Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices
THIS IS WHAT OUR SON WAS LIKE
by S.V. Vysotsky
Translayed by Alec Vagapov
Vladimir Vysotsky has left a big creative heritage, and there have
already been attempts to analyze it both in the press and in books written
on him. Obviously, this is only the beginning, for further investigation
and attempts to understand Vysotsky's creative work are yet to come. As
his father, I should like to dwell on some moment's in my son's life which
throw light on his personality, disposition and, in the final analysis,
on his works.
The biography of a person, including his creative biography, begins
at home, in his family, because one's personal life tends to be interwoven
with one's closest relatives, and each family lives in accordance with
its own rules and laws.
Vladimir Vysotsky was born in Moscow on January 25th, 1938.
In his early childhood he lived with my first wife Nina. What were those
years like? Well, as it was the case with other children of the prewar
period it was life in communal flats with many neighbors and quite unsophisticated
toys. Then the was the war time. Vladimir and his mother lived in immigration
for two years, and though I did send them my officer's data still they
were quite hard up. So Vladimir's early childhood was not very happy.
I would like to say a few words about my pedigree because Vladimir
had some traits of his relatives. His grandfather Vladimir Vysotsky was
an educated man, in fact, he had higher education in three fields : economy,
chemistry and law. His grandmother Darya was a medical employee and for
many years worked as a cosmetologist. She was an ardent theatergoer and
was particularly fond of the Russian Theatre of Drama in Kiev where she
would not miss a single new play. She was very happy about her grandson
choosing the path of an actor and going to the theatrical studio at Moscow
Academic Theatre of Drama. She liked Vladimir's songs and the way he performed
them. When he visited Kiev on a tour with his Taganka Theatre he would
always invite his grandmother to see the performance. She was proud of
Vladimir inherited my disposition and gait and also my voice : when
talking on the phone even our closest friends and relatives could not tell
his voice from mine.
When I was young I learned to play the piano, though I did not go beyond
the basic skills. I liked singing and my favorite songs were those of Vertinsky
and Dunayevsky as well as some other popular songs. In the film «The Place
of Meeting Cannot Be Changed» Vladimir sang one of Vertinsky's songs precisely
the way I do it, and later he asked me if I had recognized myself. I said
I come from Kiev. I studied at Moscow Technical School of Communication
where I took a course of military training. Upon graduation I got the rank
of a junior lieutenant, and in March 1941 I was drafted for military service.
I went through the war from the first to the last day taking part in the
defense of Moscow, the liberation of Donbass, and Lvov, as well as the
seizure of Berlin and went as far as Prague. I have 28 orders and medals
of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia; I am an honorary citizen of the
Czechoslovak city of Kladno.
After the war I graduated from The Military Academy of Communication,
served in signal troops and retired in the rank of a colonel. From 1971
to 1988 I worked at an enterprise of the Ministry of Communication. I am
a pensioner now.
The war separated me from my son for four years. We met in June, 1945
in Moscow. I arrived along with the 1st Ukrainian Front under the command
of Lelushenko, when we prepared for the military parade in Moscow. It was
at that time when I presented Vladimir with my major's shoulder loops.
Later he described this occasion in his poem called «The Ballad of My Childhood».
Nina and I could not get on somehow, and when we separated we decided
that our son would stay with me. Vladimir came to stay with me in January
1947, and my second wife Yevgenia became Vladimir's second mother for many
years to come. They had much in common and like each other which made me
I served in the city of Eberswald, Germany. I would be away from home
for weeks on end to participate in exercises, field training and so on.
It was Yevgenia who took care of Vladimir and brought him up. She indulged
him yielding to his whims and desires. Once, for example, he told her he
wanted a military uniform just like his father's, with box calf boots.
Yevgenia went in search of a shoe maker until she found one. When the jackboots
were ready Vladimir put them next to mine, comparing, and seeing that they
were absolutely identical he was elated. He willingly had his picture taken
at the photographer's. I still keep that picture.
In those days Vladimir began to show his character. Yevgenia recalled
how one day I went hare hunting and when he saw the hare I had killed Vladimir
asked her : «Why did daddy do that?» On another occasion Yevgenia put a
strip of chamois fur in Vladimir's boots for comfort and warmth but he
would not wear them. «They pinch here, they are too tight there, my toes
are burning... » - he kept complaining. In the end we had to give the boots
to a boy from the neighborhood.
Did Vladimir differ from other children ? No, except that he was fidgety
and daring and thus he was the leader in games and mischievous tricks.
He would come home with his knees grazed and his face sooty. Obviously,
he had played a game of war. The burnt eyebrows and soot on his face showed
that there had been a grenade or cartridge explosion.
Vladimir learnt to swim early. He would swim several times across the
river Finow which had not yet been cleared of shells and mines.
I wanted him to learn to play the piano, and we hired a tutor to teach
him. The tutor said Vladimir had a perfect ear for music. But the street
seemed to be more attractive to him, and so Yevgenia resorted to a trick
: she, too, started learning to play the piano, as if challenging Vladimir.
He showed generosity and kindness from early childhood. I remember
buying him a bicycle, he did some riding, and after a while he gave it,
as a gift, to a German boy, and this is how he explained it to me: «You
are alive, daddy, whereas he hasn't got a father». What could I say to
He had retained this generosity for the rest of his life. When he was
grown up and traveled around the country or abroad he would bring plenty
of gifts to friends and relatives, and if he was lacking for a gift for
someone he would give away what he had bought for himself. He liked to
please people and make them happy. His friends remember him to be not only
generous but also affectionate and even tender. He respected elderly people
and was a loyal friend, a tactful and a well brought up man. It was Yevgenia's
contribution who had developed those remarkable traits in him. Vladimir
could not stand injustice and indifference, he would stick up for a weakling
when he saw one being hurt. He would often come home with shadows under
the eyes for that reason.
Once he was resting in the country house in the village of Plyuta on
the Dnieper together with Vitaly, the son of Yevegina's niece. The boy
fell ill and had a high temperature. There was a couple in the neighborhood,
both were doctors, and Yevgenia asked them for help. They refused to examine
Vitaly because they said they were in the country-house to rest and not
to work. Vladimir took revenge on them. When they sat down to have tea
by the open window Vladimir climbed the tree opposite the house and started
bawling like Tarzan....
Vladimir was fond of books from his childhood. He would read in the
day time and at night under the cover of the blanket, using a flashlight.
He liked to retell what he had read and had a brilliant memory. He would
learn a poem by heart after reading it once, and it took him an hour or
so to memorize a long epic in verse. At school he did well but his success
was not stable.
I am telling about his childhood in detail because it was at this time
that he developed his world outlook and understanding of life which in
some way or other told on his poetry. He has many songs about the war-time.
It is interesting because war participants thought the author of the songs
to be one of them, as if he had participated in the war together with them
going to attacks and shooting down planes. How did Vladimir come to know
the life of war participants, their daily routine, with deep penetration
into the heroism and tragedy of the war ? He himself said that the topic
was prompted not only by his imagination but also by stories told by war
participants. Who were they, all those
people ? I think that my brother Alexey, a lieutenant-colonel, aroused
interest in the war time events. He has seven awards including three Red
Banner Orders. When they met Vladimir would not step away from «uncle Lyosha»
for a minute.
In Germany and in Moscow my friends often visited us at our home and
Vladimir would listen to our conversations intently, then he would turn
to «uncle Lyosha», «uncle Fedya» and «uncle Sasha» asking questions.
To Nikolai Skomorokhov, Air Marshal, Hero of the Soviet Union, Vladimir
dedicated his «Ballad Of the Killed Pilot». The stories of colonel-general
Leonid Sapkov, and Alexander Borisov and colonel Nikolai Sernov also found
reflection in Vladimir's songs. Late in the sixties he even visited lieutenant-general
Fyodor Bondarenko ( who died in an air-crash in 1973 ) in the city of Arkhangelsk.
He performed in the House of Officers before the personnel of the garrison
and their families. My conversations with my son about the war had, I think,
also left traces in his mind.
We returned from Germany in October 1949. Vladimir went to School 186,
which was near the place we lived in, and namely Bolshoy Karetny Lane.
We had one room in a communal flat and later one more room was added. I
got an appointment in Kiev where I stayed until November 1953. Yevgenia
had taken care of Vladimir all this time and when she visited me in Kiev
he would stay in Moscow with her mother and her niece. During the summer
holidays he would come to rest with us in our country house near Kiev and
together with Yevgenia and her relatives he would spend the summer under
Baku and also in the city of Adler on the Black Sea coast. Besides, he
would stay in the family of my brother Alexey in Gaitchin and Mukatchevo,
the Ukraine. He would also go for a rest in a winter camp in the suburbs
Vladimir spent his green years in Bolshoy Karetny Lane. Here he went
to school from the 5th to the 10th forms and got
to know «the life of the yard» and saw many characters of his would be
songs, the early ones in particular:
- Where are your 17 years?
- In Bolshoy Karetny.
- Where are your 17 troubles?
- In Bolshoy Karetny.
- And where is your black pistol?
- In Bolshoy Karetny...
The pistol mentioned in the song is my captured «Walter» which had
the barrel filled up with lead Vladimir found it at home and used it when
playing war games until Yevgenia who was afraid of trouble threw the pistol
Vladimir always remembered Bolshoy Karetny Lane. When he and his mother
moved to a new flat he still would frequent Bolshoy Karetny to drop in
at our place and to see us and his friends, his former schoolmates and
classmates living in the vicinity, around Samotek Square
After 1960 when we moved to Kirov Street Volodya visited Bolshoy Karetny
as before and it was there in Levon Katcheryan's flat that Vladimir made
friends with Vasily Shukshin and Andrey Tarkovsky. ...
In an improvised questionnaire there was a question about his favorite
place in his favorite city, to which Vladimir's answered: Samotek Square,
Vladimir first showed craving for poetry writing when he was at high
school in Moscow. The things that stimulated him to writing songs , I think,
were his natural gift and love of books. The range of his interests was
really wide. He read historical novels and Russian and foreign classics.
When he was in the tenth form at school he attended a drama circle at The
House of Teachers lead by actor V. I. Bogomolov, of Moscow Academic Theatre
of Drama, who noticed Vladimir's gift for acting.
We did not think that Vladimir would be an actor. We wanted him to
be an engineer, and under our influence, probably, he went to Moscow Institute
of Construction. He studied the first half of the academic year, passed
the examination but left the Institute, to our regret.
It was clear later that we had failed to see what was going on in his
heart. Vladimir chose his way himself entering the school of actors at
Moscow Academic Theatre of Drama. He had a dream and was determined to
make it come true:
- I have the proper face and height
- Thanks to my parents
- I get along with people
- I never push them round
- Nor did I bow and scrape
- I kept my head
- I didn't care
- I lived the way I lived
- Giving a helping hand to my head.
In 1956 while attending the drama studio he got acquainted with Izya
Zhukova who was in her third year i.e. 2 years ahead of him, and in 1960
when she graduated from the studio they got married. They lived a friendly
life but as they worked in different cities they separated. At the end
of 1961, during the shooting of the film «713 Requests Landing» Vladimir
met the would be mother of his two sons, Ludmila Abramova,. whom he officially
married in 1965.
Yevgenia and I treated Iza and Ludmila well and did all we could to
help them set up a stable family. Now after so many years we still maintain
Vladimir was a man of purpose, self-critical and exceedingly diligent,
working at full stretch, so to say. As I mentioned before, he had a brilliant
memory which helped him in his studies and in his poetical and theatrical
activities. At times I compared him with myself because serving in the
army is energy consuming particularly during the war and field exercises.
But now I think that the weight of cares on his shoulders could not be
compared in the same breath with mine. Vladimir would often sleep four
hours a day writing songs mostly at night because in the day time he had
to rehearse at the theatre, act in films and perform on stage.
He was seriously interested in art and had a big collection of reproductions
of famous artists. Working on the part he was to play he always tried to
precise reproduction of the image. When preparing for acting he took a
course of horse-riding at the Moscow race-track. He had also mastered the
basics of karate, went in for boxing and fencing so that he could do without
a stunt man during the film shooting and give realistic characters in his
In his childhood Vladimir's was not quite healthy. The doctors had
diagnosed the case as cardiac murmur... And although he was taken off the
books at the age of 16 the doctors asked him to take care and avoid unnecessary
emotional disturbance. But could he, Vladimir Vysotsky, hide himself in
trenches ? He was always the first to throw himself on the parapet and
rush to the attack against the bullets of apathy, inertness, swagger and
bureaucracy... He fought these evils by means of poetry and by acting in
films and on stage. He has the song called «He Hasn't Returned From the
Fighting». And indeed, he hasn't returned ...
I went through the war from beginning to end and I saw a lot in my
life, and I can say that the son was more courageous than the father. He
was braver and more steadfast than many others. Why ? Because many of us,
including myself, saw the shortcomings and injustice in the society and
the arrogance of people, often high rank officials, but did not speak out.
If we did speak it was only among ourselves, at table or in corridors.
But Vladimir was brave enough to tell the world about it. At the top of
his voice. He never showed off and thought courage and honesty to be the
most important things in his poetical and theatrical activity.
He was a real patriot.
I liked Vladimir's songs. But I was alarmed for his life because telling
the truth was not popular in those days.
After 1970 when Marina Vladi would leave Moscow and Vladimir would
stay alone at home he and his colleagues from Theatre On Taganka, people
like Vsevolod Abdulov, Valery Zolotukhin, Veniamin Smekhov and others would
come to see us at our place in Kirov Street to relax, and have supper after
the hard day. Yevgenia and I liked these visits, we would listen to their
discussions and talks about life on stage and sometimes we would hear new
songs that Vladimir would sing. The song called «The Ballad of the Abandoned
Ship», for instance, was first performed at our home.
When Marina would arrive in Moscow they would come to see us, they
even lived with us at one time when their flat in Maly Gruzinsky Street
was being decorated.
Vladimir was very considerate of his parents, particularly when someone
was not feeling well. I remember being operated on once, and while the
operation was under way Vladimir stayed in hospital. And it was not until
the operation was over that he called Yevgenia on the phone. When I came
round after the operation I saw Vladimir and the doctor by my side. I asked
Vladimir when the operation would start to which he said smiling : «Daddy,
you've missed the boat, everything is fine, you must sleep now».
Vladimir had managed to see the world. He had visited many European
countries as well as the USA, Canada and Mexico ( which he liked best );
he had even been to Tahiti. Naturally, he had to talk to Western reporters
who tried to find a hint in his words about «oppression» in the Soviet
Union. And although Vladimir did have an occasion to reprove the officials
who decided whether or not his poems should be published and his records
be released yet he was always beyond the intrigues. He always spoke highly
about his homeland. When visiting even most exotic countries he would always
miss home and friends. It can be vividly seen in his poems and songs.
The result of his short and uneasy life and hard work is in his literary
heritage... When we were preparing the release of the first anthology of
his songs called «THE NERVE» we had counted 600 pieces. Maybe, there are
more of them. ( I have given my son's remaining manuscripts to the Central
Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow, it s there that Vladimir Vysotsky's
archive is kept now ).
Time cannot heal our grief. What consoles me is the fact that Vladimir
Vysotsky is now officially recognized and that people love him. His books
are widely published, his records released and there are many books with
reminiscences about him.
It is a pity that the sudden tragic death of Yevgenia whom Vladimir
loved so much did not allow her to see and read all these compositions...
I am glad that Vladimir has two fine grown up sons.
They, too, are men of art. Arcady, the elder son, has graduated from
the Institute of Cinematography, and Nikita, the younger one, has followed
in his father's footsteps : he has graduated from the Theatrical Studio
of Moscow Academic Theatre and is now working at a theatre. They have children
: Arcady has a nine year old daughter, Natasha by name, and a six year
old son, Vladimir. Nikita has a son, Simon, who is 4 years old. And I firmly
believe that they all will be worthy of Vladimir, their father and grandfather.
So the life goes on...