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Friday, March 10, 2017

Six Great Songs About St. Petersburg

by Elena Bobrova

Many Russian cities have songs about about them. Here are six of the best ones about Russia's Northern Capital – three by American artists, three by Russians.

 

Leningrad

Written in 1989, this song fully represents the spirit of perestroika, when Americans and Russian were the best of friends. Billy Joel sings about a Russian clown named Viktor Razinov, whom he met while touring the Soviet Union in 1987. Born in 1944, Viktor was “a child of war, another son who never had a father after Leningrad.” He served in the Red Army and later started working in the circus, which was “the greatest happiness he'd ever found, was making Russian children glad.”

He counterpoints Victor’s story with that of his own childhood in the US, diving under desks during the Cold War, living in fear. Then, Joel and Razinov meet in Russia. The clown makes Billy's daughter laugh, they embrace and realize all the meaninglessness of the Cold War:

“We never knew what friends we had
Until we came to Leningrad.”

In 2015, Viktor traveled to New York to attend Billy Joel's concert in Madison Square Garden. Because of this reunion, Joel played “Leningrad” live.

 

Rumor in St. Petersburg

Twenty years ago, Fox Animation Studios created the animated musical Anastasia, which for many Americans became their first introduction to Russian history. While the film is pure fairy tale and full of historical inaccuracies, its soundtrack captured hearts all over the world and received two Academy Award nominations.

The song “Rumor in St. Petersburg” shows city residents a decade after the Revolution of 1917 (in fact, in 1927 St. Petersburg had already been named Leningrad for three years). People are complaining about their life and working conditions, singing that “St. Petersburg is gloomy and bleak, My underwear got frozen standing here all week.” And they are spreading a rumor about Tsarina Anastasia, who “may be still alive.” This song is wonderful combination of American musical traditions and traditional Russian sounds.

 

St. Petersburg

In 2005 British rock band devoted this lyrical song to St. Petersburg. It was their first single from the album Road to Rouen. While the single’s cover had a picture of the monument to Peter the Great, the song tells the story of a guy who “set sail for St. Petersburg” because he was deeply disappointed with his lover.

He is still with his beloved, but just for three days, as he understands that it’s time to move on. And for some unknown reason he is choosing Russia’s northern capital as the destination “for a better life.”

“Set sail for St. Petersburg
Making use of my time
Cause in three days I'll be out of here
And it's not a day too soon.”

 

Город над вольной Невой

(The City Over the Wide Neva)

This song was written in 1957, by Vasily Soloviev-Sedoy and Alexander Churkin (performed here by Dmitri Hvorostovsky). The lyrical hero was raised in Leningrad and then protected it during WWII. He sings that today (a decade after the war), he sees his comrades and recognizes in them his “restless youth.” He also says “Good night, dear Leningrad,” addressing the city like an old and beloved friend.

The song was so different from the official Soviet propaganda at the time that it caught Leningraders’ hearts and became the city’s unofficial hymn. In 1981, football fans of the city’s most popular local club, Zenit, used it as the basis for their own version of the song, which they now perform before each game.

 

Leningradskie mosty

(Leningrad Bridges)

This song, by Modest Tabachnikov, Viktor Dragunsky and Ludmila Davidovich (performed here by Proletarian Tango), also appeared in the 1950s and tells the story of the city’s famous drawbridges. They stay open half of the night when river navigation is open. This important tourist attraction is a real inconvenience for locals, who can easily get stuck on the wrong side of the river, then have to wait out the raising or travel by car to the city’s outskirts so as to cross the Neva river there.

The melody sounds a bit like New Orleans jazz and the story is very simple. It is common for young couples to choose one of the city’s bridges as a place to rendesvous. The singer reveals the bridge he and his girlfriend Lena preferred:

“Купив букет подснежников, влюбленные и нежные,
Мы шли всегда на Поцелуев мост”.

 

Having bought a bouquet of snowdrops, full of love and tenderness,
We always went to the Bridge of Kisses.

Then, many years later, he is still in love with Lena, because they chose their bridge wisely, picking the Bridge of Kisses instead of a movable one (razvodnoy most in Russian) as their meeting place. Here the songwriter is engaging in wordplay, as the Russian word “razvod” is used for both “raising a bridge” and “divorce.”

 

V Pitere pit

To Drink in St. Pete

(Note: The video contains obscene language.)

Published on Youtube in April 2016, this humorous video by the rock band Leningrad has received almost 37 million views. In the song, provocative band leader Sergei Shnurov argues that St. Petersburg is the best place in Russia to drink. While many locals (and even Muscovites) agree with him (bar hopping is cheaper in the Northern capital and there are more alternative nightlife places compared to the capital), others are outraged that Shnurov shatters the myth of St. Petersburg as Russia’s most cultural city.

Needless to say, Shnurov has won. Tourists can now easily find numerous T-shirts and cups with slogan “V Pitere pit,” and the phrase has become a popular social media hashtag.

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