Iron curtain call

The Communist regime that created it may be history, but the Red Army Choir is still in fine voice - on the front line and in the concert hall
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"We hear that in Britain, you are amazed if someone has the same job for 30 years," says Colonel Leonid Malev, director of the Alexandrov Red Army Choir, with a smile. "Well, we have an employee who has been with us for more than 50 years." Col Malev duly summons the old retainer to show him off. A small elderly man appears from the bowels of the choir's Moscow headquarters. He is Victor Kadinov, and he says with pride that he was in the choir when it performed in London in 1956.

"We hear that in Britain, you are amazed if someone has the same job for 30 years," says Colonel Leonid Malev, director of the Alexandrov Red Army Choir, with a smile. "Well, we have an employee who has been with us for more than 50 years." Col Malev duly summons the old retainer to show him off. A small elderly man appears from the bowels of the choir's Moscow headquarters. He is Victor Kadinov, and he says with pride that he was in the choir when it performed in London in 1956.

Back then, Nikita Khrushchev was leader of the USSR. The Cambridge spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had just resurfaced in Moscow. And the Red Army Choir shared top billing with Norman Wisdom at concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. This weekend, the choir returns to London to sing in Trafalgar Square, as part of the Russian Winter Festival. "We hope your parents came to see us last time, and we hope you will come to see us this time," says Kadinov, who is now the choir's chief administrator.

Founded in 1928, to glorify the events of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the choir has long been a national institution in Russia. During the Second World War, the all-male ensemble toured the front lines singing propaganda songs to the troops. Stalin was impressed and commissioned the choir's founder, Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, to write the music for the Soviet national anthem. His melody is still used today, but the accompanying lyrics were changed when the song became the anthem of the Russian Federation. As Col Malev says, "Perfect music doesn't age".

A similar notion governs the choir. Entry is very competitive, with recruits drawn from the country's top conservatoires. Once you are in, though, you are in for life. "People almost never leave," says Malev. "We are very stable." In fact, for those of the 125 singers and musicians who have been part of the choir since the old days, even the fall of the Iron Curtain had little impact. They continued to practice every day at the choir's headquarters as they had done for years. As with the national anthem, the words changed slightly - Soviet anthems were jettisoned in favour of Western numbers such as "My Way" - but the music went on.

In fact, the Iron Curtain didn't come down for the Red Army Choir so much as go up on their international touring career. These days, there is not the ideological embarrassment attached to inviting them to the West. Today, they are still welcome in North Korea, and are warmly received at the Vatican. Their concert for the Pope last October, to mark the 26th anniversary of his election, would have been unthinkable in the Soviet era, given the Communist dedication to razing churches.

And the change of times is reflected in the choir's music. They no longer sing about the triumph of Communism, but tailor their programme to suit their audience. When in North Korea, they sang a song in Korean. And when in Rome, they sang a Polish song for the pontiff. Leaving the animosity of the past behind, they now seem keen to promote harmony between nations. The soon-to-be-released CD recording of their performance at the Vatican is being produced in association with the NGO, World Without War. Do they now promote peace rather than war? Col Malev's mumbled response is not translated for me.

While the choir flirts with foreign music, the core of their repertoire has changed very little over the years. "We sing about the homeland, nature, the military and women," says Col Malev. In fact, an important part of the choir's work remains performing in the motherland. This year, it will tour the "hero cities", which were on the front line during the Second World War. "We also still perform for soldiers in hot spots such as Tajikistan," says Col Malev. The five-year-long civil war in Tajikistan ended in 1997, but the country still relies heavily on Russian military support.

Watching the choir practice at their Moscow headquarters, all the clichés come true. The heart swells, the foot taps, the mind contemplates the vastness of Russia. When they perform, the choir wears full military uniform, however, when practising, they dress down in colourful knitwear.

Talking afterwards to the choir's assembled luminaries, it becomes clear that they are as fond of storytelling as of singing. Col Malev recalls the choir's modest beginnings in the 1920s, when it consisted of eight singers, one reciter and two dancers. "There is a special beauty to people singing and dancing in military costume, and so our ensemble grew," he says. Today, as well as the 125 singers and musicians there is a troupe of dancers, both male and female. Women are only allowed to be dancers.

The choir is especially proud of the role it played during the Second World War - or the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia. Its founder Alexandrov wrote a song called "Holy War" in response to the German invasion, and it soon became a hit. Col Malev recounts its first public performance. "It was at a train station, where soldiers were departing for the front line. After the choir finished the song, there was silence and then thunderous applause. The soldiers called for one encore after another. The choir had prepared a full programme but they just sang 'Holy War' over and over again."

During the war, the choir travelled the entire front line, performing 1,500 concerts. In another celebrated anecdote, they sang "Holy War" down phone lines to troops at the front. "They helped the people to live," says Malev. These stories, like the songs and the choir itself, were all part of the Soviet regime's propaganda machine. They may or may not be entirely true. But, 60 years on, the members of the Red Army Choir still love to tell them.

The choir's longest-serving member, Victor Kadinov, proceeds to tell us about the choir's miraculous effect on its British audience in 1956. "I'll never forget an English lady I met then," he says. "She told me that she had listened to our first performance on the radio at home. She had been paralysed from the waist down for 25 years, but after listening to our performance, she was able to stand briefly." According to Kadinov, the woman then attended the choir's second performance at the Royal Albert Hall in a wheelchair. "That's our ensemble," says Kadinov. "Our weapons are song and dance."

At that 1956 concert, the choir performed "God Save the Queen". "All the papers wrote that we had shown you how to sing the national anthem even better," says Kadinov. This time, in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, the full ensemble's first performance here since 1967 will be a mixture of traditional Russian songs and English-language numbers. The choir will be the centrepiece of the Russian-British Cultural Association's Russian Winter Festival, an event that will also feature folk ensembles from across the Russian Federation, and Russian pop acts. There will be Russian food, beer, clowns, acrobats and a snow machine in the likely event that the London skies do not produce the real thing. Down the road, at Somerset House, the ice-skating stars Ilia Averbukh and Irina Lobacheva will perform.

After its UK visit, the Red Army Choir will concentrate on its forthcoming European tour. At 77 years old, the ensemble shows no signs of slowing down, despite the death of the ideology that spawned it. Col Malev explains the secret of its longevity: "When you are wearing a military uniform, you can't do anything badly."

The Russian Winter Festival is on Saturday, in Trafalgar Square, noon to 8pm

The Alexandrov Red Army Choir also plays the Apollo Hammersmith (0870 606 3400) on Sunday, 2.30pm

Comments