War, Love, and Campfires: Bards in the Soviet Union
When my dad was thirteen years old, he learned how to play the guitar. The first song he learned was a syrupy pop tune, and when he came home to his Moscow apartment and demonstrated his new skill, my grandfather, horrified at the kitschy music my dad was playing, decided it was time to bring out his old recordings.
Throughout the history of the Soviet Union, one particular group of people stood by, watching the horrors that unfolded. They were the bards. They wrote beautiful poetry about horrible things and set it to music, first strumming chords softly on seven-stringed Russian guitars, and then writing their own melodies. Many of the earliest songs they wrote were echoes of the Second World War, still fresh in the collective memory of the people. Others dealt with political themes—subtle critiques of the Soviet system and sorrow for the millions killed in Stalin's purges or sent to labor camps. But the bards also wrote about love, about the beauty of nature, and about the places they had seen.
After my dad first listened to the songs of Russia's first bards, he never again played a single pop song, and he never put down his guitar. Instead, he taught himself to play the same songs that these poet musicians had written.
When my dad was fifteen, his friends told him about a song festival known in Russian as a slyot, held twice a year near Moscow. Thousands of young people gathered in the woods, bringing tents, food, and guitars. Together, they rejected the culture and music imposed on them by the Soviet government, playing and singing freely. These were mostly university students studying to be engineers, physicists, and chemists. Something brought them together for a weekend to camp out and celebrate their music.
Of course, my dad immediately decided to go. His parents tried to forbid it, not understanding this relatively new expression of the bard tradition. But my dad, probably urged by both his friends and the music itself, went anyway, travelling by train with his friends. From that point on, he attended every single slyoteventually with my mom, later with my older brother, and always with his friends.
I have never been to Russia. I was born in Israel and have lived in America since I was six years old. All I knew of the bards was from the tapes that my parents always played in the car and around the house, often annoying me.
However, when I was thirteen, I was in trouble. My schoolwork worried me incessantly and had me in tears of frustration and stress almost every night. I had few friends and no distractions to lessen my fear. One evening, a CD in the living room stereo was playing the music of Sergei Nikitin, a Russian bard of my parents' generation. The song's name translates roughly as “My Country Will Not Miss Me Much”—a ballad of lament, but with a strangely light tone. I think I realized, even at that age, that I couldn't possibly understand the full depth of this song. And yet, it spoke to me that night.
Like my dad and his guitar, I never let the music leave me. It guided me through two more years of middle school despite the fact that, while I was standing in a puddle of spilled water in the kitchen, this music reached down deeper than the deepest oceans, sending waves through time and space.
It was there whenever I felt that I needed perspective. Look! Here am I, crying because of a boy who didn't look in my direction, and here are Sergei Nikitin and his wife singing about how, when aged lovers sleep with their arms around each other, one just might fall asleep for eons. Here am I worrying about a B on a test, while geologist Vladimir Turiansky laments the end of one more Siberian summer and another year of age gained.
But some of these songs also have enough humor to fill a hundred lonely hearts. In one song, the Mishuki brothers wax nostalgic about a bed they own, a broken- down but cherished piece of furniture. In another, the Nikitins cheerfully describe the moods of a hungry street dog, adding a hint of sadness at its plight, too.
On some evenings, my dad still strums the guitar in the darkened living room. He probably thinks I can't hear him, but I can. At those moments, I believe that we all have a collective memory, because all of a sudden, I can almost see his memories for myself. A dark country, a crackling campfire, a singing guitar. A circle of friends.
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