Friday, January 16, 2009

A Russian Song About Manchuria Recalled

Posting about Manchuria yesterday left me thinking about that part of the world. Manchuria, or Heilongjiang as is now basically, is quite special and does at times feel different from the rest of the China – indeed some Chinese seriously considered the notion of Manchurian independence after the Second World War which you don't hear talked about much now!

I was also thinking about the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 which was fought largely on Chinese Manchurian soil and had so much to do with later Japanese desires over the region. I’d always known there was a song the Russian soldiers sang (left - Cossacks fighting in 1905) called The Hills of Manchuria – bizarrely I once heard a Red Army choir sing it in a draughty, freezing cold Hall of the People in Vladimir in the “Golden Ring” outside Moscow one winter around 1988-89. I’d gone to see a vast outdoor museum where wooden churches had been brought to Suzdal from across the Soviet Union (apparently on the orders of Lenin after the Bolshevik Revolution) and there was also an amazing collection of Andrei Rublev icons locally.

However, Suzdal and nearby Vladimir town centres were still very Soviet - nothing in the shops, the main road badly repaired and so we accepted the invitation to see the show in the hope it would be warmer in the theatre than in our chilled hotel rooms – it wasn’t. But the show was good - a Red Army choir is right up there with a bunch of Volga Boatmen or some Welsh Miners. The programme was a series of revolutionary songs, then songs from the Second World War (“The Great Patriotic War” in Suzdal of course) and finally a few oddities thrown in for good measure and one was The Hills of Manchuria which struck a chord with me obviously being interested in China and also as it was the only pre-revolutionary song they sang that night – but I guess a Russian soldier is a Russian soldier and fighting for the Tsar or the General Secretary doesn’t make much difference in the end.

I also like to think that The Hills of Manchuria appeals to the Russian soul as it was a 1988, a depressing time of shortages and everyone knew the end of the USSR was coming (it was ‘when’ not ‘if’ by this point) and a grand failure, as the 1905 war was, for Russia probably appealed to some. Anyway I decided to dig out the words – remember this was a soldier’s song, sung by them as they retreated in defeat (left) and left Manchuria for the long walk back to Russia (the reference to ‘kaoliang’ by the way is to the tall grass found everywhere in Manchuria and that makes the local sorghum booze)

The Hills of Manchuria (1905)

Music by I.A. Shatrov, lyrics by S. Petrov

Around us, it is calm. Hills are covered by darkness.

Suddenly, the moon shines through the clouds,

Graves hold their calm.

The white glow of the crosses — heroes are asleep.

The shadows of the past circle around,

Recall again and again the victims of battles.

Around us, it’s calm; the wind blew the fog away,

Warriors are asleep on the hills of Manchuria

And Russian weeping cannot be heard.

Dear mother is shedding tears,

The young wife is weeping

All like one are crying,

Cursing fate, cursing destiny!

Let kaoliang’s rustling lull you to sleep,

Rest in peace, heroes of the Russian land,

Dear Fatherland’s sons.

You fell for Russia, perished for Fatherland,

Believe us, we shall avenge you

And celebrate a bloody wake


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