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Prominent Russians: Bulat Okudzhava

May 9, 1924 – June 12, 1997
Balladist Bulat Okudzhava performing at meeting of writers and poets of youth magazine Yunnost, 1983 (RIA Novisti / Boris Babanov) Balladist Bulat Okudzhava performing at meeting of writers and poets of youth magazine Yunnost, 1983 (RIA Novisti / Boris Babanov)

In Russia, everyone knows who Bulat Okudzhava was, where he was born and lived, and what he did.

He once dreamed of finding a couple of like-minded guitar players to go into the streets to play and sing. Little did he know of the success that lay ahead of him.

Today festivals are held in his honor, his poems are taught at school, he’s known as a founder of the so-called “bard movement” and his songs have been sung across Russia for more than 40 years. They are songs about love, war, everyday life. The lyrics seem simple - but just like his simple chords, they’ve always touched the innermost strings of Russian souls. His life, just like his songs, also seemed simple – except it wasn’t that way at all…

Childhood: between Moscow and Tbilisi

Oh Arbat, my Arbat, you’re my Fatherland,

One can never walk you till the very end…


Bulat Okudzhava’s life began on the Arbat, one of Moscow’s landmark streets. Later he would immortalize it in several poignant songs that have become an inalienable part of Arbat’s legacy.

Bulat’s parents, both devoted Communists, had moved to Moscow from Tiflis (now Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia) - to study in the Communist Academy. His father was Georgian and mother Armenian. But it was Russian that became the native language to Bulat – primarily thanks to his mother. She had always insisted, “Please, in my house, speak Russian - the language of Lenin!” Soon after Bulat’s birth, his father was commissioned to the Caucasus, while his mother continued working in the Party apparatus in Moscow.

Bulat Okudzhava with his mother Bulat Okudzhava with his mother

And then it was time for me to study,Bulat said once in his kitchen to journalist Yuri Rost, who only published this conversation after Okudzhava was gone, “and I was sent to Tbilisi where I started my first year...My mother had a sister in Tbilisi, who became my second mother, and always took care of me...So I spent my first year at school partially there. It was a strange year too: all the exams were in Russian.” 

The Great Purge

In the meantime Bulat’s father was quickly climbing the Party career ladder. That is, up to the moment when he ran into problems with his superior, Lavrenty Beria, who later became one of the most feared leaders of NKVD.

Despite his devotion to the Communist Party, Okudzhava’s father was accused of being a foreign spy. At the time of the so-called Great Purge no career achievements mattered. Bulat’s father became one of the many victims of the Purge. “We came back to Moscowto those same two rooms [in the communal apartment]. Mother was of course immediately expelled from the Party. She went to work as a cashier at some workmens cooperative association. All of her free time was devoted to getting through to Beria only to tell him:You knew him, you worked with him - he cant be a Trotskyite or an English spy.She went on and on until one night they came and took her away too... His parents’ fate was decided: Okudzhava’s father was shot and his mother spent almost two decades in the Gulag. Bulat lived on with his grandmother and three-year-old brother.

In 1940, the orphaned Bulat moved back to Tbilisi to live with his relatives. A year before his scheduled school graduation, Bulat Okudzhava volunteered for the Red Army infantry, and from 1942 participated in the war with Nazi Germany.

The war and the wound

Okudzhava left school to work as an apprentice to a lathe operator at a factory. It was a short period in his life that he nevertheless remembered as 14 to 16 hours of hard work every day. For the rest of his life though he remained unsure exactly what he had been producing. All the while he kept on pestering the officer at the recruiting bureau, who in the end gave in. In April 1942, at the age of 17, Okudzhava was granted permission to join the army. At home, where the news was not appreciated, he threatened to run away if his aunt stood in his way.

Bulat Okudzhava Bulat Okudzhava

He first served as a reservist, dreaming of going to the real front line – rumor had it the food was better there.

When Okudzhava finally got to go to the real fight he didn’t have too much time to look around. Within a month-and-a-half of his frontline existence, he was wounded in an air strike. After recovering, Bulat resumed his wanderings – from one reserve regiment to another, until he decided to join some special artillery training unit that had never been in a fight and wasn’t planning to get into one.

My whole war consisted of digging He kept on digging until his wound reopened. Bulat was sent to the hospital for a three-month rest after release. So he went to Tbilisi and passed his graduation exams without attending classes. He didn’t even have to say much: everyone was so happy their “veteran Bulat is back!” that he got passing marks just like that. By the time he got his school diploma, the war was over.

The war left him scarred, and not just physically. Okudzhava’s feelings about the war were infused into his numerous songs and verses that would later be described as the epitome of those unbearable times. In the mid-1960s he sang Goodbye, Boys - a war song which makes many mothers cry even today.

Many across Russia still thank fate for Okudzhava’s wound, believing it saved him from being at the frontline for too long, and thus allowed him to become what he became – a singer and songwriter loved by almost everyone.

Writing and singing beginnings

May 9, 1945, became a historic day for the Soviet Union – it marked the end of the war with Nazi Germany and has been known as the Victory Day ever since. It was also the day Bulat Okudzhava turned 21.

He returned to Tbilisi to study philology at the local university, where he immediately fell in love with fellow-student Galina Smolyaninova. In 1947 they married and moved to her parents’ place. However upon graduation in 1950 they decided to leave Georgia.

As a “son of the enemy of the people”, Okudzhava couldn’t even dream of being sent to his hometown of Moscow. So he asked for a place at least somewhere in central Russia. Thus he ended up in a rural school in the forsaken village of Shamordino (in the Kaluga District) to work as a teacher.

Bulat Okudzhava Bulat Okudzhava

Life was hard enough at the beginning of the 1950s - even more so at a rural school. For Okudzhava and his wife it was doubly hard. Other teachers at least had livestock and vegetable gardens. Okudzhava had none. Neither school nor the teachers’ dormitory had water-supply or electricity and there wasn’t enough firewood.

In 1951 their first daughter died at birth. Four years later they would have a son, Igor. By then they had already moved to the town of Kaluga, where Okudzhava got a job at a local newspaper. Okudzhava’s teaching career lasted for five years only.

Okudzhava wrote his first song in 1943. The first song to become famous appeared more than a decade later. It was in Kaluga that his first collected poems were published.

Two years after Josef Stalin died, in 1955 his parents were rehabilitated and Bulat could join the Communist Party. His mother returned to Moscow and Bulat, his family and his younger brother all moved to her new two-room apartment. Soon after, he became an editor at the well-established publishing house Young Guard, later - head of the poetry division at the most prominent national literary weekly Literary Newspaper.

Okudzhava’s literary “success” in Kaluga gave him a slightly big head, as he would later recognize. One Moscow literature association told him his poems were weak and imitative, and for about a year he was desperate and didn’t write. Then, by chance, he took a guitar into his hands. Songs flowed from him one after another. Despite him knowing only a few chords, his songs were praised by friends and were soon recorded on poor quality tape recorders of the time. To his great surprise, they spread across the country, where other young people picked up guitars and began singing them.

The Okudzhava phenomenon

The country fell in love with his songs full of goodness, courage and beauty. They were also full of irony and gentle sense of humor. Soon Bulat Okudzhava was giving concerts. He possessed an exceptional melodic gift, and the intelligent lyrics of his songs blended perfectly with his music and his voice. He would come on stage to an immediate unity between the poet and his audience, who already knew many of his songs by heart.

As one of Russia’s writers, Fazil Iskander, said once about Okudzhava, “And suddenly came a man who proved with his songs that everything our people talk about in the kitchens, in a narrow circle or think about during the insomnia – that all is the very most important.” 

In 1961, he quit his job and focused on writing, not just poetry but prose as well. By then his name had become iconic and he unwillingly became one of the founders of a new social and cultural phenomenon – the so-called “artist’s song genre” (that started in the 1950s and stood out with its simple lyrics and basic chords).

He also showed himself as an original poet and prose writer, author of many poem collections and even several historic novels. His creativity was multi-faceted, but he was most famous , for what he termed “modest town songs”. Okudzhava regarded himself primarily as a poet and claimed that his musical recordings were insignificant. He wrote more than 70 songs for 50 movies and his lyrics became classics in one of the most popular Soviet films, White Sun of the Desert (1969). 

Despite his popularity for a long time he wasn’t officially recognized or released – mainly due to his open opposition to many political decisions. Soviet critics attacked his autobiographical antiwar novel of 1961 Be well, schoolboy.

His first recording came out in Paris in 1968, his songs became widely sold in West Germany and in Poland in the late 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1970 that he was permitted his first broadcast on Moscow Radio. Only by the mid-1970s did recordings of Okudzhava performing his songs finally begin to be officially released in the Soviet Union, and many volumes of his poetry appeared separately.

In 1981, a minor planet, 3149, discovered by Czech astronomer Zdeňka Vávrová, was named after him. In 1991, he was awarded the USSR State Prize. At 70, in 1993, he was awarded a Russian Booker prize for his novel The Closed-Down Theater, largely autobiographical in nature.

With the start of Perestroika, Okudzhava took active part in political life of the country, leaving the Communist Party and joining the democratic wave. 

Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny said about Okudzhava, “It’s true that Bulat was talented, frank and musical. However he was also consistent in his views and in some way was a philosopher. By the way, he even looked like Gandhi.”

Okudzhava himself remembered once with a smile the time he was in a Los Angeles hospital, I walk down the corridor and see: theres Gandhi walking towards me. I am totally confused. I come closer and realizeits a mirror!

From USSR to Russia

One of the best things about new Russia for Okudzhava was the ability to travel the world. And he loved it. However, when he traveled to the US in May 1991 with his family – to perform in Washington and New York – he found himself in hospital. Doctors said he needed an immediate heart operation. They didn’t have the money, but the news traveled fast and the required sum was gathered within days. Not only by the Russian Diaspora, but also by average Americans who wanted to help. The operation went well.

From America he returned to a new Russia. In 1985 he allowed himself to hope, said his wife Olga, thats because at the beginning of the 1980s things became totally unbearable. The feeling of hope though was short-lived. For a while Okudzhava supported the young Russian reformers and in October 1993 even signed the Letter of Forty-Two – an open letter demanding decisive actions from the government and supporting the use of force against the opposition. He seemed happy on the surface but internally he was in deep crisis. His hopes for a new better Russia turned into a great disappointment: the country was quickly disintegrating and people’s basest instincts on the loose.

Okudzhava’s despair was exacerbated by his work in the Presidential Pardons Commission that looked into the most horrendous crimes - making obvious the depth of the crisis in his country. He believed Russia was degrading. His wife Olga would say later, In the 1990s he had frightful poems about the countrybut he wouldnt renounce even such a country. 


Bulat Okudzhava Bulat Okudzhava

Love, separation and hope were the three foundations Okudzhava’s poetic world stood on. He lived his life accordingly. He wasn’t a saint – there were different women in his life – each with a story. But only a few left a trace deep enough to be visible even to outsiders.

It had started with Galina – his beautiful young wife that some say inspired his singing. She had a great ear and voice. (Kazbek Kaziev, Memoir. Staroe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2001, No1) Son Igor’s destiny was not to be a happy one, with drugs and prison looming. It seemed the whole marriage and its children were doomed. The anti-Okudzhava campaign at the beginning of the 1960s coincided with the height of his family life crisis.

April 26, 1962, became crucial. It was the day another beautiful woman entered his life - to stay for good. Olga Artsimovich, a physicist by education, would soon become part of his official biography, known to the world as “happy marriage”.

Young Olga had only arrived from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) where she lived to visit her relatives for a few days. The same evening guests were expected at the house - a refined academic society, Okudzhava among them.

Okudzhava called Olga the following day, they met at his favorite place and spoke for three hours. Id never spoken with anyone like this, Olga said, it was an absolute connection, taking into account Id always found it difficult to click with people. Around midnight he timidly embraced her and asked: Will you marry me? She said Yes.

In 1964 Olga gave birth to Bulat’s second son, whom she’d initially called after his father, Bulat, but would be registered as Anton. Okudzhava finally divorced Galina and it seemed nothing was to stand in the way of their happiness. But a year after the divorce – on the very same day it had taken place – his first wife, who was only 39, died of heart failure. For a long time Galina’s relatives believed Okudzhava was responsible for her death and had doomed his first son. (Igor became a drug addict - by the end of his life he would move with difficulty on a pair of crutches – after gangrene, one of his legs was amputated above the knee. Igor Okudzhava died before the age of 43 and before his father.)

Nevertheless, life went on and numerous poems carry the love Olga and Bulat had for each other over many years. They led quite a private life and neither of them spoke much publicly of their relationship. But when Olga speaks of Okudzhava, it’s with the tenderness of someone who can’t imagine a life without another. She was there with him at the height of his glory and when he was dying. 

Bulat Okudzhava Bulat Okudzhava

Yet there was another woman in Okudzhava’s life. Some even called her his “civil wife”: Natalya Gorlenko, a musician, singer and Hispanist by education. They met on April 3, 1981. She was 26 and their age differed by 31 years. The years between 1982 and 1986 were full of secret meetings. Okudzhava wrote more than a dozen new songs – he hadn’t experienced such productivity for a long time. In 1984-85 he traveled a lot and performed together with his “birdie”, as he used to call her for her fragile appearance and tender voice. 

This double life weighed heavily upon him. Olga, tired of rumors, demanded that he leave the family. Most of his poems of the first half of the 1980s proved how much it tormented him. The romance with Gorlenko lasted five years – then they separated for seven. Natalya says when they met again, it was as if there was no parting at all. We felt each other no matter the distance! We even saw the same dreams…”

The last days – baptism

A month before he died, a doctor in Germany told him he still had another 10 to 12 years ahead. His wife believed he died not from an illness, but from a medical error.

A year earlier Okudzhava had undergone a second heart operation. It went well, but he suffered from a lung illness that was treated with pills, undermining his immune system. Any infection could lead to serious consequences. He almost never left home and didn’t receive anyone.

Bulat Okudzhava Bulat Okudzhava

However by spring 1997 he felt stronger and decided to undertake a trip to Germany and France. He fell ill with a flu that soon turned into pneumonia. Okudzhava was moved into one of the best hospitals in the Paris suburbs, but his condition was deteriorating.

No matter the service, he felt lonely and abandoned at the hospital. His wife tried to spend as much time as she could there, but the moment she left his spirits sank again.

Doctors warned his state was critical. Olga decided to baptize him – he was unconscious. Ten years earlier, Olga Okudzhava had visited a spiritual adviser at a monastery. When she mentioned her husband’s atheism, the monk suddenly said, Dont worryyoull baptize him yourself. With holy water. If theres no holy, then simply boiled. And if theres no boiled, let it be tap water.

Bulat received the name John, in honor of the monk who had predicted this simple baptism.

He died on June 12, 1997, the day celebrated as Russia Day. His wife would later say, There was an almost mystical aptness in him being born on the Victory Day and dying on the Day of Russia.

In an interview in 1994, Bulat said, Its not terrifying to die. Its terrifying not to live. However, six months after his death, Olga Okudzhva found a note in his jacket pocket with the last two lines, To feel death and laugh, doesnt mean not to be scared of it

Okudzhava’s wife became a custodian of his legacy. She turned their dacha [country house] in Peredelkino (the artists’ village southwest of Moscow) into a museum open to the public and cherishes the memories of her beloved husband, who is still loved and remembered across Russia.

Written by Darya Pushkova, RT correspondent

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