MOSCOW -- If Vladimir Vysotsky were alive today, he would be overwhelmed by recognition. His songs are topping the charts; television is showing a four-part series about his life; even a mountain pass in the Soviet Far East bears his name. At the Taganka Theater, where he was once a star, the famous and powerful earlier this week packed a commemorative performance held on his 50th birthday.
Vysotsky's popularity in his lifetime was a phenomenon with no equivalent here, or possibly anywhere. For Soviet audiences, Vysotsky was part Bob Dylan, part James Dean, part Johnny Cash with literary talent.
But Vysotsky, poet, bard, actor and arguably the only folk hero to emerge in the Soviet Union in the last 20 years, died 7 1/2 years ago at 42, when his works were still officially ignored. The man whose songs are known by heart by people at all levels of Soviet society -- even by those who forbade them -- had only five 45-rpm records released here in his lifetime.
In the past two years, the transformation has been complete.
From Vysotsky the truth sayer and rebel, whose mordant commentary on Soviet life made him beloved by the people and dangerous for the keepers of official Soviet culture, he has become Vysotsky the voice of a nation, honored like the Kremlin's favorite son.
To some, the official reverence now enveloping Vysotsky is just as cynical as the hostility that once tried to keep his songs from the public.
"It is bad to give the state prize to a man seven years after he died," said Vysotsky's second son, Nikita, 24, in a recent interview. "To put it bluntly, you have to ask why the people at the top decided to open the valve. Maybe they needed it for perestroika ... Maybe it is a desire to monopolize his memory."
"But it does not mean the ideologues have lost their blinders. I don't think that the people who believed he was anti-Soviet or said he was not a poet became fans after his death or regard it as their moral obligation to reverse their decision," he said.
The orgy of Vysotsky mania is daily taking on new forms. School children are being assigned to study his poetry, monuments to him are sprouting up all over the country and for three nights running, millions of television viewers have watched a film of his life and works, complete with adoring tours of the apartment buildings he lived in as a child.
To some, the Vysotsky film is the example of the "iconization" of the poet-actor, a phenomenon that has happened with other famous Russian writers. But others note that it gives a true picture of the kind of conditions Vysotsky was working in, the difficulties he faced even as an actor -- the one profession where he did have official recognition.
In an interview originally done for Itapan television and aired here last night, Vysostky described how close the authorities came to closing down the Taganka's production of "Hamlet," directed by Yuri Lyubimov and starring Vysostky. (Lyubimov later defected to the West).
Whatever the motives, Vysotsky's works are now being published, films he starred in are being released and memoirs about his life are filling the pages of newspapers and magazines. The turnabout began not long after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign for openness and reform -- known as perestroika -- began, and was one of the first signs of a liberalization of Soviet cultural life.
Now, Vysotsky's face can be seen everywhere. His portrait and that of the great Russian poet Pushkin's are the only two on sale at the weekend art market at Moscow's Izmailovo Park. The most popular photographs of Vysotsky are taken from his concerts, where he is seated with a guitar on his knees, his lower jaw jutting forward and the veins on his neck taut from the jagged emotions of his songs.
His songs appealed to both miners in the Ukraine and poets in Leningrad. The tale is often told, each time with different place names, of how the balladeer would arrive in some distant Soviet city, to be greeted by the sounds of his own music, blaring from open windows. Scratchy tapes made at his concerts could be found in every Soviet household.
His raspy voice, the prodigious energy he put into his singing and his acting, his marriage to Marina Vlady, a beautiful French actress of Russian origins, even his legendary drinking bouts added to the romance of the Vysotsky character, which, according to many admirers, was as much a part of his popularity as the songs themselves.
Nikita Vysotsky thinks of his father's life in terms of its speed. He compares it to the Mercedes that the singer used to drive recklessly through Moscow streets, streaking past traffic lights. "Compare that with all the gray, dull cars you see here, whose owners are afraid of getting scratched," said Nikita. "He was not afraid for his political reputation."
When Vysotsky died in 1980 at the height of the "period of stagnation" under Brezhnev, thousands of mourners poured onto Moscow's streets, and soon his grave at the Vaghtangovskoe cemetery became an unofficial national shrine.
As a young man who was only 16 when Vysotsky died, Nikita Vysotsky acknowledges that he, too, is only now coming to terms with his father's memory.
"I was foolish, egotistical, then," he said, "I could not give much or take much. Now I am trying to compensate -- to take from him what I failed to take then and to give back what I failed to give then. Many friends and relatives are doing the same ... now there is so much information -- some of it of low quality -- because many people are rushing to return their debt to him."
The themes raised by Vysotsky's memory are old ones for Russia. Poets here have often been honored more after their death than during their lifetime -- in Czarist times as well as in the Soviet period. Vysotsky is not even unique for this era: The Soviet writer Boris Pasternak, once vilified, is now being restored to his place in literature, posthumously.
"Russia loves the deceased," is one famous saying, and the anguish and sorrow that go with that tradition are deeply embedded in the literature.
Nikita Vysotsky, also an actor and who now has the lead role in an allegorical play about political corruption and lies, sees his father's untimely death as a continuation of his life. The medical cause was heart failure, but as Marina Vlady has written, the end came as a result of a long history of alcohol and drug abuse, of a drive to self-destruction.
"He died as he lived," said Nikita Vysotsky. "He unburdened himself of an enormous burden and we shrugged it off."