The national anthem

Russia’s official anthem is, speaking carefully, eclectic. Its story goes back to the 1940s, when German troops were still controlling Ukraine, Belarus, and big chunks of Russia proper. When the USSR was on the brink of defeat, Stalin turned away from internationalist Bolshevik ideology to a sort of nationalist-imperialist mix, partially borrowed from before 1917. The old anthem, a Russian translation of Degeyter’s and Pottier’s L’Internationale, was unfit for new purposes. A song composed by two Frenchmen and translated into Russian by someone with an obviously Jewish name just couldn’t cut it. On Stalin’s orders, a competition was announced, and a few composers (including Shestakovich and Khachaturian) and poets submitted their proposals to the anthem commission. Eventually, two authors were selected to compose a text for the future anthem: Sergei Mikhalkov, a young poet known for (pretty decent) children’s verses, and an Armenian journalist whose pen name was El Registan. Eventually, Stalin and Co. opted not for Shestakovich’s music but for Alexandrov’s Anthem of the Bolshevik Party, composed in the 1930s. Equipped with new, semi-communist, semi-imperial ‘lyrics’, Alexandrov’s piece was to become the new state anthem, while L’Internationale took its place as the party song – a swell swap.

Mikhalkov, the anthem’s principal author, was born into a family of nobles; that a person of such heritage was entrusted with texting the sacral song of the Bolshevik state was remarkable. During the war and afterwards, Stalin sought to demonstrate that his state was in many respects the rightful and mighty heir to the Russian Empire. An odd restaurationist spirit manifested itself variously, from the empire style in architecture to the Red Army’s new-old uniform. Stalin, once a poor, fatherless Georgian boy, must have hated, envied and admired the privileged, especially the noble, and he must have retained some of that puerile admiration as he grew up; naturally it pleased him to have scions of old noble families in his service. Much more so, I suppose, than being the master of low-castes like himself.

Poetically, the new anthem wasn’t particularly good; mixing blood, soil, empire, Rus’, communism, Lenin, Stalin, and the Party, one shouldn’t expect to get an improved brand of portland cement. But what Soviet citizen doesn’t remember its first line, “The unbreakable union of the free republics,” or its mock version, “The unbreakable union of the hungry and the lousy?”.

Mikhalkov’s well-being was secured from that time on; still known for his children’s rhymes, he joined the senior ranks of the literary nomenklatura. Both his sons grew up to become film directors: Nikita has been uniformly successful in his cinematic career since the 1960s (he won an Oscar in 1995), while his elder brother Andrei (Andron) Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky enjoyed a roller-coaster ride, including a few years at Hollywood (Runaway Train, Tango and Cash). Andrei is now advertising vitamin supplements on Russian TV, among other things.

But back to Mikhalkov Père. After Khruschev denounced Stalin as a criminal aberration in the way of True Communism, the tyrant’s name was removed from every poem in every book and every song in every movie. Mikhalkov, too, was asked to re-write his anthem, which he did dutifully; the text was now Stalin-free, at least literally.

Little did he know that his anthem-authoring skills would be required again–a few decades later.


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