Every Westerner knows three stereotypes about Russia: vodka, bears, and “Mother Russia.” We’ve written about vodka and bears in these pages before. But we have yet to talk about the Motherland, arguably the most “Russian” of the three.
Laugh all you want at “Mother Russia,” but the Motherland, also known as Родина or Родина-мать, is a real symbol that many Russians use to convey their beliefs about Russia. It’s a powerful and versatile symbol. You may have heard of “The Motherland Calls,” a gargantuan statue erected in 1967 in memory of the Battle of Stalingrad. While unmistakably feminine, here the Motherland is represented as fierce, brave, and ready to lead the fight for glory. But not everyone would agree with that idea of the Motherland.
To see how complicated feelings can get towards the Motherland, look no further than Russian rock music. Poets and writers have been writing about the Motherland for centuries, but since the end of the Soviet Union, Russian rockers of every political conviction have been translating this image into musical idioms for mass audiences. Here are four different visions of the Motherland, as espoused in four Russian rock songs.
1991 seems like an odd time to sing about the Motherland. After all, by the end of that year, the (Soviet) Motherland was no more. But turbulent political times are ripe for reflection. It’s no coincidence that 1991 and 1992 saw the release of two classic Motherland-centric works: Nol’s album Песня о безответной любви к Родине (Song about Unrequited Love for the Motherland), and DDT’s song “Родина.” If the Soviet Union was fracturing by the day, that was all the more reason to contemplate what it had been and what it had promised to be.
Despite what the title sounds like, Песня о безответной любви к Родине (Song about Unrequited Love for the Motherland) is not one continuous song. But it can be thought of as a cohesive whole. All of its nine songs are in the same key and share the same old-fashioned instrumentation: button accordion, acoustic guitar, balalaika, drums. From track to track, Песня jumps from exhilaration to weariness to intoxication to bitterness. That may sound like a disjointed mix of emotions, but “disjointed” was the nineties in a nutshell.
While Песня has contributed at least four songs to the Russian rock canon, its titular song has fallen by the wayside. It’s not hard to see why: “Песня” the song is just forty-five seconds long and purely instrumental. Yet those forty-five seconds are packed full of feeling. “Песня” primarily features the accordion, which is a staple of Soviet music. Leaning into Soviet nostalgia, the accordion plays chords reminiscent of Soviet songs. However, it plays them without tempo, structure, or joy. The band wants to pay tribute to the Motherland, but it cannot bring itself to. The reason is right there in the album’s title. As much as they love the Motherland, they know she never loved them back. And for all they loved her, they couldn’t stop her from teetering into collapse.
Arguably, DDT’s song “Родина” can also be titled “Song about Unrequited Love for the Motherland.” But its take on the Motherland is even ghastlier than Nol’s.
According to “Родина,” Russia cannot be disentangled from its history of terror. It has starved its people with famines (“How many years have I been chewing on raw love, instead of bread,” goes one line). It has brutalized its citizenry and swallowed their heads from the scaffold, as Saturn devoured his children. Traumatic flashbacks to Stalin’s terrors come to the speaker’s mind:
Черные фары у соседних ворот.
Лютики, наручники, порванный рот.
Black headlights near the neighboring gate.
Buttercups, handcuffs, a torn-open mouth.
Yet the speaker, and those he speaks for, cannot bring himself to hate her: “Let them call her a monster, but we like her!” In one version of the chorus, he acknowledges that she is “not a beauty.” But in the next, she is:
Спящая красавица, к сволочи доверчива, ну, а к нам — тра-ля-ля…
Sleeping beauty, trusting of swine, well, while to us — tra-la-la…
There is nothing to love about this heartless, unfaithful mother. But again and again, the speaker returns to her. Here is someone who, for better or worse, refuses to separate himself from his Motherland. In an almost religious sense, his love transcends reason.
Я люблю свою Родину, вроде бы…
Я полжизни рабом на заводе был.
И штаны носил прямо на скелет,
А теперь меня это не торкает!
I love my Motherland, so it seems…
I slaved for half my life at the factory.
And I’ve worn my pants down to the seams,
But this doesn’t bother me anymore!
Animatsia’s single “Родина” was released in 2012, the same year that protests against Putin’s ongoing reelection bid reached fever pitch. The lyrics may sound cynical, but in fact, they are completely sincere. In that sense, Animatsia’s “Родина” is reminiscent of DDT’s “Родина” (which Yuri Shevchuk, frontman of DDT, performed solo at a February 2012 rally). But Animatsia brings something somewhat different to the table.
In this “Родина,” the Russian Motherland competes with rival Motherlands. Those include Georgia (whose wine the speaker prefers), Greenland, and America. The speaker has never been to those places, but despite not knowing much about them, he’d much rather be in his Russian homeland than there. Animatsia puts the Motherland in a global context. Objectively Russia might not be much, but compared to those other places, it is the best of all possible worlds.
On Defender of the Fatherland Day in 2015, the band Lyube released their album За тебя, Родина-мать! (For You, Motherland!). Lyube has a history of unabashed Soviet great power nostalgia, as exemplified by their 1992 hit “Не валяй дурака, Америка!” (“Don’t Play the Fool, America!”), which sincerely asked the United States to return Alaska to Russia. Unsurprisingly, Lyube’s producer, who writes most of their songs, strongly supports Putin’s administration. He helped organize the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and indeed, he wrote the titular song of За тебя, Родина-мать! in honor of the Olympics.
In Lyube’s eyes, the Motherland represents a bountiful, nurturing Russia who loves its people and deserves to be loved back. Moreover, it is the primary inheritor of the Soviet Union’s glorious history. One verse alludes to World War II, while praising the Motherland’s perseverance:
Мама, как ты учила — я верил, я бился, я шел до конца.
Мама, мы победили! Я верил, знал, что так будет всегда.
Mama, how you taught: I had faith, I fought, I went to the end.
Mama, we won! I had faith, knew, it would always be so.
The song cribs cliché after cliché from Soviet patriotic songs: flying cranes, fluttering flags, a proposal to cheer “thrice hurrah!” But before we dismiss “За тебя,” we should realize that it taps into a real nostalgia that many Russians feel for the Soviet Union’s prestige and the stability of its later decades. Songs like Nol’s “Песня о безответной любви,” DDT’s “Родина,” and Animatsiya’s “Родина” actively participated in the interrogation of Soviet ideals and, eventually, its replacement with confusing, often clashing individual systems of beliefs. On the other hand, “За тебя, Родина-мать!” restores a sense of order and meaning to those who feel that post-Soviet cynicism and questioning left them behind.
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