Russian cathedral choir's performance of a song about US nuclear annihilation shows that parody doesn't quite work in 2019

Photo: Public domain via Pixabay

Many social media users have been baffled by the recent appearance of a video clip of a choir in St. Petersburg's landmark cathedral, Saint Isaac’s, performing a song about total nuclear annihilation of the United States.

The song includes the following lyrics:

На подводной лодочке с атомным моторчиком
Да с десятком бомбочек под сотню мегатонн
Пересек Атлантику и зову наводчика:
“Наводи, говорю,- Петров, на город Вашингтон!”

Тру-ля-ля, тру-ля-ля,
Все могу за три рубля!
Здравствуй, новая земля

On a submarine with a nuclear engine,
Carrying a dozen hundred megaton payloads,
I’m crossing the Atlantic and calling on my spotter:
Hey, Petrov, I’m telling him, set your aim for the city of Washington!


Tra-la-la, tra-la-la,
There’s nothing I can’t do for three rubles!
I salute you, strange and hostile land!

The song was performed by the St. Petersburg Concert Choir on February 23, which is celebrated in Russia and some ex-USSR countries as the Defender of the Fatherland Day. Immediately after Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation speech on February 20, a Russian state TV network had also run a segment showing the map of potential nuclear targets in the US, and many expressed alarm and disgust over the apparent triumphant militarism of the song and the inappropriateness of the circumstances of its performance: St. Isaac’s is a functioning church where Russian Orthodox masses are held daily.

Some then pointed out that the original song, which was written in 1980 by a Soviet dissident songwriter, was clearly intended as a parody of Soviet sabre-rattling propaganda (its original title is “On a submarine, or About the salary of [Soviet] servicemen”), while its most recent performance in 2019 could be taken as a tongue in cheek reference to the current political climate:

People in the know in St Petersburg are saying that the hellish piece about the destruction of Washington, DC in a church is a deliberate prank by the choir’s conductor. Having been invited to perform a concert for February 23, he decided to respond to the atmosphere of madness by carrying it to the point of absurdity, operating under the principle of “to hell with it all.”

After the clip became a media sensation, the Concert Choir of St. Petersburg posted a statement on their Vkontakte page, rebuking the allegations that the performance could be an act of political subversion:

Не можем не ответить мастерам политической аналитики:

Не стоит всерьёз вникать в рассуждения про путинские и антипутинские концерты. Это отвратительно само по себе. А для понимания того, что было на нашем концерте, достаточно знать две вещи. Во-первых, песни, которые мы поем – это документы эпохи, среды, уникальные и вполне оригинальные. Разумеется, мы не переписываем тексты ради политкорректности или какой-то ещё конъюнктуры.

Во-вторых, концерт в храме не обязывает петь только литургические произведения. Мы поздравили наших слушателей, мы показали им, что ценим их праздник, их прошлое, их труд. Что мы вместе с ними. И они были рады это услышать и прочувствовать.

Приходите на концерты, не занимайтесь политиканством!

We can’t but respond to masters of political analysis:
Don’t waste your breath on debating whether concerts can be pro- or anti-Putin. It’s disgusting as it is. To better understand what happened at our performance you need to understand two things. Firstly, the songs that we perform are original documents of the era, unique to their environment. Naturally, we aren’t rewriting their lyrics to pander to political correctness or to fit in any other trends. Secondly, while performing in a church, we are not obliged to limit ourselves to psalms or hymns. We congratulated our audience, showed them that we care about their holiday, their past and their labors. That we are together. And they enjoyed listening to us and feel that we did care.
Come to our concerts, quit politicking!

Despite the choir's conductor insisting that it all was a good-natured joke, the song's author, Andrey Kozlovsky, wasn't thrilled about the performance. “Nothing good will come of it,” he told a local news website when approached for comment.  And Russian Orthodox Protodeacon Andrey Kurayev, who is also a theologian and public intellectual and often sharply critical of the Orthodox hierarchy, wrote on his Livejournal blog that the parody might have fallen on deaf ears:

Песня сама по себе старая, из советского андеграунда. Тогда она была шуткой и даже сатирой на советский агитпроп. Но сегодня после путинских “мультиков” и “шуточек”, да еще в таком суперсерьезном исполнении это никак не смотрится шуткой. Питерская подворотня перестала быть подворотней. Она рулит. И исповедует принцип “ударь первым”. Потому что пролетариату нечего терять, кроме трех рублей.

The song itself is an old one, born in the depths of the Soviet underground movement. Back then it was a joke, a satirical take on Soviet agitprop. But today, after Putin’s “cartoons” and “jokes,” and in very serious circumstances, it doesn’t look like a joke at all. Because the thugs of St. Petersburg’s backstreets [a popular reference to Vladimir Putin’s tough upbringing] aren’t just thugs today. They are in power. And their ruling principle is “throw the first punch.” Because the proletariat today has nothing to lose except their three rubles.

With so many layers of context and in the current political climate—which includes weather reports on Russian state TV discussing possible nuclear strikes against the US—it's unsurprising that the choir's performance caused this much indignation and alarm. While appropriate for its time, the Brezhnev-era parody of Soviet agitprop might not be best suited for the social media age.

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