- “Kalinka”, the Most Famous Military Song
- Russian Music: “Katioucha”, the One That’ll Make You Cry
- The “Trololo” Song, Russia’s Comic Side
- “Podmoskovnie Vetchera” (The Moscow Nights)
- Dorogoï Dlinnoyou (The Long Road), An Unexpected Success
- Russian Music: “Kombat”
- “Farewell of Slavianka” by the Red Army Choir
- “Rumka Vodki na Stole” (Glass of Vodka on the Table)
- Russian Music: “Alyosha”, a Symbolic Song
- “Ostrov Nevezeniya”, from the Film The Diamond Arm
“Listen more, talk less.” - Russian Proverb
When Russia hosted the World Cup in 2018, a lot of people were introduced to different aspects of Russian culture, including the music.
There are hundreds of thousands of people who know the most famous Russian songs.
Did you know that the Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet?
For the purpose of this article, we’ve transcribed the titled using the Latin alphabet. The music from Russia is as expansive as the country itself and Russia has an impressive orchestral and classical music repertoire including Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, not to mention contemporary music, opera, folk, etc.
While we can't go through all of Russia's music, we will have a look at a few songs we reckon that you have to listen to if you want a better understanding of music in Russia.
In this article, we're taking a quick tour of the Russian musical landscape and 10 Russian songs that you may not necessarily like, but definitely should listen to!
“Kalinka”, the Most Famous Military Song
If you know much about Russian popular culture, you’ll have probably have heard the song Kalinka at least once in your life. You might have even heard one of the various translations into other languages.
Kalina, from Kalinka, is also a common Slavic name. The song “Kalinka” is essential, it’s a metaphor for women’s natural beauty, something which made the song hugely popular. It was composed by Ivan Petrovich Larionov in 1860 and was performed by many, which eventually gave it its Russian folk music version.
There’s also a Cossack version of the song with a really militaristic feeling to it.
Russian Music: “Katioucha”, the One That’ll Make You Cry
Katioucha is another essential Russian song. It was written in Mikhail Isakovsky and Matvey Blanter and tells the story of a young girl writing a prayer for her lover who’s fighting on the front lines. The name “Katioucha” is the diminutive of Catherine in Russian.
As a military number, it’s part of the Red Army Choir’s repertoire. It’s a rousing song that has been used to lift the spirits of the Russian people on numerous occasions, especially during the Second World War.
For a few years, Valeria Kurnushkina has performed it alongside the Red Army Choir. It’s a very moving song! During the World Cup, Russian fans sang this song on their way back home following their defeat to Croatia.
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The “Trololo” Song, Russia’s Comic Side
This song became a huge internet meme and was performed by Eduard Khil. The song’s real name is “Я очень рад, ведь я наконец возвращаюсь домой” (I Am Very Glad, as I'm Finally Returning Back Home) and the original version had lyrics.
The original lyrics told the story of an American cowboy that was heading back to the US before being changed either through censorship or down to the artist’s choice.
The version without lyrics was nicknamed the “Trololo” song online and has been viewed millions of times on social networks and sites like YouTube and BuzzFeed.
The singer, Eduard Khil, became famous outside of Russia almost overnight. He was actually a holder of the Merited Artist of the RSFSR.
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“Podmoskovnie Vetchera” (The Moscow Nights)
This song is as famous in Russia as TV themes are in the UK. In fact, Podmoskovnie Vetchera was composed in 1955 by Mikhail Matusovsky and became the theme tune for Radio Moscow.
Did you know that the lyrics were changed at the request of the Minister of Education at the time since the song was about Leningrad rather than Moscow?
It was originally performed by Vladimir Troshin, broadcast in China as of 1957, and a French version was created and performed by Francis Lemarque in 1959.
The song was used to welcome Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 to the White House.
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Dorogoï Dlinnoyou (The Long Road), An Unexpected Success
This song is known in the English-speaking world as Those Were the Days. However, it was originally a Russian romantic folk song. It was translated into French, Spanish, German, Italian, Persian, and Hungarian and was famously covered by Paul McCartney and Dalida.
It was composed in the 1920s under the Soviet Union and became popular in Western Europe in the 1960s, particularly in the UK and France. The Muscovite version, with dancers, is the most popular version.
This is one of the most-recorded Russian songs of all time with over 40 different versions having been recorded.
Russian Music: “Kombat”
The song “Kombat” was created in 1996 by the composer Igor Matvienko and became famous with his group Lyube. They’re famous for their music without the political waffle present in songs by other artists.
The lyrics speak for themselves: “bullets, vodka, cigarettes, shoot or you die!”. Like a lot of other songs in Russian, it focuses on the idea of victory, defeat, and war. The 90s was the decade during which modern Russia was being rebuilt following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian culture is definitely in sync with Russian history.
“Farewell of Slavianka” by the Red Army Choir
This is a patriotic march written by Vasily Agapkin about the First Balkan War (1912-1913). It’s about Slavic women saying goodbye to their husbands and partners as they head off to war. There are two versions of the song, one from 1912 and another from 1997.
For many years, there were famous Russian composers advocating the song’s use as the Russian national anthem. The song is now an unofficial part of the Red Army Choir’s repertoire.
The national anthem of Russia is the melody of the Soviet anthem but with new lyrics and replaced “The Patriotic Song” in 2000.
“Rumka Vodki na Stole” (Glass of Vodka on the Table)
Here’s a song that’s as emblematic as it is cliché.
Isn’t vodka an essential part of Russian culture, after all?
The song describes it perfectly. It was written and performed by Grigory Leps and was a success in Russia, especially at the end of the Soviet era.
Can a glass of vodka fix everything?
No, but it might make a difference (in Russia, at least). This pessimistic song was inspired by the repressive Soviet era and is based on a common Russian proverb that states that repression can affect people from all walks of life.
Russian Music: “Alyosha”, a Symbolic Song
Symbolism is never far away in Russian culture and the song “Alyosha” was composed in 1966 by Eduard Kolmanovsky. The song is about the Aloysha monument in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The monument honours the Soviet soldiers who died during the occupation of Bulgaria during the Second World War.
Not to be confused with the Ukranian singer Alyosha who performed at Eurovision in 2010.
The song is particularly popular in Bulgaria and Russia and the two countries often exchange performances of the song.
“Ostrov Nevezeniya”, from the Film The Diamond Arm
Andrei Mironov is one of the most famous actors in Russia. The Diamond Arm (1978) was one of the most watched films in Russia and “Ostrov Nevezeniya” (The Island of Misfortune) is a popular song that many groups have covered.
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To learn more about Russian literature and culture, there’s nothing better than watching films or listening to songs.
While most of the emblematic Russian songs come from famous ballets like the Nutcracker or Swan Lake, there are also plenty of Russian songs from popular culture, too. Whether they’re about the Russian revolution, the Russian Federation, or even the country’s relationship with the West, they’re all popular.
So which one would you like to listen to?
Whether you like the violin, flute, percussion, harp, fiddle, cello, accordion, mandolin, balalaika, or choral music, there are plenty of Russian folk songs, instrumental pieces, contemporary music, concertos, and pop tunes from the days of the Russian Empire, the time of the USSR, and new music for a new Russian Federation.
You needn't be a professional musician, performer, or studying composition to appreciate traditional music from Russia or a few of the country's most famous bands! Additionally, you can always listen to Russian music on the radio or at concerts. Be it a symphony orchestra led by a famous conductor or composer, chamber music, or something with melodies more similar to Western music, there's something for all tastes in Russia.
If you're interested in learning more about the Russian language, you should definitely consider getting in touch with a private tutor to help you achieve your linguistic goals and better understand Russian music and the surrounding culture.