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The House: a Mirror to Russia's Stagnation

Vladimir Vysotskiy, one of the most popular and powerful bards in Soviet history, had written thousands of songs, most of which have never been formally released during his lifetime. He was popular in the most remote parts of the country, and his politically censured songs furtively circulated through the nation's veins, appealing to the "common man's" problems. The House, a ballad Vysotskiy wrote in the 1970s, is very typical of his famous guitar style; it is meant in no way for pure entertainment, for it reflects vividly upon the despair and dilapidation of the old Soviet Union.

Although Vysotskiy was adored by the Russian people, even including many KGB and government officials, he was officially considered a nonconformist and thus censured, forced to make a living only through his theatrical and movie careers. The advent of tape-recording devices in the 1950s and '60s helped spread Vysotskiy's fame from Europe to the eastmost parts of USSR, covering over one seventh of the world's landmass; he had soon become an idol to his followers, his popularity easily comparable to that of world-renowned stars.

Vysotskiy's genre was that of folk ballads - a style of singing acquired from the gypsies - depicting various epochs of Soviet history as well as his own experiences. Some of his major movements include war (he spent his childhood in the years following World War II), sport, folklore, humorous, and political song. He never put much emphasis on the melody - most of his songs were performed with plain guitar accompaniment, with the exception of few public concerts - but instead on the content and delivery of his poems. This was more a genre of poetry than one of music and has been popular in Russia for quite some time. It allowed poets greater freedom of expression during the times of political pressure, since it wasn't meant to be publicly performed and thus escaped censure.

The House is actually the second half of a two-part ballad. The first part (too lengthy to be reproduced here) starts out with Vysotskiy riding a horse-driven wagon through the woods. Being slightly tipsy, he is casually singing a gypsy song and does not notice how the trail suddenly ends and deposits him smack in the middle of a pack of hungry wolves. Figuratively, the song is about him withdrawing from the social setting of those times, in which bureaucracy was controlling the cultural and artistic life, into his own poetic world, and when he emerges from the old-fashioned times of merriment, he finds himself in a foreign, hostile environment, surrounded by mortal danger. Ultimately, the horses carry him to safety, and that is where The House picks up.

The morbid "quiet house/Submerged into night" that he comes upon in the first lines is an ongoing metaphor for the stagnated society. By gradual withdrawal, artists such as he would try to shut their eyes to the decay of their community, and such a sudden forced snap back to reality is a harsh blow to him. Naturally, having just escaped from lethal danger, he is anticipating a warm welcome back into the world he remembers, but instead he encounters a "vulgar bar" filled with lowlifes and derelicts. Every line painfully describes the slummy conditions he unexpectedly finds: "Icons hang aslant/Amid rancid mess..." Shocked and outraged, he demands to know what has happened, only to receive a hopeless, groggy reply: "You must have been traveling long,/And forgotten this world./We've always lived like this." The people he finds are hardly aware of the grotesque conditions they're living in and the quagmire of their existence, and they don't even attempt to amend their "afflicted cave" of an environment. The decades of political stagnation sink the society deep into a sedentary swamp, and tragically, most are content with this situation.

The narrator, obviously discontent with what he encounters, understandably wants to return to the world he knew, yet no one can tell him of "the place/That [he] sought all this time,/Where there's singing, not moaning,/Where the floors aren't slant." The people have no idea of the world he is describing; they were born into their current status: "No one's ever heard/Of the place you say./We are used to live/In this twilight state [perhaps referring to intellectual decay as well as spiritual];/Since the ends of time/Do we live like this,/Huddling miserably/Within sooted walls..." In complete despair, the author flees "from the putrid place,/From unholy stench" that is the "house" in a desperate attempt to escape "wherever the horses led,/Wherever the eyes would look,/And where [he] would be welcomed,/And where people live..." At the very last stanza, Vysotskiy mentions the gypsy song he had begun singing in the first part, "Thy Aphotic [black] Eyes;/Flannel tablecloth," recalling the times of unfettered mirth in his life.

The most popular and probably best-recorded version of this song is from Vysotskiy's concert in Paris, arranged for by his wife (born in France as a granddaughter of Russian immigrants, she had easier access to the "outside world" than most others). In that version, a second base guitar adds more complex and emphasizing elements into the song, but Vysotskiy's unmatched passion in delivering the lyrics nevertheless dominates the performance. During singing, he acts out the different characters, changing his voice and intonation as the speakers take turns unraveling the ballad=s plot: he starts out calmly, though somewhat sarcastically, and by the end escalates into frenzied despair. His "rolling r's," characteristic of many of his songs, add harshness and gravity to the overall mood.

In translating this song, rhyme had to be sacrificed in favor of rhythm and accurate meaning. The actual poem has an ABAB rhyme scheme and a uniquely complicated rhythmic pattern as follows: ~ ~ ` ~ ` / ` ~ ` ~ `. The translation may have dulled this somewhat, but the imagery throughout the stanzas remains extremely vivid and powerful. This and the fiery manner in which Vysotskiy delivers it truly draw the listener into The House and its cataclysmic atmosphere and are the reasons why I like this particular piece so much.

The House is a powerful ballad depicting Vysotskiy's artistic struggle. He had been born after Stalin's reign of terror and had much more freedom of expression in comparison to the 1930s, yet the country itself had become stagnant, dull, and intimidated, and it was incapable of listening to that which he sought for so long to say. The song vividly reflects the humiliation and despair that he and the artistic world were facing. Vysotskiy had escaped from the "wolves" only to get trapped in a reeking, decaying mire of ignorance.


The House

What's this quiet house
Submerged into night
On the open road
Basked by the foreign winds,
All its windows
Staring at the dark,
And its open gates -
Onto highway path?
Tired though I was,
I unsaddled the horses.
"Hey, anyone alive?
Come and give a hand!"
Not a soul; just a shadow
Crept behind the door,
And the buzzard descended
And narrowed its path.
Walk inside the house -
As though a vulgar bar;
Every lowlife watches
Me with baneful spite.
Grumbling angrily,
"Uninvited guest..."
Icons hang aslant
Amid rancid mess...
Well, they launched into hazy,
Bizarre conversation;
Someone was moaning a tune,
Pinching old guitar strings;
And a crooked-faced bully,
A fool and a thief,
Shined a blade in suggestion
From under the table.
"Someone answer me!
What kind of a house is this?
Why immersed in the dark,
Like some afflicted cave?
The light of lamps is gone,
And the air is stale -
Or did you forget
How to live at all?
All your doors are wide open,
But your souls are confined!
Who's the host in this place?
At least offer some wine!"
But they answer,
"You must have been traveling long,
And forgotten this world.
We've always lived like this.
Nibbling filthy grass
Like a herd of cattle,
Our souls gone sour,
Our skins gone septic;
And we did drink wine
For the fun of it,
Robbing our own homes,
Fighting, murdering..."
"I escaped from wild wolves,
And my horses are weary;
Someone give me a place
Where the candles burn bright!
Someone show me the place
That I sought all this time,
Where there's singing, not moaning,
Where the floors aren't slant!"
"No one's ever heard
Of the place you say.
We are used to live
In this twilight state;
Since the ends of time
Do we live like this,
Huddling miserably
Within sooted walls..."
From the putrid place,
From unholy stench,
Blindly, I decamped,
Having lost my head -
Wherever the horses led,
Wherever the eyes would look,
And where I would be welcomed,
And where people live...
Like the fleeting wind,
Time flew swiftly by;
Life has tossed me around,
Yet delivered not.
Maybe I just sang
This unskillfully -
"Thy Aphotic Eyes;
Flannel Tablecloth..."