Thousands of Muscovites surged into Taganyka Square today in a remarkable spontaneous farewell to Vladimir Vysotsky, a leading Soviet actor who died Thursday and whose underground songs of satire and criticism are a contemporary cultural and political phenomenon.
Longtime Moscow residents, caught up in the extraordinary and surprising throngs, said they had not seen such an outpouring of poeple and emotion since Stalin's death in March 1953, when a giant, grief-stricken crowd gathered in Red Square.
Vysotsky, 42, died of a heart attack after performing one of his most famous roles, the lead in Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo," at the avant-garde Taganyka Theatre.
Today's crowd came to pay homage to the Vysotsky the state never dared recognize -- a balladeer of hundreds of his own songs, which circulate here in magnitizdat , tape-recorded in private and passed on to others.
"This is sign of how far mass electronic culture has reached despite official opposition," one well-informed Soviet said. "Vysotsky spoke for millions; he expressed the workers' attitude for Soviet reality."
There was no doubt, as many said, that they had come because of their love for a man whose songs of satire, Stalinist camps, and just plain workers had touched them in some irreplaceable way.
"He was a simple, straightforward voice," said a 74-year-old pensioner, clutching a small bouquet of roses in her wrinkled hands.
In a demonstration of unbridled popular feeling virtually without precedent in the era of Leonid Brezhnev, people climbed atop parked buses, pulled themselves onto the roofs of streetside kiosks and appeared by the hundreds on rooftops around the square.
Equally remarkable, the crowds jeered and sometimes fought with the police, ignored them, or protected each other from forays by the muscular men in their white blouses and dress white caps for the Olympics.
Despite the disorders, the crowd and the situation remained calm and relaxed most of the day. The police, although in massive force, were not seen to make any arrests nor were there any evident injuries. The hassling seemed a minimum. There was no discernible political content -- which surely would have brought severe retaliation.
The spontaneity of these thousands was a striking contrast to the dour, subdued crowds sweeping in and out of the capital's gleaming Olympic sites as the overcontrolled and boycott-damaged 22nd Summer Olympiad heads into its second and final week.
It was virtually impossible to accurately estimate the size of the Taganyka throng, but people said lines into the square, an irreguarly shaped patch of macadam about the area of two football fields, began forming at 4 a.m. this morning. They were hopeful of getting into the theater, where an unannounced private eulogy was to begin at midday, for a last look at the man Russians called their chansonier.
The Soviet press has all but ignored the actor's death, and there was no official public notice of the ceremony.
But as always happens here, the word-of-mouth message spread like wildfire, and by midmorning thousands of people were converging on the theater, a four-story, angular structure. Police attempted to form a barrier several blocks from the building, but people rushed forward, climbing fences and cutting through the jumble of interior courtyards and narrow alleys that make a maze of Moscow's back streets.
At noon, the crowd had backed up out of the square and down the hill, snaking more than a mile from the theater along the Moscow River's broad embankment to the southwest and hundreds of yards elsewhere into the byways around the theater.
By this time, most seemed to realize that they would not get inside -- the theater was already reserved for Vysotsky's family and huge numbers of friends from the compressed and contentious Moscow art world, as well as the family of Vysotsky's wife, French actress Marina Vlady, who flew in two days ago from Paris. But they swept forward anyway, with bouquets of carnations, roses and gladiolas to honor the man.
One woman, who had stood in the viewing line for the bier for five hours before being rushed through, compained that "they did this all wrong. They should have embalmed him and let him be viewed for three or four days, until all were satisfied."
Meanwhile, a subtle political duel was unfolding inside the theater famous for its success in producing such politically charged plays as Mikhail Bulgakovis' "The Master and Margurita" and the recently acclaimed "House on the Embankment" from Yuri Trifonov's novella of Stalinist guilt and betrayal.
As the actor's body lay in a black-and-white open casket on the slightly inclined stage, Moscow culture chief Vitali Anturov, according to those who were there, eulogized Vysotsky as a fine actor but ignored Vystsky's unique position as one of the Soviet Union's three most revered modern underground balladeers, the others being Bulent Okhudzhava and the late Aleksander Galich.
A number of Vysotsky's closest actor friends spoke, but many later said it was the final eulogy by Tanganyka director Yuri Lyubimov, who helped guide the sandy-haired, hard-drinking actor to stardom, that best summarized him.
Vysotsky was "a bard," Lyubimov said, "keeper of our national lore, our pain, and our happiness as well." He recalled that on a recent tour to the vast Kamaz truck factory in central Russia the troupe heard Vysotsky's songs blaring from worker's dormitories lining the street from the train station to the guest house.
This, he said, was what people remember of Vysotsky.
But outside, as the time wore long past the expected departure of the cortege to the burial site across town at the Vaghtangovskoe Cemetery, the mood quickened when 10 mounted police officers suddenly appeared, followed by three buses packed with fresh police.
The crowds quickly stepped aside as the horsed cleared wide swarths in the square for the cortege, a line of trucks carrying immense wreathes, and other buses and cars of the funeral party.
As the procession headed down toward the city's central Ring Road thousands waved farewell. Suddenly a horde of people lurched forward and began swarming down the access road beside the cortege, tossing flowers in its path, shouting goodbyes, halting traffic in their fervor until police finally intervened. A few minutes later, fights broke out again in front of the theater as the mounted police, backed by the solid phalanx of police, their arms locked, cleared the street to let trolley buses through.
"Shame! Shame!" people shouted, then surged forward again to cluster around a small portrait of the actor taped to the theater billboard, and to shout successfully for another when someone ripped it down.
At the cemetery, another crowd of perhaps several thousand stood behind dense police lines as the funeral party arrived and the body was interred to sobs from his family and the steady rattle of gravel and dirt into the grave.