MOSCOW, JULY 25 -- They can love only the dead.
The line to honor Vladimir Vysotsky began a half-mile outside the cemetery, in the pouring rain. Kitschy portraits of the long dead bard were displayed along the side of the road, and the rasping, recorded voice known to nearly every Soviet citizen boomed out from dozens of loudspeakers.
It was the ordinary people who were the heroes of Vysotsky's songs -- the workers, the derelicts, the little old ladies, the students, the soldiers -- and today they shuffled forward with heroic patience to reach his grave. They gazed at the lifelike bronze statue with guitar slung across its back, and some placed handwritten notes or poems at the foot of the tomb. Most laid flowers.
"He spoke the truth. He was afraid of no one. What we were unable to say, he said for us," said Vladimir Stepanikov, a bus driver, in explaining the extraordinary popularity of the actor, poet and balladeer who died of a heart attack 10 years ago today at the age of 42.
During his lifetime, Vysotsky was never officially published or recorded, and his concerts were frequently banned or canceled on spurious grounds. But tapes of his songs circulated from hand to hand in millions of bootlegged copies, turning him into an underground superstar.
In death, the singer's memory has been suffused with official recognition. Publishing houses and record companies now vie with each other to issue his works. A couple of years ago, he was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union's highest cultural prize. A television commentator praised Vysotsky tonight for "telling the truth about our times" and described him as a folk hero.
"In 20 years' time, our children will be studying Vysotsky in school," said Anton Sumin, a student, who joined the ceremonies at Moscow's Vagankovskoye Cemetery. "He understood the national spirit. He could see into our souls. He was one of those people who can tell you what is true and what is not true."
The outpouring of emotion at Vysotsky's grave is a reminder of the special place occupied by artists and poets here. In a totalitarian country, in which all political opposition to the ruling elite has been crushed, the role of truth-teller is traditionally played by the artist, not the politician. A poet, Russians like to say, is more than just a poet. He is also expected to be a teacher of life.
"Vysotsky's popularity is a direct reflection of his sincerity," said Valeri Zolotukhin, who succeeded Vysotsky as leading actor at Moscow's Taganka Theater. "The whole country knew him, even though he was never published. Everybody -- from the general secretary of the Communist Party right down to the drunkard drinking eau de cologne in public toilets -- listened to his songs."
Born in 1938 at the tail end of Stalin's Great Terror, Vysotsky has entered the Soviet mass consciousness like no other poet or artist before him. Many of his best-loved songs express a younger generation's frustration with an ideology that failed to deliver on its promises. And the more the system falls apart, the more relevant his songs seem to become.
Vysotsky could be witty, nostalgic, even tender. But the voice he is best remembered for is a searing shriek, a primordial cry of rage and despair about what he saw happening to his country. Listening to his songs, one has the impression he felt a compulsion to get whatever he was thinking off his chest immediately. There is the constant sense of a man living on the edge:
Save Our Souls, we are delirious from lack of air.
Save Our Souls, hurry toward us. Hear us on land.
Our SOS is getting fainter, fainter.
The horror will tear our souls apart.
Many of Vysotsky's songs are impossible to translate faithfully into English. The lines are crammed with double meanings, word plays and literary and historical allusions. Much of the passion and playfulness is lost in anything but the original. Vysotsky frequently said he could not stand hearing his songs sung by other people, that they were intended to be performed by him alone.
And he disliked explaining what his songs meant. He once said that if he could put his feelings and thoughts succinctly into words there would be no point in singing. His songs, he explained, were meant to reflect "the spirit of our nervous and frenzied time, the rhythm, the pulse. There is much that is funny about these times, but also many failings, and I write about them, too."
Subjects tackled by Vysotsky include the Stalinist concentration camps, antisemitism, the use of psychiatric hospitals to silence political dissenters, privileges for the Communist elite. All these themes were taboo in Vysotsky's lifetime but have become commonplace since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pronounced his policy of glasnost, or open discussion.
"Vysotsky was a prophet of glasnost," said Zolotukhin, a close friend of the poet. "He shouted out loud what people were whispering to each other around the kitchen table."
The fact that Pravda and Izvestia are now saying many of the same things does not seem to have diminished Vysotsky's popularity. Everybody knows that the official journalists were not saying these things 10 years ago; what is more, these latecomers do not have the advantage of the poet's throbbing guitar and urgent, assaulting voice.
But probably the most important explanation for Vysotsky's lasting appeal is the continuing chasm between official and unofficial Soviet society. The gulf may have been narrowed somewhat during the five years of Gorbachev's rule, but it is still huge. For many citizens, the Soviet leader's perestroika reform program has remained a din of high-sounding proclamations, speeches and decrees, few of which have been fulfilled.
"If you are given freedom, it's not freedom at all. It's just a gift. That's what happened to us. They gave us a little more breathing room, but we are still imprisoned," said Vladimir Malyishev, who was distributing copies of Vysotsky's songs at the cemetery today as aspiring young balladeers sat between tombstones and strummed away at guitars.
"They are suffocating him now, just as they did in the past," complained bus driver Stepanikov as he gestured to a group of volunteers with red armbands who were escorting Soviet celebrities to the head of the line in front of the waiting hundreds. Vysotsky described the situation in one of his songs:
The people kept grumbling: We want justice;
Those who came after us are already eating.
But the administrator explained:
I beg you, dear comrades, please leave.
The people who are eating are delegates,
And who, may I ask, are you?
The erection of the monument to Vysotsky in 1985 -- soon after Gorbachev came to power -- triggered a violent family argument. His widow, French film actress Marina Vlady, wanted Vysotsky commemorated with a chunk of a meteorite that fell in Siberia. His Russian parents insisted on a bronze statue, and they got their way. Once again, Vysotsky had a presentiment of what would happen to him in death:
During my life, I was tall and solid,
I feared not words, nor bullets.
I did not fit the usual mold.
But since I've been considered dead,
They've cast me in bronze and made me cringe,
Nailing my heel to a pedestal.
I can't shake off this granite flesh,
I can't lift my heel from the pedestal.
Dead concrete clutches my rib cage,
And convulsions shake my spine.