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Song of Cold Costs, Warm Hearts : Ailing Soviet Poet Hails U.S. Medicine, but Fans, Family Strain to Pay Mounting Bills


Bulat Okudzhava, a balladeer often described as a Soviet Bob Dylan, is learning the hard way about the ups and downs of the American medical system.

Okudzhava, a Soviet folk hero, was on a whirlwind tour of the United States and Canada when he fell ill recently after a Hollywood concert and required emergency heart surgery.

Enormously popular in his own country, Okudzhava is largely unknown here. Officials at St. Vincent Medical Center, where the surgery was conducted, were unaware they were dealing with an international celebrity and insisted on $50,000 up front, fearing that Okudzhava might leave the country without paying the bill.

Soon, the hospital was flooded with phone calls from admirers all over the world offering help, and a U.S. publishing house put up the $50,000 to pay for the double-bypass operation.

Since then, the 67-year-old poet, balladeer and author--unable to travel while recuperating--has used glowing terms to describe American generosity in phone interviews with journalists back home. "America took care of me. Americans really care," Olga Okudzhava says her husband told one reporter.

But the luster appears to be fading. Okudzhava's medical bills have mounted, surpassing the amount paid to the hospital.

"Frankly, I am worried about how we will pay," says his wife.

She has yet to tell her ailing husband about the debt--$8,000 and growing--for fear of upsetting him. "Fortunately, he neither reads nor understands English, and so he doesn't know the real situation."

The couple are staying at the home of Alexander Polovetz, a friend who publishes Almanac Panorama, a Russian-language news weekly in the Fairfax District.

"I know the family is very grateful for the fine care he received," Polovetz said. "We only wish

now that the hospital hadn't been so quick to tell well-wishers the bills were taken care of." Most of the debt now owed is for medical expenses outside the hospital.

Within the Westside's sizable Russian immigrant community, the Okudzhava name packs a powerful punch.

At Okudzhava's last concert, in May, more than 1,000 people crammed an auditorium at Hollywood High School to hear him perform some of the anti-Stalinist ballads that made him a cultural sensation in the 1950s.

Accompanied by simple chords on his guitar, his best-known songs reflect the dashed hopes of a generation that had expected a freer society during the early years of the Khrushchev era. Uncompromising, Okudzhava spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in trouble with the authorities.

The popularity of songs such as "Memories of Childhood" and novels such as "A Taste of Liberty" helped him escape the punishments often meted out to lesser-known artists, and he was allowed to travel. This is his third visit to the United States.

Observers who attended his musical concert and poetry reading in Hollywood said Okudzhava appeared tired, but few in the audience of adoring fans seemed to mind.

"My father pushed himself because he did not want to disappoint people," said Okudzhava's 26-year-old son, also named Bulat, who accompanied his parents on the tour.

Olga Okudzhava said her husband is recovering well, and "with any luck, we may be able to return home in a month or two."

Aside from occasional walks, her husband has taken an unexpected liking to American movies, she said. "Horror films are his favorites. He is quite impressed by the variety available here."

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