Dylan in the land of the Soviets

In his column, Professor Tomi Huttunen explains why the young people in Tbilisi picked up Bob Dylan in his car – literally.

Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for Literature on 10 December. Many still wonder whether he is a legitimate author. He certainly has a peculiar relationship with Russian literature.

Dylan is of Odessan Jewish stock, but the only time he visited the Soviet Union was in 1985, at the invitation of Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. These famous Soviet poets invited him to Moscow specifically as an author and poet. At the time, no domestic rock’n’roll records had been officially published in the Soviet Union.

An evening of world poetry, featuring Dylan, was held at Moscow’s Central Lenin Stadium on the eve of the World Festival of Youth and Students. The organisers feared provocation, so the concert was not advertised, and the only audience admitted were members of the Communist Komsomol youth organisation, who were bussed to the location.

Dylan performed alone with an acoustic guitar. He decided to rely on his hits, but the non-English-speaking audience in the half-empty stadium was less than enthusiastic. Yevtushenko and Voznesensky were horrified: they had invited a superstar to the Soviet Union for this?   

As consolation, Voznesensky took Dylan to his dacha in Peredelkino. There the musician, holding back tears, said that he wanted to see Odessa and the home of his grandmother, Anna Zimmermann. His hosts did take him, not to Odessa which was closed to tourists, but to Tbilisi in Georgia, which had hosted the Soviet Union’s first rock festival, Spring Rhythms, in 1980. Dylan gave another concert in Tbilisi, and this time was met with excessive enthusiasm. To the horror of the singer-songwriter, the ecstatic locals hoisted his car into the air. In his memoirs, Dylan has also recounted that he got to try the bicycle of Leo Tolstoy, whom he held in great esteem, while visiting Tolstoy’s home museum, Yasnaya Polyana.

In 1988, Dylan's concert in Leningrad was cancelled, due, according to rumours, to only four tickets being sold.

Why have Russians never warmed to Dylan? Is it because his cultural doppelgangers, such as Yevtushenko himself, both served to channel the singer-songwriter movement epitomised by Dylan into the Soviet Union and, ultimately, to block the real thing from entering the culture?

The tradition of singer-songwriters such as Bulat Okudzhava has had a powerful impact on the history of rock’n’roll in Russia, but no doors were open for Dylan, the Bulat from Duluth.


The author is a professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Helsinki.


This column was published in Finnish in the Y/10/16 issue of Yliopisto magazine.