Bulat Okudzhava

Bulat Okudzhava / Булат Окуджава

Published: June 14, 2016

Bulat Okudzhava (1924–1997) (Булат Окуджава) was a Georgian-Armenian Russian-speaking poet and singer-songwriter, and one of the founders of Russia’s bardic tradition.

Okudzhava’s parents both worked for the Communist Party, but they were arrested during the Stalinist purges of 1937, and he was raised by other relatives. He started writing poetry as a child. He volunteered for the army in 1942, when he was 17, and on the front began composing music, though he had no musical education. His first song, “We Couldn’t Sleep in the Cold Machine Supply Trucks” (“Нам в холодных теплушках не спалось”), appeared in 1943. After the war ended he continued his education, studying poetry in Tbilisi, Georgia. His poetry began to appear regularly in newspapers, and his first book of poetry, Lyrics (Лирика), was published in 1956. In 1962, after he became a member of the Union of Soviet Writers, he quit his day job to focus on his writing and music.

In the late 1950s, he began to perform his songs publicly, and he became widely known in the Soviet Union. His music circulated on the radio and TV and on homemade records called magnitizdat. His first album appeared in 1968 in Paris, but his albums only began to be released in the USSR in the 1970s. He achieved more widespread recognition in 1970, when the director Andrei Smirnov made a film about him, Belorusskiy Station (Белорусский вокзал), which showcased some of Okudzhava’s best songs. He released many more novels and books of poetry over the next few decades, and his last collection, Drinking Tea on Arbat (one of the main avenues in Moscow) (Чаепитание на Арбате), came out in 1996.

Unlike other members of the bardic musical tradition, Okudzhava did not officially participate in Soviet dissident culture, but he did occasionally run into trouble. In 1956 he signed a now-infamous letter in support of several prominent dissident writers, and in the 1960s Soviet officials determined that his poetry did not express sufficiently Soviet sentiment. Today, though, he is widely remembered and honored, with a state museum in his honor in Peredelkino (a suburb of Moscow) and a statue of him on Old Arbat Street.

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“Frantic and Stubborn” (“Неистов и упрям”), 1956, his earliest surviving recorded song:

Lyrics for “Неистов и упрям:”

Неистов и упрям,
Гори, огонь, гори,
На смену декабрям
Приходят январи.

Нам все дано сполна:
И радости и смех,
Одна на всех луна,
Весна одна на всех.

Прожить этап до тла,
А там пускай ведут
За все твои дела
На самый страшный суд.

Пусть оправданья нет,
Но даже век спустя
Семь бед – один ответ,
Один ответ – пустяк!

Неистов и упрям,
Гори, огонь, гори,
На смену декабрям
Приходят январи.


“Song about the Arbat” (“Песенка об Арбате”) is one of his most iconic hits:

Lyrics for ““Песенка об Арбате”

Ты течешь, как река. Странное название!
И прозрачен асфальт, как в реке вода.
Ах, Арбат, мой Арбат, ты — мое призвание.
Ты — и радость моя, и моя беда.

Пешеходы твои — люди невеликие,
каблуками стучат — по делам спешат.
Ах, Арбат, мой Арбат, ты — моя религия,
мостовые твои подо мной лежат.

От любови твоей вовсе не излечишься,
сорок тысяч других мостовых любя.
Ах, Арбат, мой Арбат, ты — мое отечество,
никогда до конца не пройти тебя.

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About the author

Julie Hersh

Julie studied Russian as a Second Language in Irkutsk and before that, Bishkek, with SRAS's Home and Abroad Scholarship program, with the goal of someday having some sort of Russia/Eurasia-related career. She recently got her master’s degree from the University of Glasgow and the University of Tartu, where she studied women’s dissent in Soviet Russia. She also has a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale. Some of her favorite Russian authors are Sorokin, Shishkin, Il’f and Petrov, and Akhmatova. In her spare time Julie cautiously practices martial arts, reads feminist websites, and taste-tests instant coffee for her blog.

Program attended: Home and Abroad Scholar

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