Dates: 1950s–1990s

Iu. Medvedev, D. Mezhevich, A. Chernova, Vl. Vysotskii, B. Okudzhava e Iu. Liubimov at the rehearsal of the performance “Rabota est’ rabota” at the “Taganka” theatre, Moscow. © Fond Iurii Liubimov.

Place: Moscow

Songwriting and performing (avtorskaia pesnia) is the practice most frequently associated with the “first phase” of the magnitizdat (late 50s-first half of the 60s).  Some scholars claim that the avtorskaia pesnia, which circulated more widely during the Thaw and were promoted in numerous festivals organized throughout the country, gave Soviet citizens an unprecedented opportunity to collectively imagine and build a movement that defied the authority of the State. Songwriting was a voice for the sentiments that came to fruition in the reforms of the 1980s and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR.
The performances of singer-songwriters were often recorded on tape (thanks to microphones), much more rarely on disk, while music stored on X rays was almost absent in the clandestine circulation of Russian and foreign music (see Muzyka na rebrakh).
It is difficult to gauge to what extent various singers were known and followed, but those most listened to undoubtedly included Vladimir Vysotskii (1938-1980), Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997), Aleksandr Galich (1918-1977), Iuri Vizbor (1934-1984) and Iuli Kim (1936-). While Aleksandr Gorodnitskii (1933), Iuri Kukin (1932-2011), Novella Matveeva (1934-2016) and Evgenii Kliachkin (1934-1994) were also well known. The works of many other songwriters and performers also spread thanks to the clandestine circulation of tapes, but none of them achieved the success of these artists, who are considered the “sacred names” of the avtorskaia pesnia and are still listened to and studied today.
According to the Soviet poet Evgenii Evtushenko, in the 1960s no less than one million tapes with songs by Okudzhava and no less than half a million tapes with songs by Galich were circulating across the country (cf. Evtushenko 1988: 16). Vysotskii’s was even more popular: as Boris Kushner states, “from the windows, on long and short distance trains, everywhere, the voices of Galich, Vysotskii, Okudzhava, Kim could be heard […] Vysotskii became a true poet-singer of the people” (Kushner 2018). Andrei Krylov concludes that the only indisputable fact is Vysotskii’s fame which was greater that of Okudzhava and Galich, the other two emblematic voices of the second half of the twentieth century. With these three masters, who, for years, were able to acquire a modicum of notoriety in their homeland, but certainly not for their songs (Okudzhava wrote novels and poems, Galich wrote successful musical comedies and Vysotskii was an actor at the Teatr na Taganke), deals Pietro Zveteremich’s pioneering book Canzoni russe di protesta (Garzanti 1972). It contains translations of many of the three songwriters’ songs that until then had been heard through the channels of the magnitizdat or, in the Soviet Union, in ‘home concerts’ (so-called kvartirniki). In the introduction to the volume Zveteremich points out: “Fifty years after October, the smuggling that most fears the revolution is the smuggling of ideas” (Zveteremich 1972: 8); but Russian society had its own strategies for disseminating these ideas: “In the last ten years […] all that was most vivid and valuable in contemporary Russian culture came to light through the channels of the samizdat” (ibid.), through which it continued to exert the fascination that has always distinguished it: […] the Russian soul, the Russian intelligence speaking from the typescripts and tapes of the samizdat, make these illegible yellowish copies typed on carbon paper, these tapes recorded with background noise, with interruptions and hisses, exciting and fascinating” (ibid.: 9).
The popularity of some singer-songwriters varied greatly over time: for example, at the beginning of the 1960s, Alfred Sol’yanov was one of the most popular names among the Moscow intelligentsiia, almost as well known as Vysotskii. Years later he was even invited by the director Vladimir Menshov to appear in the film Moscow does not believe in tears (Moskva slezam ne verit, 1979) because he was considered a “symbol of that era” (the story is set in the Fifties). Nevertheless, Sol’yanov died in total anonymity. In the 1960s, figures such as Mikhail Ancharov and Ada Iakusheva came to the fore, but in the following decade, for various reasons, they stopped writing songs and performing, and as a result their popularity fell sharply.
Other figures, such as Aleksandr Dolskii and Aleksandr Rozenbaum, moved away from the world of avtorskaia pesnia, towards light music (estradnaia pesnia). There were also singer-songwriters who were well known and whose music was spread illegally, but who performances in public were limited or non-existent. One such figure was Vadim Pevzner (1961) who, between the end of the Seventies and the beginning of the Eighties, performed in less than ten concerts, but whose music thanks to the magnitizdat spread to the most remote corners of the country. Mikhail Shcherbakov (1963), whom Bulat Okudzhava considered one of the most interesting voices of the “second generation” of guitar poets, had similar beginnings. For many years almost no one knew who he really was, although his songs were known and circulated in many cities and towns in the Soviet Union.

Giulia De Florio
[30th June 2021]


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To cite this article:
Giulia De Florio, Underground songs: the protagonists, in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <>.
eISBN 978-88-5518-463-2
© 2021 Author(s)
Content license: CC BY 4.0