August 30, 2019

What Russian Rock Music Says About the Motherland


What Russian Rock Music Says About the Motherland
“The Motherland Calls”, one of the best-known portrayals of the Motherland outside Russia. Sergei Karpov

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.

“Песня о безответной любви к Родине” (1991), Nol’

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.


“Песня о безответной любви к Родине”.
 

“Родина” (1992), DDT

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.


Yuri Shevchuk, frontman of DDT, performing an acoustic version of “Родина” at the Bolotnaya protests in 2012. / SATxtreme
 

“Родина” (2012), Animatsia

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.


Music video for Animatsia’s “Родина”.
 

“За тебя, Родина-мать!” (2015), Lyube

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.


There’s no official music video, but this patriotic interpretation comes close. / Ксю Perga

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.

You Might Also Like

Music for Everybody
  • February 01, 1997

Music for Everybody

In the world of Russian rock, as in so many spheres of post-Soviet culture, the prevailing trend is to mimic things Western, or American. Yet one musical group, Lyube, has been bucking this trend since the early days of perestroika. With a style rooted in Russian folk traditions, Lyube strives for a uniquely Russian sound, one heavily infused with military themes. And the formula is working.
The Age of Aquarium
  • September 01, 2012

The Age of Aquarium

For 40 years, Boris Grebenshchikov and Aquarium have made music like no other band in Russia, combining poetry and beautiful, often quizzical instrumentals into a charming sound that is at once entirely unique and entirely Russian.
5 St. Petersburg Bands You Should Know
  • March 28, 2016

5 St. Petersburg Bands You Should Know

St. Petersburg (or Leningrad) has always occupied a special place in the world of Russian music. Famous for its rich classical traditions, especially at the Mariinsky Theater, in the second part of the twentieth century St. Petersburg became the epicenter of underground and experimental music.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
The Little Humpbacked Horse

The Little Humpbacked Horse

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
The Best of Russian Life

The Best of Russian Life

We culled through 15 years of Russian Life to select readers’ and editors’ favorite stories and biographies for inclusion in a special two-volume collection. Totalling over 1100 pages, these two volumes encompass some of the best writing we have published over the last two decades, and include the most timeless stories and biographies – those that can be read again and again.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955