Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava (also transliterated as Boulat Okudjava/Okoudjava/Okoudzhava; Russian: Булат Шалвович Окуджава, Georgian: ბულატ ოკუჯავა) (May 9, 1924 – June 12, 1997) was a Russian bard, one of the founders of the genre called the "author's song" (авторская песня, avtorskaya pesnya). He was the author of about 200 songs, set to his own poetry. His songs are a mixture of Russian poetic and folksong traditions and the French chansonnier style represented by such contemporaries of Okudzhava as Georges Brassens. Though his songs were never overtly political (in contrast to those of some of his fellow "bards"), the freshness and independence of Okudzhava's artistic voice presented a subtle challenge to Soviet cultural authorities, who were thus hesitant for many years to give official sanction to Okudzhava as a singer-songwriter.
Bulat Okudzhava was of Georgian origin. He was born in Moscow on May 9, 1924, into a family of communists who had come from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, for study and work connected with the Communist Party. The son of a Georgian father and an Armenian mother, Bulat Okudzhava spoke and wrote only in Russian. This was because his mother, who spoke Georgian, Azeri, and, of course, Armenian, had always requested that everyone who came to visit her house "Please, speak the language of Lenin—Russian." His father, a high Communist Party member from Georgia, was arrested in 1937, during the Great Purges and executed as a German spy on the basis of a false accusation—a fate he shared with many party members. His mother was also arrested and spent eighteen years in the prison camps of the Gulag (1937-1955). Bulat Okudzhava returned to Tbilisi and lived there with relatives.
In 1941, at the age of 17, one year before his scheduled school graduation, he volunteered for the Red Army infantry and from 1942, participated in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. With the end of the Second World War, after his discharge from the service in 1945, he returned to Tbilisi, where he passed his high school graduation tests and enrolled in Tbilisi State University, graduating in 1950. After graduating, he worked as a teacher—first in a rural school in the village of Shamordino in Kaluga district, and later in the city of Kaluga itself.
In 1956, three years after the death of Stalin, Okudzhava returned to Moscow, where he worked first as an editor in the publishing house Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), and later as the head of the poetry division at the most prominent national literary weekly in the former USSR, Literaturnaya Gazeta ("Literary Gazette"). It was then, in the middle of the 1950s, that he began to compose songs and to perform them, accompanying himself on a Russian guitar—a seven string acoustic guitar favored by the Russian bards.
Soon he was giving concerts. He only employed a few chords and had no formal training in music, but he possessed an exceptional melodic gift, and the intelligent lyrics of his songs blended perfectly with his music and his voice. His songs were praised by his friends, and amateur recordings were made. These unofficial recordings were widely copied and distributed in unofficial channels (refered to as magnitizdat, a neologism formed from the Russian words for "musical tape" and "publish." It was the musical analog to samizdat, the self-published work of those who could not be officially published in the state printing houses). These tapes spread across the country (and in Poland), where other young people picked up guitars and started singing the songs for themselves. In 1969, he wrote the lyrics for the theme song of the classic Soviet film, White Sun of the Desert. "Your Excellency Lady Luck" (Ваше благородие, госпожа Удача, music: Isaak Schwarz, lyrics: Bulat Okudzhava) became a huge hit.
Though Okudzhava's songs were not published by any official media organization until the late 1970s, they quickly achieved enormous popularity (especially among the intelligentsia)—mainly in the USSR at first, but soon among Russian-speakers in other countries as well. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, cited his "Sentimental March" in the novel Ada or Ardor.
Okudzhava, however, regarded himself primarily as a poet and claimed that his musical recordings were insignificant. During the 1980s, he also published a great deal of prose (his novel The Show is Over won him the Russian Booker Prize in 1994). By the 1980s, recordings of Okudzhava performing his songs finally began to be officially released in the Soviet Union, and many volumes of his poetry appeared separately. In 1991, he was awarded the USSR State Prize.
Okudzhava died in Paris on June 12, 1997, and is buried in the Vagankovo Cemetery in Moscow. A monument marks the building at 43 Arbat Street, where he lived. His dacha in Peredelkino is open to the public as a museum.
"The composers hated me. The singers detested me. The guitarists were terrified by me."—Bulat Okudzhava
Bulat Okudzhava was one of the most important of the Soviet bard singers. The bards' popularity was based on their subtle protest of the lies of Socialist realism and the official version of the "Radiant Future" of communism. Their genres varied from acutely political, "anti-Soviet" ones, perfectly fitting under the infamous Article 58 (RSFSR Penal Code, the infamous "catch-all" charge of anti-Soviet agitation), to witty satire in the best traditions of Aesop. Some of Bulat Okudzhava's songs touch on these themes. He was one of the leaders of this informal movement that worked to undermine official Soviet reality by exposing its lies.
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