Monday, September 24, 2007

Music Monday: Politkovskaya and Vysotsky

About a year ago I was in Vienna at a conference concerning the history of self-published texts (samizdat) in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. My paper addressed the legacy of a particular genre of music that circumvented Soviet censorship by circulating on illegally copied audiotapes (magnitizdat). The genre goes by many names, but the singers are usually known as "bards." I argued in my paper that there's a lot to learn about the way Russians think of the history of Soviet to post-Soviet political history by examining the way they talk about the bards and their music. For instance, if you want to get a Russian of a certain age to tell you about what life used to be like and how it's changed in the last half century, all you need to do is mention that you've heard of Vladimir Vysotsky, the most famous of the Soviet-era bards.

Anyway, the conference ended with a discussion about the state of "free speech" in Eastern Europe. One of the panelists was a Russian journalist named Anna Politkovskaya. I remember very little of her talk, except that she seemed to me to be a remarkably thoughtful and powerful speaker. To be honest, though, I was fatigued from a week of papers, round-tables, and hobnobbing with strange academics, and I was far more concerned with heading back to my hotel than I was with listening to the dreary and dubious subject at hand.

Less than one month later, on October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed in the elevator of her Moscow apartment complex. Reports of her murder described her coverage of Chechnya, her work as a human rights activist... and how mourners had left CDs of Vysotsky's music at a makeshift memorial for her at newspaper's offices. But that was all: no elaboration, to remarks about how Russians might find a connection between Vysotsky and Politkovskaya, no reflection... as though CDs spoke for themselves.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

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