Immortalizing a Great Russian Bard

A festival commemorating the poems and songs of Bulat Okudzhava, who became a symbol of humanity and protest against the Soviet bureaucracy, opens here Sunday.

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

Bulat Okudzhava wrote his poem about the Israeli-born female soldier on Eduard Kuznetsov and Larissa Gerstein's kitchen table in Jerusalem. It was in 1996, a year before his death, during one of his visits to Israel. "Your collar is thin/ dark-skinned sabra girl/ you carry a weapon./ But in your eyes is the look of a lady," wrote the Russian poet, as Gerstein feverishly typed the words on a typewriter, simultaneously setting them to music. It can be assumed that it was more the feminine appearance than the military look that touched the soul of the pacifist poet who loved women. When Gerstein played the song on the local Russian-language Reka radio station immediately after the lethal bombing of the Dolphinarium, the studio was inundated with dozens of calls from soldiers' mothers. All of them were crying. What Bulat Okudzhava did for millions of Russians suffering under the yoke of the Soviet regime he continued to do here for a million Russian-speaking immigrants.

A lone man and his guitar

A festival dedicated to Okudzhava begin this Sunday, on the day that would have been his 80th birthday. The fourth annual festival will include four concerts, to be held in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be'er Sheva, with the participation of his widow, Olga, and well-known Russian poet-singers, including his student Veronika Dolina. It would be hard to overstate the importance of the event among the Russian-speaking community here. Okudzhava, like other "bards" over the generations - the Russian troubadours who were characterized by political and social statement, such as Vladimir Vysotsky, Josef Brodsky, Yevgeny Klatchkin and Aleksandr Galich - is a major figure in Russian culture.

The vast majority of Russian bards are not entirely Russian. Some are Jews, a few are half-Jews. Okudzhava himself was Georgian (although he is not a favorite of the Georgians, who consider his outspoken Russianness to be an act of near-treason). Presumably, the identity of the bards is not coincidental. Perhaps it was more natural and more easy for these individuals, whose ethnic identity preserved a certain foreignness, to break free of the ethos of the Soviet ruler. A few, like Vysotsky, who was a popular stage actor in his time, prospered in Soviet Russia. Brodsky was persecuted by the authorities, a fact that earned him a sarcastic comment from the well-known poetess Anna Akhmatova, "What a glorious biography they are creating for this fellow." Okudzhava, a literary editor in a prestigious magazine, was extremely cautious. He had good reason to be so: his father was murdered by the authorities under Stalin. Although they may not have been persecuted, the bards were always under the watchful eye of the authorities. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely for this reason, the bards expressed, to the sounds of a guitar, the most closely guarded emotions of the Soviet citizenry, and rebelled against the enlisted art. They gave birth to a style of quiet protest - the lone man and his guitar, the individual who feels a deep urge to express himself while pushing slightly the boundaries of what is permissible. In private homes and in the forests around the large cities, masses of people would gather to sing the songs of the bards, and songs composed by the participants.

This was not necessarily a blunt political statement. The deeper political message was embodied in the individualist act itself. A single man with a guitar could be interpreted as defiant protest, a victory of individualism over the collective. "Their quiet whisper reverberated louder than the enlisted collectivist singing," wrote Dr. Genady Guntar, who has translated Okudzhava into Hebrew, as he sat at the same exact table in the Kuznetsov household on which Okudzhava wrote his poem about the attractive sabra soldier.

Intelligent urban language

When Genady Guntar, a dentist by vocation, immigrated to Israel in 1972, he found that only a handful of poems by Okudzhava had been translated into Hebrew. The greatest contribution toward bringing bard culture to Israel had been made by Dudu Elharar, in a special record devoted to their songs. In Israel, Guntar became friendly with Yevgeny Klatchkin, who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s and died in a recent drowning accident. Klatchkin made a supreme effort to carry on the tradition of bard singing here, while fighting the struggle of absorption and professional survival as an engineer. At his behest, Guntar translated several poems by Okudzhava, who because of his simplicity is not easy to translate. "It is an intelligent urban language," says Guntar, trying to describe Okudzhava's unique language. "Verses of his poems became codes for the entire intelligentsia in Soviet Russia," adds Gerstein. Cultural codes, it is important to note, more than political codes.

This, then, is the essence of what makes Okudzhava unique: Brodsky is considered a complex poet, Vysotsky a more socially minded writer, anchored in the Soviet context. Among this group, Okudzhava is simply the most human, and therefore the most universal of them all. He articulated an outbreak of true feelings, in a reality in which the lie had been consecrated. For this reason, his simple poetry has survived the changing times and changes of regime.

A disk to dream about

Gerstein is now at work on a disk of Okudzhava songs in Hebrew and Russian. Through every stage of the production - from the little recording studio in Bat Yam to the printing press in Karmiel (both of which are owned by immigrants) - all of the parties involved in the project feel as if they are part of something that goes well beyond the mere production of a disk. Suppliers lower their prices of their own accord, and comply with the rigid schedule. It is their personal contribution to a man who once contributed to enriching their own lives.

The new disk bears the title of one of Bulat Okudzhava's poems, "Two Roads," which takes on a special meaning here: two roads as two languages, as an expression of the two cultures in which a million Russian-speakers in Israel find themselves.

"Two Roads" is also a symbolic expression of the choice to leave life there and come to Israel. "It isn't his best poem," admits Gerstein, "but it is true of our lives. There is one nice road, but it leads nowhere, and there is another road that is not as nice, but is essential. In my opinion, it is also a very Jewish statement."

In recent years, interest in Okudzhava has extended beyond Israel. The Bulat Okudzhava Foundation in Israel was the first to be established after his death. It was followed by foundations in Moscow, Germany, Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic. As soon as the festival in Israel ends, the foundation will begin organizing a series of concerts in Okudzhava's memory in the United States.



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