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Russia: Search For Suitable National Anthem Goes On

By Sophie Lambroshini

Ever since president Boris Yeltsin abolished the Soviet anthem seven years ago, Russia has been looking for a text to replace it. Now, some Russian politicians -- and not only communists -- are seriously considering the possibility of going back to the old Soviet music -- but with different words. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 24 October 2000 (RFE/ RL) --

"The unshakeable Union of the Free Republics

United the Great Rus forever

Long live, created through the peoples' will ..."

That's an excerpt from the "Hymn of the USSR," whose music and words were adopted in 1944 as the Soviet Union's national anthem. Almost a half-century later, in 1993, Russian President Boris Yeltsin abolished the anthem, written by Aleksandr Aleksandrov, a military orchestra director. In place of the Soviet hymn, Yeltsin substituted music by the 19th century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka. But now, it appears the old Soviet hymn may enjoy a comeback.

In the seven years since Yeltsin's decree, Russia has not been able to agree on words for Glinka's music, and there has been a growing dissatisfaction with the music itself. The Kremlin regularly organized national contests to find a suitable text for Glinka's wordless "A Patriotic Song." None was agreed upon, and the issue lay dormant -- until last month's Olympic games in Sydney. There, after a lackluster first-week of competition, a group of Russian athletes complained that standing tight-lipped during the playing of their anthem had affected their morale.

Within days, after a meeting with Russia's governors, President Vladimir Putin appointed a special commission headed by Saint Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev to re-study the anthem issue. The question has also been raised at recent meetings of the State Council, an advisory board of regional leaders recently set up by Putin to discuss important national issues.

According to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, a council member, a majority of its executive board supports the idea of restoring the Soviet hymn's music as Russia's anthem. Some apparently reason that if the hymn is to remain wordless, its music might as well be familiar -- at least to those who grew up before the break-up of the Soviet Union.

For many old-timers, the Glinka music is just not in the same category:

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov puts it this way: "The Soviet hymn's melody is solemn and easy to remember. It sent 'goose bumps' down my body when I was in the army." But the Glinka music, he says, does not create a "shivering thrill. It's not very vivid," he adds, "and therefore does not 'hearten ' -- as any good anthem should."

President Putin reportedly shares the same view of the Glinka music.

Not surprisingly, the Communist Party has long been pushing for the restoration of the USSR anthem. At the same time, the communists have called for substituting a red flag for Russia's current tricolor and a hammer-and-sickle instead of the present double-headed eagle as its coat-of-arms. So far, all communist efforts have failed to get the proposals passed by the State Duma, where a two-thirds majority is needed to bring about such changes.

But some democratic politicians -- especially those belonging to the group Democratic Russia that was founded in the perestroika of the late 1980s -- are wary of any sudden turnaround. They called the communists' proposals "a sign of the old regime's restoration." They point to other ominous signs, like the vague project to bring back a guard of honor at the Lenin mausoleum.

Even if the Kremlin and the Duma eventually agree on music for Russia's anthem, they will still have to choose an inspirational text from a people traditionally sensitive to poetry. The last text contest two years ago brought in 6,000 offerings, but none was found suitable by Soviet-era pop singer Yosif Kobzon, who was given the "honor" of sifting through them.

Some historians say the quest for a new anthem text is hopeless. They believe the emerging Russian society has not yet found common ideals with which a miner from the Kuzbass, a Moscow banker, and a soldier in Chechnya can identify -- and sing together in one song.

Russian historian Andrey Zubov says that the hymn fiasco keeps repeating itself not because "we have bad poets and bad composers, but because the existing Russian state does not reflect the country or any tradition." Russians, he says, still disagree on what to respect and what to be ashamed of. The country, he adds, remains reluctant to condemn the Soviet period and "is still trying to find itself."

The national NTV television channel has recently presented two biting commentaries on the anthem imbroglio. In the first aired on the channel's weekly current affairs show "Itogi." The popular song "My country is big and wide" was suggested as the new hymn. The program concluded: "Our country is undoubtedly big, and a majority of our citizens agree with this statement."

For the second NTV parody, aired last Friday, TV host and comedian Nikolai Fomenko had asked viewers to provide lyrics incarnating common values for Glinka's music. This result was broadcast:

"The Russian people spread out from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad

So that even on Mars all those swine will know who will protect the earth

So that all children be healthy, so that all women live better

So that cows will give oil

So that men can 'do it' until they die."

Some analysts take the dispute more seriously, however. Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky, for example, speaks of an "empty debate" that fails to touch on any of Russia's real concerns. For Kagarlitsky, the authorities' sudden infatuation with the Soviet hymn is really a political offering to the communists, who have largely been supportive of Putin's policies.