Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Soviet Union in Soviet and Post Soviet popular music

Referring to ones native country is quite common when making music. But how are those references perceived - especially if that country no longer exists as with the Soviet Union? This post aims to examine some songs which either on a musical or a lyrical level have links to the Soviet Union. In the first part I will discuss reinterpreted versions of the Soviet anthem while the second part deals with two songs about being born in the SSSR. This is of course not an exhaustive discussion of songs with references to the Soviet Union - e.g. two songs I do not discuss are Liube's "Gymn Rossii" from the 2005 album "Rasseia" (while it is the current anthem of the Russian Federation, the melody still is based on the Soviet version) and Televizor's song "Syt po gorlo" which starts with an imitation of the Radio Moskva jingle which in turn is based on the beginning of "Pesnia o rodine" (from the 1936 movie "Tsirk") - an unofficial Soviet anthem (see Steinholt's discussion of "Syt po gorlo" in his book "Rock in the Reservation"). I hope to discuss some different approaches, however the main aim of this post is actually to start a discussion with you, the reader of this post, on these (and also other songs you think are relevant to the topic).

Using or referring to national anthems as inspiration has a long history within music (e.g. Chaikovskii's "1812 overture", the song duel between "Die Wacht am Rhein" and "La Marseillaise" in the movie "Casablanca" and Sex Pistols' version of "God save the Queen") and the Soviet Union is no exception. Igor' Ugol'nikov, a Russian/Soviet showman recorded the Soviet anthem around 1991 sung by the creme de la creme of Russian Estrada. The video clip shows both the different artists singing as well as footage from different achievements of the Soviet Union (e.g. space esploration, the TU-144, sport achievements and the Soviet Union's natural resources). It was released on a CD which according to Ugol'nikov's website is a compilation of musical parodies from his TV-show "Oba-na". Here is the youtube version (the clip can be downloaded from

The lyrics are mostly taken from the 1977 version of the Soviet hymn, but one verse and one refrain is from the 1944 version of the hymn (the site has a good overview of the different versions). The phrasing, melody and accompaniment however sound like 1980s pop/rock music with a funky bass, far from official and the Red army choir's rendition.

The main question regarding the clip is, if it is serious, nostalgic or a parody. When I asked Russians they answered that it is probably stiob (a Russian version of making fun of somebody in a very subtle manner). Considering the context of the clip with the TV-show "Oba-na", the musical implementation (not very solemn, in a pop-rock idiom) and that the clip was created in the early 1990s I think that that is probably the case. It also seems a little early for Soviet nostalgia in the early 1990s.

Stiob is also probably what Leningrad had in mind in their song "Privet, Dzhimmi Khendriks!" taken from their 2002 album "Piraty XXI veka". It features a very distorted solo electric guitar playing / improvising over the Soviet Anthem (or actually also Russian anthem, since 2000 Glinka's patriotic song was replaced by the Soviet hymn as Russia's anthem - with new lyrics by Sergei Mikhalkov, who also wrote the lyrics for both versions of the Soviet hymn - for more information see Daughtry, J. Martin: "Russia's New Anthem and the Negotiation of National identity", Ethnomusicology 47:1 (2003), p. 42 - 67). The song is at the same time a reference to Jimi Hendrix's version of the US anthem at the Woodstock festival in 1969.

However, the Ukrainian group 5'Nizza's performance of the Soviet anthem (using the Soviet lyrics) live on RenTV shortly after midnight on January 1st, 2004 (see for the clip) is more complex. While my Russian partner interprets it as stiob - arguing an anthem is something which is sung in a serious setting, not with reggae accompaniment - I sense a feeling of nostalgia for the Soviet Union (or an imagined version of the Soviet Union, since most of the audience is too young to have experienced it) hanging over the performance. According both to other clips I have seen (see the one below from Riga 2006) and people I have spoken to, 5'Nizza apparently include the Soviet anthem at the end of their concerts. Hence, the use could also be a form of band branding, a characteristic of the group (the group "Queen" finished their concerts with the British anthem "God Save the Queen"). Since 5'Nizza is from the Ukraine, not Russia it could furthermore be a reference to a common heritage across the current national boarders. So while the first two examples seem to be more straightforward, 5'Nizza's use opens for several interpretations.

DDT's song "Rozhdennyi v SSSR" (Born in the USSR) was released on the album "Rozhdennyi v SSSR" in 1997 with lyrics and music written and composed by Shevchuk (there are also other versions of this song, however this discussion is based on the recording from the 1997 album). The song's sound itself is rooted in a guitar slightly hard rock idiom using distorted electric guitars over a rock beat. The song's video clip shows both the band playing (in a sepia tint) as well as clips which are similar to amateur home videos with washed out colors or in black and white (i.a. two children playing around a lake, a girl dressed in a pioneer uniform, man walking by the ocean, young people dancing in a disko) - referring to a Soviet past:

The lyrics are very complex (especially compared to Gazmanov's which I will discuss next). Starting with biblical inspiration from the creation (Vnachale byl vecher, potom nastal ia, Vchera slovo da veter, segodnia zemlia - In the beginning there was evening, then I came, Yesterday a word and wind, today earth) the lyrics portray the empire Soviet Union in a decaying, disintegrating state (Ty chem dal'she, tem kruche. Ty pochti zakat - The further away you are, the worse/cooler. You are almost the sunset). Of course the release date of the album is important here. In 1997s Russia (and especially after the financial crisis of 1998) it serves as a nostalgic reminder of the past - an empire which does not exist anymore. The Soviet Union is, however, not portrayed as a glorified entity - more as a country to which the singer has an ambivalent relationship (Ni sekundy bez draki, verim v zhizn' i smert'. V glaza tvoei sobaki, nam ne strashno smotret'. - No second without a fight, we believe in life and death. In the eyes of your dog we are not afraid to look). The refrain "Rozhdennyi v SSSR - Born in the USSR" (with a plural ending, implying we are born in the USSR), however, is sung by the whole band - reflecting a pride in their country of origin (this is also reflected in the comments posted after the clip on youtube where the visitors write their date and place of birth adding "born in the USSR").

Thus the clip conveys a complex message. While the images from the clip, the comments posted on youtube and the refrain on the first look convey a sense of nostalgia back to the Soviet Union, the distorted guitar rock sound and the lyrics paint a darker picture of the decaying empire, a (failed?) historical entity which is related to the ancient Rus'.

As much as DDT's "Rozhdennyi v SSSR" is multi-layered, the last example of this post leaves no doubt of it's message: Performing in good stadium rock style with pyrotechnics and huge Russian flags flying in the audience, Oleg Gazmanov sings about that he was made in the USSR - straight forward and without stiob (as my partner put it, pure propaganda):

Embracing the idea of the Soviet empire Gazmanov refers to now sovereign countries like the Baltic states, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belorussia as "his" country, in other words the Soviet Union. The lyrics go on mentioning great achievements of Russian and Soviet history (from harvesting machines and torpedoes to the KGB and ministry of interior) and ends with a plea to the former Soviet States (some which have introduced visa requirements for Russians) to reunite.

While the performance on the surface is similar to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (similar music style, almost same refrain), Springsteen's song is clearly critical - especially of the Vietnam war and how Vietnam veterans were treated. This is also underlined in the video clip of the song (which can be seen here at

Looking at Gazmanov's clip from a Skandinavian/Western perspective national patriotic motives clearly prevail. However, within a Russian context, there is also clearly a feeling of nostalgia present. For Gazmanov's generation the Soviet Union was their home country and even though there were conflicts both between and inside the different Soviet republics a feeling of unity existed to some extent. The song also, as commented by "Russian Patriot" at the (they have a very polemic discussion on Gazmanov's song), appeals to shared values which unite people from the former Soviet republics. Of course the younger generation, especially those who have spent most of their life in a post Soviet Russia have a different view of the song. My partner, who is Russian, sees it as pure propaganda as I just mentioned. More nationalist inclined Russians probably read the song as a statement that Russia finally needs to restore it's former glory (something which Putin's rhetoric also has indicated). Finally, I doubt that residents of the Ukraine and the Baltic states are too happy about the song - however, I doubt that they are the target group. Thus Gazmanov's song clearly has to be interpreted within the context it was created in.

Rounding off this post I just want to add that these are possible interpretations. Both Sergio and I are however interested in your opinions and what you think, so let the discussion begin! ;-)

1 comment:

dew said...

I just discovered that Shevchuk accused Gazmanov's "Sdelan v SSSR" of being a plagiarization of his "Rozhdennyi v SSSR". Gazmanov replied that Shevchuk's song is just copied from Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.".

You can read about this fight here:
Олег Газманов: Шевчук разменивает свой талант на дешевый пиар!
and here
Юрий ШЕВЧУК: Газманову я предложил встретиться в темном переулке