The deaths of 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble in a Christmas plane crash is a loss for the world’s culture
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
My introduction to the Red Army Choir came when I visited a Russian-themed cultural shop that had somehow survived for several years in a local mall. On the shelves sat matryoshka dolls, Soviet hockey jerseys and models of T-34 tanks.
Suffice to say, the shop was out of place for Texas, but it lured me in and lightened my wallet. I left with two CDs, the Shostakovich and Prokofiev compilation On Guard for Peace: Music of the Totalitarian Regime and a 1996 recording of Red Army Choir songs featuring conductor Victor Federov.
The first CD was great, but the second was surreal, fantastic and blew my mind. The opening Red Army Choir song, Farewell of Slavianka, is a patriotic marching tune that begins with crashing drums. The English translations of the lyrics in an attached booklet spelled it out. “For our motherland / Rise up and commit into this holy war!”
The ghostly and hypnotic Stalin-era song Oh Fields, My Fields followed with the loudest refrain in the collection. For a youth with an interest in military history, the apocalyptic scale of many of these songs helped open my interest in the Eastern Front, where the war to defeat fascism was won.
On Christmas Day, 2016, 64 members of the Red Army Choir died when the Tu-154 jetliner they were traveling in crashed in the Black Sea. In Russia, it’s a national tragedy. But the loss is wider than that. The ensemble was — and is — one of best military bands in the world.
My life would have been poorer without it.
The American effort in World War II pervaded aspects of my childhood. Both of my grandfathers fought in the war, and one of them — who served as an NCO in a motorized anti-aircraft unit on the Western Front — told me stories of coming under German bombardment in which solders under him were killed. My first time firing a gun involved his Beretta M1934, an Italian pistol which had once belonged to a German soldier.
But before the Red Army Choir, I never questioned the dominance of the American story of the war, whether filtered down through my family history or among the wider culture.
The haunting and indecipherable Russian songs — for a monolingual English speaker like myself — was a reminder that other countries had faced similar or worse experiences, and that it was up to me to read into it and find out why. In Russia’s case, the experience was much worse.
The Soviet Union lost more than 26 million people during World War II, more than 10 million of them soldiers, for around 13.7 percent of the population in total. When adding deaths from Germany, Poland, the rest of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, the Eastern Front alone comprised the bloodiest conflict in human history.
The Red Army Choir sings from the perspective of those who saved their country from annihilation by a genocidal army. This isn’t to excuse the monumental crimes of Stalin or the USSR, but the continued influence of the choir and its music — which outlasted both Stalin and the Soviet Union — is emblematic of how it spoke to the possibility of a better future.
Of course, the choir does not only perform military songs and often reaches further back in Russian history. There are also two Red Army Choirs. There is the Alexandrov Ensemble, founded in 1928 and which is part of the military, and the MVD Ensemble which is part of the Interior Ministry.
The crash involved the Alexandrov Ensemble. Lt. Gen. Valery Khalilov, the ensemble’s director, was killed. Anton Gubankov, who headed the Russian Defense Ministry’s culture department, also died.
The cause of the crash is still unknown, and early information from the Tu-154’s recovered black box is uncertain. “The flaps, damn it!” the pilot yelled in the moments before the crash. “Commander, we’re going down!”
The three-engine Tu-154 which crashed in the Black Sea is a military aircraft but was leased to the state-owned 223rd Flight Squad, a for-profit air transportation company, and was en route to the Russian air base in Syria’s coastal Latakia province. The Tu-154 last received upgrades in 2008, and its original design dates to the 1960s.
Weighing against the possibility of a terrorist attack was the plane’s location. Shortly before the crash, the Tu-154 refueled at the tightly-secured airport in Sochi, which also services an Il-96 that transports Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin, according to the defense newspaper Military-Industrial Courier.
“The preliminary analysis of the flight recorder is complete,” a source told the Interfax news agency. “It leads us to conclude that that the version of the catastrophe connected to mistakes made by the pilot of the aircraft, is the main version.”
There are a few more needed observations about the ensemble’s music. First, the vocals are often very deep, owing to traditions derived from the Eastern Orthodox Church, and there are few musical forms where bassos have such a commanding presence. It’s partly for that reason that the Red Army Choir makes for such a dramatic impression.
For an example of a famous Red Army Choir bass-baritone, listen to Leonid Kharitonov’s 1965 rendition — embedded above — of the 1886 Song of the Volga Boatmen with the accompanying army choir. The open-throated Russian language is particularly suited for these low and resonant sounds, and Kharitonov mastered his voice.
Russia produces great bassos for the same reason that Italy produces great tenors — these styles bring out the beauty of their respective languages.
Then there are the instrumental flourishes. Spartan-sounding balalaikas and domras layer with traditionally Western brass and woodwinds for a characteristically Russian sound.
The image of the statue-stiff Kharitonov and his comrades were inexorably bound up in the Red Army Choir’s role as the Soviet Union’s cultural and military diplomats, and morale builders for Soviet soldiers. During World War II, the ensemble regularly traveled to the front lines.
Given this, it explains why the loss of the Alexandrov Ensemble’s members is more than a tragedy for the Russian military, their families and loved ones, but a loss for the world’s culture and history. The Red Army Choir was — and is — awesome.