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I have hesitated to post these photos for some time. Every time I look at them in my archive, I lean my head to one side, hold it there a minute, then pass by. These were the first photos I took in Voronezh when I was in that very cool city about a year ago. The monument to beloved actor and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) is located just a stone’s throw from the Voronezh Chamber Theater where my wife Oksana and I were staying on a short working visit. We went out to have breakfast at one of the few cafes open early Sunday morning and happened upon Vysotsky. I shot him on an empty stomach, could that be part of the problem?
In fact, I am hardly the first person to have questions about this statue created by Maxim Dikunov and unveiled Sept. 9, 2009 in front of the Physical Education Institute at 59 Karl Marx Street. Everywhere you run into snide comments that Vysotsky, who died of drink and did anything but lead a so-called “healthy life,” does not belong in front of this institution. There are more complaints that Vysotsky, apparently, was never in Voronezh. None of this bothers me in the least.
I am, however, of two minds about the sculpture itself. My first reaction was that it was kitsch, although an interesting bit of kitsch. It’s not down on the rather gross level with the Vysotsky-Marina Vlady statue in Yekaterinburg. And if you think about the Moscow statue that stands at the corner of Strastnoi Boulevard and Petrovka, you begin to realize that there seems to be a problem in Russia with depicting one of its most popular heroes of the last half-century.
I don’t like the slickness of this likeness in Voronezh. It’s too shiny and buffed and glossy. It’s almost as if the sculptor never really bothered to listen to Vysotsky’s voice, or watch clips of him move on stage at the Taganka Theater. I’m confused about the facial expression. I can’t quite decide if he’s suffering from hemorrhoids or if he’s just hiding some secret from us. The turned-around chair shouldn’t be a problem (in art you can do whatever you can get away with), but in the context – the gloss, the grin, the weird left hand, the guitar wielded more as Peter Townshend might than Vysotsky (for whom the guitar most of the time was just a prop on which he plunked out of tune) – this whole ensemble has an uncomfortable look. As I walked around, and as I look at the pictures I brought home with me, I find myself wriggling my shoulders and hips and elbows trying to shake out a sensation of awkwardness.
But there is a test that all sculptures and monuments have to pass (or not): the test of “do you want to go back and look?” And, I must say, during my three days in Voronezh, I came back here several times. I even photographed it a second time, wondering if I might find some new angles (I didn’t). And as I walked past it each time, I sensed the human quality of the statue. I might bicker with it as an image, but its ability to reach me on a personal, human level was undeniable. I get that same feeling when I look at the photos here, no matter how much I want to gripe about them.
Meanwhile, the sculpture is passing a pretty interesting test over at Trip Advisor. Random people go on there and comment on the monument. As of this writing, twenty-one people have expressed their opinion. And wouldn’t you know – most are in favor of it. Maybe there’s some supportive trolling going on, but I can’t know that. I just see things like, “a very worthy piece of work”; “The reaction of locals was complex – after all Vysotsky was never in Voronezh – but the sculpture is interesting”; “I’ve seen monuments to Vysotsky in Rostov, Volzhsky and Sochi, but I thought the one in Voronezh was the best”; “Excellent work by the sculptor!” and so on.
Among the negative responses one catches my eye because part of me feels the same thing: “This sculpture scares you off more than it makes a positive impression.”
As for the topic of whether Vysotsky was ever in Voronezh, there are rumors that he hung out at someone’s private party there in the 1960s. There is also talk that he once gave a closed concert for approximately 100 spectators at the city’s Green Theater near Dynamo Park. In any case, that is what one website tells us as it tries to find five things that attach the memory of Vysotsky to Voronezh. Another connection is the fact that a samizdat collection of Vysotsky’s poems/lyrics circulated in August 1980 before an official publication of his work was ever printed. We can also add that a group at the Voronezh State Pedagogical University has hosted an annual “Vysotskiana” conference ever since 1988. Oh, yes, and there is a tiny street, hardly more than a couple of blocks, that is named after Vysotsky on the east side of town across the Voronezh Reservoir.
The upshot, of course, is that the connections are thin, indeed. Although, what does that mean? I saw a very cool statue of Shakespeare in Budapest, and what the hell, other than influence, connects the Bard to Budapest? Of course, that’s the point: Vysotsky’s influence on his and all later generations, all over Russia and the Soviet Union, was huge. Ergo: there is every reason for the folks in Voronezh to want to honor him. As to whether this particular monument is fully successful in doing that, let’s leave that question open for the time being.