The civic prayer of our nation

Опубликовано: 29-09-2008, 22:17
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Журнал "Переправа"


№ 4. 2008

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A round table discussion devoted to the problems of patriotical education among young people has been held in May in the confines of State Duma; the officials intend to introduce such courses in all schools. Another semiofficial patriotic wave in reaction to Russia’s football and hockey achievements has taken mass media by storm. The Russian performance on Eurovision became a perfect manifestation of flashy eclectics that remind one of an old joke about illogic scenic effects: “Gypsy gnomes’ Jewish horse circus on ice”. It’s true that propagandists of the new patriotic ideology are beginning to mistake horses for men in their imagination...


As if vulgar ecstasy and large portions of beer are all one needs to be considered a patriot. And yet, not many Muscovites would be able to say anything about the towers of Kremlin, the State Emblem, Flag or Anthem. Thus, we can regretfully confirm that Russians’ knowledge of the history of our symbols is very approximate, inexistent even. Discussions centered on the history of our National Anthems are often limited to weighing the pros and cons of athletes affectingly singing the Anthem before and after contests. We are therefore faced by a problem: the National Anthem, our civic prayer, is being treated as a mere show. Aren’t we supposed to respect our national symbols, not parade them in response to the latest fashion trends?


“We do not know the country in which we are living” – was the verdict Andropov gave to the elite, and it can also be used to describe the masses today. We simply do not bother ourselves with remembering the national symbols of our homeland. The State Emblem, Flag and Anthem are not exactly an ancient tradition («William, Duke of Nassau», born out of the flames of the Dutch revolt in 1568, is considered the first National Anthem; the model of all other hymns, “God, save the King”, appeared in 1743) but they are an important part of our culture. I think that an overview of our National Anthems, each one of them intimately connected with the fate of the nation and the state, would be extremely helpful.


The founding of the Russian Empire was accompanied by Peter the Great’s Preobrazhensky march. It is still heard during parades. And yet, no ritual of performing a single melody upon the Emperor’s appearances didn’t form till well-after Peter’s époque. The entire XVIII century was spent in glorious victories which were widely praised by contemporary poets. The first true anthem celebrating the empire’s expansion was “Triumph's thunder louder, higher”, dedicated to Ekaterina by Derzhavin and the composer Kozlovsky. During his lifetime, Gavriil Romanovich Derzhavin was already named first court poet amongst “the eagles of Ekaterina”, his name became inseparable from the grand empress’ reign. Using simple words, Derzhavin managed to vividly convey the official truth of the golden century, the psychological cause of the prominent individuals’ activity (amongst whom the unfading genius of Suvorov occupies a special place):


Make the most of every triumph -

For our foes it's time to see:

Russia reaches farther-higher

Over mountain peaks and seas.

Brilliant Empress, gaze at visions,

And behold, a woman great:

In your thoughts and your decisions

As one soul we all partake.

Set to music by Kozlovsky, the lyrics not only managed to accentuate the aspirations of the golden age; Derzhavin subtly revealed the very nature of Russian absolutism in his poem; in fact, one wouldn’t be able to imagine the atmosphere of Ekaterina’s époque without it. Such pieces do not exist outside their historical surroundings (which is perfectly understandable in the case of any Anthem), they form these surroundings themselves, helping us understand the reign of Ekaterina the Great, a time when there was no match for Russia and its’ army, when the national façade was especially alluring and when loyalty to your homeland was considered an honorable service to the Mother Empress. The music would go through various new lyrics concerning Napoleonic wars or the Prussian campaign of 1831, but Derzhavin’s undying verses are still considered classical.


From the XVIII century and up to February of 1917, the spiritual hymn of the empire was “If glorious in Sion…”, composed by Dmitry Bortniansky to the verses of Mikhail Kheraskov. This Anthem accompanied crusades, spiritual processions and the rituals of Jordan Christians. Traditionally «If glorious in Sion…» was also played during officer funerals.


Many royal hymns were based on the music of «God, save the King», the British national anthem, including «God, save the Tsar». Vasily Zhukovsky‘s version of the English hymn is considered to be the best. It is known as “the Russian prayer” (1815). The seventeen-year old poet, Alexander Pushkin, added two additional stanzas to Zhukosky’s poem a year later. Both versions of “the Russian prayer” were published together but only Zhukovsky’s text would become the traditionally performed version. Emperor Alexander I grew fond of the Russo-English song; and in 1816 it became the official Anthem of the Empire; on royal command military bands performed it upon the Tsar’s appearances. But one day his heir, Emperor Nicolai I, who, as every reader of Leskov’s “Lefty” is bound to know, “was completely confident in his people and didn’t like to concede to foreigners”, coined the legendary “I grow weary of hearing English music”. Zhukovsky again had no competition: he created fine state-sanctioned glorifications of Nicolai’s Empire praising the energetic Tzar and the “beloved father”. In comparison to the original anthem, the new text was rather short-spoken, making it almost a commandment:


God, save the noble Tsar!

Long may he live

In power, in happiness,

In peace to reign!

Dread to his enemies,

Faith's sure defender,

God, save the tsar!

Just like a century ago, officials were scouting for composers to write music for the new Anthem, the great Glinka was among the candidates; but Nicolai preferred his court composer, Alexei Fyodorovich Lvov, who was completely aware of how serious his assignment was: “I felt the necessity to create a majestic, powerful, sensitive, comprehensible, perfectly national, sacral, militant, popular hymn that could be accepted both by an ignoramus and a scientist”. The new Anthem, sanctioned by the Tsar, was presented to the public in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre on the 11th of December, 1833. The new “Russian national song” (as it was named by its’ first editions) caused a surge of patriotism. Of course, one of the most consistent patriots of Moscow, writer and director of the Emperor’s theatres, Mikhail Zagoskin, left a short essay about the premiere: “I cannot explain the effect that the song had on the audience: every man and woman listened to it standing; after the song had ended, the theatre was rocked first by “hoorays” and then by “encore”, and the hymn was, of course, given once more”. The Anthem was an almost perfect reflection of “Uvarov’s triad”: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”. But after the various reforms of the 1860-s the autocratic Anthem became foreign to the aspirations of society’s activists. Angry parodies of the hymn (such as the famous “God, shake off the Tsar”) became a vivid characteristic of pre-revolutionary Russia. Was it possible to preserve the harmony of Zhukovsky and Lvov, the unity of the Tsar, the Orthodox Church and the people? We, the survivors of Perestroika, are well aware of how society is used to overthrowing yesterday’s relics.


The First World War became a challenge beyond the Empire’s strength. It was not an autocratic State anymore but a bourgeois Empire where the conflict of the people’s interests and the elite’s immorality was becoming clearer and clearer; “the aristocrat has sold his power to industrialists and bankers,” – reviews Yesenin. In February of 1917 the Empire was destroyed, making the previous Anthem obsolete. Then what was sung on solemn occasions during the short, tedious life-span of the Temporary government? The cultural elite excited by the advent of revolution flooded the special meetings with propositions: Glinka’s “Be praised” set to a different text; versions of “Let us take a stand” by Glazunov and Stravinsky; the triumphant hymn of composer Alexander Gretchaninov and poet Konstantin Balmont (“O, mighty power, a shoreless ocean! Be praised the freedom fighters who have dispersed the fog”). At that very same time poet Valery Brusov meditated in an article “About the new Russian Anthem”: “We need a short song the musical and artistic powers of which would be able to unite all the different forces of freedom and which could direct them at creating harmony amongst themselves”. The variety was staggering but the Temporary government finally chose “the Workers’ Marseillaise” which was written a few decades back by Peter Lavrov with use of a simplified version of Rouget de Lisle melody:


Let us renounce the old world

And shake its’ remains off our feet!

The rivalry of the “Marseillaise” and the “Internationale” was a reflection of the rivalry between bourgeois and socialist revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks and their “Internationale” were gaining authority in the Soviet Counsel. Society was swiftly taking a “left” turn: elections into the Constituent Assembly had shown a striking superiority of the SRs and the Bolsheviks, moreover, it was the latter party that had won the elections in main cities. This predestined the victory of the most socialist of all Anthems. The Russian text to De Geyter’s music was written at the beginning of the century by Arkady Kots.


The nation was trying to find itself, while dealing with the consequences of a crippling crisis. And again I am reminded of Yesenin’s words: “We were cruelly whipped by the very freedom that had poisoned our minds”. Yesenin himself, with the help of his colleagues Mikhail Gerasimov and Sergey Clitchkov and Sergey Konenkov, a sculptor, made an attempt to glorify the new regime. The foundation of any governmental myth is the memory of fallen soldiers. Thus, in November of 1918 Konenkov’s commemorative plank devoted to the deceased heroes of the revolution was opened in the Kremlin, accompanied by “A cantata” written by the poets: “Sleep soundly, our beloved brothers…” Most monuments of the time were built in haste with use of light materials and would not survive a decade. The same is true in the respect of the most radical and extravagant ideologies of the revolutionary years. Ultimately, a decision was made to go along with a very traditional Russian way of development which combined strict autocracy with a cult of work and a working nation. The “Internationale” was considered an uplifting and natural Anthem in the new Red Empire but a need for an original State Anthem quickly arose. There was a whole series of songs celebrating the soviet people, the army and their leader created by brilliant composers: Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Matvey Blanter, Isaak Dunayevsky… Alexander Alexandrov, the founder of an incomparable army choir, took a very interesting approach to the genre of the patriotic song. In 1938 he collaborated with Vasily Lebedev-Kumach on the creation of the “Hymn of the Bolshevist Party” (“We, the children of a country never known before, are singing today this proud song”). That very melody was to become in five years the winner of a state contest and, thereinafter, the Anthem of USSR. But instead of Lebedev-Kumach (he took part in the contest in collaboration with another composer), coauthors Sergey Mikhailkov and Gabriel El-Registan wrote the verses. The Anthem, performed for the first time on the 1st of January, 1944, came as an Anthem of freedom for our country: it accompanied the Russian army as it chased away the German invaders.


The Anthem was premiered at the Bolshoi where a while ago the Tsarist anthem of Lvov/Zhukovsky had been given its’ first public hearing. The Bolshoi orchestra under the leadership of Alexander Melik-Pashayev in collaboration with the army band of general-major Tchernetskiyi performed before Stalin and a select group of leaders, composers and poets anthems of Great Britain and the USA, “God, save the Tzar” and three settings of Mikhailkov’s and El-Registan’s lyrics: Shostakovich’s, Khachaturian’s and Alexandrov’s. The government sanctioned the use of Alexandrov’s variant. Mikhailkov remembered that Stalin told Shostakovich: “Your music is tuneful, but Alexandrov’s hymn is more solemn in sound”. During the subsequent banquet, Mikhailkov read, at the insistence of Stalin, “Uncle Stepa”, and then showed satirical front-line sketches with El-Registan, even defiantly using Stalin’s own uniform cap as a prop.


Sometimes consistency is considered to be conformism: ill-wishers blamed Mikhailkov for his elastic conscience. But he was simply a mild-mannered supporter of the state and of strong, powerful authority, an opponent of anything that could externally or internally corrode that authority. Such a creed can be criticized, but blaming Mikhailkov for insincerity or inconsistency is out of the question. A well-known to the citizens of the Union children poet was a perfect candidate for writing the words of the new Anthem; though it’s interesting to note that Mikhailkov’s memoirs on the creation of the anthem seem to indicate that a third author helped him with the best verses: Stalin himself. The first line of the anthem is crucial to the understanding of the piece as a whole. Mikhailkov and El-Registan originally wrote: “A noble union of free nations”. Stalin’s version proved a more expressive beginning that would become engraved into the minds of many generations: “An unbreakable union of free republics”. The secret lies in the word “unbreakable” which was both a solemn and untraditional element and which made musical history. Not only did the anthem glorify the Soviet State, the leading role of Russian people and military victories under the leadership of the communist party, but it also made special notice of the leaders themselves:


Through tempests the sunrays of freedom have cheered us

Along the new path where great Lenin did lead!

To a righteous cause he raised up the people

Inspired them to labor and valorous deed!

After the ХХ Congress singing such words would prove rather illogical, so the hymn was performed as an orchestral piece right up to 1977 (not many people actually remember this fact) when the text of the Anthem was changed, following the adoption of Brezhnev’s Constitution: Mikhailkov omitted mentions of Stalin and the war and added the phrase “the victory of undying communist ideals”. The new musical arraignment proved popular: everyday radio performances of the revised Anthem were to become a part of daily life. The lyrics themselves were published in millions of copies on the backs of school notebooks. At the same time, “Intrenationale” remained the official hymn of the party in power, CPSU. Even when the party became a manifestation of conservative, defensive tendencies, the gray-haired leaders would start their congresses by taking another dutiful vow to a revolutionary past, more legendary than real:


Hideous in their self-glorification

Kings of the mine and rail

Have they ever done anything other

Than steal work?

Into the coffers of that lot,

What work creates has melted

In demanding that they give it back

The people wants only its due.

After the Collapse of the Union the role of the Anthem became rather dubious. The Alexandrov/Mikhailkov Anthem was celebrating a country that had already disappeared; but in 1990 Glinka’s “Patriotical Song”, known under the name “Good day, darling capital” (these were the lyrics Mashistov wrote to fit Glinka’s music to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Moscow), was adopted as the State Anthem of RSFSR. During Brezhnev’s reign Glinka’s melody was used for some time as the title song of the official news program, “Times”. The lyrics were completely omitted. The new parliament elected in February of 1993 didn’t consider it legitimate, though the country needed a new Anthem: the hymn of RFSFR was used when the republic was part of USSR and, in fact, lived under the old Alexandrov Anthem.


Newspapers started publishing lyrics to Glinka’s Anthem. And that is when it became obvious that the revolutionary nineties were unable to create an official aureole around the regime. An Anthem is an inspired panegyric for one’s own country, its’ people, its’ history, no dark themes are possible in such pieces. But the poet, trying to find a common language with millions of people, used painfully lyrical, self-loathing verses for Glinka’s stately music: “Is our conscience hidden in a camp grave?” These are unsuitable images which are never going to be accepted as a National Anthem. Even East and West Germany – countries that have condemned their fascist past – have omitted themes of penitence and self-torture from their Anthems.


The nation has rejected Glinka’s innocent music simply because it reminded it of the criminal and drunken nineties. Russia has entered the XXI century by readopting Alexandrov’s music and Mikhailkov’s lyrics. When presenting this variant of the anthem to the deputies of State Duma, the new president, Putin, emotionally argued with the anthem’s opponents: “Do we really have nothing to remember from the soviet period of our country, except Stalin’s camps and repressions? Are we going to forget Dunayevsky, Sholokhov, Shostakovich, Korolev and our achievement in space research? What are we going to do with Gagarin’s flight? What about the most brilliant victories of Russian weapons since the time of Rumyantsev, Suvorov, Kutuzov? What about the great victory of 1945?”It was obvious that another period of revolution had ended, while radical anti-Soviets came to love the “retro” they had cursed just a few months ago. All in all, a natural and logical development: emotions run high to drop to a bare minimum in a matter of weeks but time relentlessly goes by. The new text, perhaps, lacked the clear subject of the original. But Alexandrov’s music is inspired, so the new lyrics have gotten the wings they needed. The melody reminds of such important moments as the great victory of 1945, the glory of space research, the pride of watching your comrades win the Olympic Games… The Anthem synthesizes traditions of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia; the people need such a logical epilogue not to lose track with our long history. And I believe that our Anthem is in for a good future, despite what the critics say. Glinka’s “Patriotical Song” is already heard during official events in Moscow accompanied by the official hymn of Moscow, “My dear capital”. The fate of “national prayers” is really surprising, and this isn’t limited to Russian history.


A few years ago, during the debates about the adoption of the old hymn, Ostankino station rallied the opponents and the defenders of Alexandrov’s music and Mikhailkov’s lyrics. The skeptics, including the presenter, Pozner, often used a “winning argument”: what about Germany? It isn’t returning to the Nazi hymn, “Germany above everything”? A cunning and, at the same time, weak point. In reality, Germany’s modern hymn has had a similar fate to Alexandrov’s Anthem, though it was not composed in the XX century: “Kaiser’s Song” was composed by Haydn in 1797 and devoted to the Austrian Emperor Franz II; Von Fallersleben wrote the famous lyrics in 1841, while the song itself became the Anthem of a united Germany and remained in that place even after the beginning of the Nazi regime. Moreover, the patriotic first lines became associated with Hitler’s policy:


Germany, Germany above everything,

Above everything in the world…

In 1945, after the complete defeat of fascism, the Anthem was abolished but in five years it was reinstated in West Germany (but not in East Germany) with only the third neutral stanza left as it were:


Unity and justice and freedom

For the German fatherland!

For these let us all strive

Brotherly with heart and hand!

Unity and justice and freedom

Are the pledge of fortune;

Flourish in this fortune's blessing,

Flourish, German fatherland.

Didn’t we virtually do the same thing by deleting all mentions of “Lenin’s party” and “the victories of communism”? This means that opponents of Alexandrov’s Anthem have proved themselves wrong by seeking help in the experience of Germany. Yes, our anthem has many enemies. Foreign countries approach it with respect but the opponents of the soviet system are gravely against the use of the Anthem. I do suspect, however, that political debates are going to cease before the Anthem is going to become old-fashioned.


As for sport competitions which are frequently made into patriotic events by the mass media, we know many superb historical subjects of great educational value in this respect. A few years back a rather mediocre football player was almost elevated to the rank of a national hero simply because he sweared off a beaten run-of-the-mill Welsh team during a live broadcast. But how many people will be able to remember the full name of an athlete and a soldier who fought in the Second World War, was caught by the enemy, passed through seventeen concentration camps, including Buchenwald… He weighed 40 kilograms after the war and was completely broken down by the combat. And then he won seven golden medals, became an Olympic champion and left his podium undefeated! But that’s our comrade: Victor Ivanovich Chukarin, the only Russian two-time champion in sports gymnastics who had won two successive Olympic Games, in 1952 and 1956. Now, these are real achievements that make one remember the words of Peter the Great imprinted into a 1703 medal: “The impossible is possible”. And is it really that important that Chukarin treated his anthem with respect but without any form of ecstasy? Portraits of such people must be printed in school books and forgetting them is an impossible luxury. The memory of our heroes (and Russian history has a lot of them) is, in fact, the reason why we stand up during a performance of our National Anthem.



перевод на англ. Кирилла Батыгина


Метки к статье: Переправа, Замостьянов, на английском
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