Metallica in Moscow

March 28th, 2011

One of the most noticeable effects of Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union in the 1980s was the emergence from underground of many previously-repressed subcultures, and alongside dissident poetry, modern dance, literary novels, experimental filmmaking and a whole gamut of cultural expression, one of the largest and most powerful cultural forces to be unleashed was metal. The Monsters of Rock festival in Moscow in September 1991 showed how large.

Although estimates vary, most accept that somewhere between 1.4 and 1.6 million people saw AC/DC, Metallica, The Black Crowes, E.S.T. and Pantera at Tushino Airfield, northwest of Moscow city centre; one of the largest concert crowds ever. Combined with a public infrastructure that had almost no experience in dealing with large rock concerts, the day seems to have been a chaotic experience, with crowd control carried out by police and Red Army units (including a helicopter unit) on a crowd who were, in most cases, seeing their first ever rock concert.

One of the persistent rumours about the concert is that Metallica were personally asked to play by Gorbachev. Maybe this was the sort of thing he was into:

The ongoing adventures of the Russian national anthem

March 20th, 2011

Sergey Mikhalkov, a Russian children’s book writer who died in 2009, had an unusual claim to fame — he rewrote his own national anthem three times. His strange experience is part of the slightly schizophrenic story of the Russian and Soviet national anthems in the twentieth century.

At the beginning of 1917, Tsar Nicholas II was enthroned as Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, and the ponderous God Save The Tsar! was the national anthem of the empire, as it had been since the 1830s:

By the end of the same  year (after a brief detour through the provisional government’s Worker’s Marseillaise) Lenin decreed that the Internationale would be the anthem of the new Bolshevik state (with the revolutionary lyrics tellingly changed from future to present tense):

And so it remained, until 1943. It was then that Stalin decided that a brand new anthem was required to inspire victory over Hitler, and so, taking the preexisting anthem of the communist party, he ordered the twenty-nine-year-old Mikhalkov (together with poet Gabriel El-Registan) to write new lyrics, literally overnight. The next day, Stalin made a few revisions to their words and declared himself happy (as well he might, seeing as the new lyrics exclaimed in part that “Stalin has taught us faith in the people, to labour, and inspired us to great feats”), and it became the official national anthem of the USSR on March 15th, 1944.

An English version of the anthem was also famously recorded by Paul Robeson, the black American singer and civil-rights activist:

As a result of the process of De-Stalinization that followed his death in 1953, the references to Stalin in the lyrics of the national anthem were now seen as a troublesome inconvenience, and so the heads of the communist party were caught in a familiar bind — how to deal with an embarrassing situation without having to admit having made any mistakes. Their solution was crude but effective: from 1955 onwards, all the lyrics were simply removed from the anthem, and from then until 1977, the piece was performed as an instrumental.

The soviet leaders finally got around to updating the national anthem in 1977, to coincide with the new constitution, and they decided to go back to Mikhalkov for the lyrics. For this, his second version of the anthem, he altered his earlier words to remove the mentions of Stalin and World War II, added in a couple of mentions of red banners and unbreakable unions, and had the whole thing ready in time for the 1978 Winter Olympics. This version of the anthem remained in use until 1991.

The early years after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 were an unclear and fearful time for most Russians, so it is perhaps unsurprising that Boris Yeltsin ditched the soviet grandiloquence and plumped for another instrumental as the anthem of the new Russian Federation. Patrioticheskaya Pesnya (The Patriotic Song) was a piece that dated originally from the 1830s, and remained the anthem in instrumental form until 1999 (when, briefly, words were added by the poet Viktor Radugin).

Radugin’s words only lasted a few months, however, as Vladimir Putin’s new administration decided to change the anthem yet again. Their solution was solidly in the tradition of Russian bluntness — they simply restored Stalin’s anthem. However, they again needed new words, and so Mikhalkov, now 87, wrote his third and final set of lyrics for the song. References to communism and Lenin were switched and replaced with mentions of God, seas and forests, wisdom and glory, and loyalty to the fatherland, and the new Russian anthem was debuted in December 2000.

For those keeping count, that’s nine anthems in nine decades, with seven sets of lyrics for five pieces of music written by thirteen different writers and composers. Mikhalkov, most prolific amongst them, died in 2009 aged 96. Additionally, each soviet republic also had their own anthem, and there were also anthems for the communist party and the army. Hear them all, with hundreds of variations, at and Perhaps there’ll be another new version soon enough. To finish, however, here is possibly the most rousing — or terrifying — version of the song, sung by over 6,000 Russian soldiers in Red Square in 2007, to mark Victory Day, as artillery fires in the background:

The Quackers and the Bloop

March 6th, 2011

During the cold war, the American and Soviet navies put huge efforts into hiding their submarines, and into detecting the other side’s submarines, and as a result, there were huge advances in the technology required for listening for any signals from the ocean depths. And the two navies heard some unusual things.

From the mid-1970s onwards, Soviet submarine crews started to report strange sounds in the waters of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. These high-pitched, frog-like noises were a mystery to the crews, who started to refer to them as Quackers (Квакеры). It was assumed by many in the Soviet navy that these noises were being made by a secret NATO submarine-detection technology, but at the same time, this explanation didn’t make any obvious military sense (what’s the point of a detection technology that also makes noise?) and didn’t explain why the noises themselves seemed to be similar to more familiar animal-like sounds. The submarine’s crews also inferred (through Doppler shift measurement) that some of these noises were being produced by objects travelling at over 200 kilometers (125 miles) an hour. To this day, the sources of the sounds remain unknown.

On the other side of the world, the United States Navy Equatorial Pacific Ocean autonomous hydrophone array had been listening out for Soviet  (and later Russian) submarines since the mid 1960s, and in 1997 they recorded a powerful ultra-low frequency underwater sound with no obvious source. The sound, which they called the Bloop, was heard at a range of over 5,000 kilometers, and is several times louder than the blue whale, the loudest known underwater animal sound. Though there are various theories about what might have caused the Bloop (including some kind of giant squid — an explanation also occasionally offered about Quackers), there is no comprehensive explanation, and the source  of the sound, like the Quackers, remains unknown.

Listen to the Bloop (sped up sixteen times):

Or take a listen to the real-time recording here.

Though there are no easily-available recordings of Quackers, they have been extensively reported on within Russia, including this (slightly kitschy) Russian-language TV documentary, Quackers, The Military Evidence:

There were many other strange sounds first heard by human ears as a result of this frenetic submarine-chasing cold war activity, but the Quackers and the Bloop remain, for now, mysterious.