Ars vs Bellum | Art in War: War in Art. The Great Patriotic War in Russian Сulture
“In difficult times before our Russia we are sinless.”
In times of momentous conflict between nations, contrary to that popular dictum Inter arma silent Musae - “When guns talk, the muses fall silent” - art and culture retain their voice. From June 1941 to May 1945, through the years of the Great Patriotic War, the muses were certainly involved in the conflict, strengthening the spirit of those who were fighting, raising the morale of those at the front and those behind the lines who contributed so much to the war effort.
The cultural canvas of the Great Patriotic War was a broad one, from evacuation of the museum collections of Leningrad and Moscow to the new generation of writers who would find their voice at the front, from the immortal melodies of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony, itself an act of resistance to the Nazi blockade, to the moving war songs that caught the mood of the people.
For the post-war Soviet generations, as well as for the majority of Russians today, the Second World War is identical with the Great Patriotic War, even though the latter conflict began only with the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. in June 1941, some two years after fighting had broken out in Europe. Such loose equivalences are inevitable: the First World War had seemed to those then living in the Russian Empire to be comparable to the Patriotic War of 1812, when Russia fought another invasion from the west. The Great Patriotic War in Russia, and across the countries of the former Soviet Union, is forever stamped in the memoirs of our parents and grandparents.
As in World War I, there were numerous figures from the world of culture - writers, artists, photographers, filmmakers and musicians - shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers, in whose bags, alongside photographs of their loved ones, many a volume of poetry would surely be found. Each family has its own treasured memories, its stories, its special memorabilia. In my own case, that merciless time is forever connected with a book by the Soviet poet Eduard Bagritsky, in the “Small Poetry Library” edition, that my father Ilya Kamenkovich, a major in a guards regiment, carried with him throughout the war. Thus, in my distant childhood, poetry and war were intricately connected - a volume of poetry felt like a talisman.
On September 1 1939, a titanic clash between two worlds began, between the terrible anti-humanism of fascism and the values of the rest of the world. For the latter, the preservation of cultural heritage was almost on a par with the preservation of human life, since culture and art are especially sensitive to the barbarous destruction of world cataclysm.
The lessons of the First World War had been learnt: even before conflict began, museums and galleries around Europe were implementing the plans they had made to ensure that their collections remained safe. Thus, on July 13 1941, Nikolai Shvernik, Chairman of the Council for Evacuation at the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR, published a direction that stipulated which cultural treasures would be removed from Moscow by railway. It included a detailed list of the property of the Committee for Arts under the Council of People's Commissars that was to be evacuated, including, in the order set out in that document: the collection of old musical instruments held by the Bolshoi Theatre, the unique treasures of the Tretyakov Gallery, and the exhibits of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of New Western Art and the Museum of Oriental Cultures. The city of Novosibirsk in Siberia was specified as their destination and would become the place of their temporary storage.
Preserving the country's creative intelligentsia itself was no less of a priority, which meant that entire theatre companies, film studios, art institutes and those associated with them - in some cases, whole families of cultural figures - were evacuated to cities such as Samarkand, Tashkent, Alma-Ata and Tbilisi in the Soviet Republics, and to Kuibyshev and Ufa in the Russian Federation. All those institutions would continue working in evacuation, staging performances, making films, putting on exhibitions and giving concerts. The cultural life of the regions concerned was hugely enriched: by the end of the war, branches of the museums and theatres, art colleges and educational establishments concerned had appeared in many of them.
The younger generation of those who showed particular artistic promise - the artists, musicians and dancers of the future - were not subject to enlistment and were removed from areas of conflict. In such a way, the village of Voskresenskoe in Bashkiria became home to Moscow's famous Secondary Art School for gifted children, and many of the future names of Russian art of the second half of the 20th century, such as Gely Korzhev, Viktor Ivanov, Pyotr Ossovsky, Pavel Nikonov, Igor Popov, Ivan Sorokin and Vladimir Stozharov, would continue their education there. The virtuosos-to-be of the Central Music School attached to Moscow's Conservatory were sent to Penza, among them the violinists Leonid Kogan, Igor Bezrodny and Valentin Zhuk, the pianists Lazar Berman, Dmitry Paperno and Yevgeny Malinin and many other musicians. The pupils and teachers of the Leningrad Choreographic Institute resumed their studies in the city of Molotov (now Perm).
Saving the Hermitage and the Tretyakov
Preparations for the removal of the treasures of the Hermitage had begun shortly after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, with special crates constructed and assigned for most of its exhibits, a factor that would play a decisive role in their successful evacuation from Leningrad. As the renowned Egyptologist Militsa Mathieu recalled: “Everything that could be needed for the evacuation had been prepared long before the war. I remember that for almost two years [before 1941] there were several long planed sticks in the corner of my office. Little did I believe that the time would come when we would roll the [collection's] Coptic Egyptian fabrics onto them and pack them off to the Urals."
The story of the first days of the Great Patriotic War in Leningrad is well known. The legendary director of the Hermitage, Joseph Orbeli, wrote in his memoirs: “On June 22 1941, all the employees of the Hermitage were summoned to the museum. Researchers, security personnel and technical employees alike, all took part in the packing, breaking for no more than an hour a day to eat and rest. From the second day, hundreds of people who loved the Hermitage came to help them... They had to be ordered to take meals and rest: the Hermitage was dearer to them than their own well-being." As a result of such ceaseless effort, by July 1941 the Hermitage's treasures - a total of 1,118,000 exhibits - had been evacuated in two instalments to Sverdlovsk. The works had departed, leaving some 2,000 people to live in the deep basement bomb shelters of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace.
It was the same in Moscow: after the outbreak of war, the main task of the staff of the Tretyakov Gallery was to ensure the safety of the works of Russia's national culture in their charge. Paintings and works of graphic art, sculpture and archives were urgently readied for shipment to the country's heartland. As the art historian Serafim Druzhinin subsequently remembered: “A few days later the halls of the Gallery were filled with planking, wood shavings, crates and rollers for the paintings... From early morning until late at night... the noise of sawing and hammering was everywhere, that old burlak [barge-hauler] call ringing out around the now bare walls - ‘One, two, lift!'" Work continued in full swing from six or seven in the morning until late at night. In just five days, the paintings had been taken down from the walls, removed from their frames and stretchers, and securely packed and prepared for evacuation. The director of the Gallery, Alexander Zamoshkin, Yelena Silversvan, who later became chief curator, and Yevgeny Kudryavtsev, head of the restoration workshop, supervised this emergency work.
All the time the Gallery remained open to visitors. “Preparations for the evacuation continued in parallel with the usual work: there were visitors every day... I remember one such moment very well: in one hall we were packing and sealing crates, while in the adjoining Vasnetsov Hall a guided tour for soldiers about to leave for the front was proceeding," the art historian Sofya Goldstein remembered about the time. In such a way the Gallery's treasures were saved.
Writers at war
“There is no greater honour for the Soviet writer, there is no higher task for Soviet art, than to serve, tirelessly and daily, his people in the terrible times of war with the tools of his artistic trade.”.
From the first days of World War II the imperative of keeping a historical record of its events and protagonists became clear. With the power of the pen seen as matching that of the bayonet, more than 1,000 writers were sent to the front as war correspondents and in related roles. Military statistics record that more than 400 writers of those who assumed such duties in the war were killed, with 21 writers awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union".
Those who survived can perhaps be divided into two groups, the “older" one that included professional writers, poets and journalists, figures who had some previous experience of the world, and the “younger" one - later called the “Generation of ‘24" (those who had turned 17 in 1941) or the “1920s generation" - many of whom would become known as writers and poets after the war. Among such “junior" writers at the front were Viktor Astafyev, Vasil Bykov, Grigory Baklanov, Yury Bondarev, Boris Vasiliev, Bulat Okudzhava, Yulia Drunina and Yury Levitansky, and in their works - whether “lieutenant prose" (a term associated with Viktor Nekrasov's 1946 short novel “In the Trenches of Stalingrad") or “sergeant prose", or poetry - the reality of war was depicted with honesty. Critics would discern what they came to call “trench truth" in their descriptions of frontline hardship, the agony of losing comrades-in-arms, acquiring the skill to kill the enemy, as well as the exaltation of Victory, followed in turn by the search for one's place in the new life of peace. All such themes were to be found in different, but no less heartfelt, books that were written after the war.
There were also many writers fighting on the fronts of the Great Patriotic War who had distinguished themselves in World War I. One such figure was Valentin Kataev, who had been awarded two Crosses of St. George and the Order of St. Anne, 4th degree. During the Great Patriotic War, Kataev - like his brother, the writer Yevgeny Petrov, who perished in the conflict - was a war correspondent. Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the author of “The Optimistic Tragedy" and holder of another Cross of St. George, led the task force of writers at the Baltic Fleet Political Administration. Mikhail Zoshchenko, an earlier recipient of the Orders of St. Anne, St. Stanislav and St. Vladimir, wrote for newspapers and for the Radio Committee. Another notable presence was Ilya Ehrenburg, who from 1914 to 1917 had been a correspondent for Russian newspapers such as “Utro Rossii" (Morning of Russia) and “Birzheviye vedomosti" (Exchange Gazette) on the Western Front, and had later reported on the Spanish Civil War for “Izvestia" newspaper from 1936 to 1939: during the Great Patriotic War he became famous for his poems and newspaper reports, as well as his collections of material covering the atrocities committed by the invading Nazi forces.
Nikolai Tikhonov, who had fought in both the First World War and the Finnish War and would later come to be known as the “Marshal of Soviet Poetry", worked in the Political Administration of the Leningrad Front. The celebrated children's writer Arkady Gaidar, a correspondent for the newspaper “Komsomolskaya Pravda", was killed in 1941, just four months into the war. With the commencement of hostilities, Konstantin Paustovsky served as a war correspondent on the Southern Front. Following his service as a correspondent in the Finnish War, Alexander Tvardovsky became a truly national poet during the Great Patriotic War, especially after the publication of the first part of his poem “Vasily Terkin" in 1942.
The poet Alexander Yashin volunteered for the front and took part in the defence of both Leningrad and Stalingrad. Vasily Grossman, the future author of “Life and Fate", that great novel whose own fate would prove so complicated in Grossman's lifetime, was a war correspondent for “Krasnaya Zvezda" (Red Star) newspaper from August 1941 to 1945. Serving in transport units, Anatoly Rybakov took part in the defence of Moscow as well as the assault on Berlin. Alexander Fadeyev, who headed the Union of Soviet Writers, became a correspondent for Sovinformburo, the Soviet Information Bureau, and the newspaper “Pravda". As early as August-September 1941, Mikhail Sholokhov and Yevgeny Petrov joined Konev's 19th Army on the Western Front, while Yury Bondarev and Viktor Nekrasov fought on the Stalingrad front. Bulat Okudzhava was a mortar man, Georgy Baklanov an artilleryman, Vasil Bykov an infantryman, Viktor Bogomolov a paratrooper and intelligence officer. The ranks of such men of literature who were closely connected to the Red Army was numerous.
The literature of war
“We are not doctors, we are pain itself.”
Soviet-Russian prose and poetry about the war began during the Great Patriotic War itself and has continued now for three quarters of a century, the topic as inexhaustible as our attempts to comprehend its violence, the fear of violent death, and the madness of killing in the name of what - ideology, material advantage or power, or a combination of all three? “Eternal memory" to those who did not return, to those who died in the subsequent years, to the children who would never forget the hunger of their wartime childhoods. The theme of youth was particularly powerful in the literary works that followed the fate of the generation that had gone straight from school into the army, like Boris Balter's “Goodbye, Boys!" and Bulat Okudzhava's “Bless You, Schoolboy", or the touching but cruel study of the children of the war, “By a Cliff a Golden Cloud Once Lingered", that Anatoly Pristavkin published during perestroika. Or “Jamilya", by that classic of modern Kyrgyz literature Chingiz Aitmatov, a story of love, love in wartime...
For Viktor Astafyev, in his novel “Cursed and Killed", war was a real “crime against reason", while the whole country learned about unprecedented heroism in Boris Polevoy's “Tale of a Real Man". The response to Sergei Smirnov's novel “The Brest Fortress" was hugely enthusiastic, and millions of readers have acclaimed Grigory Baklanov's books such as “July ‘41", “Forever Nineteen" and “The Foothold", as well as Yury Bondarev for his novel “Hot Snow" and other works, together with Emmanuil Kazakevich (“Star", “Heart of a Friend"), Vladimir Bogomolov (“The Moment of Truth"), and Alexander Bek (“Volokolamsk Highway").
Novels such as Konstantin Simonov's “The Living and the Dead", Yury German's “My Dear Man" or Alexander Chakovsky's “The Blockade" tell of the heroism of the path to victory. A People's Writer of Belarus, Vasil Bykov told such stories in works like “It Doesn't Hurt the Dead", “Obelisk" and “Sotnikov", as did the Ukrainian writer Ivan Stadnyuk in his “People Are Not Angels".
Mikhail Sholokhov's “They Fought for the Homeland" was famously adapted for cinema by Sergei Bondarchuk; generations of Russians have watched “Seventeen Moments of Spring", Tatyana Lioznova's cult television series of espionage within the Third Reich based on the novel of Yulian Semenov.
Readers learned the truth about war from Boris Vasiliev in books such as “Tomorrow There Came War", “One-Two, Off to War", “Officers" and “Dawns Here are Quiet", from which Yury Lyubimov adapted one of his best Taganka Theatre productions, Kirill Molchanov wrote his opera, and Stanislav Rostotsky made a film. Anatoly Kuznetsov (“Babi Yar"), Vasily Grossman (“Life and Fate") and Anatoly Rybakov (“Heavy Sand") described the terrible deaths of civilians in enemy-occupied cities and villages. The Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich was one of the compilers of “I Am from the Fiery Village", a collection of documentary stories of partisan and village life under occupation (it was the source of Elem Klimov's unforgettable 1983 film “Come and See", of which Adamovich was a screenwriter). Together with Daniil Granin, the author of “My Lieutenant", Adamovich collected material for “A Book of the Blockade", a detailed description of the everyday struggle with cold and hunger of the inhabitants of Leningrad. Another Belarusian writer, the future Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, continued Adamovich's documentary approach in her “The Unwomanly Face of War", a masterful survey of women at war, told in the words of those with whom Alexievich spoke.
Music in war
“I think that in no other national culture did war give birth to such
a colossal rise in national creativity. The art of the Great Patriotic
War was an aesthetic and social phenomenon, one that had never
The perception of war as a catastrophe of the universe, the “end of times" as predicted in the Bible, was entirely natural. That was the central theme of one of the first compositions to appear in World War II, the piercingly tragic “Quatuor pour la fin du temps" by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, written and first performed in a prison camp in January 1941. In the same year, Dmitry Shostakovich would write his Seventh Symphony, known as the “Leningrad" after the besieged city where it would be performed with the conductor Karl Eliasberg on August 9 1942. The Leningrad Radio Orchestra had to be re-formed especially for the occasion, drawing on whichever musicians remained alive in the city - many had perished in the terrible famine of the previous winter. It was the very day on which Hitler had planned to celebrate the fall of Leningrad, and the concert was broadcast on street loudspeakers across the besieged city, the mere fact of its performance acclaimed as an act of heroism, a spiritual victory in itself.
The premiere of the Seventh Symphony had taken place on March 5 1942 in Kuibyshev (now Samara), with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra conducted by Samuil Samosud performing to an audience that included the foreign diplomats and journalists who had been evacuated there from Moscow. Immediately after that concert a flow of requests to send the symphony started to arrive from orchestras around the world and the score was duly dispatched in microfilm format. The right of first live performance abroad was accorded to Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York on July 19 1942. That concert, broadcast on the radio, won the hearts of listeners around the world.
Shostakovich would again turn to the tragic events of the Great Patriotic War in 1962 in his 13th Symphony, subtitled “Babi Yar". This time he addressed the Holocaust, setting verses by Yevgeny Yevtushenko - “There is no Jewish blood in me, it's true / But with their callous ossified revulsion / Antisemites must hate me like a Jew / And that is what makes me a real Russian" (translation by A.Z. Foreman). In opera, Sergei Prokofiev completed his “War and Peace" in 1943, the concept of which had come to him in the spring of 1941, its memories of the conflict of 1812 achieving special relevance in the time of the Great Patriotic War (Tolstoy's novel was read enormously widely during the war years: the writer Vasily Grossman would recall how “War and Peace" had been the only book he could read during the Great Patriotic War). Two decades later Mieczystaw Weinberg, the Polish composer who had fled to the Soviet Union in 1939 and who became close to Shostakovich, composed his opera “The Passenger" (1967-1968) on the theme of survival in the inhumane conditions of the fascist regime. Two decades after that, in 1984-1985, Alfred Schnittke completed his “Ritual (In Memory of Those Killed in World War II)", marking the 40th Anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade, while Isaac Schwartz, who had fought in the war as a young man, returned to the theme of the Holocaust in his “Concerto for Orchestra in Seven Parts, ‘Yellow Stars'. In Memory of Raoul Wallenberg" (2000).
It is fitting to conclude any survey of music and the Second World War with British composer Benjamin Britten's “War Requiem". Setting verse by the English poet Wilfred Owen, who had died in World War I, the composer dedicated his work to the memory of his dead friends. Its premiere, with the composer himself conducting, took place on May 30 1962 at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, in the city whose bombing in November 1940 was one of the most total acts of destruction of the war, one often compared to Stalingrad.
Britten's creative interaction over the years with figures of Russian music is famous, especially with Shostakovich, Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya - who had originally been due to sing the soprano part in the first performance of the “War Requiem" - and Svyatoslav Richter. In 1966, while visiting the Hermitage, Britten was particularly struck by Rembrandt's painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son". This provided him with the stimulus to write his opera “The Prodigal Son" (1968), which he dedicated to Shostakovich; in return, Shostakovich dedicated his 14th Symphony (1969) to Britten.
Popular artists at the Front
Anatoly Papanov, the frontline soldier who later became famous as an actor, left a striking memory of war: “In a military hospital. The loud voice, as if it is trying to conceal some irrepressible joy, of the popular singer Lydia Ruslanova, is singing [the popular song] ‘Valenki, Valenki' [Felt Boots, Felt Boots]. The record is played again and again. We knew that it was being done at the request of a soldier, whose leg had to be amputated - but the hospital had no more anaesthetics. The soldier agreed to the operation without anaesthesia, asking only, ‘Play my favourite song ‘Valenki'." Ruslanova gave more than 1,000 concerts to the Soviet forces, her final appearance in the cycle taking place on May 9 1945 on the steps of the Reichstag.
Songs such as hers enthused soldiers on the battlefields, helping them to endure the hardships of war. Another no less famous, and no less beloved, song was “The Blue Handkerchief" performed by Claudia Shulzhenko, a singer who gave more than 500 concerts during the war. The famous tenor Ivan Kozlovsky was another artist who performed to Red Army soldiers on countless occasions.
Humour was a poplar genre, too. The Odessite Yefim Berezin and Poltava native Yury Timoshenko accompanied Red Army combat units throughout the war, and on May 9 1945 they too gave a victory performance in Berlin (after the war they became a popular humoristic duo). Arkady Raikin, the actor and variety artist, headed the brigade from the Leningrad Variety Theatre which performed to the Soviet navy, appearing before the Pacific and Northern fleets, as well as those of the Baltic and Black Sea. After the war, Raikin would become a classic Soviet humourist. Other famous Soviet artists who performed at the front lines included Igor Ilyinsky, Nina Sazonova, Mikhail Gluzsky, Nikolai Trofimov, Alexander Grave and Vladimir Basov.
During the war, 3,685 front-line theatre brigades and mobile theatre units performed with the troops: Moscow formed more than 700 such groups, Leningrad more than 500. From the end of 1941 onwards, front-line companies were created by the Moscow Art Theatre and the Vakhtangov Theatre, the Bolshoi and Maly Theatres, and, of course, the Central Theatre of the Red Army. They accompanied the army throughout the war.
Songs of resistance
With its stories of love, meetings and partings, memories of home and the joys of life in peacetime, as well as battlefield acquaintances and comradeship, the popular song played a central role in wartime life. The melodies that accompany its frequently few, often simple verses come together to express a complex range of emotions, feelings that stay with us forever... Military headquarters may have seen the arrival of such artists' brigades at the front as an instrument of agitation, of propaganda - but what place could propaganda have in the real feelings that their performances evoked, the tears shed in deep emotion?
The songs that were listened to across the Soviet fronts reveal a great deal about the time. The best known must be “Katyusha" by the composer Matvei Blanter and poet Mikhail Isakovsky: written before the onset of war, in 1938, its title associates it with that most formidable weapon, the “Katyusha" rocket launcher. The popularity of the song remains such even today that many consider it a folk song. When in 1943 the Italian doctor Felice Cas- cione wrote his song “Fischia il vento" (The Wind Blows) to Blanter's melody, it became widely known among the Resistance in Italy. It was sung on the opposite side of the lines, too: the soldiers of the Spanish “Blue Division", the 250th Wehrmacht division of volunteers from Spain that fought for Nazi Germany on its Eastern Front, adapted it as their anthem “Primavera" (Spring).
Many other songs became popular among those fighting Nazism, frequently crossing borders, too. The 19th century folk song of social protest “Bella, ciao" (Farewell, Beauty) became an anthem for the Italian Resistance. Its popularity has never gone away - it was remembered, of course, by the partisans and their descendants - as it was widely performed in the early 1960s by artists as Yves Montand in France, and Muslim Magomayev and Dean Reed in the Eastern Bloc. The fighters of the French Resistance had their own “Le Chant des Partisans" (Partisan Song), written by Joseph Kassel and Maurice Druon to music by Anna Marly who was its first performer (she was the descendant of Russian emigres, her original surname Smirnova). In 1943, Marly recorded “Partisan Song" in a London studio and when members of the French Resistance heard it on a BBC broadcast, they instantly adopted it as their anthem.
One of the most popular American songs of World War II, “Cornin' in on a Wing and a Prayer", was translated into Russian in 1943 and performed under the title “Bombers" by the bandleader Leonid Utesov in a duet with his daughter Edita. The phrase “on a wing and a prayer" was changed, of course, to na chestnom slove i na odnom kryle, “on an honest word and a single wing". It sounded every bit as good.
The Soviet war song
“After battle, the heart entreats /
A double measure of music!”
The poetry and music of the front line, accompanied by an accordion, a pipe or just a comb and paper, a rhythm beaten out on an empty box of shells... How many popular songs came into being in just such a way, moving from improvised amateur performance to subsequent recording by professionals. Even today, wherever we find such military songs, whenever the first bars of these small musical masterpieces begin to play, the response that they draw from the listener is as sure as ever.
We may think today that these songs of the war years appeared at almost the same time - after all, the feelings they evoke are often alike - but in fact there was a clear chronology. In the very first days of the war, literally, two different strokes of propaganda inspiration hit home at that same time: one was Irakli Toidze's famous poster “Motherland is Calling", the other the song “Arise, Vast Country! (The Sacred War)" to the music of Alexander Alexandrov with lyrics by Vasily Lebedev-Kumach. Together they would become symbols of the unity of the Soviet people at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War.
In that first year of war, the voice of Claudia Shulzhenko sounded light and sincere as always, the whole country singing her new number “Let's Have a Smoke" (music by Modest Tabachnikov, lyrics by Ilya Frenkel): “I remember the infantry, / And my own company, / And you who gave me a smoke." One of the best songs performed by the famous singer Georgy Vinogradov - he was surely “Lyric Tenor Number One" of the war - was “Two Maxims" from 1941 (music by Sigismund Katz, lyrics by Vladimir Dykhovichny): “Precisely aims the gunner, / And the Maxim unleashes a thunderous hail, / ‘Tak-tak-tak' says the machine gunner, / ‘Tak-tak-tak' agrees his machine gun." “Evening on the Roadstead" (music by Vasily Solovyov-Sedoy, lyrics by Alexander Churkin) was a favourite of Leningraders and sailors of the Baltic fleet, but so captivating was its melody that its popularity spread far beyond the region whence it originated: “Farewell, beloved city, / We leave tomorrow for sea. / And at an early morning hour / That familiar blue scarf / Will flash behind the stern." In the Crimea, the Red Army changed the text slightly: “We leave tomorrow for the mountains..."
Then, in 1942, two of the best and surely most soulful war songs appeared - works that will never be forgotten (and never, we must hope, will become relevant again). At the heart of one is the famous poem “Wait for Me", a letter in verse by the writer turned war correspondent Konstantin Simonov to his beloved, the actress Valentina Serova. With music by Matvei Blanter, its refrain “Wait for me, and I'll be back, / Any death despite..." cast a spell almost immediately among soldiers at the front. Its popularity was surely matched, in that same year, by the poet Alexei Surkov's “In the Dugout", to music by Konstantin Listov: “You are far, far away, / And here it's four steps to death."
It was a time when the waltz came back into fashion too, as in the wonderfully dreamy “In the Frontline Forest", set by Blanter to lyrics by Isakovsky: “Silently a yellow leaf flies from the birch tree, / The old waltz ‘An Autumn Dream' plays on the harmonica..." Vladimir Dykhovichny's poignantly light poem “Odessa Misha" appeared in April 1942, printed first on an invitation pass to a concert of Leonid Utesov's orchestra: “You're from Odessa, Misha, so / Neither grief nor misfortune a'fear you. / You're a sailor, Misha, and they don't cry, / And never lose their courage." Another popular song from the same year, “Farewell, Rocky Mountains", was a touchingly melodious piece about heroic life and heroic death, with music by Yevgeny Zharkovsky and lyrics by Nikolai Bukin: “Farewell, rocky mountains, / Fatherland demands a feat! / We went to the open sea, / On a harsh and distant voyage."
In 1943, the composer Boris Mokrousov, one of those who had defended Sevastopol against the German assault of 1941-1942, and the poet Alexander Zharov composed their “Treasured Stone", based on a true story, about a rocky coast and the sea, about farewells and about dreams of safe return: “When I left the cliff, / I took a piece of granite cliff with me... / And far away from Crimea's land / We could never forget it. / Whoever takes the stone, let him swear, / That he will hold it with honour. / And if he first returns to our heart- dear bay / He would not forget his oath!"
The infantry had their songs too, like the gentle “On a Sunny Meadow", with music by Vasily Solovyov-Sedoy and lyrics by Alexei Fatyanov, which was beautifully performed by Georgy Vinogradov. Mikhail Isakovsky's “Spark" was another - the words were published on April 19 1943 in the newspaper “Pravda" but the melody, so widely beloved, has no specific author: rather, it
might be said, that the people themselves composed the music. “At the post the young girl / Said good-bye to a soldier, / In the dark night / On the steps of the porch. / And the boy could see / On his way from home / Through the white fog / A spark in the girl's window..."
When Konstantin Simonov wrote his passionate “Song of War Correspondents" in 1943, it was set to music by Matvei Blanter, and famously performed by Leonid Utesov: “From Moscow to Brest / There is no place / Wherever we wander in the dust / With a camera and a notebook, / And even with a machine gun / Through fire and cold we passed... / Let's drink to victory, / To our newspaper, / And if we die, my dear / Someone will hear, / Take a photo and write, / Someone would remember us!"
The melody of the waltz came in handy once again in Mark Fradkin's “A Random Waltz" of the same year, set to verse by Yevgeny Dolmatovsky - it is one of the most lyrical songs about love for home, for a woman, and for the Motherland from the whole Great Patriotic War: “The night is short, / The clouds are sleeping, / Your hand lies in my palm... / Although I hardly know you, / And my house is far from here, / It seems I've returned home. / In this empty hall / We dance alone together. / Just say a word, / I know not what, just say a word." “Dark is the Night" is another 1943 song, by composer Nikita Bogoslovsky and poet Vladimir Agatov, which from its very first refrains makes the heart beat to its music and verse: “Dark is the night, only bullets whistle in the steppe. / Only the wind wails through the wires, stars are faintly flickering... / In the dark night, my love, I know you do not sleep, / And, near a child's crib, you secretly wipe away a tear."
The end of 1944 saw a reunion in Moscow for Soloviev-Sedoy and Fatyanov. The front-line poet had brought with him a few poems, his “Nightingales" included, and one of the most calming songs of the troubled years of war was born: “Nightingales, nightingales, do not disturb the soldiers, / Let the soldiers sleep a little, / Let them sleep. / Spring's just come to the front, / The soldiers had no sleep - / Not because guns are shooting, / But because nightingales are singing, / Ignoring the battles on-going, / The crazy nightingales sing."
The year 1945 brought a reunion for Matvei Blanter and Mikhail Isakovsky, too, in the form of their deeply tragic “Enemies burned his hut...", considered by many among the very best of the Russian songs of the time: “Enemies burned his hut, / Killed his entire family. / Where should the soldier go now, / Whom would share his sorrow with?... / He drank - a soldier, servant of the people, / And with a pain in his heart said: / ‘I came back to you four long years, / I conquered the three powers...' / The soldier hopped, a teardrop rolling down, / The tear of his vain hopes..."
Intimations of Victory can already be felt in “The Road to Berlin" by Mark Fradkin, set to lyrics by Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, with its lyrics “supplemented" by the authors and performers as the Red Army troops continued their westward progress: “We freed Oryol, we passed the whole city, / And read the last street name, / And the name is, right word, a fighting one / Bryansk Street, it was / That's the direction we need / That's where we should go, / Bryansk Street leads us West." The song duly continued, new lines added, “We freed Bryansk...", then “We freed Minsk...". When they reached the border, the refrain became “We freed Lublin.", then as they continued through Warsaw, it concluded with: “And we read the last street name, /And the name is, right word, a fighting one / Berlin Street, it was / That's the direction we need / That's where we should go."
That advance had reached its conclusion by the time that the Pokrass brothers wrote their 1945 “Cossacks in Berlin", set to words by the poet Caesar Solodar. Solodar described an incident that he had seen in Berlin on May 9 1945, writing his poem as he flew back to Moscow that same day; he showed them to the Pokrass brothers on his arrival, and by evening they had completed their setting: “Though the blue Don , / Though sweet home are far away, / But I met a Cossack countrywoman// Here in Berlin."
That onward progress was in the air as well as on the ground, of course. Vasily Solovyov-Sedoy's “Migratory Birds", again collaborating with Alexei Fatyanov, remains popular to this day, most of all for its well-known refrain: “That's because we are pilots, pilots / The sky is ours, the sky our home / First thing, first thing is our airplanes. / Well, and girls? - Girls, for sure, but later!" in the same year Solovyov-Sedoy wrote another song about pilots, “It's time to go away", this time with lyrics by Solomon Vogelson, and it became equally popular: “It's time to go away, / We'll go far away, really far / A silver wing will greet you with a swing / When flying above in the sky I'll see our sweet home." And indeed those passionate, ingenious pilots who flew through the skies of the Great Patriotic War, “finishing off the fascist beast in its den", as the phrase had it then, were loved by everybody - these skillfully rollicking “masters of the sky" are the worthy heroes of such uplifting songs.
But finally it was surely the experience of the infantry soldier that symbolized the Great Patriotic War, something captured in Anatoly Novikov's “Eh, Roads", with lyrics by Lev Oshanin, that was written shortly after the end of World War II in the autumn of 1945: “Eh, roads... / Dust and fog, / Cold and troubles / Weeds of the steppe. / Whether it's snowing, or wind is blowing / No one could forget them / These roads so dear to us / We'll remember them forever." Just like the heroes of the front, it is a song than cannot be forgotten: nobody and nothing should be forgotten.
After the war
The flow of war poetry continued in the years that followed the coming of peace, especially abundantly during the years of the Khrushchev “Thaw" Not all such works were destined to become songs, let alone famous, but those that did reflected their times - and, in some cases, are still performed today.
The solemn and sorrowful “Buchenwald Nabat" (Buchenwald Alarm, lyrics by Alexander Sobolev, music by Vano Muradeli) appeared in 1958: devoted to the victims of the Holocaust, it continues to captivate singers and listeners alike. In the same year, Bulat Okudzhava - the “tuning fork of the era", as he was often called - wrote his lyrical, tragic “Goodbye, Boys!"; his song “We Need One Victory" (“Our tenth landing battalion") appeared in 1970, to become popular with a new generation, one that had not known the experience of war directly. Vladimir Vysotsky devoted more than 30 songs to the Great Patriotic War, including “He Didn't Return from Battle", “Song of the Pilot", “Song of the ‘Plane", “Graves of Honour", “Penal Battalions", “The One Who Didn't Shoot" and “We Rotate the Earth". Each sounds like a cry from the soul of a wounded soldier.
Typical of the short-lived “Thaw", the iconic “Do the Russians Want War?" appeared in 1961 and quickly became familiar to all Soviet citizens, whose mindset it surely reflected. With music by composer Eduard Kolmanovsky, its author, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, dedicated his poem to the well-known singer Mark Bernes, the favourite of millions, who was naturally its first performer. The Estonian singer Georg Ots recorded versions of the song in English, French, German and Spanish.
To mark the 30th anniversary of Victory in 1975, David Tukhmanov composed his “Victory Day" to verses by Vladimir Kharitonov, and it is now surely as closely associated with the conflict as any song that was written during the war itself. With its refrain, “We hastened this day as best we could", it has been performed for decades now on May 9 to mark Victory Day celebrations. While the Soviet war song was the product of just a short-lived time - four intense, momentous years - its subsequent resonance with the spiritual experience of the post-war generations suggests that its richness and depth of appeal is considerably more enduring. As we mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War, it remains a unique musical phenomenon of its century.
This article draws on material previously published in the “Tretyakov Gallery Magazine" Tamara Kaftanova, “The Tretyakov Gallery during World War И” (2005, issue 7); Alexander Morozov, “Memory and Glory - Soviet Art of the Great Patriotic War" (2013, issue 40); Yelena Terkel, “The Return. On the Occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the Tretyakov Gallery’s Re-opening after World War II" (2015, issue 47); Ksenia Karpova, “Art in Evacuation" (2015, issue 47).
- Russian State Archive. Fund Р-6822. Op. 1. Unit 237. Sheet 7.
- See: https://travelask.ru/blog/posts/9930-kak-spasali-ermitazh-vo-vremya-vov- muzey-byl-gotov-k-evakuat
- Druzhinin, S.N. ‘Days of War and Victory’//”Memoirs”. Iskusstvo magazine, 1980. No. 5. P. 43.
- Goldstein, S.N. “The State Tretyakov Gallery in Novosibirsk". From a conversation with the head of the art department of the second half of the 19th century, honoured cultural worker. Moscow, 1975. P. 16 (rotaprint edition).
- In 1947, my father Ilya Kamenkovich took part in the handover of the Mauthausen concentration camp to the Austrian government. After demobilization, he became a journalist, devoting himself to studying the atrocities of fascism and its consequences. He wrote and lectured a great deal on the subject, as well as corresponding with former prisoners of the concentration camps and helping them, including Alexander Pechersky, the hero of Sobibor who led the 1943 uprising and escape there (Pechersky passed his memoirs to my father). Kamenkovich’s books, such as “You Must Never Forget about This" and “The Night of Crying Children", were reprinted many times in the Soviet Union. As a gift, the composer Vano Muradeli sent my father the hand-written score of “Buchenwald Nabat".
- Okudzhava would continue to write about the war throughout his life in poems such as “Take your greatcoat, let’s go home!", “On the Smolensk Road", “Song of the Sailors".
We know what is now on History’s scales,
What is, in the world, going now.
The hour of courage shew our clock’s hands.
Our courage will not bend its brow.
None fears to die under the bullet’s siege,
None bitters to lose one’s home here, - And we will preserve you, O great Russian speech,
O Russian great word, we all bear.
We’ll carry you out, clear and free, as a wave,
Give you to our heirs, and from slavery save.
February 23 1942
Translated by Yevgeny Bonver
Only once I saw a hand-to-hand fighting.
Once real. Dreamed - a thousand times more.
Whoever says war isn’t frightening
Knows nothing at all about war.
I sometimes think that riders brave,
Who met their death in bloody fight,
Were never buried in a grave
But rose as cranes with plumage white.
And ever since until this day
They pass high overhead and call.
Is that not why we often gaze
In solemn silence at them all?
In far-off foreign lands I see
The cranes in evening’s dying glow
Fly quickly past in company,
As men on horseback used to go.
And, as they fly far out of reach,
I hear them calling someone’s name.
Is that why sounds in Avar speech
Recall the clamour of a crane?
Across the weary sky they race,
Who friend and kinsman used to be,
And in their ranks I see a space –
Perhaps they’re keeping it for me?
One day I’ll join the flock of cranes,
With them I shall go winging by
And you, who here on earth remain,
Will hear my loud and strident cry.
Translated by Peter Tempest
Remember, Alyosha, the roads of Smolenshchina,
Remember the rain and the mud and the pain,
The women, exhausted, who brought milk in pitchers,
And clasped them like babies at breast, from the rain.
The whispering words as we passed them - ‘God bless you!’
The eyes where they secretly wiped away tears!
And how they all promised they would be ‘soldatki’,
The words of old Russia from earlier years.
The road disappearing past hills in the distance,
Its length that we measured with tears on the run.
And villages, villages, churches and churchyards,
As if all of Russia were gathered in one.
It seemed that in each Russian village we passed through,
The hands of our ancestors under the sod
Were making the sign of the cross and protecting
Their children, no longer believers in God.
You know, I believe that the Russia we fight for
Is not the dull town where I lived at a loss
But those country tracks that our ancestors followed,
The graves where they lie, with the old Russian cross.
I feel that for me, it was countryside Russia
That first made me feel I must truly belong
To the tedious miles between village and village,
The tears of the widow, the women’s sad song.
Remember, Alyosha, the hut at Borisov,
The girl and her passionate, desperate cry,
The grey-haired old woman, her velveteen jacket,
The old man in white as if ready to die!
And what could we say? With what words could we comfort them?
Yet seeming to gather the sense of our lack,
The old woman said, ‘we shall wait for you, darlings!
Wherever you get to, we know you'll come back!’
‘We know you'll come back!’ said the fields and the pastures,
‘We know you'll come back!’ said the woods and the hill.
Alyosha, at nights I can hear them behind me.
Their voices are following after me still.
Because we are Russian, just fire and destruction
Are all we abandon behind as we go.
And fighting beside us, our comrades are dying
And Russians die only the face to the foe.
Alyosha, till now we’ve been spared by the bullets.
But when (for the third time) my life seemed to end,
I yet still felt proud of the dearest of countries,
The great bitter land I was born to defend.
I’m proud that the mother who bore us was Russian;
That Russian I’ll fall as my ancestors fell;
That going to battle, the woman was Russian,
Who kissed me three times in a Russian farewell!
Translated by Mike Munford
I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me:
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down:
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town.
It’s not for us to calmly rot in graves.
We’ll lie stretched out in our half-open coffins
And hear before the dawn the cannon coughin
The regimental bugle calling gruffly
From highways which we trod, our land to save.
We know by heart all rules and regulations.
What's death to us? A thing that we despise.
Lined up in graves, our dead detachment lies
Awaiting orders. And let generations
To come, when talking of the dead, be wise,
Dead men have ears and eyes for truth and lie:
Translated by Dorian Rottenberg
The Prison Cell
Fetters with fingers bare
From your small cell down tear,
Else will death you not spare,
Stalking here everywhere.
You in a sack they’ve bound,
To their vile jestings’ sound.
Up they’ve your body lined
To be to powder ground.
Grinds the mill people’s lives,
Bags of bones higher rise,
Its millstones iron-wise
Each day more terrorize.
No flour the miller grinds,
But blood that drips from wounds,
Greedy, the bug imbibes –
Frenzied, vile despot blind.
Let the mill cease its roar!
Its black sails turn no more,
Let there no longer pour,
Dear to our land, the gore.
Unbind those stacks of sacks!
This house of greed attack!
This will ortures wrack,
With angry bayonets hack!
Translated by Jessie Davies
How to Kill
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears
and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.
The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.
Oil on canvas. 84 × 116 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 100 × 125 cm
© Russian Museum
© Department of Manuscripts, Hermitage. St. Petersburg, 2020
Pencil on paper
© Hermitage, St. Petersburg, 2020
Pencil on paper
© Hermitage, St. Petersburg, 2020
Pencil on paper
© Hermitage, St. Petersburg, 2020
Watercolour on paper. 31.6 × 44.4 cm
© Russian Museum
Lithography. 55 × 35.9 cm
© Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 49 × 44 cm
© Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 225 × 155 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Sketch from life Oil on cardboard. 30 × 23 cm. Property of the artist
Tempera, watercolour, white paint, pencil on paper. 47.8 × 35.9 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 175 × 190 cm
Oil on canvas. 75 × 100 cm
Oil on canvas. 184 × 231 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 82 × 122 cm
© Central Military Museum, Moscow
Bronze. Photograph: Stanislav Tikhomirov / TASS
Oil on canvas. 120 × 145 cm
Oil on canvas. 160 × 186 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
From the “Normandie-Niemen” series. Etching. 55 × 35 cm
Bronze, patina. 58 × 83 × 60 cm
Oil on canvas. 69 × 56.5 cm
© Britten-Pears Foundation
From the “Long Nights of the Blockade” series. Pencil on paper. 80 × 60 cm
Oil on canvas. 192 × 300 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
From the series “Moscow in War Time”. Gouache, tempera, charcoal on paper. 62 × 75.5 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
From the series “Moscow in War Time”. Gouache, tempera, charcoal on paper. 61 × 75.5 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Pencil on paper. 32 × 44 cm. Property of the artist
Charcoal pencil on paper. 64 × 44 cm. Property of the artist’s family
Pencil on paper
Graphite pencil on paper. 23.2 × 18 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 42 × 59 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Ink on paper. 30.6 × 43 cm
Watercolour, gouache, whitewash on paper. 72.8 × 42.7 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Pencil on paper
Oil on canvas. 193 × 232 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Verses by Mikhail Levashov. Gouache, ink on paper. 83.8 × 81.7 cm; 72.1 × 81.5 cm. Property of the artist’s family
Poster. Gouache on paper. 92 × 58.5 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 107 × 97 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Pencil on paper. 27.8 × 20.4 cm
© Ivanovo Regional Art Museum
Watercolour on paper. 42 × 25 cm
Oil on canvas. 116 × 96.5 cm
© Russian Museum
Oil on canvas. 200 × 150 cm
© TMORA, Minneapolis, USA
Pastel on paper. Location unknown
Ink on paper. 25 × 19 cm
© Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery
TASS Agency, May 4 1945
Oil on canvas. 289 × 559 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 178 × 119 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 100 × 120 cm
Auto-lithograph on paper. 85.1 × 60.8 cm
© Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 130 × 115 cm
Oil on canvas. 120 × 110 cm