina Vladi

Vladimir Vysotksy and Marina Vladi

Why was he so popular among the ordinary people? Why such exceptional love?

Some of it had to do with his brutal honesty. As one fan put it, “I love him because he doesn’t lie.” In the era of cheap sentimental songs and government-sponsored anthems, Vysotsky wrote about things that made up lives of hundreds of thousands of common people. He was the first to write about everyday life using everyday language. On the other hand, he fully possessed the gift of imagination and took his listeners into the worlds of magic and noblest of human emotions. He provided both escape and inspiration. He wrote about the most basic and the most vital human emotions: friendship, love, courage, integrity, faith, and reason. People related to them on every level, emotional and cognitive. He was revered in every circle of Soviet society: from intellectuals, to bums in the street, to the top government officials. It was a real “vertical of power”; it penetrated the Soviet society from top to bottom. Here is where Vysotsky is different from such pillars of American singer-songwriter genre: Bob Dylan was mostly popular with the intellectuals. Vysotsky’s appeal was universal.

Please tell about your project, Vysotsky in English.

After moving to the USA at the age of 14, I almost immediately began translating his songs into English. My first translations were subpar, just like my English skills. But as my English improved, I kept returning to these translations and improving them as well. Finally I deemed some of them worthy of being recorded.

In May 2007, my vocal coach, Polina Goudieva, offered me to record in her studio. I took up on her offer. The project was entirely self-financed all the way. Quickly I realized that playing 16 songs in Vysotsky’s manner (one acoustic guitar, five chords), so popular at various Russian cultural events, would be boring for American audiences. I decided to preserve the melody but alter the arrangements. I enlisted all of my musician friends and hired some professionals. Some songs were left as acoustic pieces. Others were given orchestral arrangements, similar to Vysotsky’s own recordings with Soviet orchestra. Third were completely re-arranged, made into blues, heavy metal, or even genre-bending fusion. Finally in March 2008 the CD titled “Singer, Sailor, Soldier, Spirit” saw the light of day.

It turned out I wasn’t done. I was able to convince a Russian blues legend Yuri Naumov to produce a sequel. The second album, titled “Two Fates,” took three years to complete and was finally released in May 2012. Again it features an international cast of superb musicians from various genres, from metal to classical music. The production values are ten times the quality of the debut, and the music is even more diverse: tango, metal, blues, comedy, folk, big band, etc. In fact, this is probably the most diverse album you will ever hear. The reference points range from Tom Waits to Judas Priest to Gogol Bordello. Well worth checking out, in my opinion, both for Russians, who can appreciate the translations and the new arrangements, and for Americans, interested in an intelligent and intense musical experience.

The info is available on my website; you can also purchase the albums there. www.vvinenglish.com

Have you been playing live?

Yes, I play about five shows a year, usually a couple in New York and three – somewhere else. I played in Boston (MIT), Pittsburgh (Carnegie Mellon), California (Stanford), DC, Salt Lake City, London, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Yekaterinburg, Moscow, and others. Usually I play an acoustic solo set, but sometimes my friends join me onstage. Right now there are talks about shows in Philadelphia and San Francisco. If you are interested in inviting me to your town, email me! thysentinel@hotmail.com

And here is a concert video for my “A Merry Funeral Song”:

Does American audience understand translated Vysotsky?

I usually get very positive feedback. It is, naturally, a complex matter: this style is totally alien to most Americans. Yet many of them like what I do. Americans buy CDs; play them in their cars, etc. I’ve been getting responses like “this is a revelation,” “very impressive,” and even “brilliant.”

Does the American audience understand Vysotsky from your translations?

It’s hard to be sure, but I think they do. If not all of it, then certainly a large portion. Ultimately it depends on the intelligence and the openness of a listener. Unfortunately, many contemporary music listeners do not pay attention to lyrics and, let’s face it: much of contemporary music does not warrant it. But those Americans that have that ability usually take some enjoyment. Some appreciate a well-told story (Vysotsky was a master storyteller), others get the humor (which, by the way, is harder to translate than anything else), third feel the power and the emotion that I invest into these translated works.

Which translated Vysotsky’s songs do Americans appreciate and relate to the most?

American public is probably the most diverse in the world. Everybody likes different things. One time I happened to perform in front of a group of rappers from Harlem. So I adjusted my repertoire to rely mostly on Vysotsky’s blatnye (“outlaw”) songs. And they ate them up! Incidentally, in hip-hop, the lyrics are important, and its fans have a trained ear. So the songs about parties, girls, gangs, and prisons were a big success with them. I usually start my shows with “The One Who Was with Her Before,” it immediately puts the listeners in the proper “storytelling” mood. People like “Robin Hood” and “S.O.S.” from the first album and “If Your Friend,” “Gypsy Blues,” and “Why Did the Savages Eat Captain Cook” from the second one. I take great pride in the fact that every single song from both albums was named by somebody as their favorite.

Can you tell a few words about yourself?

I was born in Leningrad, USSR, which is now St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1976, moved to United States with my parents in 1991. Graduated from University of Michigan with a degree in chemistry, followed by graduate work in John Jay College in New York in forensic science. For the past twelve years I’ve been living in the New York area. I love New York and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Much like Vysotsky, I am a very urban man.

What does your family and friends think of your “Vysotsky in English” project?

My family is very supportive, although it took some convincing on my behalf. In fact, most Russians, when hear about my project, usually react with “Vysotsky in English? That’s impossible!” Those that have enough curiosity to actually hear my work often change their opinion for the better. My friends have also been very supportive. I am very grateful to all of them, because, as everybody knows, it’s very hard to break into the American music market. Without their support, this project would be meaningless.

What are your future plans?

I am recording again. I have many more translations I want to put to the tape, and when I get an opportunity, I head to the studio. I also plan to keep playing live. “I just keep singing, maybe somebody will hear,” as a Russian rock song goes. If you are interested in this project, check out the www.vvinenglish.com and “Like” me on www.facebook.com/vysotskyinenglish


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