Obituary: Bulat Okudzhava

In the Sixties and Seventies the poet, writer and popular balladier Bulat Okudzhava became enormously popular in the Soviet Union for his verse, which he sang to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment. His melodies were simple, his lyrics moving and occasionally satirical, usually dealing with love, war and everyday life. The dissident tone, rather than content, of his songs made him an idol of Soviet youth and intelligentsia alike, but drew official disapproval, though he was never labelled a dissident.

Addressing Arbat Street in Moscow as "my fatherland" was not a message likely to find support from the Communist leadership under Brezhnev, nor was an obvious reference to Stalin as the black cat that terrorises its neighbours, "hiding his smile behind a moustache". Tapes of his recordings were sold on the black market and the KGB acted quickly to neutralise his influence. For years he was unable to publish his work.

Okudzhava was born in Moscow in 1924, the son of a Georgian father and Armenian mother. Both of them Communist Party officials, in 1937 his father was shot and his mother arrested and thrown into the Gulag, where she spent 19 years. Other members of his family suffered the same fate.

He left school in 1942 and volunteered for war service at the front, serving until 1945, when he entered Tbilisi University to study linguistics, graduating in 1950. He worked as a teacher at an agricultural school, as a journalist and in due course in a publishing house. He soon concentrated his efforts on writing poetry and music, and his first poems were published in 1953. He joined the Communist Party in 1955.

Khrushchev's "secret" speech at the 20th party congress in February 1956 jolted many Communists - especially those in their twenties and thirties - out of the inertia of fear that had paralysed their political imagination for more than 20 years. The debunking of Stalin and the cult of personality, while avoiding criticism of the system as such, promoted a climate of relatively freer thinking, expressed chiefly in the creative arts and to a lesser extent in the rewriting of history. With the overthrow of Khrushchev in 1964 and Brezhnev's rise to power, de-Stalinisation came to a halt. Books and plays were relegated to the "bottom drawer" until the distant future, and once more it became necessary to read between the lines for any hint of change in a liberal direction.

Okudzhava's autobiographical anti-war novel Bud' zdorov, shkolyar! ("Be Well, Schoolboy"), published in 1961, when he became poetry editor of the newspaper the Literary Gazette, was attacked for the "infantile psychology" of its hero. He became popular for his verse but could not publish it.

Like so many other loyal but critical "men of the Sixties", Okudzhava found in the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev a tolerant and indeed welcoming new face of mild authority, and he was able to make records and publish his books.

A prominent figure in the Russian intelligentsia, Okudzhava was a strong supporter of Boris Yeltsin in 1991, and he was made a member of the president's council on art and culture. In common with many other intellectuals and artists, he was deeply affected by the blood-bath in Chechnya, which he blamed on the government's misjudgement, but so great was his fear of a Communist victory in the presidential election of 1996 that he threw his support behind Yeltsin.

Okudzhava had a heart attack in 1991 while touring America, where he underwent heart surgery, and had suffered ill-health ever since. In 1994 he won the prestigious Russian Booker Prize, but was unable to attend the ceremony through illness.

Harry Shukman

Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava, poet, singer and writer: born Moscow 9 May 1924; Poetry Editor, Moscow Literary Gazette 1956-64; Secretary, USSR Writers' Union 1986-91; married; died Paris 12 June 1997.

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