After the death of Stalin in 1953, his successor Khrushchev brought a cultural thaw. Although it did not necessarily promote freedom of expression, “the Thaw” allowed for many cultural expressions that would have been forbidden under Stalin. One of the most common forms of expression during the Thaw was the more realistic representation of life. Soviet realism faded away as people the people wanted to process the pain they had felt from World War II and its aftermath in a creative way. One way that these ideas took shape was through poetry, specifically guitar poetry.
Bulat Okudzhava is perhaps the most well-known and accomplished guitar poet from this era. Okudzhava began his writing of these poems, meant to be sung to music, during the 1950s. However, he began as an underground poet, in order to avoid repression from the Stalinist government. Friends and family would record his poems and pass them around, and millions of people were listening to his poetry without the official regulation of the party. He was not officially published in the Soviet Union until the 1970s, but he was a well-known name due to his underground presence far before that time.
One of Okudzhava’s most famous guitar poems is called “The Last Trolley” and was published in 1957. (You can watch it above!) Like many of his other poems, this one is very melancholic and captured the human emotion and feeling of the time. He describes this trolley bus as a refuge for “when despair’s creeping up,” and it serves as a sense of comfort (RR, p. 567). This idea that every day objects and routines brought comfort after the war and the more repressive Stalinist government show the importance of stability in the lives of the Soviet people during this time. These experiences allow him to find “goodness In silence, in silence” (RR, p. 568). The silence and stability of riding on a trolley allows the narrator to find peace, and he finds that “the pain that pecked like a sarling in my temple Grows quiet” (RR, p. 568). The music itself also brings emotion, as he sings against solely the guitar. There is a raw, intimate feeling from the music due to the use of the guitar which further stirs up a melancholy feeling and makes it particularly compelling.
Okudzhava’s poetry represents the thaw because it shows not only how more expression was allowed, but also how the people at the time were processing the events they had experienced in the decades before. While “The Last Trolley” is gloomy, it is not depressing; the narrator clings to what he can to find peace and to reduce his pain. This raw and emotional reflection allows us to understand more clearly how people were feeling during this time, as it gives the real feelings of people at the time, who were struggling to understand the events occurring around them.
Okudzhava has many songs that are accessible online! Even though I didn’t understand the Russian, I found that many of them have a similarly melancholy undertone while others are more positive or upbeat. The combination of the soft guitar with his strong voice is really soothing, in my opinion. The title of the one below translates to “Prayer.”
“The Russia Reader,” edited by Adele Barker and Bruce Grant, p. 567-568.
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