The Washington Post wrote of the book:
“Written with fervor, black humor and an infectious zest for Russian culture . . . [this] always stimulating novel is a feast for serious fiction readers.”
In my imagination, I can walk through Moscow of my childhood. Sometimes, as I wrote The Dissident, I had the illusion of being able to ring the doorbells of friends long gone, and make new friends, and new enemies.
Historical fiction shows how people lived. Details matter. Cityscapes matter. Tramway routes matter. Comfort foods matter. The price of vodka matters. And music matters—a lot.
The music of the Moscow bards, streaming through my computer, provided the accompaniment to the writing of The Dissident. The genre of bard poetry is the staple of the Moscow intelligentsia discography—Aleksandr Galich, Vladimir Vysotsky, and Bulat Okudzhava. All three figure in The Dissident, and all three remain pillars of independent thought amid the outbreak of stupidity and suffering that has gripped today’s Russia.
The sounds of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones poured out of our transistor short wave radio in our Moscow apartment, but these transmissions were electronically jammed to protect our delicate ears from harmful Western influences. I was curious about Western music, of course, but Galich, Vysotsky, and Okudzhava were sustenance. These native sounds of independent thought—and, yes, protest—were always there, on the reel-to-reel taperecorder.
It doesn’t take much to say no to despotism. All you need is poetic talent, musical ability, bravery of a true citizen, and a guitar.
Indulge me in a brief detour to establish the lexicon. The word samizdat,which denotes one of the most important literary movements of the 20th century—and accounts for two Nobel prizes (Brodsky and Solzhenitsyn)—stands for “self-publishing.” A derivative term—magnitizdat—comes from the Russian words for “tape-recorder” and “publishing.”
Mostly, Galich, Vysotsky and Okudzhava performed at apartment concerts, and my favorite of their recordings are interrupted by doorbells ringing as guests arrive.
In The Dissident, Galich appears first. Before he had had enough and picked up a guitar, he was a successful Soviet writer—a member of the USSR Union of Writers, author of a lot of requisite dreck.
In the early 1960s, his taped recordings started to circulate through magnitizdat. Like Pasternak, Galich, who was born Jewish, converted to Christianity. Though you can hear that as a theme in his work, mostly you hear grounding in Russian history—the echoes of the holocaust upon holocaust consisting of Hitler’s and Stalin’s bloody deeds, and meditations of Russian history and literature: Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Zoschenko.
In The Dissident, I cite his meditation on civil disobedience and revolt: “The St. Petersburgh Romance.” It’s a poetic composition on the Decembrists revolt, a landmark event for Russian intelligentsia. Galich wrote this song in August 1968, soon after Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia.
Can you come to the square,
Dare you come to the square,
Can you come to the square,
Dare you come to the square,
When that hour strikes?!
These lyrics, which my character conjures in her memory (after having heard Galich sing at an apartment concert), inspire her to join a protest. Today, these words inspire all people of conscience to confront Putin’s RoboCops and water-cannons.
I saw Galich once, at a concert in the Washington suburbs, sometime after he was exiled and my family emigrated. I am not prone to being starstruck, but that day I was. I was the only teenager present, and I sat in the front row in a very small basement room of a community center or some such—and I believe that Galich actually looked at me!
A book he autographed “To the Goldberg family” that day is one of my cherished possessions.
Vysotsky gets a cameo role in “The Dissident.”
In addition to being a bard, he was an actor at the Taganka Theater in Moscow. In 1976, Vysotsky plays Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard, and the characters in The Dissident get sought-after tickets as a wedding present.
That performance is fascinating because, breaking with the long tradition established by Stanislavsky, the Taganka Theater staged this play in accordance with Chekhov’s intent—as a comedy.
On YouTube, I found an audio recording of that performance. It’s an opportunity to hear Vysotsky’s raspy voice and to have my characters hold forth on the comedy/tragedy divide and the meaning of Chekhov’s stage directions: “A distant sound is heard, as though from the sky, the sound of a broken string, halting, full of sadness.”
As a bard, Vysotsky is a transition between the genre of bard song and Russian rock’n’roll. His voice can be heard in “White Nights,” an American film that stars Mikhail Baryshnikov.
I love Vysotsky’s stereotypical Russian abandon, his lack of concern about consequences. He was the son of a Jewish father (a Soviet general at that), a heavy drinker and, ultimately, a drug user. His personal history also influenced my choice of location for the opening scene of “The Dissident”—Bol’shoy Karetnyy Pereulok, the place where he grew up and the subject of one of his songs.
Okudzhava did for Moscow what Yves Montand did for Paris. He romanticized my city’s boulevards, streets, trolleybuses—and ordinary people.
If my intent to make The Dissident a love letter to Moscow was successful, I have Okudzhava to thank for this.
Okudzhava, who was a soldier in World War II, wrote the soundtrack to a landmark Soviet movie, “Belorussian Train Station,” a story of four veterans who gather in Moscow 25 years after the war to attend the funeral of a wartime friend.
Okudzhava’s theme song in that movie could have been written only by someone who had been there:
As deadly fire awaits us,
We’re off, we’ll not be stopped.
Doubts aside, our Specialized
Tenth Paratroop Battalion
Is setting out into the night.
In “The Dissident,” I present this song through one of my key characters, a former Polish Jewish partisan who has become an American businessman. The character—the name is Norm—is dealing with the consequences of PTSD, self-medicating through violence. This song, which he hears for the first time, speaks to him like no song or poem ever has.
As I listen to this song today, I think of the Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol and Bakhmut, setting out into the deadly fire of the night.
Boris Grebenshikov and Regina Spektor
Even in these dark times, the tradition of picking up a guitar—or sitting at a keyboard—and, one voice at a time, extoling the pursuit of decency and freedom continues.
New musicians have taken the genre to a new level. Consider Boris Grebenshikov, of the rock group Aquarium. As a young rock musician in the 1980s and 1990s, he reinterpreted “Communists Caught a Young Lad,” a song written by my friend Nikolai Williams, a mathematician and dissident, whose wife Ludmilla Alexeyeva mentored me as I became interested in Soviet dissent. The Dissident is dedicated to her memory.
As Russian troops poured into Ukraine, I couldn’t stop listening to Grebenshikov’s song about soldiers being stuck without ammo and reinforcements: “They f*&ked us,” which I would describe as a bard song. Grebenshikov has also reinterpreted Okudzhava and other bards in a recent album, titled, what else, “Bard Songs.” It’s the bards, and it’s Grebenshikov—an illuminating combination.
And, of course, the American material of Regina Spektor, my fellow émigré who has not lost connection with the Russian culture and language, is unimaginable without the bard tradition. I love the acoustic range and the clear, perfect Russian in her interpretations of Okudzhava.
As I write this, I wonder what the “Specialized Tenth Paratroop Battalion” would sound like in her interpretation.
Paul Goldberg is the author of the novels The Yid, which was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Jewish Book Award’s Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction, and The Château. As a reporter, Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an expose of the U.S. healthcare system. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Slate, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He is also the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.