Bulat Okudzhava

From Unearthing The Music

Okudzhava performing at Palace of the Republic, Berlin, Germany, 1976. Photo credits: German Federal Archive

Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava (Russian: Була́т Ша́лвович Окуджа́ва; Georgian: ბულატ ოკუჯავა; Armenian: Բուլատ Օկուջավա; May 9, 1924 – June 12, 1997) was a Soviet and Russian poet, writer, musician, novelist, and singer-songwriter of Georgian-Armenian ancestry. He was one of the founders of the Soviet genre called "author song" (авторская песня, avtorskaya pesnya), or "guitar song", and 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 Soviet 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 him official recognition.[1]


Bulat Okudzhava was born in Moscow on May 9, 1924 into a family of communists who had come from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to study and to work for the Communist Party. The son of a Georgian father, Shalva Okudzhava, and an Armenian mother, Ashkhen Nalbandyan, Bulat Okudzhava spoke and wrote only in Russian.

Okudzava's mother was the niece of a well-known Armenian poet, Vahan Terian. His father served as a political commissar during the Civil War and as a high-ranking Communist Party member thereafter, under the protection of Sergo Ordzhonikidze (1886-1937). His uncle Vladimir Okudzhava was an anarchist and terrorist who left the Russian Empire after a failed attempt to assassinate the Kutaisi governor.[2] Vladimir was listed among the passengers of the infamous sealed train that delivered Vladimir Lenin, Grigory Zinoviev and other revolutionary leaders from Switzerland to Russia in 1917.[3]

Terror and war

Shalva Okudzhava was arrested in February 1937 during the Great Purge, accused of Trotskyism and wrecking. He was shot on 4 August, along with his two brothers. His wife was arrested in 1939 "for anti-Soviet deeds" and sent to the Gulag. Bulat returned to Tbilisi to live with his relatives. His mother was released in 1946, but arrested for the second time in 1949, spending another 5 years in labor camps. She was fully released in 1954 and rehabilitated in 1956, along with her husband.[4]

In 1941, at the age of 17, one year before his scheduled school graduation, Bulat Okudzhava volunteered for the Red Army infantry, and from 1942 he participated in the war against Nazi Germany. After his discharge from the service in 1944, he returned to Tbilisi where he passed his high school graduation exams and enrolled at Tbilisi State University, graduating in 1950. After graduating, he worked as a teacher, first in a rural school in the village of Shamordino in the Kaluga Region, and later in the city of Kaluga itself.

Return to Moscow

In 1956, three years after the death of Joseph Stalin, Okudzhava returned to Moscow. Following his parents' rehabilitation and the 20th Party Congress at which Khrushchev denounced Stalin, Bulat Okudzhava was able to join the Communist Party, of which he remained a member until 1990. In the Soviet capital 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 Newspaper"). 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.

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 as magnitizdat, and spread across the USSR and Poland, where other young people picked up guitars and started singing the songs for themselves. In 1969, his lyrics appeared in the classic Soviet film White Sun of the Desert.

Songwriter, poet and novelist

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.[citation needed] 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 were also published. In 1991, he was awarded the USSR State Prize. He supported the reform movement in the USSR and in October 1993, signed the Letter of Forty-Two.[5] 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 now a museum that is open to the public.

A minor planet, 3149 Okudzhava, discovered by Czech astronomer Zdeňka Vávrová in 1981 is named after him.[6] His songs remain very popular and frequently performed.[7][8][9][10] They are also used for teaching Russian.[11]

Okudzhava, like most bards, did not come from a musical background. He learned basic guitar skills with the help of some friends. He also knew how to play basic chords on a piano.

Okudzhava tuned his Russian guitar to the "Russian tuning" of D'-G'-C-D-g-b-d' (thickest to thinnest string), and often lowered it by one or two tones to better accommodate his voice. He played in a classical manner, usually finger picking the strings in an ascending/descending arpeggio or waltz pattern, with an alternating bass line picked by the thumb.

Initially Okudzhava was taught three basic chords, and towards the end of his life he claimed to know a total of seven.

Many of Okudzhava's songs are in the key of C minor (with downtuning B flat or A minor), centering on the C minor chord (X00X011, thickest to thinnest string), then progressing to a D 7 (00X0433), then either an E-flat minor (X55X566) or C major (55X5555). In addition to the aforementioned chords, the E-flat major chord (X55X567) was often featured in songs in a major key, usually C major (with downtuning B-flat or A major).

By the nineties, Okudzhava adopted the increasingly popular six string guitar but retained the Russian tuning, subtracting the fourth string, which was convenient to his style of playing.

Fiction translated to English

  • "The Art of Needles and Sins", (story), from The New Soviet Fiction, Abbeville Press, NY, 1989.
  • "Good-bye, Schoolboy!" and "Promoxys", (stories), from Fifty Years of Russian Prose, Volume 2, M.I.T Press, MA, 1971.
  • The Extraordinary Adventures of Secret Agent Shipov in Pursuit of Count Leo Tolstoy, in the year 1862, (novel), Abelard-Schuman, UK, 1973.
  • Nocturne: From the Notes of Lt. Amiran Amilakhvari, Retired, (novel), Harper and Row, NY, 1978.
  • A Taste of Liberty, (novel), Ardis Publishers, 1986.
  • "Girl of My Dreams", (story), from 50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories, Academic Studies Press, 2011.

Selected discography

  • Wonderful waltz, 1969
  • While the world is still turning, 1994
  • And when the first love comes... (А как первая любовь), 1997
  • Piosenki (Songs), Polish edition, 2000
  • Green lantern, On Smolensk road, Main song, Record on stone, and Your Honor – records made during last years of his life

Selected filmography

  • 1961 - My Friend, Kolka!
  • 1962 - Chain reaction
  • 1964 - I Am Twenty
  • 1965 - Faithfulness
  • 1966 - July Rain
  • 1967 - Zhenya, Zhenechka and Katyusha
  • 1970 - White Sun of the Desert
  • 1970 - Belorussian Station
  • 1974 - The Straw Hat
  • 1975 - The Captivating Star of Happiness
  • 1975 - The Adventures of Buratino
  • 1976 - The Key That Should Not Be Handed On
  • 1976 - The Strogovs
  • 1977 - One-Two, Soldiers Were Going...
  • 1979 - The Wife Has Left
  • 1982 - The Pokrovsky Gate
  • 1984 - Dear, Dearest, Beloved, Unique...
  • 1985 - Legal Marriage
  • 1986 - Guard Me, My Talisman
  • 2000 - Still Waters
  • 2005 - The Turkish Gambit


  1. Smith, G. S. (1988). "Okudzhava Marches On". Slavonic and East European Review. 66.4 (October 1): 553.
  2. Bulat Okudzhava (2006). The Abolished Theater: A Family Chronicle. Moscow: Zebra E, 336 pages. ISBN 978-5-94663-332-1
  3. List of Passengers That Crossed Germany During the War published by Vladimir Burtsev on October, 1917 (in Russian)
  4. Dmitry Bykov, Bulat Okudzhava. Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 2009, 784 pages. ISBN 978-5-235-03255-2
  5. Писатели требуют от правительства решительных действий. Izvestia (in Russian). October 5, 1993. Archived from the original on July 16, 2011. Retrieved August 21, 2011.
  6. Dictionary of Minor Planet Names – p.260
  7. Sentries of Love, Bulat Okudzhava's songs by Tatiana and Sergei Nikitin
  8. Songs of Bulat Okudzhava by Galina Khomchik
  9. Songs of Bulat Okudzhava by Zhanna Bichevskaya
  10. Blue balloon, song and music by Bulat Okudzhava, performed by Elena Frolova
  11. Tumanov, Vladimir. "Usings Songs in the Foreign Language Classroom Archived 2013-11-03 at the Wayback Machine." Russian Language Journal 54 (177–179) 2000: 13–33 (with Jeff Tennant).

External links

Text adapted from Wikipedia