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An analysis on Galich's work
Алексей Уклеин
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When I Return. In The Night There Come. Clouds.

An analysis on Galich's work

Anton Uklein

January 18, 2013

In a totalitarian government, a common problem exists that involves a person's lack of freedom and the repression created by said government. In the Soviet Union, which is a prime example of this form of government, the official literature glorified the state's achievements and covered the flaws. Very few have been known to resist or even fight against this censorship, one of which was Galich. A person would need to be very brave to say the truth, as a person that would do this is likely to lose his career and possessions instantly, and his life shortly thereafter. The life and works of Galich are a good example of the actions of a person that would fight against the Communist state.

Alexander Galich, whose real surname was Ginzburg, was born in 1918 in Ekaterinoslav, in the Ukrainian People's Republic (his birthplace is now known as Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine). He lived a mostly proper life by the state's opinion, entering a Litinstitute (literary institution, or University of the Literary Arts) and moved to professional theatre. There, he did plays, cartoons, and films for many years before moving to his style of poetry in the 1960s and performing his first official concert in 1968. Galich continued writing poetry until his death in 1977. To him, "poetry was always a cry for help1" and he "realized that it was only in this form that [he] could say everything [he] wanted, fully and to the end2".

Galich took great care in his work, singing it in a deliberate manner that would seem simple and have the greatest impact. The originality of Galich's poems exists because of the high percentage in the use of non-standard styles (which was 30%), and the use of informal intonation in the poems, which was the reason for the mass appeal. An example, such as "When I Return" uses trisyllables for 13 out of 24 lines and switches to anacrusis. Along with that, Galich uses dol'nik and taktovik (both are Russian accentual verses) in that poem as well, showing that it is far more complex than previously assumed.

Until the start of the 1960s, his poetry was in the government's preferred image, and the government supported his work. It is not known why Galich's poetry did a harsh turn and became focused on human rights violations in the USSR. His poetry had a common message of personal freedom and was openly stating all the human rights violations, which were limitations on mobility, free speech, religion, fair trials, and privacy, to name a few. The songs were also very criticizing of the Soviet regime and the inner government's official policies.

So, for the message that the poems had, which were highly illegal in the Soviet Union (due to the state forbidding anti-Soviet propaganda, while Galich's poems were seen as such), the government tried to stop Galich from doing any more work. He did not stop, even under pressure by the KGB, and the songs were distributed using samizdat (illegal self-publishing), which were meant to be duplicated primarily through bootleg audio tapes, the way that the author "create[d] it, edit[ed] it, censor[ed] it, publish[ed] it, distribut[ed] it, and get imprisoned for it3,4".  Galich was  ultimately removed from the Union of Writers and the Union of Cinematographers, stopping any meagre source of profit, except his disability pension, which the USSR could not remove, but it was not enough by itself to support him. Some of the reasons for Galich's disbarring included "not disavowing the publication of his work abroad, and encouraging Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel6", which is forbidding the freedom of mobility and is flat-out anti-Semitism from the Soviet Union. The ideas and poems that he wrote are sung by the many that remember him in order to show the need for human rights. Galich was very skilled at this, and he was able to express genuine sorrow for many people, and was able to write it down in great detail. Readers that were not aware of the author would believe that he has gone through the situation that he wrote, even if that was not so.

A reason for his great accuracy in detail was because he accepted the ideas of acmeism (a Russian poetic school that was established in 1910, which tended to not use symbolism and embraced the idea of being accurate in details). On the other hand, Galich accepted the common symbolist idea and used it with the acmeist embracement of detail. As such, many symbols can be seen in Galich's work, while also being clear in expression. One such poem that shows Galich's use of symbolism and style of expression is "Clouds".

"Clouds" is a great example on Galich's use of symbols and his clarity of expression, as it explains the feelings of a person that has just been released out of a forced labour camp. It is likely to have taken place in 1953, after Stalin's death, when a large amount of "criminals" were released due to wrong judgment when they were arrested; many of them did no real crime, but were arrested due to "breaching" Article 58 instead. The speaker relives that confusion and pain that he has lived through, as depicted in lines 9-10 and 13-14. The speaker does genuinely hate what came out of the camps, but he believes that he is still lucky as he's "even got a few teeth"; most of the people that entered the Gulags and managed to survive through came out disfigured due to the torture that they had to endure, insanely heavy workloads, and malnutrition. Yet, the speaker gets "what's [his] by right", implying that he is on a disability pension, but that's enough to feed him for a day in a restaurant. The amount of people that went through this was huge, and the poem clearly references it in line 30 ("Half this country sits in the bars!") and Galich references all of these people through the use of one such person.

Galich uses an implied, and occasionally direct contrast as a way to compare the clouds and the speaker, as shown in lines 7-8 ("warm as toast" compared to "chilled to the bone"), lines 19-20 ("They don't know what an amnesty's for, They don't need any lawyer to plead.") and in lines 25-26 ("Clouds roll by to the morning sun, With no pension, no trouble or strife;"). Obviously, the clouds symbolize freedom while the speaker is a symbol for all the people that have been tortured to no end by the government. Naturally, the government did not allow the publication such poems that embarrass the Soviet Union and Galich's work never were published in the USSR during his lifetime. Galich worried about this problem constantly and the need to be heard is required to be a poet. From there, he wrote a poem about this problem and the limitations that he and many other poets endure.

"In the Night There Comes..." is a poem about the Soviet government limiting the freedom of speech of the people and the poets of the Soviet Union. This was a problem for Galich when he was unable to legally publish many of his poems in the Soviet Union. The speaker is an Author Avatar of Galich, in that neither of them can make their message go far, but they're thankful that at least someone can hear it. If lucky, a person will listen, and repeat it, and so on. The first line alone has a number of meanings, in that a black raven can be a symbol for something that watches over you and it also means (in a literal sense) the black KGB vehicle that comes during the night to take you away. That also explains the speaker's sleeplessness in the next line, as even if the "raven" does not come, he will not sleep to be sure that it does not. The last line is a reference and tribute to Mandelstam's poetry, as the author was taken away to an unknown Gulag camp and died there (the government tended to not record the locations of people in official documents, so it is impossible to find his body as well as many others) and to a poem written by him earlier.

Unlike Mandelstam, Galich was never eliminated physically, as he was famous outside of Soviet borders and it would cause trouble to the states if he were to be removed, so Galich was "free" to continue his work. Galich tended to write poems about current events in the USSR constantly, bringing unknown information to light across the globe. Galich wrote "Petersburg Romance" on 22 August, 1968, referencing the day prior, when Soviet tanks invaded Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia due to the de-Stalinization of the country. He was one of the very few people that wrote about the events in a positive light, knowing that he may get problems because of it. It was made public almost immediately. A few days later, a group of eight went up and rebelled against the Soviet state and protested at Red Square, which may have been influenced by the poem's last few lines. They were all labelled as madmen and sent to either prison or an asylum, where they would be tortured for years.

The KGB could not cover up the existence of Galich nor his works, so Galich himself was given a choice of either exile or imprisonment for 7 years on the 20th day of June 1974. Galich left to Norway, 5 days after receiving the warning, thinking that some day he would come back. One of the last poems that Galich wrote before his departure was "When I Return", on the topic about his eventual return to Russia.

"When I Return" is a lyrical poem that breaks the fourth wall and constantly refers to the speaker in the first two stanzas and the end. As it was written as a song, it explains the very non-standard form of each stanza (being a dactyl, anapaest, dol'nik, taktovik, and amphibrach) and that this form fits with an accompanying guitar. The hero is Alexander Galich, who feels nostalgia for his home as though as if it was a need, and then defines it in more and more detail, from the entirety to the singularity. In the first stanza, he describes the entire wish of returning back to his home. Of course, the author takes it as an impossible dream, and he specifically tells the reader to not laugh at him for believing in such foolishness. This is reinforced by the last stanza, where "nightingales will sing", even if it's impossible for nightingales to sing in February. When describing the city in the second stanza the author remakes the ambient noise that is typical in a city. The speaker may hate the city, as he continues to insult it in numerous ways, he still feels a need to return to it, as it is "[his] bond and [his] hurt". In the third stanza, the speaker wishes to return to what appears to be a church, implying that his desire is that of a religious kind. In the last stanza, it seems that he may come crying back to the one that accepted him. In the end, the speaker asks the rhetoric question- "But when will I return?". Galich never did. However, "When I Return" became one of his more famous poems, and it is still loved and replayed today, as a tribute to Galich.

Galich also made his poems tragic, to mirror the situation happening in the USSR. In fact, every speaker from the previous poems has been repressed in some way, in that the speaker from "Clouds" was sent to a forced labour camp, the speaker from "When I Return" was evicted from the USSR, and "In the Night There Comes..." has no freedom of speech. This brought up the issue of human rights violations in the Soviet Union, as these poems were all released in other countries in Europe, who had little to no information about this. In fact, it (definitely) broke the following rights from the European Convention of Human Rights; 1-6, 8, and 10.

This, along with the other poems that Galich wrote, all explain the same recurring topic- human rights issues in the USSR. Galich was found dead in his apartment in Paris by his wife holding a receiver in 1977. Galich is currently buried at the Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois cemetery, along with at least 10000 other Soviet emigrants. Rumours still exist speculating how he came to die, as there were no witnesses, and there is speculation on the Soviet Union ordering his death. After his death, Galich's books and bootlegs were still reprinted to higher quality (as more recordings and interviews were found) and the message still lived on. In the end, the USSR ended up disbanding due to the human rights issues, among other things, and Galich's message helped bring that to an end.


"That's all!

Sergei Eisenstein used to tell his pupils that they should shoot every single frame of their films as if it was the last frame they'd ever shoot in their lives. I don't know how appropriate this commandment is for the filmmaker's art, but for poetry it's a law.

Every single poem, every line, and even more every book is the last one.

It follows that this is my last book.

Although at the bottom of my heart I hope all the same that I'll manage to write something more."6

Paris, 10 April 1977

Alexander Galich

Translated by G. Smith

Works Used and Cited

1 - A. Galich, Intev'iu "Pesnya, zhizn', bor'ba", Posev №8, August 1974, Translated from Russian

2- Ibid.

3- Vladimir Bukovsky, I vozrashchajetsya veter..., http://www.vehi.net/samizdat/bukovsky.html, 1978, Translated from Russian

4- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samizdat

5- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Convention_on_Human_Rights

6- Alexander Galich Songs and poems; transl. by Gerald Stanton Smith, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1983, ISBN 0-88233-952-4

Alexander Galich (Translated by G. Smith)


Oh, the clouds go by, floating by,

Like in films they float, soft and slow;

I’m chewing chicken (spiced and fried),

And my brandy’s running low.

Floating clouds sail off to the east,

Soft and slow they float, soft and slow;

I bet that they’re warm as toast,

But me, I’ve been chilled to the bone!

Once I froze like iron to ice,

Digging roads with a pick in my hand!

I left twenty long years of my life

Back in those bloody labour camps.

I can see that frozen snow-crust,

Hear the cursing when we were frisked . . .

Hey waiter! -- pineapple chunks,

And another double of this!

Rolling clouds go by, sailing far

To that dear old home in the east,

They don’t know what an amnesty’s for,

They don’t need any lawyer to plead.

Now I’m living a life without care,

Twenty years flew straight past like a dream;

Here I sit like a lord in this bar,

And I’ve even got a few teeth!

Clouds roll by to the morning sun,

With no pension, no trouble or strife;

As for me, well, twice a month,

I collect what’s mine by right.

And on those two days, just like me,

Half this country sits in the bars!

And the clouds roll by to the east,

Rolling by in all of our hearts . . .

And those clouds roll by to the east,

Rolling by in all of our hearts . . .

In the Night There Comes . . .

In the night there comes a black raven,

To my sleeplessness the pathfinder.

Even if I strain my voice, wailing,

I can never make my wail louder.

You can hardly hear at five paces,

People warn me even that's crazy.

But the point is, it's by heaven's grace that

People hear at even five paces!

When I Return

When I return

Don't start laughing-when I return,

Over February snow, feet not touching the ground, I will hurry

By a barely discernible track to the warmth of a lodging,

To your bird-like call with a tremor of joy I will turn,

When I return . . .

Oh, when I return!

Do listen, do listen,

No laughing-when I return,

Direct from the station, curtly brushing aside the customs,

Direct from the station I'll burst my way into that city,

Infernal, despicable, artless, my bond and my hurt,

When I return! . . .

And when I return, I will go to a house that's unique,

Whose sky-blue cupola admits no heavenly rival,

Like the savor of orphanage bread, the savor of incense

Will strike into me and within my heart start to churn,

When I return . . .

Oh, when I return!

And when I return, though it's February nightingales will sing

That old melody, quaint and forgotten, sung into tatters,

And I will fall down, the conquered of my own conquest,

And buffet my head on your knees like a boat at the quay!

When I return . . .

But when will I return?!

Petersburg Romance

. . . Really, I should feel calmer,

Not just seem so, but be!

. . . But these bridges, like chargers

Every night, up they rear!

Here those regiments ever

Form a square in the dawn

Stretched from Synod to Senate

Like four lines of a poem!

Here, in vapors of liquor,

In the setting sun's flame,

There has been so much witchcraft,

So much covertly whispered;

There has been so much witchcraft,

So much covertly whispered-

Just try doing it again!

All the griefs of the earth have

Shown their face in this place . . .

Now we're paying with silence

For the part we have played!

. . . These boys with their beardless faces

Just subalterns were, mere ensigns;

These boys must have been quite crazy,

The last thing they need's my counsel!

They ought to be taking the waters,

Away at the spas and seaside;

Instead in the night they cry: "Patria!"

And: "Tyrants! The dawn of freedom!"

No subaltern I, but a colonel,

I've fought, stood my ground in battle;

I thought these young pups were merely

A rabble of childish prattlers.

I too have denounced dictators,

And liberty I have lauded;

Our fire-eating declamations

Were washed down with wine like water.

And then came that fateful morning;

It seemed not at all disgraceful,

So wise it seemed, so discerning,

To say that one wasn't available.

Oh why, then, should it have happened

That the glow of my famous story

Should dim like a moldering ha'penny

In the sun of their rising glory?

Worsening weather, wounds start aching,

The years go by, grey and cheerless;

But I did, I did curse dictators

And lauded the dawn of freedom!

Whisper's chain is unsevered,

We retrace others' steps-

But foreknowledge has never

Saved one man from his end,

For how long, for how long, Lord

Not just here-everywhere

Will those desperate horses

Still submit to the rein?

Things don't get more straightforward,

Our age puts us on trial-

There's the square- will you go out,

There's the square- dare you go out,

There's the square- will you go out,

There's the square- dare you go out

When the right time arrives?

Osip Mandelstam (Translated by G. Smith)

We exist without sensing the land beneath our feet . . . (partial)

We exist without sensing the land beneath our feet,

What we say cannot be heard at 10 paces,           

But where people do manage a conversation,

They mention the mountain-dweller in the Kremlin.

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Алексей здравствуйте.
Скажите, где можно найти полный концерт Булата Окуджавы в 1984 году в Политехническом. Я был на этом концерте и очень хочу увидеть его целиком.
Спасибо большое.

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