Russia changes its tune over anthem

City Life, Moscow
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8 January 2001

8 January 2001

The English, the English, the English are best,

I would not give tuppence for all of the rest,

The Germans are German, the Russians are red,

The French and Italians eat garlic in bed.

THIS IS what a national anthem should sound like: High praise for the home nation and vigorous abuse of foreigners.

This verse is part of a song entitled "Patriotic Prejudices" by the late British singer Michael Flanders. Of course it is a little out of date. It predates the period when the English, under the influence of Elizabeth David and other cookery writers, started to consume garlic in large quantities.

Note also the reference to the French and Italians eating in bed. This was probably the last moment when, as the British empire collapsed, the British thought of the French and Italian as being excessively idle or enjoying a better sex life than themselves.

The Germans obviously remain German, but the Russians are no longer red. The problem for the Russian élite is that these days they are not quite sure what they are. They are clearly capitalists, but most come out of the old Communist establishment.

This lack of identity has been clearly displayed during the prolonged -- and sometimes hysterical -- debate over the adoption of a new national anthem. How much of the past should be jettisoned and how much retained?

The words of the old Soviet anthem had to go. It had embarrassing lines such as: "O Party of Lenin, the strength of the people, to Communism's triumph lead us on." Boris Yeltsin blurred the issue by adopting as the anthem a forgettable tune by the 19th- century composer Mikhail Glinka, but it had no lyrics.

Hence, Russian gold medallists at last year's Olympics in Sydney were forced to remain mute when they stepped on to the podium. The Spartak soccer team in Moscow even wrote to President Vladmir Putin making the claim that the lack of a singable national song had lost them several games.

No longer. On New Year's Eve Russian television channels played the new Kremlin-approved song. The music is the same as the old Soviet anthem composed by Alexander Alexandrov in 1944, but the words are new.

Even by the standards of other countries' national anthems it is pretty banal. It combines a sort of windy chauvinism with appeals to the Almighty rather than the Communist Party. "You are unique in the world, one of a kind, native land protected by God," writes Sergei Mikhalkov, the 87-year-old composer, who co-wrote the lyrics for Stalin.

President Vladimir Putin said: "The difficulty over Russia's national symbols is real. If we accept the fact that in no way we could use the symbols of the previous epoch ... then we must admit that our mothers and fathers lived useless and senseless lives, that they lived their lives in vain."

The new anthem is full of obvious ironies. The old one stressed the unbreakable unity of the Soviet Union. The new song speaks of "the age-old unity of fraternal peoples".

All this would be harmless enough if the legacy of the past could be so easily laid to rest. But the past year, with the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster and the Chechnya war rumbling on, shows that the memory of past achievements, and the desire to recreate them, remains a recipe for disaster.