Songsmith must rewrite history as Russians change their tune: Andrew Higgins in Moscow meets the author of anthems whose career was punctuated by Stalin and who worked to the letter for Brezhnev

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Soviet National Anthem (1977 version)

Unbreakable union of free-born republics

Great Russia has welded for ever to stand.

Thy might was created by will of our peoples

Now flourish in unity, great Soviet land]

chorus: Sing to our motherland, home of the free

Bulwark of peoples in brotherhood strong]

The Party of Lenin, the strength of our peoples,

To communism's triumph lead us on]

Through tempests the sunrays of freedom

have cheered us,

Along the new path where great Lenin did lead.

To a righteous cause he raised up the peoples,

Inspired them to labour and heroic deeds.

chorus: In the victory of communism's

deathless ideals,

We see the future of our dear land.

And to her fluttering scarlet banner,

Selflessly true we always shall stand]

Translated by Herbert Marshall

and Sophie Satin

STALIN asked him to change the punctuation. 'Naturally, I did not object,' says Sergei Mikhalkov, author of the Soviet Union's first national anthem in 1943. Brezhnev asked him to rejig the words. Easy. All he had to do was erase any trace of his earlier patron.

The task today is more difficult. They want him to re-do the whole thing. Tinkering with the full stops won't do. Not even a brutal rewrite will help. There is nothing to salvage. The Soviet Union has gone, and so too has its anthem. Russia wants new lyrics all of its own. 'All I know is that it must not contain anything about communism,' says Mr Mikhalkov, now 80 years old and less than enthusiastic about the changes he has, again, been called upon to celebrate in verse.

Fifty years after Stalin summoned him to a state box in the Bolshoi Theatre, plied him with wine until five in the morning and told him he had passed the audition, Mr Mikhalkov was last week named head of a 27-member commission responsible for finding the right words for the present time. The problem is, he doesn't much believe in the present.

'Of course, I don't think the split of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of all these new states were a good idea,' he says, slumped in an overstuffed armchair in his study, a haut-bourgeois parlour heavy with plaques, awards and portraits from his decades as a darling of Bolshevik art. 'Russia can and will one day be one of the most powerful countries in Europe. It is bound to happen with time. But the split was a huge blow for all the former Soviet republics.'

The old order treated Mr Mikhalkov well. He would like to be remembered for his volumes of children's stories, still admired and widely read. But it was his role as lyricist for the Soviet state that kept him out of the gulag, while other, more talented writers perished. 'I was never a Communist. I was just a member of the party,' he insists. The party gave him a high-ceilinged, five-roomed home in the middle of Moscow (he has lived in the same place for 40 years) and a chance to hob-nob with every Soviet leader from Stalin to Gorbachev; and it awarded him so many medals - including three Stalin Prizes and an Order of Lenin - that he could never wear them all at once. Not that he wants to show them off much these days. He keeps the best medals pinned to a black suit collecting dust at the back of a wooden closet in his bedroom. Unlike many others who rushed to jump ship after the failed coup attempt in 1991, Mr Mikhalkov never quit the party. 'The party simply ceased to exist,' he says.

Today, he keeps out of politics. But he worries about where Russia is going. And the way the new anthem project has been handled bolsters that concern. The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, signed a decree naming him as committee chairman, but no one bothered to tell him about it. 'Everything is in such disorder.'

In Stalin's day, it was different. Stalin appointed Marshal Kliment Voroshilov to watch over the whole enterprise. (Voroshilov's earlier duties included liquidation of the Soviet military's high command.) And Stalin himself took a keen interest. He sat in on performances to judge which words and music should be used. The Soviet Union had previously used the Internationale as its anthem, but at the height of the war with Nazi Germany this was judged insufficiently patriotic.

Mr Mikhalkov's involvement began with a contest to choose new lyrics. He entered, as did his best friend, Gabriel Ureklian, better known by his pen-name G El-Registan. They finished their final draft in the Kremlin, watched over by Stalin, his security chief Lavrenti Beria, Marshal Voroshilov and other top party officials (they crossed themselves before going into the room). A few weeks later Mr Mikhalkov received a phone call: 'Comrade Stalin asked if he can change a punctutation mark in this line?' Fine, he said.

'An anthem,' says Mr Mikhalkov, 'is a prayer, sung by the people worshipping their country. The English sing God Save the Queen, the Germans sing Deutschland uber Alles. Every nation must have this prayer. The content depends on the situation.' And the situation has clearly changed from when he wrote the following lines:

Unbreakable Union of Free Born Republics

Great Russia has welded for ever to stand.

Thy might was created by will of our people,

Now flourish in unity Great Soviet Land]

So inappropriate were the words deemed for the country's post-communism incarnation that Russian athletes at the last Olympic Games in Barcelona had no national anthem at all. They received their medals to the strains of music few had ever heard before: the anthem of the International Olympic Movement.

By the time of the next Olympics, though, they should have something better. The music has already been chosen: a section from the 19th-century opera, A Life for the Tsar, by Mikhail Glinka. (Music for the original Soviet anthem was written by Alexander Alexandrov, a former choir-master who became the founder of the Red Army orchestra after Stalin dynamited his cathedral, Christ the Saviour.) As in Stalin's day, there will be a contest to choose the new words. But Mr Mikhalkov, who will be in charge of judging the entries, says: 'If they are unable to find a good variant, I may propose my own.'

It will be hard to find the right tone. In 1944, Mr Mikhalkov was a true believer. 'When I wrote the first anthem, of course, I believed in it. I was 30 years old then, the war was on and all the Soviet peoples had one common aim, to defeat the Nazis.' And when Brezhnev demanded revisions in 1977, Mr Mikhalkov had just been declared a Socialist Workers' Hero, the highest civilian honour. Today, he accepts his original work - first heard on Moscow Radio on New Year's Day, 1944 - has to go. 'The national flag has changed. The national symbol has changed. The anthem will change, too. Russia has stepped into a new historical period.'

Mr Mikhalkov is not particularly proud of the anthems he has written or revised. 'The anthem is not a work of art, it is a political document. It is just a rhymed credo for the state. You can compare it with designing a state emblem. This is not the same as a painting created by an artist; it is just an official symbol.' He is far more proud of his books for children. 'This is what I write best. I have no real competitors here.' He is also proud of his family, which boasts illustrious ancestors dating back to the 15th century when one of his relatives was a distant cousin of the Tsar.

He also has two successful sons, both of them film directors. The older of the two, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky has made a name for himself in Hollywood. His last film, The Inner Circle, tries to explain the impact of Stalin on his father's generation. But Mr Mikhalkov himself doubts whether anyone can do this. 'Stalin is a character that only Shakespeare could have described. He is an enigma. He managed to keep the country under control for so many years, killing so many people while everybody was still praising with euphoria.

'He is a character from a tragedy - a ruthless murderer and an excellent actor. He was also a good playwright. He wrote political shows that usually ended with the execution of the actors.'

A few, though, did survive - and few with as much comfort and respect as Sergei Mikhalkov.

(Photograph omitted)