My interest in Russian—and Russian history—and Russian literature—has been reviving since I looked up the words to the Tsarist national anthem a month or so ago. I’ve started watching clips of the old BBC version of War and Peace from the 1980s. I’ve been teaching myself Russian, bit by bit, since sometime in the 1970s; about the same time I took a Russian history course in college.
Each episode of the BBC War and Peace begins and ends with “God Save the Tsar,” known to me since childhood from Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and “Marche Slave.” But, as I’ve mentioned previously, this tune did not become Russia’s Imperial anthem until twenty years after the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently there was no official Imperial Anthem in 1812. We will notice this pattern elsewhere—including the United States. Countries did not always feel the need for an official anthem. Russia did, after the Napoleonic Wars; and before the selection of the now-familiar “God Save the Tsar,” another set of lyrics, “The Prayer of the Russians,” beginning with the same phrase, was used; set to what many of us know as the British national anthem “God Save the Queen.” This is another pattern we shall soon notice elsewhere.
Of course, after the abdication of the Tsar during the Russian Revolution, “God Save the Tsar” was no longer used. During the time of the Provisional Government, an adaption of the “Marseillaise,” titled “The Workers’ Marseillaise,” was used. I have seen the lyrics but could not fit them to the standard French tune—apparently it was modified to make it sound more “Russian.” In any case, when the Bolsheviks took power a short time later, the “Internationale” became the national anthem.
Stalin commissioned a new national anthem during World War II. I’ve heard several versions, including a fine English version recorded by Paul Robeson. The different versions reflect the varying emphasis given to Lenin and Stalin over time. With the fall of the Soviet Union, this version was retired.
But only the lyrics. The music was brought back for the current Russian National Anthem, with new words. Whereas “God Save the Tsar” sounded like an Orthodox hymn, and the Soviet anthem sounded ideological, the present anthem combines the beautiful Soviet melody with lyrics describing the beauty and grandeur of Russia. These lyrics fit yet another pattern: Anthems base on the physical beauty of a country. More on all these patterns to come.
Meanwhile, if you have the chance, listen to a recording of the current Russian national anthem. Some people consider it the world’s most beautiful anthem.