Janna Bichevskaya Is Russia's Most Popular Balladeer—and Sounds Just Like Joan Baez

updated 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The rain pelted down, and the wind tore at Janna Bichevskaya's shawl one night as she slogged down a dark country road ankle-deep in mud. "I was traveling from village to village in the northwestern Karelia region, near the old wooden monastery of Kizhi," she says. "I was soaked through, like a wet chicken. I knocked on the door of a small house about 10 p.m., already very late for country people. An old woman peeked out. She thought I was a bandit. 'What do you want?' she asked. I told her, 'I have come for your old Russian songs.' She stared at me for the longest time before she opened the door. 'All right,' she said. 'It's raining and you're frozen. Come lie down.' "

Bichevskaya, the honey-voiced Joan Baez of the Soviet Union, says she has made many similar pilgrimages over the past 18 years. Packing only a satchel of clothes and her guitar, she leaves Moscow to scour the countryside for traditional songs that Russians have sung for centuries—and which are now dying out. "These songs are the musical soul of Russia," she says, banging her fist on the table with passion. "The country has changed from the way it used to be. If Russia loses this folk landscape, she will also lose her roots."

Bichevskaya's visit that rainy night bore fruit. "I woke up after a while, and the woman was standing in front of me, her gray hair woven into long braids. The table was completely set. There were hot potatoes, pickles, soup. 'Where are you from?' she asked me. 'Moscow,' I said. 'You're so skinny. Don't they feed you in Moscow?' Then she put on a very old, beautiful scarf. Her husband had given it to her. He died in the war. Her two sons also had died in the war. She got out an icon, on the back of which was etched the text of a song, a traditional wedding song that was sung at her wedding. She was about 70, and she walked around the table singing this song for me, crying and crying. She told me about her life, a terribly hard life. I stayed there for two days, and she taught me her songs. At the end I didn't want to leave. I hugged her to myself."

Bichevskaya's songs strike a deep chord in modern Soviets, as is apparent from her enormous popularity and the more than 10 million records she has sold in the U.S.S.R. and 50 foreign countries. She and others are increasingly interested in resurrecting and preserving the rich traditions that official ideology for years deemed outmoded and irrelevant. Says her husband and manager, Valentin Zuyev: "These songs are pains in the soul. This is our history. It's not that Janna is singing the songs just a few people sing. She sings the songs nobody sings. In a sense we are musical archaeologists."

Bichevskaya's childhood was less than idyllic, which she says gave her an appreciation for hardship. "It's a sore spot, like where a boot has chafed the heel," she says of her youth. She grew up in an apartment near Red Square in Moscow, the daughter of a ballerina, who was plagued by injuries, and a largely absent father, whom she prefers not to discuss. Though as a girl she loved to sing, she chose to study medicine over music. "Once I was observing an operation. I started singing to myself. The professor turned and said, 'Von! Get lost. Go be a singer.' "

Bichevskaya took his advice, enrolling in the State School of Circus and Variety Art. She married and studied voice and guitar, landing a job at the opera studio of the Bolshoi Theater. In 1971 she gave her first official concert in the nearby city of Gorky. Her rich, mellifluous voice and officially acceptable repertoire gradually led to records as well as domestic and foreign concert tours.

Ironically it was her first husband who united the singer with her second. "We were on vacation in the Ural Mountains," she recalls. "My husband said, 'Janna, meet my friend Valentin.' I looked at him and had the feeling that I had known him for a hundred years." Two months later the two went rowing together. "I knew then that this man was my fate. I went to my husband, a good, understanding man, and said, 'You and I are too similar. I'm a nervous person and you're a nervous person. It's a madhouse for us to live together.' " She gazes at Valentin. "That one, he is calm," she says. "There is a minus-and-plus balance between us, like physics. He grounds me."

Home for the couple is a five-room apartment in a lovely tree-lined neighborhood in south Moscow for which they pay 15 rubles monthly rent ($23). A baby grand piano dominates the study, near a wall where Valentin, a graduate of Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory, has hung his collection of antique sabres. ("Don't mention those," he laughs. "Americans will think all Russians are warlike.") There are souvenirs from trips abroad, Vietnamese vases and lacquer chests—from concert tours to Hanoi—a VCR with a Jesus Christ Superstar tape on top and, in the bedroom, a fox fur rug. A friend, Natasha, cooks for the couple several days a week. Their most treasured possessions are hanging upside down in a large wire cage. Masha and Igor are two slow lorises—Janna calls them "lazy monkeys"—that they bought in Vietnam. "I think Masha may be pregnant," Janna says, affectionately touching tongues with her. "They even travel abroad with us."

It is from her trips to the villages that Bichevskaya clearly draws spiritual sustenance. One evening, over a lavish dinner that included pickled garlic cloves and klukva (cranberries that Soviets now extol for their "antiradiation" properties), she recalled the songs she learned at a harvest festival on the Don River south of Moscow. An old Cossack soon passed out from drinking vodka served in huge mugs, she says, but he began to sing again after his head was plunged into a bucket of ice-cold water. "It's a tragedy today that our children don't know these songs," she says. "They listen to nondescript music. It creates emptiness. If you tear yourself away from your traditions, your art won't have its own face. Or it will become a fearful face, a face without eyes."

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