Alan Lomax, Sovietologist

April 3rd, 2012

The entire recording archives of Alan Lomax went online recently. An ethnomusicologist, Lomax travelled the length and breadth of America recording music that we might call ‘folk’, ‘traditional’, or other similar labels. He was one of those rare obsessive heroes who believed that his mission to preserve changing and dying traditions was an important public good, and that his field recordings should be owned by all of us.

Not only did he travel across the United States, he travelled the world, and in 1964 he visited the Soviet Union to attend the International Anthropological and Ethnological Congress in Moscow. While there, ethnomusicologist Anna Rudneva helped Lomax access Soviet archives in Leningrad and Moscow, where he made copies of recordings from various Soviet nationalities and ethnic groups. He brought these recordings back and added them to his incredible collection, now public property. It’s a shame he didn’t get to travel to many of regions he archived, but perhaps the Cold War was so frosty that the KGB might have suspected he was on a spy mission.

Still, it probably stands as an interesting example of US-USSR co-operation during the Cold War. A sharing of cultural resources across metaphorical and literal walls in the name of common understanding.

Life and Fate on BBC Radio 4

October 9th, 2011

Life and Fate, the epic 1959 novel by Vasily Grossman about the Soviet Union and the Second World War, is being broadcast by BBC Radio 4, in a dramatisation featuring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant. The novel was famously ‘arrested’ by the KGB, and was considered so dangerous that Mikhail Suslov, chief Soviet ideologist, told its author that it could not be published for at least another two hundred years after it had been written.

The dramatisation is available as a series of podcasts from the BBC website and from iTunes. Each episode can be downloaded for a limited time only, so get them while you can.

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.

A.E. Bizottság

February 6th, 2011

It’s difficult to find much out about A.E. Bizottság. They were a band, an art project, a filmmaker’s collective, a state of mind, a threat to the existing order, a total mess and a bunch of losers, depending on who you ask. There’s a bare-bones Wikipedia entry for them which doesn’t give much away: “A. E. Bizottság was a Hungarian underground band formed by a group of visual and multimedia artists and amateur musicians in the early 1980’s.”

The ‘A.E.’ in their name stands for Albert Einstein, and the full name of the band is The Albert Einstein Committee. They had an equally surrealist bent to their album and film titles, releasing the album Kalandra fel! (Adventure Now!) in 1983, and the film (and accompanying soundtrack album) Jégkrémbalett (Ice-cream Ballet) in 1984.

From Kalandra fel!, here’s ‘Baad Schandau’:

The band was formed in 1980 in order to enter a local talent contest, with the intention of making it as far as the semi-finals, which would be televised. They succeeded in getting on TV, and as a result they ended up being asked to play another concert, supporting three other popular Hungarian bands of the era (Beatrice, Hobo Blues Band and P. Mobil) to a crowd of 25,000 people. After this they released their debut album, the aforementioned Kalandra fel, and toured in Hungary and around the Eastern Bloc, dealing with the absurdity of petty officialdom (they were asked to change their name by the government) and bringing their surreal vision to the world.

They became successful enough to be able to tour in Western Europe in 1985, but broke up soon afterwards. Their dadaist, Zappa-esque avant-rock is unfortunately mostly unknown outside Hungary, though the 2007 compilation album B-Music Cross Continental Record Raid Road Trip (on Finders Keepers records) uses ‘Baad Schandau’ as a lead-off track. From the same album, here’s ‘Konyhagyelpo’:

If anyone has any more information about this wonderful band, please share in the comments!