Celebrating Victory Day Through Russian Culture
Victory Day is one of Russia’s biggest national holidays, so it’s no wonder that so many films, songs, poems and books have drawn inspiration from it. Take a look below to see how Russian popular culture celebrates this most special of remembrance days.
The Cranes are Flying (Летят журавли)
Released in 1957, the iconic ‘The Cranes are Flying’ was a landmark in Soviet cinema. The first film of the Khrushchev Thaw (хрущёвская оттепель) to truly examine the psychological impact of war and the personal wartime experience of the Russian people, the director Mikhail Kalatozov steered clear of the patriotic clichés that had previously dominated Soviet filmography. The result is an incredibly moving account of life during this period. By focusing on a young woman’s experience of the war, Kalatozov really shows the human cost. The film was a hit in Russia and abroad, and remains popular today.
Ballad of a Soldier (Баллада о солдате)
Like ‘The Cranes are Flying’, ‘Ballad of a Soldier’ tells the story of an individual’s wartime experience – a young Russian soldier’s journey back home during leave. Also released during Khrushchev’s Thaw, this 1959 film draws the viewer’s attention away from the ‘collective’ sense of war back to the personal ordeal of one soldier. In doing so, the director Grigori Chukhrai pays an emotional tribute to all of those who suffered during the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война). ‘Ballad of a Soldier’ is beloved for its poetic camera style, impeccable acting and poignant storyline.
They Fought For Their Country (Они сражались за Родину)
Adapted from Mikhail Sholokhov’s book of the same name, the 1975 film ‘They Fought For Their Country’ focuses on a Soviet platoon’s defence of Stalingrad. Sholokhov is most well-known for his epic novel ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ (‘Тихий Дон’). Although the film does feature large battle scenes, it also examines the lives of ordinary Russians caught up in the war. Despite the tragic subject, there is even some black humour scattered throughout ‘They Fought For Their Country’ in order to emphasise the humanity behind the horror.
Victory Day (День Победы)
Originally written for a competition to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Victory Day, this song has become a classic in and of itself. Although it was initially dismissed as too trivial for such a significant and emotional day, the song has remained popular thanks to its bittersweet lyrics.
The chorus goes like this:
Это День Победы This is Victory Day
Порохом пропах With the smell of gunpowder
Это праздник This is a holiday
С сединою на висках. With grey around the temples
Это радость This is happiness
Со слезами на глазах. With tears in its eyes
Dark is the Night (Тёмная ночь)
One of the most famous Russian wartime songs, ‘Dark is the Night’ is a gentle guitar song describing homesickness, grief and love. Performed by the Soviet actor Mark Bernes in the 1943 war film ‘Two Soldiers’ (‘Два бойца’), his heartfelt rendition captured the soul of the Russian people and ensured its classic status.
The song is four poignant verses including lines like this:
Радостно мне, я спокоен в смертельном бою,
Знаю встретишь с любовью меня, что б со мной ни случилось.
I am happy, I am calm in the midst of this deadly battle,
I know that you’ll greet me with love, whatever has happened to me.
Sacred War (Священная война)
Also known as ‘Arise, Great Country!’ (Вставай, страна огромная!), this wartime anthem was one of the most popular among Soviet soldiers due to its stirring lyrics and rousing music. The song was composed by Aleksander Aleksandrov, the founder of the world-famous Aleksandrov Ensemble and the composer of the Soviet Union’s National Anthem.
Here’s an example of the patriotic lyrics:
Пойдём ломить всей силою, Let’s charge forward with all our strength,
Всем сердцем, всей душой With all our heart, with all our soul
За землю нашу милую, For our dear country,
За наш Союз большой! For our great Union!
Grab your coat, let’s go home! – Bulat Okudzhava
Written by the Soviet singer-songwriter Okudzhava, ‘Grab your coat, let’s go home!’ (‘Бери шинель, пошли домой!’) is a poem describing the tragedy and loss of the war. Having fought in the Red Army himself, Okudzhava’s folk poems and songs tell of his personal experience.
А ты с закрытыми очами And you with your closed eyes
Спишь под фанерною звездой. Sleep beneath a plywood star
Вставай, вставай, однополчанин, Get up, get up, fellow soldier
Бери шинель пошли домой! Grab your coat, let’s go home!
The Fate of a Man – Mikhail Sholokhov
Later adapted into a film, Sholokhov’s ‘The Fate of a Man’ (‘Судьба человека’) recounts the life of a former soldier the author happens to meet. Sholokhov is a master of the war novel, and the book is permeated with sadness as well as hope. Published ten years after the end of the war, he examines the strength and resilience of the Russian character.
Victory – Anna Akhmatova
One of the most acclaimed Russian poets, Akhmatova began writing ‘Victory’ (‘Победа’) in 1942 and finished in 1945. Using images of snow and the ocean, she conjures up the terrifying and pervasive aspect of war and invasion. However the final stanza ends triumphantly:
Победа у наших стоит дверей…
Как гостью желанную встретим?
Пусть женщины выше поднимут детей,
Спасенных от тысячи тысяч смертей,—
Так мы долгожданной ответим.
By our doors Great Victory stays …
But how will we glory her advent?
Let women lift higher the children! They blessed
With life midst thousands and thousands deaths –
Thus will be the dearest answered.
I hope this post has given you more insight into the huge impact of the Second World War and Victory Day on Russian culture, and why it is such a celebrated occasion here. Please check out the Liden & Denz blog for more information on Victory Day!
This post was brought to you by Tilly Hicklin, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz, St. Petersburg.