“Nothing’s Going Right”: Vladimir Vysotsky’s “My Gypsy Romance”

Last week it was my honor to exert a corrupting influence on the minds of Russian-learners at Dartmouth. The brilliant scholar and inspired translator Ainsley Morse, whom I am proud to call a friend, asked me to “visit” her class (over Zoom, of course) and discuss my versions of the Odessan criminal songs I’ve been posting on this blog — “Surka,” “A Joint Sprang Up on Deribasovskaya Street,” “The Girl from Nagasaki.” The whole session was a blast from beginning to end, but, as I should have expected, it was the great Soviet-era “bard” Vladimir Vysotsky who stole the show. His renditions of “Surka” and “Nagasaki” were so perfectly in tune with the spirit of the compositions, so full of palpable delight and what the Russians call “nadryv,” that I didn’t really need to explain a thing; I could just sit back and watch the attendants melt. A hard act to follow.

Nadryv frequently lands on lists of “untranslatable” Russian words. On one such list, by Daria Aminova, it’s defined as “an uncontrollable emotional outburst, when a person releases intimate, deeply hidden feelings”; Aminova rightly adds — citing Dostoyevsky, many of whose characters seem to be on the verge of nadryv at all times — that it “often expresse[s] imaginary, excessively exaggerated and distorted feelings.” In Russian culture, one of the most reliable outlets for nadryv is the so-called “Gypsy romance” — a type of ballad composed by and for Romani musical ensembles and soloists, and performed at bars, restaurants, and other places where people find themselves restless round midnight. A couple of years ago I shared a performance by Alyosha Dimitrievich (1913-1986) that demonstrates the power of this sort of music at its most euphoric. But the flip side of the Gypsy romance is profound, inconsolable melancholy, which sinks so deep that it triggers a geyser of growling anguish. That’s the feeling one finds, and succumbs to, in perhaps the greatest example of the genre, based on the Russian poet Apollon Grigoryev’s (1822-1864) “Gypsy Hungarian Dance.” A recording by the Greek-born, Odessan-raised operatic baritone Yuri Morfessi (1882-1949) will give you a sense of the song’s captivating rhythm and emotional aura: 

In 1968 Vladimir Vysotsky wrote his own Gypsy romance — a fever dream of despair that fed on the rhythms and imagery of the genre, as well as on the poems of Alexander Blok (1880-1921) and Sergey Yesenin (1895-1925), neither of whom was a stranger to the taverns where these romances governed the mood. The exact meaning of the imagery, for which a number of scholars have offered possible explanations, seems less important to me than the vaguely ominous atmosphere it establishes. What Vysotsky did was to tap into the tradition as only he could, drawing out an anthem for his own disaffected generation. Below is my favorite recording of the song, followed by my translation and the original:

My Gypsy Romance

Yellow fires in my dream —
all night long I mutter:
“Hold on, brother, bide your time —
morning’s always better.”
Morning comes, but nothing’s right,
ain’t no life of clover:
smoking on an empty gut
or boozing, still hungover.

There’s green damask in the taverns,
napkins gleaming white:
it’s paradise for fools and beggars —
but I’m a bird caged tight…
Priests smoke incense in the church,
barely any light —
no, it isn’t right, this stench,
it just isn’t right!

I race up the hill, don’t stop —
otherwise, god knows…
But an alder grows on top
and cherry trees below.
Give me ivy on the rise,
that would be a sight…
Give me something, something else —
but nothing’s going right!

By the river lies a field —
light or dark — no god!
I see bluets at my feet,
and a long, long road.
That road leads into a brake
full of wicked hags.
At the end — a chopping block
and a sharpened axe…

Somewhere all the horses trot
in rhythm, like a chorus.
But on this road, nothing is right,
and at the end — it’s worse.
Not the churches, not the taverns —
nothing’s sacred, fellas!
I tell ya, nothing’s right, my brothers…
It’s all wrong, I tell ya!


Моя цыганская

В сон мне — желтые огни,
И хриплю во сне я:
— Повремени, повремени,-
Утро мудренее!
Но и утром всё не так,
Нет того веселья:
Или куришь натощак,
Или пьешь с похмелья.

В кабаках — зеленый штоф,
Белые салфетки.
Рай для нищих и шутов,
Мне ж — как птице в клетке!
В церкви смрад и полумрак,
Дьяки курят ладан.
Нет! И в церкви все не так,
Все не так, как надо.

Я — на гору впопыхах,
Чтоб чего не вышло.
А на горе стоит ольха,
А под горою вишня.
Хоть бы склон увить плющом,
Мне б и то отрада,
Хоть бы что-нибудь еще…
Все не так, как надо!

Я тогда по полю, вдоль реки.
Света — тьма, нет бога!
А в чистом поле васильки,
Дальняя дорога.
Вдоль дороги — лес густой
С Бабами-Ягами,
А в конце дороги той —
Плаха с топорами.

Где-то кони пляшут в такт,
Нехотя и плавно.
Вдоль дороги все не так,
А в конце — подавно.
И ни церковь, ни кабак —
Ничего не свято!
Нет, ребята, все не так,
Все не так, ребята!

1968 г.

9 thoughts on ““Nothing’s Going Right”: Vladimir Vysotsky’s “My Gypsy Romance”

  1. A really interesting post, Boris, and thanks as always for sharing your translations. Nadryv is obviously an intriguing word, and that definition of “an uncontrollable emotional outburst, when a person releases intimate, deeply hidden feelings” is very much how I perceive a lot of my favourite Russian authors, from Dostoevsky to Mayakovsky! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s exactly right, Kaggsy! Dostoyevsky and Mayakovsky are both masters of nadryv — sometimes genuinely, sometimes ironically. Mayakovsky once wrote a scathing (and funny) poem about a suicide waltz, “Marusya Poisoned Herself” (think “Gloomy Sunday”), the nadryv of which was so powerful that it became one of the most recorded songs of its day. You can hear versions at Archive.org and elsewhere: https://archive.org/details/78_mapycr-otpabnaacb-marusia-otravilas_d.-medoff_gbia0001794a

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Nice stuff!
    It’s true Grigoryev was a poet (I’ve actually got a collection of his poetry), but I think of him mainly as a literary critic — an eccentric one, but one of the very few in 19th-century Russia who gave priority to art over politics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How right you are, LH! His autobiographical writings are also not to be missed. I have a nice little Dutton paperback of “My Literary and Moral Wanderings,” translated by Ralph Matlaw.


  3. Thanks for doing this amazing work with the Soviet sacred (I mean in particular the Vysotsky song). I really appreciate the way you explain this in English — I struggle so much with trying to replicate the particular pathos of this strand of Soviet writing. BTW, have you ever translated Galich? I would’ve loved to have a good version of his Kaddish in English.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, dear Olga, for the congratulations and the commiseration! It’s infernally difficult to explain, much less to translate, this essentially affective material… I’m really glad I managed to get a slice of it across. As for Galich, I have just the thing: a volume by Maria Bloshteyn, who works magic with the stuff — https://slavica.indiana.edu/bookListings/literature/Dress_Rehearsal And you can also read a few of her versions of Galich, Okudzhava, and Vysotsky in “The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.”

      Liked by 1 person

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