Life sometimes throws up the most unexpected things. On Sunday afternoon, after 6 weeks in Petrozavodsk, I found myself singing Soviet propaganda at the top of my voice on the stage of Petrozavodsk’s main theatre, watching the audience rise as one to join in the fun. The 100 strong choir, which I was part of, belted out the heart warming, nonsensical lyrics with an enthusiasm which must have made Lenin smile in his Mausoleum. The Karelian Philharmonic Orchestra, which accompanied us, did their best to be heard. Here’s my loose translation of what we sang…
In days of great undertakings, in happy rumblings and flames and ringing.
We greet thee, land of heroes, land of scientists and land of dreamers,
Across the Steppe and through the woods, from tropics to the polar north.
Sweeps my horizon-less, forever glorious, and everlasting motherland.
We’ll not be stopped
On land or on the water
We’re not afraid
of ice nor threatening clouds
Our soul’s ever-burning flame
Our nation’s glorious name
We’ll always bear
Through all the world forever more.
Shall we remain in our place? Our onward march is always right and valiant.
Our work is a work of honour, a feat of bravery, a feat of glory.
All hands together to the task, to blast us onward through the rocks
A dream so beautiful, still yet to be fulfilled, calls you on to victory.
Our land is one of glory, a century’s work done in few short years.
We’ve earned our right to fortune - we take it, love it and we sing like infants.
Our shining scarlet stars above, shine proud and bright like ne’er before.
High over our great land, high o’er an o-ce-an, of countless dreams at last come true.
Get the picture? Silly though the words might sound now, the Soviet Propaganda machine knew what they were doing when they commissioned this sort of thing. They had the unenviable task of maintaining unity in an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, from the Arctic to the Hindu Kush, containing dozens of peoples, cultures and languages. Music, particularly rousing anthems like this, was a good way of doing it. Times may have changed a lot, but the power of music to unite people remains strong, and we felt it this week during Petrozavodsk University’s first choir festival, which brought together choirs from other parts of Karelia, from Petersburg and even from Barcelona! When we were together, the music barely stopped. People burst into song every few minutes at the parties which followed concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Language didn’t seem to matter - there were songs in Russian, English, Latin, Catalan, Norwegian and even a Zulu spiritual which became our ‘anthem’, maybe because it was the one song which nobody understood! We even sang it on the station platform as we waved goodbye to our visitors. It was quite a surreal moment - wrapped up in coat, hat and gloves against the rapidly approaching Northern winter singing a song composed on the savanna somewhere near the Equator. It just goes to show music’s amazing capacity to transcend borders and cultures and bring people joy.
Those who know me well might be surprised to hear me raving about music - I’m someone who owned an iPod for a year and never added a single song to it! However, fortunately my ambivalence towards listening to music doesn’t stop me loving to make it. Combine the opportunity to make music with the opportunity to unite people from different countries and cultures and you have the recipe for a very happy Ben! It was such a privilege and so much fun to be involved in the festival - whether we were singing, dancing, chatting, eating or drinking together, it was one of those experiences which makes you so glad to be alive!
Much rehearsing for the festival and for the musical I will be in in a few weeks have done a good job of keeping me from my computer recently, which explains the recent lack of blogs. There should be more to come soon though. As I expected, Russia continues to provide plenty to write about.