The Volokh Conspiracy

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Ukraine War Music

Everything Old Is New Again, Ukraine War Edition


Boris Grebenshchikov, a well-known Russian singer and songwriter, sometimes apparently labeled the "Grandfather of Russian Rock," performed this song on March 2 in London, saying "The war between Russia and Ukraine is madness, and the people who made it are the shame of Russia." Various sources (e.g., here, here, and here) report that both appearances by Grebenshchikov and performances of any of his work have been banned by Russian authorities, though I can't vouch for the accuracy of that.

I found the performance quite affecting: The sentiment is hardly novel, but the occasion (and Grebenshchikov's performance) gave it heft. Then I looked more closely, and saw that it was in fact not novel—it was written in 1917, under the title "That which I must say," by the great Russian singer and songwriter Alexander Vertinsky, apparently prompted by the death of young anti-Bolshevik soldiers in the Communist revolution. (Grebenschikov's version changes some words, but only slightly.)

It is a deeply pessimistic song, from a part of the world that has long had much to be pessimistic about. For those who can't read the Russian text, here is my inexpert and regrettably unpoetic translation.

I don't know why, and who needs it,
Who sent them to die, with an untrembling hand,
Only that so mercilessly, so evilly and needlessly,
They lowered them into eternal rest.

The cautious spectators silently huddled in their coats,
And some woman with a distorted face
Kissed the dead man on his blue lips
And threw her wedding ring at the priest.

They covered them with branches, mixed them with dirt
And went back home, to secretly talk
About how it's time to bring an end to the disgrace,
And how, soon, starvation will come.

And no-one thought simply to kneel
And to tell these boys, that in this talentless nation
Even bright feats of valor are only steps
Into the endless abysses, to the inaccessible Spring.