Russia may seem like some distant, ominous land—largely due to unrelenting Cold War propaganda—but the popular music of the Russian people tells a different story. Daniel Bowen was given a crash course in this by Russian exchange students who’ve stayed at his house in Connecticut over the years. He created this primer for PKM readers to explore the music of Viktor Tsoi, Igor Talkov, BG and others who are to Russian youth the equivalent of Dylan, the Doors, and the Velvet Underground in the U.S.
The current world events involving Russia and the United States must eventually be defused, if the planet is to survive. A regime change there (which does not seem likely for years), like a regime change here (which seems more hopeful) would go a long way toward restoring some international equanimity. The violations, lies and deceit of the Russian government, the hacking of our election by minions of Putin, the theft of Ukrainian land, the jailing of members of Pussy Riot, and, in turn, the U.S. sanctions on Russia that are far more paralyzing than Putin is letting on, continue to ratchet up the tensions between the two so-called “superpowers” (a term showing rust with age). It’s a complicated mess, to be sure, that will take some time to heal, on both sides.
However, getting to know the Russian people—rather than thinking of them as “enemies”—would be a good start, and I contend that the soul of the Russian people can be found in their music, particularly their popular music. During the summers of the years 2007-9, I was fortunate in having some Russian college students stay at my house. Two of them, Yulya and Masha, introduced me to some of their music, and showed me that Russian music is very much like our own. The Russian people are very much like us, too. It is our leaders with whom they and we have a problem. The autocrats who run Russia have all been living, breathing examples of the saying: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Getting to know the Russian people—rather than thinking of them as “enemies”—would be a good start, and I contend that the soul of the Russian people can be found in their music, particularly their popular music.
The following are some songs by popular Russian rock bands and singers. Most of the songs are in Russian, some in English. I have provided my own translations of some of the lyrics.
Let us start where we all spent or misspent part of our innocent youths; admiring or disdaining Glam Rock.
This group is called Gorky Park, not to be confused with the spy novel or the Robin Williams movie of the same name, or with the actual park in Moscow. Gorky Park was the first Soviet band to appear on MTV. Their biggest international hit was called “Bang.” The title says it all, as do the lyrics, such as they are [“Bang, say da, da, da, da / Nothing less, I want to hear a yes, / Bang, say da, da, da / Tell me yes and let’s feed the fire / Bang bang, say da, da, da, / Tell me yes…” And so on…]
It’s all about getting a girl to say yes, or “da” in Russian. The power chords, tight rhythm section of bass and drums are reminiscent of AC/DC. The leg kicks are probably more reminiscent of the Rockettes. Please note in the video: The presence, side by side, of the Russian and the U.S. flags…
One night, I took the two girls staying at my house, Masha and Yulya, to the Russian Samovar restaurant in New York City. There we met a musician who occasionally played with Gorky Park back in Russia. This former Russian rock star was 46 years old at the time, and he made a pass at 19-year-old Yulya. Fortunately, nothing came of it. But it was at least another indication about how similar are the urges of Russian and American rock stars. Bang!
Perhaps he was still living out the fantasy of his band’s biggest hit: “Come for a ride / Straight up to heaven / Your rocket is ready / And it started counting down…Bang, say da da da da.”
Boris Grebénshchikov (aka BG)
Boris Grebénshchikov, sometimes called the “Grandfather of Russian Rock,” was born in 1953, part of the Russian post-war Baby Boom (yes, they had one too). His group is called Aquarium, and, over the 40 years of its existence, has had more members than the Pussycat Dolls have had celebrity guests perform in their shows. Like Art Garfunkel, BG (pronounced Bay-Gay in Russian), as he is familiarly known in Russia, has a Ph. D. in mathematics. Unlike Igor Talkov and Victor Tsoi—who you will meet next—BG is still alive. He was also the first Soviet rock star to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman.
This is a song that BG recorded with Annie Lennox, and sang in English. It is called “The Wind.” [“Your eyes are colored like wind / Wind from the northern sea / A wave on the sand so clear / Whoever got me that far must be laughing / Alright, I can laugh as well…”]
In 1997, BG recorded parts of his excellent album, Lilith, with two former members of The Band—Rick Danko on bass and Garth Hudson on organ—along with Americans Jim Weider on guitar and Randy Ciarlante on drums.
The Lilith album:
Igor Talkov (1956-1991)
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was not easy being a rock star in Russia. The Soviet government did not approve of the music played by such “hooligans.” For some period of time, Igor Talkov could not get a job in music or any other line of work while living in Moscow. He was a “stay-at-home dad” whose family lived on his wife’s salary. He wrote his songs on the lid of the washing machine while he was doing the laundry and played in underground clubs. He was allegedly shot and killed by his business manager after a concert in 1991, but in Soviet Russia it remained just another “unsolved homicide.” The business manager fled to Israel, where he still resides and insists to this day that the KGB (read: Putin) killed Talkov for the subversive messages in his music.
“Clear Ponds” is a plaintive ballad about the healing power of memory, with an undercurrent of lament for unpolluted spaces and the urgent need for change.
[“For every one of us there are places on this Earth, / We keep coming back to, to be alone for a moment, / Where a memory, like a line from an old postcard, / Will heal the grief in your aching heart. / Clear ponds: The shy willow trees / Stand, like young girls, calmly by water’s edge, / Still ponds: The green dreams of centuries, /The distant shore of childhood, / Where the accordion still sings.”]
Yes, Russian rock musicians play the accordion. They also play the violin.
Viktor Tsoi (1962-1990)
Another dead singer from the same time period was Viktor Tsoi who fronted the band, Kino or “Cinema.” Tsoi was a Korean Russian. Yulya introduced me to Tsoi’s recordings.
We had our Vietnam War, and Russia had Afghanistan (that’s the war where Dan Rather introduced us to those “freedom fighters” the Mujahideen, some of whom later morphed into the Taliban who went on to blow up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon). Many of Tsoi’s friends went off to that war in Afghanistan and were killed, as ours did in Vietnam. Just as we had Phil Ochs as our musical voice of conscience during the Vietnam War , Russian had Viktor Tsoi. However, his vocal phrasing on the song Spokoynaya Noch (“Calm Night”), backed by his band Kino, is more reminiscent of Jim Morrison on “Riders on the Storm” than Ochs’s distinctive choir-boy voice.
Some of Viktor Tsoi’s music has a touch of the primitive simplicity of the instrumentation of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.
Just as we had Phil Ochs as our musical voice of conscience during the Vietnam War , Russian had Viktor Tsoi.
This song, “Legend,” is among his best known and deeply loved songs. [“A scream is stuck in my throat, / But this time you either scream or don’t. / So that no one forgets / How clumsily the warriors wiped their swords on the grass / And how the ravens, in their black flock, were flapping their wings / And how the sky laughed, then held his tongue, / And how the hands of a survivor still shook / And how that moment in time turned into eternity / When the sunset flamed like a funeral pyre, / And the stars looked down from the clouds like wolves, / And those who had gone into the night lay with their arms bare, / And those who lived slept peacefully / For life is nothing but a word /And all that is real is love and death / Hey, who will sing if everyone’s asleep /Death is the price of life, /And love is worth the wait.”]
Tsoi died in 1990 in a car accident coming home from a fishing trip. His sudden death was such a shock to his millions of young fans that some committed suicide in its wake. One prominent national newspaper summed up what Tsoi meant to the young people of Russia this way, “Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock.”
Since his death, his fans have painted a wall on a street in Moscow dedicated to Tsoi’s memory and musical legacy.
We now move from Rock to Pop. When Masha lived at my house, she would get up in the morning, closer to noon than to nine and come into my room, kick me off the computer, and play songs by Irina Allegrova while I went downstairs and made her breakfast and tea. I would return to the room, food and chai in hand. Masha would eat, drink her tea, and sing along with Irina. That is how I spent my mornings for three months. By the way, according to Masha, the pianist in the video is Irina’s husband/arranger/manager.
I once asked Masha what Irina’s songs were about. She answered, “All Russian songs, Dan, are about love.” Maybe not all Russian songs, but certainly all songs sung by Irina Allegrova and all the songs Masha listened to.
This song is “Незаконченный роман”, or “Unfinished Novel”
Sample lyrics: “Beautiful love, we paid a tribute to her madness / Oh God, what it was like to see your face in the spring, / But autumn has come to the woods, and the trees are all silver / The comfort of familiarity has cooled our love. / But autumn has come to the woods, and the trees are all silver / The comfort of familiarity has cooled our love. / Snowflakes melt on our eyelashes, and entranced we read.
“Ochi Chyornye” (folk music anthem)
And now, from pop to folk:
This is a song every Russian knows, “Ochi Chyornye”. The title gets translated as “Dark Eyes,” because the literal translation of the first line, “You have Black Eyes,” means something very different in English. The lyrics are by Yevgény Pávlovich Grebyónka (1812-1848). Like Gogol, he was born in Ukraine. Contrary to popular opinion, the music is not from a traditional gypsy melody, but from a cabaret song by Florian Hermann. It is sung in this version by Fyódor Shalyápin, the most famous Russian bass of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is accompanied on this recording by the famous Russian “triple threat,” Sergei Rachmaninoff; composer, conductor and piano virtuoso.
On October 25, 1917, the night the Bolsheviks were to seize power in Petrograd, Shaliapin performed in Verdi’s Don Carlos in the Narodny Dom (The People’s House) in the same city. It says a lot about how disruptive the “October Revolution” was that an opera could be presented the night the government was overthrown, and NOBODY NOTICED. Shalyapin was acquainted with both Lenin and Stalin and performed for them. [First stanza is translated as “You have dark eyes, eyes of passion / Eyes of fire and of beauty / How I love you. How I fear you. / I have met you at a fateful hour.”]
The third line, “How I love you. How I fear you” tells you everything you need to know about Russian women. And they intend to keep it that way.
Now, here is the song you have all, unknowingly, been waiting for: The National Anthem of the Russian Empire, “God Save the Tsar.” As you will notice, the people in the audience do not know if they should stand or not. In Lenin’s day to stand for this anthem was to ask to be shot. Also check out the wonderful mustache on the conductor.
The lyrics are very simple: “God, save the Tsar! Strong sovereign, Reign for glory, for our glory! / Reign to make foes fear, Orthodox Tsar! God, save the Tsar!” In this song, the Tsar is described as a strong Orthodox man who rules for the glory of the people. This was how the Russians were brought up to think of their Tsar.
Russia as a country has one thing in common with the city of St. Petersburg. The city has changed its name three times in the 20th century (from St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg), while the country has changed National Anthem four times. This is the second anthem, “The Internationale”.
Here are the lyrics to the first stanza and the refrain, which are very powerful stuff: “Stand up, ones who are branded by the curse, / All the world’s starving and enslaved! / Our outraged minds are boiling, / Ready to lead us into a deadly fight.
We will destroy this world of violence / Down to the foundations, and then / We will build our new world. / He who was nothing will become everything! Refrain: “This is our final and decisive battle; / With the Internationale humanity will rise up!
Now, we have Billy Bragg singing an English version of “The Internationale” at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in 2009:
Here is the third Russian National Anthem: “The Workers’ Marseilles,” sung, as Mr. Chekov, would tell Captain Kirk, in the Original Russian, not the copy-cat French version. Lenin marched and sang along with this song. [Here is a translation of the first stanza and the refrain: “Let us denounce the old world! / Let us shake its dust from our feet! / We are enemies to the golden idols, / We detest the imperial palace! / We will go among the suffering brethren, / We will go to the hungry people; / Together with them we send our curses to the evil-doers, / We will call them to struggle with us”
Refrain: Stand, rise up, working people! / Arise against the enemies, hungry brother! / Let be heard the people’s cry for vengeance / Forward! Forward! Forward! Forward! Forward!”
To give you an idea of just how powerful this song, or any national anthem, could be in the right circumstances, here is the original version of The Marseilles in what, to most Americans, is its best known context:
Leo Tolstoy at one time translated The Marseilles into Russian. His was not the version used by the Bolsheviks, probably for political reasons.
Here is the fourth, the Soviet National Anthem:
“Unbreakable Union of freeborn Republics, / Great Russia has welded forever to stand. / Created in struggle by will of the people, / United and mighty, our Soviet land!”
Refrain: “Sing to the Motherland, home of the free, / Bulwark of peoples in brotherhood strong. / O Party of Lenin, the strength of the people, /To Communism’s triumph lead us on!”
The lyrics of this song, like the words of the Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, may be described as Mary McCarthy once described the writings of Lillian Hellman: “Every word is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
I would also point out that the second line, “Great Russia has welded forever to stand” refers to the concept of “Great Russia.” The people we think of as Russians were accustomed to think of themselves as “Great Russians”. They called the Ukrainians “Little Russians,” (a name Ukrainians despise) and the name of the country Belarus literally means “White Russia.” Hence, the Tsar was called “Tsar of all the Russias.” Even under the “equality” of the Soviet Union, Great Russians were still ran the show. It is not an accident that the Great Russians are described as having “welded” the country together. The Russian Empire had over a hundred different ethnic groups who spoke more than 200 languages. Many of these peoples wanted nothing to do with Russia. But, Lenin and the Great Russians made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Putin’s treatment of Ukraine – his takeover of the Crimea and his war in the east of Ukraine – is nothing, if not this chauvinistic feeling brought into a current reality.
The lyrics of this song,…. may be described as Mary McCarthy once described the writings of Lillian Hellman: “Every word is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
Russia, at least according to its current anthem, is back to being “Holy Russia,” “Beloved Russia,” with “Wide spaces for dreams and for living,” “protected by God,” “as it was, as it is, as it will be forever.”
“The Volga Boatman”
The following song is the most famous Russian song of all time: “The Volga Boatman.” I have provided two versions of this song. The first is by a man you have heard sing earlier, Fyodor Shalyápin. He introduced this song to the American audience. In the early years of the 20th century, Shalyapin made a few tours of the United States. This song was his encore. It made quite an impression on his audiences. The popularity generated by Shalyapin’s performances lasted until at least the mid-1950s. It was one of the songs I and millions of other children learned to sing in grammar school (along with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful”). The sound is not too good, so I will follow this recording with a version by an instrumental jazz performance by Glenn Miller and his orchestra. In the heady days of World War II, Miller’s version became the best-selling song in America.
Glenn Miller Volga Boatman
Lyrics: “Yo, heave ho! / Yo, heave ho! / Once more, once again, still once more / Yo, heave ho! / Yo, heave ho! / Once more, once again, still once more / Now we fell the stout birch tree, / Now we pull hard: one, two, three. / Ay-da, da, ay-da! / Ay-da, da, ay-da! / Now we pull hard: one, two, three. / Now we pull hard: one, two, three. / Yo, heave ho! / Yo, heave ho!” And so on.
There are certain things about this song that tell a lot about the Russian character. It has a slow beat and a simple tune, anyone can sing it. It is meant to be sung by a group, not soloists. It moves with a ponderous slowness and with immense hidden power like the Volga itself (at its mouth, the Volga discharges more water than any other river in Europe). It seems the song could go on forever at the same pace, like the peasants plodding along beside the river, just like the lifetime’s work of the farmer. It is like the Volga itself along whose banks the men towed the boats up stream or like the crossing of Siberia whether by the Trans-Siberian Railway, by wagon, or on foot. It is also like the Russian people. They just keep on keeping on, forever.
I sometimes think of the Russian Revolution as a movie from the Thirties, with Groucho, Chico and Harpo playing the roles of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. But this idea is not unique to me. I would like now to play a scene from a movie made in America in 1939; a great year for movies. In this scene, the writers stole the tune of “The Volga Boatman”, and worked it into that most American of fantasies, The Wizard of Oz.
This is the famous scene of the changing of the Guards at the Castle of the Wicked Witch of the West.
There is something that seems so right about this song at this place in the movie. Sung by a choir of basses, it is at once strange yet familiar, ominous but not frightening, serious with an undercurrent of humor, and, as we all know, ends with Dorothy drenching the Wicked Witch of the West in water and melting her “beautiful wickedness.”
The Bolshevik revolution has many of these same qualities, but it was not a movie. The people killed were not actors, or Flying Monkeys or Wicked Witches, but real people with real families, who died by the millions. The “beautiful wickedness” that Lenin created and Stalin perfected lives on in the Russia of Putin. As Stalin said, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”