Songs help us build and live

It’s hard to find a country where people love songs and singing as much as Russians do. It is no wonder that songs in Russia are referred to as “the soul of the people.”

Feodor Chaliapin, the legendary Russian opera singer who mystified the entire world with his powerful voice, once told a story that happened to him in St. Petersburg. After leaving the house, he stopped a driver so he could get to a friend’s house for dinner. They talked a lot on the way and the driver decided to ask what Chaliapin’s profession was. Chaliapin briefly explained that he was a singer. The driver was quite perplexed. After looking over his wealthy customer, he sighed and said: “Yeah, I sing too, when I drink…”

But Russians don’t only sing during get-togethers when they drink. Songs that people sing over dinner, during get-togethers with friends, are a tradition that is passed on from one generation to the next. This surprises a lot of foreigners, who are generally not used to people signing when they get together with their friends. Thus, if you want your Russian business partner or client to like you, make sure to learn a couple of songs in Russian.

Russians of every social strata sing during get-togethers: some with the accordion, the guitar, and even with no musical instruments at all. There are different kinds of songs, and every group has their own preferences. The intelligentsia usually prefer soft, lyrical ballads from the Soviet era - songs by Bulat Okudzhava, Vladimir Vysotsky, Yuri Vizbor and Alexander Galich. People from provincial towns and villages like to sing folk songs or modern chanson style songs, which are very popular in Russia today. Chanson fans prefer songs by Stas Mikhailov, Lyuba Uspenskaya, Elena Vaenga, Mikhail Shufutinsky and many others!

This Russian tradition of singing with friends and family goes back to the folk song. That’s how everything started. What is a folk song? It’s a song that is not only loved by the people, but was also created by the people! Here are just a few examples of the folk songs that Russians love: “Gold-Domed Moscow,” “Along Peter’s Street,” “A Young Cossack Walks Along the Don,” “Vot Kto-to s Gorochki Spustilsya” and “Vot Mchitsya Troika Pochtovaya.” All of these compositions don’t have a specific author or composer. The words and the music were created by the people.

What are these songs about? About happiness and sadness, difficult life, love, seasons of the year, unique Russian nature. Folk songs, more so than any other songs, accurately reflect the specifics of Russia’s national character, of the country’s soul. A lot of Russian thinkers have pointed this out in their work. For example, here is a quote from Russian writer and philosopher Ivan Ilyin in his book The Way of Spiritual Revival: “Show me how you believe and pray, how you feel about goodness, heroism, honor and duty, how you sing, dance and read poetry, and I’ll tell you what country you’re from.”

In other words, Russian people have always sang: during trips, during short periods of rest, in sad and happy times, on weekends and weekdays, when they were young and old. Perhaps this is why one of the most popular songs in Russia is a song by the famous Leonid Utyosov called “A Happy Song Makes the Heart Feel Light,” which contains lyrics that every Russian person knows from childhood: “Song helps us build
and live. Like a friend, it calls and leads. Those who march
through life with a song will never be lost….”

The interesting thing is that these are more than just words.
Our people really do go through life singing. Different eras
throughout Russian history gave birth to different songs:
military songs, songs about heroism, lyrical ballads.
For example, songs from the Revolutionary era, which
were composed after the Revolution of 1917, the songs
composed during the first Five-Year Plans, are filled
with proletariat energy, calling on people
to go to work. There are also songs from
the war years, which helped soldiers
make it through those tough four
years of WWII.

“Onward with a song!” is one of the
most popular phrases in Russia.
This is what Russians say when
somebody is about to embark
on a new endeavor.


Pictures by Anastasia Saifulina


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