In the last chapter of the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, recorded and edited by the musicologist Solomon Volkov, there is a detailed description of how the State Anthem of the Soviet Union was created. During Soviet times this book of the emigrant Volkov had been denounced as a “malicious forgery” and only after 1991 did the children and close acquaintances of Shostakovich, who had died in 1975, dare to confirm the authenticity of the book’s content.
In Volkov’s records, Shostakovich reports that in 1943 he had been invited to the Kremlin and ordered by Stalin personally, to compose a State Anthem. After the battle of Stalingrad, the turning point in the war unleashed by Hitler-Germany, the Soviet victory became clearer. For Generalissimo Stalin the ‘Internationale’, up to now the State Anthem, was no longer appropriate. Stalin had enforced the doctrine of “Socialism in one country” against his rival Leon Trotsky. Now, as the end of the murderous battle against Hitler was in sight, it was necessary for him to proclaim the glory of the victorious Soviet Union – and at the same time also that of the ”great leader and teacher” (Shostakovich speaking to Volkov). And therefore the second verse in the original version states:
“Stalin educated us – faithfulness to the people,
To work and heroic deeds he inspired us!”
The music for the new anthem was composed by Grigori Aleksandrov, the founding director of the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Red Army. Upon Stalin’s order Shostakovich had also composed a version, along with Aram Khachaturian, the renowned Armenian composer. However, Stalin preferred Aleksandrov’s “battleship of a song” (quote from Stalin in Volkov, p. 384).
It was no coincidence that the “great leader” was so much personally involved with the arts. For him the musicians, stage directors and film directors in particular were “engineers of the soul”, useful instruments to create the new “Soviet Man”. Shostakovich tells us that Stalin liked to watch films, late in the night in the Kremlin, together with the members of the Politbureau. In his youth Shostakovich had improvised music on the piano for silent films in Leningrad, to support his family after his father’s death. Later he composed music for numerous films, with some very popular melodies. As he describes, this probably saved his life during the periods of persecution and bans from his profession (1936 and 1948). During the ‘Great Terror’ (1936-38), when almost every family in Leningrad lost relatives and Shostakovich had to fear for his life, it was his film music which made Stalin understand the composer’s genius. Later Stalin was using the composer when in March 1949 he sent him to New York to promote the Soviet campaign for “world peace”.
During the war Shostakovich had gained fame with his 7th symphony, not only in the Soviet population, but also among the ally USA in the battle against Hitler. Stalin took advantage of Shostakovich’s popularity to pursue his own goals – the weakening of the ‘Imperialists’. This is a good example of the ‘powerful’ using the ‘power of music’!
After Stalin’s death the second verse of the State’s Anthem had of course to be rewritten. Now it only spoke about “Lenin’s glory”. Moreover, after the Soviet Union’s collapse (December 1991) nobody talked about this Anthem. It was revived in the year 2000, when President Putin in his ‘Ukaz’ (Presidential Decree) No. 2110 of 30 December, reinstated the music of the Soviet State Anthem – with a new text, now glorifying the Russian Federation (You can hear it here).
What has happened in the first year of Putin’s Presidency is a unique symbol of the new reality which has become fully clear only in the following years: the new Russia in the glory of the ‘old Soviet music’! In the same way as Stalin used to take Soviet artists under his wings, the new ruler in the Kremlin now sponsored star soprano Anna Netrebko and the conductor Valery Gergiev. Putin’s friend from the early years in Leningrad, the cellist Sergei Roldugin, was thankful to his sponsor for a precious Stradivari cello! As the “Panama Papers” revealed in 2016, the millions parked in foreign banks provided a Russian cellist with a truly excellent instrument. Early on Putin had deposited earnings from oil and gas sales in the West, as soon as he had returned from his Secret Service post in Dresden to St. Petersburg to work for the “reform Mayor” Anatoly Sobchak. Not least because of these funds, bunkered abroad, the Secret Service managed to survive the Soviet Union’s collapse and finally gain power with Putin’s Presidency – as stated before, accentuated by the “Soviet Anthem music”.
21 years later we all know the meaning of this:
- the elimination of independent media,
- the pursuit and murder of critical journalists,
- the bullying and poisoning of dissidents in Russia and abroad,
- the suppression of all “foreign influences”
mirroring Soviet times during the Cold War.
Also, by annexing foreign territories (the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine), thereby violating international law and the document Russia had signed with Ukraine on 5 December 1994 under the auspices of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the ruler in the Kremlin is openly emulating his master. Poland, Finland and the three Baltic states well remember the consequences of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
The power of music in the Soviet State Anthem should make it clear not only to the Russian citizens, but also us clueless Western observers, what today’s ruler in the Kremlin is aiming at: the restoration of Stalin-style totalitarianism! Those who do not believe this, should be reminded of the recent prohibition of ‘Memorial’. This organization was founded during Gorbachev’s ‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’, among others by the nuclear physicist and later dissident Andrei Sakharov. Its aims were investigating and rehabilitating the victims of Stalinist persecution and crimes. By killing ‘Memorial’, Putin’s Russia has totally turned back to Stalinism.
Every listener of the Russian State Anthem should be aware of this!
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