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 Hymn.ru and Marxists.org. 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:

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