Same Song, New Words

How much can the Russian national anthem tell you about the country’s volatile history?

January 2, 2000

How much can the Russian national anthem tell you about the country's volatile history?

Back, too, is the red banner itself, albeit without its signature hammer and sickle. This time, it serves as the flag of a newly democratic Russia’s Armed Forces. Revival of the Soviet anthem has many Russians up in arms. To them, the Soviet anthem is an anathema — a sign of disrespect for millions of victims of Communism.

But the protesters are wrong — a national anthem is a symbol of a nation. And nothing illustrates the history of Russia over the past 100 years better than the checkered history of its national anthem.

Before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Russian anthem was “God save the Czar” written by prominent 19th century composer Mikhail Glinka. After their victory, the Bolsheviks adopted the Internationale, a stirring French communist march.

The reasoning behind that choice was straightforward: a communist revolution was supposed to continue until the entire world was free from capitalism and the root of all evil, private property, was finally eradicated.

Thus, the choice of using the Internationale could be called an early example of globalization.

But Stalin, who succeeded Lenin as the Soviet leader, promptly lost interest in making the revolution a global export item. He began building “his own brand of socialism in one country.” Since the Internationale didn’t seem appropriate for this task, it was discarded.

Another problem with the Internationale was that it had been written long ago—and contained nothing about Stalin. The lyrics for the new Soviet anthem were written by Sergei Mikhalkov, Stalin’s court poet. As would be expected, it was all about the Soviet Union being gloriously led by Great Comrade Stalin.

The Internationale, incidentally, was not neglected for long. It was promptly adopted as the national anthem of communist Yugoslavia—where it endured under Slobodan Milosevic, even though his diminished Yugoslavia was anything but internationalist.

When Stalin died, his reputation in the Soviet Union soon declined. His monuments were pulled down and mention of his name disappeared from public life.

Overnight, he went from being the greatest leader who ever lived to a blank spot in Soviet history. Still, the notes of the national anthem he selected lived on, only the lyrics were junked. For a long time after, the anthem was left as just a melody, without any words to sing along with.

After the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia simply reverted to the pre-revolutionary Glinka tune. But since it would have been strange to sing “God save the Czar” without a ruling monarch present, that anthem too, went word-less.

And so now comes the newest chapter in this fascinating saga. The most currently restored Soviet anthem still contains no lyrics. But it seems for not much longer. Sergei Mikhalkov, the author of the original text, is still alive. Though in his nineties, Mikhalkov is from a very old noble stock and still quite robust. Mikhalkov has written a new version, all about Russia’s greatness and godliness. Needless to say, this version doesn’t mention Stalin.

Stay tuned for its release.