The great Russian chansonnier Arcadiy Severnyj

(March 12, 1939 - April 12,1980)

Arcadiy Severnyj (Zvezdin) - the popular Leningrad (St. Petersburg) singer, the great Russian chansonnier, the famous underground bard, "king" of a street-song (prison-folk song). He was very popular in Soviet Union in 1970-1980 because of extraordinary style of performance anti - Soviet and prison''s songs. He wrote down more than 1000 songs (criminal folklore, songs from S.Esenina, L.Utesova, P.Leshchenko, A.Vertinskogo, V.Kozina, A.Galicha, J.Aleshkovskogo, A.Lobanovskogo, A.Dolskogo, V.Vysotskogo's repertoir and a songs of other authors). Arcadiy Severnyj worked with well known Russian jazz and restaurant musicians. He recorded more than 80 albums, both solo and orchestral.

There are plenty of legends that have circulated about Severnyj during his lifetime. Many people were sure that he was born in Odesa. They said that the bard was jailed more than once and learned the prison repertoire there. Others believed that he emigrated to America and still lives there today. But the most fantastic rumor was that Severnyj was an unregistered son of the people’s commissar of Stalinist times Mikoyan.

Early life

Arcadiy Zvezdin (his real surname) was born in the town of Ivanovo near Moscow in 1939. Contrary to popular belief, in his childhood years he was neither a hooligan nor a pupil with poor grades. On the contrary, he belonged to the so-called “golden youth”, with his father occupying a very high position with the Ivanovo railroad. The young lad had good achievements in his studies, showed exemplary behavior and loved to play on a seven-string guitar. Thanks to a very good memory, he could perform a large number of songs.
His older sister once gave him a thick copybook filled with texts of songs, including numerous prison songs; he quickly learned this peculiar repertoire and eagerly sang such songs in polite company.

After finishing school in 1957, Arcady left for St. Petersburg, where he enrolled in the Forest and Technical Academy (Timber College S.M.Kirova), and participated in amateur work, ensemble of students sang songs in English, and imitating Louie Armstrong. Having become completely engrossed in student’s amateur art, he did not study very diligently and after each term was on the verge of being expelled. Finally, he had to discontinue his studies for a while and took academic leave of absence.

First recordings

Once in the company of friends Arcadiy sang about a dozen songs that he had recorded on tape. In 1963 his first recordings with a total recording time of 35-40 minutes were released.
Upon receiving his degree in 1965, he was given an administrative job at SoyuzEksportLes (Wood Export Union). Nevertheless, working in an office environment was of little interest to him; he wanted to sing, and two years later destiny gave him his chance.
In the summer of 1967, Arcadiy became acquainted with one Rudolf Fuchs, a person who recorded singers and songwriters on guitar. Fuchs had the idea of making the novice’s first album in the form of a refined hoax, specifically a non-existent radio program, which was allegedly broadcast on the airwaves. Severnyj performed prison songs on the radio at the request of the program’s listening audience.

There was good reason for Arcadiy choosing the pseudonym Severnyj. First of all, he wanted to lend more credibility to the artificial image of a prison singer, since many convicts were sent to prison in the north of Russia (‘severnyj’ is Russian for ‘northern’). Secondly, the pseudonym served its purpose as a conspiracy, since in those years one could have been sent to prison for giving underground concerts.
In any case, the fake radio program turned out to be a major success. The audience was intrigued not so much by the songs as by the question: how could such a program appear on Soviet radio? No one could even guess that it was a joke.


In 1968, Arcadiy was taken off to the Soviet army where he served as lieutenant for a year in a helicopter regiment not far from St. Petersburg. Having demobilized, the singer learned that during the period of his mandatory service in the army his popularity as a singer had grown considerably. He then received an invitation from producer Sergei Maklakov. Arcadiy performed his songs throughout the entire evening at Maklakov’s place. The result was 500 meters of recordings on the now outdated reel-to-reel that were quickly disseminated throughout the entire Soviet Union and eventually gave rise to the popularity of the performer’s prison songs.

It was with great pleasure that music lovers all over the country listened to the singer’s slightly hoarse voice performing such revived songs as Roast Chicken, School of Ballet Dances, I Lived in Noisy Odesa, Mother, I’m In Love With A Pilot, Tram #10 Passed By, and many others. During the recording Arcadiy Severnyj would repeat: "In Odessa-" "Back when I was in Odessa-" and so forth. Because of this, and of the stylized "Odessa" manner of performance of the songs, quite a few people believed that the singer himself was from Odessa.
It's strange, but many of the "old" recordings don't have such an atmosphere about them, and don't bring back the era as much as those of Arcadiy Severnyj.


Severnyj managed to combine and concentrate practically the entire intonational lexicon of the "prison song" genre. Moreover, although it was understood that all this is a stylization, the genre remained one of the most prominent in the 70's and 80's, in camouflage.
One more circumstance that comes to mind while listening to the album: the official culture of the Soviet "stagnation" period was not only countered by the light non-conformism coming from the direction of the intelligentsia, but also by the dark culture of the criminal world.

Unrecognized by the authorities as a singer, he was nevertheless a cult figure in the USSR with the entire country going mad over recordings of his private concerts.
Russian criminal culture became an essential integral part of the greater Russian culture...

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