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May 20, 2004 by AK

The national anthem 2

By December 1991, the USSR was out, and so was its anthem. A year earlier, the Russian Federation adopted its own anthem: a re-orchestrated version of Mikhail Glinka’s sketch, known as The Patriotic Song. Glinka, the author of the first two major Russian operas and, if you ask me, a fine composer, seemed the perfect choice, especially since both his operas are as Russian as they get. The Patriotic Song emerged from a piece found in Glinka’s archives and first published in the 1890s, believed to be a draft for the Russian anthem composed some time in the 1830s. Ironically, the music came into prominence shortly after WWII, during Stalin’s ‘Russia the motherland of elephants’ campaign.

The problem with Glinka’s song was that no one seemed to come up with a decent text. For almost a decade, Russians could not sing to their anthem. Not that it was a terrible thing–even the USSR’s old anthem was wordless from 1956, when Stalin was first officially denounced, to 1977, when Mikhalkov finally cleaned up the text. As polarized as the Russian society was in the 1990s, a musical piece could be a better unifier than any poem. But the Duma stubbornly refused to legislatively confirm The Patriotic Song as the anthem, as well as the white-blue-red tricolor as the flag and the double-headed eagle for the coat of arms.

When Putin got on top, he stuck a deal with the Duma: he would drop Glinka’s anthem in exchange for their acceptance of the other symbols. It worked, but at a huge cost: the music of the old Soviet anthem–i.e., originally that of the Bolshevik party–regained its official status. For a few months, it was destined to be verbless like its predecessors; there were a great deal of applications–althought few of the better poets would compose for that music–and eventually, guess who was picked to do the job? The venerable patriarch Sergei V. Mikhalkov, of course.


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