After the World Cup

Part 2

/ by Kurt Leutgeb

2. Vysotsky's sports songs


Well-meaning people have tried to explain Vysotsky to Westerners by calling him the Bob Dylan of the Russian language.i A synthesis of Dylan and Jim Morrison would be a slightly less inappropriate comparison, and early Serge Gainsbourg and late William Shakespeare might come to mind as well. With his slightly out-of-tune Russian guitarii and “raspy”iii baritone, he creates works of immense existential intensity. His lyrics are notable for their rhymes and wordplay technically and for their rootedness in everyday life thematically. Millions of Russian-speakers can recite them by heart.


Bulat Okudzhavaiv concludes his dirge for Vysotsky (“About Volodya Vysotsky”v) by stating that he really wanted to write a song about Vysotsky but his hand began to tremble and his metre did not match the motif. So away with Dylan, Morrison, Gainsbourg, Shakespeare, for they do not rhyme with or match Vysotsky either.


In the spoken introductions to his songs, he often classified the sports songs as “jocular songs”vi. He had no corresponding genre marker for his other, non-jocular, serious songs. He once said he was planning to extend his repertoire of sports songs to forty-nine, just like there were forty-nine numbers in the Soviet sports lottery. When he finished his life in Moscow during the 1980 Olympic Games, he had managed to write just over a score of them. An alcoholic and a drug user, he deceased in the presence of his personal doctor, not quite unlike Michael Jackson. Vysotsky died of heart failure while asleep, having been administered sedatives by his doctor. His death, at forty-two years of age, is sometimes attributed to the authorities' crackdown on drugs before the Olympics, which made it impossible for the bardvii to obtain the substances he was accustomed to taking.


Many of his sports songs tell stories from the perspective of an athlete. While deriving their imagery from the sport they deal with, they always convey a general philosophical message and tend to be heavily allegorical. The long-jumperviii, otherwise a mediocre performer, turns into a human kangaroo every time he oversteps. The high-jumperix is berated and threatened by his coach for using his right foot to take off, when the rule is, of course, to use one's left foot. In addition to the straightforward political allegory, we learn that the high-jumper, while he is high up in the air, is let down by his wife. The hammer-throwerx thanks his collective, his trainer, and his family for helping him, but the real secret of his success is that he used to work as a blacksmith in a factory, where he nursed a giant desire to throw away his hammer as far as he can. Trainers and commentators, representatives of state authority, are often hate figures. The speed skater specialising in short distancesxi, who is forced by his trainer to compete in a 10,000-metre race and, following his disastrous performance, to leave the sport, is treated very politely by the same trainer when he has switched to wrestling and boxing. The sentimental boxerxii has his ribs and his jaw crushed but in the end the referee raises his hand, which with he never hit his opponent, who wore himself out; “it is good to live and life is good,” the song takes its theme from a famous poem by Vladimir Mayakovskyxiii. The marathon runnerxiv, who is lapped by his Guinean competitor, turns against the official Soviet ideal of fraternity of peoples, refusing to see a friend in the African who is humiliating him on the track. Another song about runningxv amounts to a fully fledged allegory of human competition and the goals we set ourselves in life. Two songs about mountaineering, which Vysotsky wrote for the 1967 film Vertikalxvi, celebrate a Nietzschean spirit of high-altitude danger and defiance. It is better to die on the mountain than from vodka and colds in the comfort of the city. Others will come and complete the ascent you began. And if you make it to the top of the mountain, you will feel happy and mute and only a little envious of those who have the top still ahead of them. The only thing better than a mountain is a mountain on which you have never been. And a mountain on which nobody has ever been. The song on morning exercisesxvii, which were done to instructions from the radio at the time, pokes good-natured fun at the irenic nature of our reaction to bad political news: running in place, where nobody is a winner and nobody lags behind. Professionalsxviii, in Vysotsky's view, are those who are good at their sport; therefore the Soviet athletes, who often win, are professionals too. The Soviet commentators like to refer to Western ice-hockey players as “professionals” but they never call the Soviet athletes “amateurs”, probably because they know that they are in fact professionals in almost the same way as the Western pros. Victory, however, is not a goal in itself. When the barbell is up, the weightlifterxix is down. He only lifts his weight in order to drop it onto the dais and make a great noise. That is the meaning of victory.


Apart from After the World Cup (discussed in part 1 of this essay), Vysotsky devoted four more songs to football. The Goalkeeperxx is dedicated to Moscow's most famous footballer, Lev Yashin. The goalie is so good that he never concedes a goal. The photographers convince him that only by allowing his opponents to score against him can he do something out of the ordinary. Saves are just for the moment, conceding a goal will be forever. The goalie gives in to the photographers' demands and lets a ball pass into the net. The picture, two metres by three, hangs on the wall in his flat, proof to his shame. From now on the goalie feels an urge to let every ball pass and eventually decides to retire.


The Song of the Inside Rightxxi xxii tells a story of rivalry and revenge, themes that recur in Vysotsky's early work.xxiii Relegated to the substitutes' bench by the coach, who prefers another player, the inside right is ready to sit in a place that might prove even worse than the subs' bench, the dock. He dreams of confronting his rival, even if that means that he will not get a flat from his club (one of the great goodies of being a football star in the Soviet Union, where it was nigh on impossible for most young people to get a place of their own) and end up in prison. The connection between football and the law is established not only via the seating accommodation but also through the Russian word which can refer either to a referee or a judgexxiv.


The lyric of You Won't Lure Mexxv hinges on the Russian word for “to support, to be a fan of”xxvi, whose original meaning is “to be ill”. The lyrical self in this song will not be lured anywhere but to the Central Stadium, where the final of the Soviet championship is to take place. He is so ill for both teams that he knows he will die, which is okay, as long as they bury him in the six-yard box, from where he will continue judging the goalie and abusing the ref. When there is a replay, he asks us not to wake or dig him up, for he would die again, like a soldier who falls twice at the frontline.


The March of the Bears' Football Teamxxvii is about the “bloody, wild, real football” played by bears. I always took it to refer to football's roots in war and ritualised armed conflict, and a bit to the games political strongmen like to play with each other and the people. It turns out that Vysotsky wrote the song for the film The Flight of Mr. McKinleyxxviii, a science-fiction movie set in a “Western” country where the street signs and advertisements are in German and Hungarian and everybody has an English name but behaves and talks like a Russian. Only two of the nine songs Vysotsky wrote for the film made it into its final version, and the March is not one of them. In the sequence for which it was written, Jack McKinley watches a match of the football team he supports, the Chicago Bears. “Bloody” and “wild” American football may indeed be called, compared with association football. And to quite a few Americans, only American football is “real” football, soccer being a game for women, immigrants, and homosexuals.


In one of the monologues which Vysotsky addressed to his audience between songs during concerts, he says that he has been planning to write a song called Thank You, My Dear Correspondents, For Misunderstanding Me. He used to receive many letters from fans who shared their thoughts about his songs with him and asked him what he had really meant. In his song, Vysotsky was going to explain that whichever way his listeners understood or misunderstood a song of his, they were right.


Vysotsky never bothered to really write that song but generations of academic literary critics have made a living out of the concept of “creative misunderstanding”. An idea that merited an aside to him fuelled whole careers and provided lifelong livelihoods to them. Great minds are generous and wasteful. Like all great artists, Vysotsky was a great artist only in his best works, surely in his sports songs.



iOr even of the Soviet Union, as in the 1976 CBS show 60 Minutes, a cold-war document which falsely claims that Vysotsky did time in a prison camp. In this 2013 podcast on Vox Tablet, Liel Leibovitz says: “Even explaining who [Vysotsky] was is a complicated act. Imagine a poet and a singer like Bob Dylan, who has the good looks and tragic life of James Dean and the moral gravitas of Ai Weiwei.” (Please note that some of the links provided in these endnotes may go dead. Copy the Russian song titles and search the internet for various versions. The audio quality of some of the videos is not very good.)

iiThe seven-string instrument popularly known as the semistrunka (семиструнка).

iiiThe word хриплый (raspy, hoarse) is often used to describe Vysotsky's voice. Bulat Okudzhava, in his dirge for Vysotsky, uses the participle охрипший (having turned hoarse).

ivOkudzhava served as a model for Vysotsky when he started to write songs, and Vysotsky even wrote a song called In Imitation of Okudzava (В подражание Окуджаве), which, while sounding like an Okudzhava song, has all the Dionysian and uncompromising qualities typical of Vysotsky.

viШуточные песни.

viiSinger-songwriters are called bards (барды) in Russian. Vysotsky came to dislike the word when the bards' movement started to be fashionable in the late seventies. His connection with the Bard is primarily via Hamlet; he was a legendary Hamlet at the Taganka Theatre.

ixПесенка про прыгуна в высоту. The song proper starts at 1:30. (In the spoken introduction, Vysotsky explains that he has always been athletically active and that sports were a part of his training at acting school. He says while most of his sports songs are jocular, he has a serious attitude towards the problem of sport. Athletic competition always involves some kind of drama, because one person wants to win and the other does not want to lose. However, only one can win, which is paradoxical.)


xivМарафон. The song proper starts at 0:35. (In the spoken introduction, Vysotsky complains about the insincerity of TV commentators who call the opponents of the Soviet team, albeit not in a marathon race but in an ice-hockey match, “our friends” even when they score a goal.)

xvНа дистанции четверка первачей. The song proper starts at 0:37. (The spoken introduction makes the same point about the dramatic nature of sport as in note ix.)

xviВертикаль (1967 film). Five of the six songs Vysotsky wrote for the film made it into the final version. The two songs referred to above begin here, respectively here.

xviiiПрофессионалы.The song proper starts at 0:54. (The spoken introduction targets the insincerity of the TV commentators of another international ice-hockey match.)

xxiПесня про правого инсайда. The audio, which comes with poor technical quality but great intensity, has a curious history. During the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal (according to my sources, one day before the bronze medal match, which the Soviet Union won 2-0 against Brazil), five prominent Soviet players encountered a man at a supermarket who was buying a black leather jacket. The man looked exactly like Vladimir Vysotsky. When they saw that the lady standing next to him was his wife, the actress Marina Vlady, they introduced themselves to the singer, who invited them to come to the villa where he was staying. They obtained permission from Valeriy Lobanovskyi and took a taxi to the address Vysotsky had given them. The bard put a bottle of vodka on the table, but according to Oleg Blokhin (see this interview with him, in Russian) did not drink any. A footballer (probably Blokhin) can be heard speaking a toast during the taped improvised concert, which can be found here. Vysotsky asks the footballers not to copy the tape (which he presented to Leonid Buryak) because the songs were new and it had often happened that when he was playing a song for the first time in concert, the whole audience would sing along, his friends having leaked a tape.

xxiiIn now historical formations, there would be two inside forwards known as the inside left and the inside right. Their function was not wholly different from attacking midfielders or second strikers in the modern game.



Kurt Leutgeb

was born in Upper Austria in 1970. He is the author of eight books, the latest of which, Humana fraus (2015), tells two versions of a story from Titus Livius. He lives in Vienna.