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What's In A National Anthem?

  • Kristin Deasy

Ukrainian World War II veterans stand at attention during Ukraine's national anthem. Some consider the song's warlike theme to be outdated.

Ukrainian World War II veterans stand at attention during Ukraine's national anthem. Some consider the song's warlike theme to be outdated.

What's in a national anthem? A touch of the divine, says Ukrainian poet Olha Rekun, which is why she thinks her country's hymn doesn't strike the right note.

"An anthem is our prayer to God. If we turn to God in this way, then we get this bedlam in our country, this squabbling," Rekun says.

Ukraine's current national anthem, which praises the country for not perishing "yet" and exalts in the punishment of its enemies, was ushered in during the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic of 1917. But critics like Rekun say that the six-minute anthem is both too pessimistic and too long.

Rekun says the anthem is overly focused on the country's fight for independence, and the battle-weary tone is out of touch. She has written a new version which she says fits the country's happier "new era," marked by 18 years of freedom.

Dnipropetrovsk, a city in the country's east, is rallying behind the poet and her new anthem proposal. The composition was recently performed by 12-year-old Valentyn Halushko, a competitor on the TV show "Ukraine's Got Talent." Supporters want to submit it for national debate, but various groups are criticizing the new initiative.

National anthems may not be high art, but they play an important role in politics and society by rallying loyalty to the state, creating the impression of political unity and fellow-feeling, instilling patriotism, and confirming national legitimacy.

Would-be independent states are therefore quick to adopt them. Kosovo adopted its national anthem, "Europe," just four months after declaring independence from Serbia in February 2008.

Meanwhile, Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been recognized as independent by only a few allies, established national anthems as far back as 1992 and 1995, respectively. And Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester adopted a failed nominee for the Soviet national anthem as its own.

Another disputed territory, the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, adopted a national anthem in 1992.

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Newly independent states, as well as countries considering changing their anthems, have to consider how they will teach citizens a new anthem. Some loop the piece endlessly on state TV, while others try to make it "cool."

Georgia, under President Mikheil Saakashvili, invested in a glamorous pop version of its new national anthem, using a slew of national stars.

In Ukraine, the Dnipropetrovsk-based band Vertep came out with a modernized version of the national anthem in their latest album. The song, which changes the lyrics but not the music, has reportedly become quite popular on Ukrainian radio.

Singer Andriy Karachun says the band wanted an anthem that makes listeners ask questions like, "Who are these people? What is this country all about?"

National anthems also periodically become the subject of political debate. In Russia last month, a Communist lawmaker requested that the word "God" be removed from the country's anthem.

And in a public relations upset last fall, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was accidentally welcomed to Venezuela with the wrong national anthem -- that of the country's previous, monarchical government.

Some countries have foreigners for composers. A Romanian wrote Albania's anthem, for example, and a Slovene wrote Serbia's.

During the Soviet era, the five Central Asian republics were given their own anthems, many of them penned by Moscow composers. Today, a number of Central Asian countries have changed or eliminated the lyrics while retaining the Soviet-era melodies. This is changing slowly: Kazakhstan overhauled its anthem in 2006, and in Tajikistan, a composer and poet recently teamed up to propose a new anthem.

Afghanistan established an anthem after the fall of the Taliban, under whose rule public music performances were banned.

Michael Jamieson Bristow, the editor of the book "National Anthems of the World," says no matter how geographically far-flung, national anthems tend to share common themes.

"A lot of the texts of national anthems extol the beauty of the land -- the mountains, the landscape, etc," he says. "Sweden is a very good example of that. But of course on the other side of it, there are also quite bloodthirsty words [and] quite heroic words. Even Poland, France, Iran -- they're quite violent in their words, because it's based a lot on history."

Part of the text of Ukraine's national anthem reads, "Our enemies will vanish like dew in the sun," and "We'll lay down our souls and bodies to attain our freedom."

Ukrainian actor Mykhailo Melnyk was the first Dnipropetrovsk resident to publicly propose changing the anthem, and he thinks 90 percent of Ukrainians would support the idea.

"'Yet, yet, not yet died, Ukraine has not yet died.'" Melnyk quotes from the Ukrainian anthem. "We look for enemies. We don't need enemies. Ultimately I want to sing about love, about hope, children," he says.

Rekun says her version addresses such criticisms. In her composition, the text reads: "Fate has smiled on all of us Ukrainians. We have achieved what we have long striven for -- our freedom."

RFE/RL Ukrainian Service director Irena Chalupa contributed to this report

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