What’s in a tune? When it comes to national anthems, a very great deal, it seems. In the first place, people like one they can actually sing, and in the second place, they like one that stirs and rouses the emotions, making them feel briefly part of something larger than themselves.
Since shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian people have had to put up with an unofficial anthem, a melody by the 19th-century composer Mikhail Glinka, that fails on both counts. They can’t sing it, because Parliament has been unable to agree to a set of words for it (in fact, they can’t even hum it, because the tune is too hard); and even though Glinka titled his melody “Patriotic Song,” it doesn’t seem to do a very good job of igniting patriotic emotions about the Russian Federation. Russian athletes are said to have complained that at international sporting events it mainly makes them feel embarrassed.
Under the circumstances, nobody was too surprised last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent to the Duma, or parliamentary lower house, legislation to abandon the current unsatisfactory anthem. But many, both in Russia and abroad, were surprised and disturbed at what he proposed — and the Duma on Friday agreed — to replace it with: the tune of the old Soviet national anthem, “The Hymn of the Soviet Union,” approved by Josef Stalin in 1943 as a successor to the “Internationale” and the instantly recognizable musical signature of the former Cold War colossus.
At the same time, the Duma turned its attention to the equally charged questions of the country’s flags and state symbol, which have also been in legal limbo throughout the post-Soviet era. Here, the lawmakers went down two paths. On the one hand, they voted to formally adopt the centuries-old white, blue and red tricolor as the national flag and the imperial double-headed eagle emblem as the state symbol; both have done uncontroversial duty since 1993. But on the other hand, the Duma set off more alarm bells in liberal circles with its vote to restore a Soviet-era red banner as the army’s flag.
Together with the revival of the Stalin-era anthem, the move appears to some to signal a disquieting shift to the left and a confirmation of Mr. Putin’s taste for the dictatorial, in his historical sympathies and in his preferred method of governing. If flags and songs are meant to inspire people with the idea of something larger than themselves, what is the larger thing that is being suggested here?
In an open letter published in Izvestia on Tuesday, a group of leading Russian intellectuals left no doubt about their interpretation: The anthem, in particular, they wrote, “insults the memory of victims of Soviet political reprisals . . . and forever glorifies Lenin and Stalin.” Never mind that Mr. Putin has called for new lyrics to be set to Alexander Alexandrov’s stirring tune. The intellectuals argue that new words will never erase the old paean to tyrants. They could also have argued that music triggers its own powerful memories; echoes of the bloody past are likely to drown out any text tacked onto this unmistakable melody, just as they haunt “Kimigayo” and “Deutschland uber Alles.”
Blood, however, is not what Mr. Putin hears in the Soviet hymn. He hears power and glory, as he frankly admits. In televised remarks last week quite remarkable for their historical selectivity, he said that the Soviet era should be remembered for its military, scientific, cultural and athletic achievements as much as for its habit of “repression.” It is not hard to see the appeal of this view in shrunken and impoverished present-day Russia, which by virtually any measure is a mere shadow of the Soviet Union at its peak. The economy is mired in depression; living standards, never high, have plummeted; the state health-care system has disintegrated; the population is dwindling at an alarming rate; and the military is underfunded and demoralized. No wonder Mr. Putin would like to revive memories of the “unbreakable union of freeborn republics/ that great Russia welded forever to stand,” as the old anthem optimistically put it. Amazingly for a former KGB man, he even hinted last week at nostalgia for the czarist era, another expansionist period that he said “deserves to be honored” by Russians.
No wonder, but no credit to Mr. Putin, either. At a time of near-crisis, it hardly augurs well for a leader to seek to inspire his country with visions of past rather than future strength — especially when the kinds of strength thus adduced are so historically compromised. The Russian people themselves moved beyond czarism and communism, and for excellent reasons. Perhaps they deserve an anthem and a flag that will honor what they hope for, not what they left behind.
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