Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Other Voices, Other Battles

On August 19, 1942 the German 6th Army and the 4th Panzer Army under General Paulus began the assault on Stalingrad, and the beginning of the end of the Nazi threat. It was both a simpler and more brutal time, and I find the taste in music of the day an interesting window into the soul of the peoples who fought that war.

One of the more famous Russian songs from the era was actually composed in 1938. Though written before the war, it has military overtones, taking for its subject the separation of a soldier and his lover. The soldier is admonished both to guard the Motherland and remember the simple girl he left behind. The lyrics mention “the far borders”, which evokes images of the first conflict between Japan and Russia in Manchuria in 1937, which would eventually culminate in the Battle of Nomonhon / Khalkhyn Gol in 1939. However, as pointed out here, the girl sends her song “along the track of the bright sun”, that is looking from East towards the West, meaning her lover was stationed on the Polish border, not the Chinese one.

At any rate, here are the lyrics, in Russian and English:

КАТЮША                                       Katyusha
Слова Михаила Исаковского      Lyrics: Mikhail Isakovsky
Музыка Матвея Блантера           Music: Matvei Blanter

Расцветали яблони и груши,       Apple and pear trees were blooming,
Поплыли туманы над рекой.       Fog crept along the river...
Выходила на берег Катюша,       Katyusha came out onto the bank,
На высокий берег, на крутой.     Onto the high, steep bank.

Выходила, песню заводила          She came out and started a song
Про степного сизого орла,           About a grey-blue eagle of the steppe,
Про того, которого любила,         About the one that she loved,
Про того, чьи письма берегла.    About the one, whose letters she cherished.

Ой ты, песня, песенка девичья,         Oh, you, song, young maiden's song,
Ты лети за ясным солнцем вслед        Fly out, follow after the clear sun
И бойцу на дальнем пограничье        And tell the warrior at the distant border-post
От Катюши передай привет.              That Katyusha sends him her greetings.

Пусть он вспомнит девушку простую,      Let him remember a simple maiden,
Пусть услышит, как она поет,                  Let him hear how she sings,
Пусть он землю бережет родную,            Let him protect the Motherland
А любовь Катюша сбережет.                  And Katyusha will protect love.

Расцветали яблони и груши,        Apple and pear trees were blooming,
Поплыли туманы над рекой.       Fog crept along the river...
Выходила на берег Катюша,        Katyusha came out onto the bank
На высокий берег на крутой.       Onto the high, steep bank.

And here is a modern rendition of the song made in 2005 for the 60th Anniversary of VE Day.

More chilling to American ears are the choral arrangements that call forth images of mass devotion to causes, be they National Socialism or the Komintern. There is no denying the motivational power these songs evoke, but stripped of the lyrics, it is hard to separate Soviet from Nazi propaganda music.

In translation, however, it is apparent that the Soviets were more apt to appropriate religious imagery to motivate the peasantry, as with the song “Sacred War”

Still, the shadowy, moody soul of the individual Russian soldier comes out in some of the other pieces, such as Dark Night:

After the war and the death of Stalin, Russia still struggled with the legacy of the enormous price exacted by the campaign on their soil. The gravel-throated guitar poet Vladimir Vysotsky, of whom Bob Dylan is but a pale imitation, put voice to that struggle in 1964:

БРАТСКИЕ МОГИЛЫ                                         Our Brothers' Graves

На братских могилах не ставят крестов,      On our brothers’ graves stand no crosses
И вдовы на них не рыдают,                             And widows do not sob over them
К ним кто-то приносит букеты цветов,        Someone brings bouquets of flowers
И Вечный огонь зажигают.                            And an eternal flame burns

Здесь раньше вставала земля на дыбы,       Before the earth rose on its hindquarters here
А нынче - гранитные плиты.                       And now granite plates
Здесь нет ни одной персональной судьбы -       Here there is no personal fate
Все судьбы в единую слиты.                         All fates are poured into one.

А в Вечном огне виден вспыхнувший танк,        But in the eternal flame one sees a tank afire
Горящие русские хаты,                               Burning Russian huts
Горящий Смоленск и горящий рейхстаг,       A burning Smolensk and a burning Reichstag
Горящее сердце солдата.                           The burning heart of a soldier

У братских могил нет заплаканных вдов -        At our brothers’ graves are no weeping widows
Сюда ходят люди покрепче.                                Here there come sterner people
На братских могилах не ставят крестов,          At our brothers’ graves stand no crosses
Но разве от этого легче?..                               But really, does that make it easier?


Some dude stuck in the Midwest said...

That's a very interesting analysis of Katyusha. Never thought about it that way.

John the Scientist said...

Did you picture the soldier posted in Manchuria? I always did, based on the word "dal'ny" , as in "dal'ny vosotok".

Some dude stuck in the Midwest said...

Pretty much. European borders was not conisdered "remote". ON the other hand I have never considered it to be about Manchzhurian war, because in my mind Katyusha is also associated with the WWII Russian MRLS. Not available to troops, I believe, before 1942.

Strange mind, I have.`

John the Scientist said...

Actually, I think the writers were hedging their bets about which borders were going to erupt and put in images from both. :D

Anonymous said...


In 1938 by "far border" was meant to be the German one, rather than the far-Eastern. Or - an intermediary - one with Poland. In 1937-1939, right up until Stalin's flip (Rib.-Mol. Pact), the propaganda machine was preparing the country for a fight against German Nazism. If you ever have a chance to rent movies by Alexey German, in particular Мой друг Иван Лапшин (a film's premise is pre-war realities of lower-level NKVD officers), it's a good illustration.In any case, starting from the Spanish war the enemy were officially Fascism and Nazism.
About "chiiling to Americans" patriotic ardor - I don't know why it would be chilling; there are numerous examples of sacred patriotic songs in America, too, that call for uniting against the enemy and defending common Sacred Ideas. Same mass devotion to ideals - witness beginning of any baseball match, with the whole stadium holding their palms on their hearts. Why do you think the patriotism here is sincere, and in 1938' Soviet Union it was not? Unquestionable faith and belief in one's own country and one's own ideals being the best and most righteous is the same, on either side. The difference is that relatively small skeptical and questioning group of intelligentsia that is traditionally given free reins here was suppressed and persecuted in USSR under Stalin and the country was required to display hysterical patriotism; but it's only part of the problem. The bigger truth is that the majority of people did it sincerely. Just like Texans here profess their love to their state in every conversation, no matter if relevant.

In your translation of Vysotsky's song "братские могилы" is not the same as "Brother's graves"; without a footnote explaining the meaning of the expression it could be confused for an author's blood brothers' grave.
The expression means "common grave of an unidentified soldiers, killed on a battlefield". It implies that all of them became brothers under enemy fire...they become related after the what they lived through - and died.

CW said...

Reminds me of Al Stewart's "Roads to Moscow" - one of my all-time favourite songs.