The Birth of Lyricism in Soviet Culture: Time and Space in Okudžava’s Poetry and Soviet “Thaw” Film

Post-Stalinist society longed for lyricism after years of socialist realism with its officially imposed clear-cut “truths.” Lyric poetry and lyricism as a world view in other expressive media opened the way for a personal re-evaluation of Soviet history and of the individual’s place in Soviet society, both past and present. The mid-1950s and the 1960s witness the re-birth of the lyric hero which leads to an individualized perception of historical time and social space, a cultural phenomenon which found its expression in a variety of artistic media. In order to show the all-pervasive nature of this new cultural phenomenon, I will show its artistic representation in both poetry and film.

At the basis of the present research is a comparative analysis of Okudžava’s lyric poetry and Xucyev’s 1961 film Il′’ič Gate, one of the most “lyric” films of the thaw period. The choice of the material is motivated by the centrality of a lyric hero for both authors, as well as by their manifest concern with the issue of historical continuity and with the reevaluation of the relationship between social and personal space.

The first part of the paper concentrates on the approach to history in Okudžava’s poetry and in Xucyev’s Il′ič Gate. As Zholkovsky’s analysis of Okudžava’s poetic motifs has shown, the poet sees the new, the things to come, as a return, a resurrection of the past, and, ultimately, as immortality of humanity’s best values. The past in Okudžava’s songs and poems is not confined to the past, as it would be if it were introduced through the traditional technique of flashbacks, but rather engages in a dialogue with the present, as it takes on a life of its own in the streets of the present-day Moscow. Several generations co-exist in one temporal plane: civil war commissars, dead soldiers of 1941, and the youth of the 1960s.

This cyclicality of time and a belief in the continuity of generations is also characteristic of Xucyev’s film. The film’s narrative, which uses the structural elements of a lyric poem, makes it ideal for a comparative analysis with Okudžava’s poetry. One may read Xucyev’s film as a rendering of Okudžava’s poetic metaphors. He makes them tangible by translating them into visual images and physical realia. Il′ič Gate, for example, starts with a shot of three revolutionary soldiers patrolling night Moscow streets. As the three figures walk away from the camera and return, we see three modern schoolchildren on their way to school: two temporal planes are combined in one shot.

The second part of the paper discusses the image of “unofficial” Moscow created in Okudžava’s poetry and Xucyev’s film. The new lyric perspective reverses all ideological codes of the capital in Stalinist literature and film: in Il′ič Gate, a May Day parade is shown in Moscow’s back streets, before its triumphant phase on Red Square, while Red Square itself becomes a place for romantic night walks. Both artists see an old yard as a center of their artistic universe and an ultimate educator of new generations. The important events in the heroes’ lives happen in small Moscow streets or in crowded Moscow transport. If for Okudžava’s lyric hero a midnight tram is an island of human compassion and unspoken brotherhood, for Xucyev’s character it becomes a place where he meets his first true love.