The Russianest Russian Song Lines I Know


I was recently listening again to Yuri Shevchuk's song about the wreck of the submarine "Kursk," and was struck again by several lines. Loosely translated, the opening line of the song is, "Who of death will tell us a couple honest words?" ("Кто о смерти скажет нам пару честных слов?") And the last stanza starts with:

About the things that happened, there'll be many lies.
Will the inquest tell us how hard it is to die?

[После о случившемся долго будут врать
Расскажет ли комиссия, как трудно умирать?]

For more, here's the backstory, which I mentioned in a post about the song last year (Chicago Tribune [Colin McMahon]):

Dmitry Kolesnikov's body was the first to be positively identified from the wreck on the bottom of the Barents Sea … [among] the 118 crewmen who died after a pair of explosions devastated the submarine ….

In a pocket of Kolesnikov's uniform, divers also found a letter that the 27-year-old lieutenant captain wrote just before he died. For proud Russians, for Kolesnikov's wife and family, the letter is a testament to loyalty and sense of duty.

Kolesnikov scribbled words of love to his bride of only four months. And in a more practiced, more disciplined hand, he recorded what he could of the events that led him and 22 other men to scramble to the Kursk's last compartment and wait for a rescue that never came….

Kolesnikov's documentation of survivors—according to his notes, the men lived for at least several hours—disproved the recent government versions that all 118 aboard died within minutes.

Here's the song, from the Russian band DDT and its lead singer-songwriter, Yuri Shevchuk; you can read the Russian lyrics here, and an attempt at a somewhat rhyming and metered translation here. The music may at first seem like something of a mismatch with the theme, but I found that it worked for me.

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  1. The song’s question “Who of death will tell us a couple of honest words?” brings to mind “No person … shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

    Without setting off a firestorm, I’ll express my personal opinion that, even if illegal, a traditional (since the 1700s) self-initiated chemically-induced abortion can never be successfully prosecuted because it requires the transgressor to be a witness against herself: who other than the mother would know of the pregnancy and the life status of the unborn child?

    Dishonesty may be ethically wrong, but it is as handy for individuals as it is for governments. [And it’s an interesting song, btw.]

    1. The tapping at the start of the song is heartbreaking.

    2. who other than the mother would know of the pregnancy and the life status of the unborn child?

      I think you may need to read up a little on how pregnancy works.

  2. “The Sinking of the Reuben James”
    Written and first performed by Woodie Guthrie

    Gifted folk singer Woodie Guthrie was a Stalinist, who shared the Party’s anti-war posture September 1939 to June 22 1941. By the time USS Reuben James was torpedoed by a German U-boat on 1941 October 31 in the “non-belligerent” lead-up to Pearl Harbor, however, the Party welcomed US participation in WW2. Guthrie’s ballad was a haunting evocation of sacrifice, tragedy, and patriotic resolve. After the end of WW2, when the list of likely US enemies changed, the Reuben James ballad was reworked to emphasize anti-war themes.

  3. Когда мы были на войне (“When we were at War”) has my vote. There is nothing more Russian than a Cossack going to war to die and finding that he can not.

  4. (1) The instrumental melody had a distinctive Russian feel.

    (2) I appreciated how clearly the lyrics were spoken, though with my limited Russian speaking ability, I still was dependent on the written version. In contrast, I have trouble understanding the lyrics of many American songs.

  5. A couple of lines from an American song, in a similar vein:

    Working in the Sunshine, where the silver river flows,
    Down in the pit of the mountain, in Kellogg Idaho.

    The first line is sung with ironic good cheer. The second line descends toward the somber.

    Back story is the Sunshine Silver Mine disaster of 1972, which killed 91 miners. I would be grateful to anyone who can tell me where to find a recording, or even the name of the song.

  6. The Seconds from Disaster episode on the Kursk is very good. Goes into the numerous factors that led to the catastrophe. The common denominator was Soviet/Russian lack of concern.

  7. A meme I just saw,

    English literature: I will die for honour.

    French literature: I will die for love.

    American literature: I will die for freedom.

    Russian literature: I will die.

  8. “When we were at war” (“Kogda my byli na voyne”)–
    AB– Thanks for the tip-off. There are one or two good versions on Youtube.
    It is written up in Wikipedia under the English title. It turns out not to be an old Cossack song, but rather a novelty, based on a poem from the early 1980s.

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