This is one of my favorite monuments in Moscow. How could it not be? It is Bulat Okudzhava.
But it is not only Bulat Okudzhava, one of Russia’s most beloved bards, poets and writers, it is a really nice Okudzhava done with taste, vision and understanding by the sculptor Georgy Frangulyan. The artist did a fine job of capturing Okudzhava probably in the early 1960s, when he was swingin’ and hip along with the rest of leading Soviet society during the Thaw. You can see Okudzhava’s humor and wisdom in his eyes, you can see the freedom in his step. The two arches through which the figure of the poet has walked – and which are inscribed with words from his songs – are like halos of sorts. I don’t mean that in the sense that Frangulyan imparts holiness to him, but it’s as if the air around the man recognizes his greatness and parts to let him through. It’s all very low-key, but filled with meaning. I like the way he’s just out for a stroll, because that’s what everyone’s here to do – to talk a walk. Okudzhava, here, is a man of the people, stylish, yes, a bit lost in concentration, yes, but just out for a stroll like everybody else, with the daily newspaper under his arm.
I forgot to mention that this monument stands on Okudzhava’s beloved Arbat, in the niche of Plotnikov Lane that runs into, and stops, at the Arbat. The Arbat is now a walking district, surely to its detriment, but that was not the case in Okudzhava’s time. It was a regular street with narrow sidewalks that was as filled with personality as any other location in Moscow. Okudzhava wrote many songs commemorating his love for the neighborhood.
I had the good fortune of spending some time with Okudzhava in California in the late 1970s. I was a student at the University of California at Irvine and Okudzhava was a visiting artist. He conducted a fascinating month-long seminar in contemporary Russian literature and he gave a couple of concerts that were packed to the rafters with Russian emigres from the Los Angeles area. I also accompanied him on a somewhat surreal trip to Disneyland, which I recalled as best as I could in a blog for The Moscow Times back in 2009. Still wanting to say more, I wrote another blog about him for the MT in 2012, this time focusing on the changes that have affected the Arbat district over the decades.
I crossed paths with Okudzhava twice again in the early to mid 1990s in Moscow. One of those times, the second, I attended an annual concert that he performed at the Contemporary Play School on Victory Day. This was, perhaps, two years before he died in 1997. (For the record his birth-death dates are 1924-1997.) The other time, the first, occurred when he attended a performance at a theater where my wife performed. I didn’t bother to reintroduce myself. I hate that little ritual. For the most part I prefer to leave people with the comfort of their own thoughts. And Okudzhava, for all the warmth of his art and his heart – don’t doubt that one little bit – was a relatively closed, private individual. Indeed, you can see that in this monument on the Arbat. He’s a genuine human being, a man of understanding and integrity. But he is also relatively packed up in his own, busy world. That tight smile on his face in the image immediately below is a private one. He’s not sharing a joke with us here, he’s amused by something only he knows about. I very much felt Okudzhava’s distance as he sat backstage after the performance, surrounding by hordes of people wanting to talk to him, wanted to be noticed by him, wanting to engage him, even if it were for just a few seconds. I didn’t need to be a part of that. I had ridden on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with the man. What more could I have asked for?