The Volokh Conspiracy

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Ukraine War Music

"You Forgot, Brother …"

A Russian song about the fratricidal Russia-Ukraine war.


I came across this song by Vitaliy Aksenov, a prominent Russian singer, and I thought I'd blog about it. You'll see that the words aren't clear: Is the narrator the now-Ukrainian brother faulting his now-Russian brother? (The narrator notes that both brothers were born in Ukraine.) The now-Russian brother faulting his now-Ukrainian brother? (The references to World War II are characteristic of Russian patriotic sentiment, and the audience will know that the singer himself is Russian, not Ukrainian.) Is it deliberately noncommittal? (Though some Ukrainians at least initially supported the Nazis in World War II, millions fought against them alongside the Russians; the World War II iconography is likely to work for many in both countries.)

Is it secretly pro-Ukrainian but framed as noncommittal or pro-Russian to evade punishment by the Russian authorities? Is it something else? The one thing that does seem clear is that it's not pro-war (or, as Putin would put it, "pro-special-operation"), which seems to make it at least somewhat opposed to the official Russian position. And even if it is intended by the author to support the Russian side, it seems to me that its lyrics work at least as well (indeed, much better) from the Ukrainian perspective.

In any event, I found it quite interesting, and thought it worth passing along, for whatever insight it might offer about what at least some people in Russia are thinking and saying about all this. The song seems to have gotten a good deal of play in Russia—at least 300K views for its various YouTube versions.

I also found it emotionally quite affecting, despite its ambiguity. (I think the situation is quite unambiguous, and Russia is clearly in the wrong.) Of course, there are perfectly plausible moral arguments that fratricide isn't the right theme: Invading a country and killing its defenders and civilians for no good reason is wrong regardless of whether it's a "brotherly" country or not. But human nature being what it is, the fratricidal conflicts do seem especially tragic, and I think this song captures that well.

Note also some links, whether deliberate or not, to other recent songs and poems related to the Russia-Ukraine war: for instance, to "Together We Christened Our Children" (the past christening of each other's children and the now-irretrievable sundering of those bonds) and to the apparently immensely popular 2014 Hymn of the Defense of Ukraine [text] ("we are against brothers going to fight their brothers").

Finally, it seems to me in many ways a man's song—a brother singing to a brother, with the most prominent sound being a deep man's voice, framing the entire moral and emotional message around the two men's relationship—from a singer who had indeed been described in the past as having an interest in manliness. It put me in mind of Sergey Babkin's revised "I'm a Soldier," which seemingly unironically begins with the narrator's singing how he is "nourished with manly strength by my native land under my feet." Again, whether you like this focus or not (and for a less male-focused approach, see the two songs linked to at Bella Ciao / Ukrainian Fury (Furies)), it struck me as a feature worth noting.

I have taken some liberties with the translation, in particular omitting some names and place names that struck me as distracting more from the English version than adding to it; for the original text, click "Show More" under the description of this YouTube video, or read the subtitles on that video:

We stand in the field, brother Kolya and I, buffeted by the seven winds
Pointing machineguns at each other, fingers on the triggers
Who whispered in your ear, how did you nourish a viper on your bosom[1]
So that you forgot, Kolya, forgot that I'm your brother?

Did you forget how much we read together?
You and I were together in our diapers and our snot
You forgot, my brother, that there, by Chernigov[2]
Our mother gave birth to us.

The two of us stand, brother Kolya and I, on the banks of the Dnieper
You on the left, I on the right, why is it this way?[3]
Too bad that without losses it won't work out, will you understand without grenades
That you are on their side, and I'm on the truth's, that's how it is.

Did you forget how without each other it was hard for us?
When I moved away, how sad you were.[4]
You forgot, Kolya, you forgot the town[5]
Where you christened my daughter.

My brother and I stand with machineguns, with wrath upon our faces
I'm sorry, Kolya, but I couldn't just stand aside
This is my land, too, brother, here my grandfather is buried, and my mother
And know that I won't yield it to the enemy, not a meter, not a bit.[6]

Did you forget, brother, how we ploughed and sowed?
How we raced on horseback together near Volnovakha?[7]
What have you and I done, my brother,
That now we stand on opposite sides?

How, my soldier brother, could you have forgotten everything?
Now you'd as soon hang me as take a drink of water ….
How did it happen, tell me brother, what led you
To bring into your house the viper, the three-headed serpent?[8]

You forgot yourself, brother, you forgot your people.
You should remember Leningrad, and Khatyn',[9]
You forgot, Kolya, how our grandfather
At Prokhorovka crushed the enemy toads.[10]

We lay in the field, Kolya and I, our bodies ripped apart
Part is the field, part is Kolya, and something of me
Destroyed tanks, a torn-out throat,
And a military shovel sticks out of my chest.

Does whoever poured oil on the fire need us any more?
The one who whispered in your ear has long since run away.
But the piercing wind sang a song to itself.
Oh, mother Ukraine, how could this be?

We will be a long time licking this wound,
But we can see that the scar can't be removed.
And in the blue sky, brother, are two white doves,
Those are our souls, Kolya, flying away.

What have you and I done, my brother?
Perhaps the Lord will absolve, forgive.
What have you and I done, my brother?
Perhaps the Lord will absolve and forgive.

[1] Naturally, the "bosom" in this phrase (which is an idiom in Russian as well as English) is the older non-sex-specific meaning.

[2] A city in Ukraine, near the Russian-Ukraine border, which was under siege by the Russians when this song seems to have been released.

[3] Historically, "right-bank Ukraine" has referred to part of the Western portion, which has been more Ukrainian, and "left-bank Ukraine" to part of the Eastern portion, which has been more Russian; but I'm not sure whether the author intended this, or whether most listeners are likely to perceive it.

[4] This literally refers to moving to the city Belgorod, but I couldn't identify any real significance to the name of the city other than perhaps its being near the Russian-Ukrainian border.

[5] The town is Grayvoron, but again I couldn't identify any real significance to it other than perhaps its being near the Russian-Ukrainian border.

[6] Literally, "not a piad'," which appears to refer to an existing phrase, "we will not give away even a piad'," which basically means we will not surrender any of our land. ("Piad'" is literally an old unit of measure, about half a foot.)

[7] A town in Ukraine, near Donetsk, that was apparently destroyed in the invasion.

[8] This phrase is opaque to me; there is an evil three-headed serpent in Russian fairy tales (Zmei Gorynych), so perhaps this just means something evil. (The original literally refers to a three-headed worm, but "serpent" seemed to me the better translation in context.) I thought this might be a pejorative reference to the trident, which is the national symbol of Ukraine; but that seems unlikely, since the tines of the trident wouldn't be labeled heads, and it's hard to link it to a snake or a worm to the trident.

[9] The site of a World War II massacre by the Nazis in Belarus (not to be confused with Katyn, the site of a vastly larger World War II massacre by the Soviets in Poland); in context, Leningrad must also be a reference to the World War II siege and battle.

[10] The site of another major World War II battle, also near the Russian-Ukrainian border.