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.

Red Flag

February 20th, 2011

Of all the revolutions of 1989, the Romanian revolution was the only one which ended with bloodshed and executions. Nicolae Ceauşescu, who had ruled Romania with more or less absolute authority since 1965, ended his days in front of a firing squad in Târgoviște, along with his wife Elena. The overall  story of Ceauşescu’s rule and its overthrow is fascinating, but one of the basic levers of government control in the Ceauşescu years was ceaseless propaganda, most obviously through communist newspapers.

In the western Romanian city of Timişoara, the local party paper in the Ceauşescu era was Drapelul rosu (Red Flag), which specialised in reporting non-existent bumper harvests and improbable industrial achievements, and reprinting long speeches by various party bigwigs. Here’s the front page from December 30th, 1967, celebrating twenty years since the foundation of the postwar Romanian communist state:

Drapelul Rosu, 1967

The red headline reads “Long live our beloved homeland, the Socialist Republic of Romania!” and the reprinted speech is by Ion Gheorghe Maurer, member of the Politburo, former Foreign Minister and lifelong party apparatchik. The masthead followed the style of the main communist party newspaper, Scînteia (Spark — aping the pre-soviet Iskra), integrating Stalinist iconography and sloganeering:

Drapelul Rosu, 1967 (masthead)

This supposed celebration of twenty years of communism was in reality a grim time for most Romanians, trapped in the regime of an ardent Stalinist who was nonetheless fêted by east and west alike. Indeed, Ceauşescu’s apparent ability to play a double game in Cold War relations was one of the reasons for his own colossal self-regard, and contributed to his delusion and paranoia. This in turn led to one of the iconic images of Ceauşescu’s fall: his faltering speech on December 21st, 1989, when his confused and baffled reaction to the shouts of the crowd made it clear to all just how deluded and isolated he was.

The media reactions to another twentieth anniversary, that of the founding of the post-communist Romanian state, are, to put it mildly, pretty different. The events of 1989 still exert a powerful fascination for Romanians (and Ceauşescu still has his supporters, most obviously the PCR). Most of the coverage still focuses on the drama of communism’s overthrow. For example, Romania Libera‘s front-page of December 20th, 2010 (admittedly covering what is now the 21st anniversary) leads with “I killed for the revolution,” the story of Corneliu Stoica, champion sharpshooter and participant in the revolution.

Romania Libera, 20th December 2010

Though the differences are obvious, many Romanians are still convinced that the overthrow of Ceauşescu was a palace coup by members of his own entourage. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

Tahrir Square and Alexanderplatz

February 13th, 2011

The uprising in Egypt over the last three weeks has already become defined, at least provisionally, as a revolution. The historical irony of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation date, February 11th, has already been noted by plenty of observers — it is the same date as the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The Iranian Revolution is one of the possible points of historical contrast for the Egyptian uprising, but aside from initial similarities, it’s not a convincing comparison for many.

If there is an appropriate historical analogy, perhaps it is the East German revolution of 1989. This point has already been made (in a somewhat self-serving manner) by Angela Merkel, but it bears a closer look. Most obviously, the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo echo the Alexanderplatz demonstration on November 4th, 1989. That demonstration was one of the pivotal moments of the Wende, the process of German unification, and initiated the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe.

Both involved hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens peacefully confronting an obstinate dictatorship; both appealed for democratic pluralism and a transformation of the existing order, and both had a sense of humour. (The Alexanderplatz sign below is a pun in German on ‘unbegrenzt’ (‘unlimited’) and Egon Krenz, the communist leader. The Egyptian guy just loves his memes).

Tahrir Square protester

Alexanderplatz demonstration participant

The revolutions of 1989 led, indirectly but ultimately, to the collapse of the USSR. The Stalinist regimes went into the dustbin of history, and Europe was transformed.

At the moment, no-one knows what clear results will emerge from Egypt’s upheaval. To put it reductively, and bluntly: will Egypt’s transformation be more ‘German’ or more ‘Iranian’?

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!


January 23rd, 2011

It’s a truism of postwar art criticism that many of Andy Warhol‘s most well-known paintings not only represent iconic subjects, but have also themselves become iconic images of their era. Marilyn Monroe, the celebrity, and Marilyn Monroe, the detached, deadpan screen-printed image of a celebrity, are two different — but related — emblematic images of the twentieth century.

Warhol's Marilyn Monroe

Warhol’s ironic distance between subject and representation, with its implicit refusal to be pinned down, was taken during his lifetime as a satirical commentary on the vacuity of postwar society. In a sense, this is true, but Warhol was always an equal-opportunities satirist. Most obviously, his subjects included revolutionaries and dictators alongside film stars and singers.

Warhol's Lenin and Mao

Indeed, Warhol’s repurposing of images of communism was so successful that the ironies it has produced seem almost absurd — there is a chain of Irish cafés named Mao, which have nothing to do with China or Maoism, but rather are quite explicitly riding on the coattails of the Warhol industry in an attempt to portray an image of a sophisticated, refined and ‘postmodern’ eatery.

Likewise, editions from Warhol’s Hammer and Sickle series from the late 1970s are available to buy as a ‘blue-chip art’ investment opportunity for those looking for an art-market safe bet.

From Warhol's Hammer and Sickle series

Warhol himself might have appreciated the irony, then, that the place which has perhaps the best legitimate claim to ‘own’ Andy Warhol — the small countryside village of Miková, Slovakia — is not exactly refined or sophisticated, yet it bears the scars of the soviet experience so coolly addressed by the artist in some of his best-known work. Warhol’s parents emigrated from Miková to America in the 1920s, and ever since he became successful in the early 1960s, the area has had an ambiguous relationship with Warhol and his legacy.

The nearby town of Medzilaborce is home to the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art , an incongruous cultural outpost in a poor, mostly rural area. The museum proudly claims the second-biggest collection of Warhol works worldwide, and despite operating on a shoestring budget, it has survived for nearly twenty years since it opened in 1991. However, there has been no small amount of local hostility to an institution dedicated to an exotic gay American. The situation was explored by Polish-German director Stanislaw Mucha in his 2001 documentary Absolut Warhola, which presents, in all its surreal glory, the local attitudes to the man and his work. The entire documentary is available on YouTube in eight parts. Here’s the trailer: