Putin’s Old Song

About 10 years ago, a friend taught me a parody of the Soviet national anthem. The parody was in Polish, but that hardly mattered: There is a certain category of extremely obscene swear words—I’m afraid they don’t bear repeating in a family Internet magazine—which appears to be common to most of the Slavic languages, and this parody was full of them. This meant that it could be sung virtually anywhere in Central Europe and would always bring down the house. I know someone who once sang it in a bar in eastern Hungary, and even there it received cheers and applause, although Hungarian is not a Slavic language. Apparently, there was enough contact with the Slovaks and Ukrainians across the border for the parody’s essential phrases to be understood.

There was nothing especially anti-Russian or even especially political about this universal delight. In fact, what everyone really enjoyed about the parody was the chance to poke fun at one of the most hated aspects of Soviet rule in Europe: the pomposity, the formality, and the exalted, empty, phony language of official ceremonies. The Soviet national anthem, in its proper form, was full of such language. Originally written in praise of Stalin, the words were changed after the dictator’s death into a combination of Russian imperialism and gobbledygook:

The unbreakable union of free republics
Was formed by Great Russia to last forever,
Long live the indivisible might of the Soviet Union.

Alas the republics weren’t free and their union was eminently breakable. But then, nobody much believed in the glorious future predicted by the rest of the anthem either:

We see the future of our country in the victory of the great ideas of communism
We will always be utterly devoted to the red banner of our native land.

Nevertheless, this week the Russian parliament overwhelmingly voted—at the instigation of President Vladimir Putin, and with the apparent approbation of a majority of Russians—to bring back the music of the old anthem, albeit with new words (to hear the old anthem, the new anthem, and “The Internationale” as well, click here). Some argued that no one could sing the new anthem, which was not surprising, as no one had written words to it. Others opposed the change, pointing out that its return does seem to fall in line with some of the other, more sinister symbols Putin has sought to revive. He has, for example, openly spoken of himself as a former “Chekist,” using the word for the secret police of Lenin’s era. He has also talked of rebuilding the Moscow statue of Felix Dzierzinsky, famed as the Cheka’s founder. Russian tanks in Chechnya have even been spotted flying the Soviet flag, as if Russians need to think of themselves as Soviet troops in order to justify their presence.

But what is really ominous about the return of the Soviet national anthem is not that it heralds the revival of Stalinism, or even of Soviet imperialism—it was approved, after all, along with a new Russian flag and coat of arms—but that it indicates a lingering nostalgia for a very specific sort of Soviet boredom: the pointless sloganeering, the wide gap between rhetoric and reality, the boastful language about glory and victory when there was nothing to buy in the shops (or, as one of the lines in my Polish parody had it, when even “the brothels are all closed”), and most of all the interminable public ceremonies which everyone was forced to attend. Boris Yeltsin himself has said that the somber music of the anthem still reminds him of “party conferences and meetings at which party bureaucrats talked endlessly.”

In the new Russia, it has almost been forgotten just how boring this form of boredom was. Life for most people is now far more chaotic, what with the changing legal system, economic stress, the plethora of new media, the confusing politics. But it wasn’t, in fact, all that long ago: Close your eyes, listen to that music, and it is just about possible to conjure up square-jowled men in gray suits; a large hall with columns in it; slogans on the wall; orchestrated applause; three-, four-, five-hour speeches; the Soviet national anthem. It wasn’t public life, it was the antithesis of public life. It made a lot of people want to utter earthy Slavic oaths. And now millions, apparently, want it back.