Editor's Note: The first article of the "Resurrecting a Culture" series by Svetlana Kargetta, an education series about Russian and Slavic culture, will focus on Russian folk music.
Russian Folk Music: Resurrecting A Culture
By: Lana Kargetta
January 9, 2019
The roots of Eastern Europeans, especially Russians, are set in their heritage and culture that goes back even before the United States existed. This desire to exult who they have been for centuries has been displayed to the world through social media, such as YouTube, in folk music presentations that amplify the spirit of who the Russian people have been and hope to remain. Too often, Westerners have a strictly political context of Russia instead of a cultural one. This viewpoint robs Westerners of truly understanding what the Russian people stand for. While the government symbolizes its people to some extent, it can never embody the essence of a people. No democracy or dictatorship will reveal a country's soul, its passions, beliefs, or everyday lives. Starting with this article on Russian folk music, the "Resurrecting a Culture" series will focus on the reemergence of the Russian Orthodox culture, faith, and traditions since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia is returning to its pre-Soviet traditions as is demonstrated by impressive audiences of 21st-century Russians at programs featuring its traditional music. These folk songs and compositions were made centuries ago, captured the ancient Russian spirit, and spread from generation to generation. As a result, this genre of music holds a wealth of knowledge about Russia's centuries-old culture. In the Kuban Cossack Choir's performance of "Vy, Kozachki-Kozachki"("You, Cossacks-Cossacks"), the viewer will witness elaborate traditional dresses and a celebration of the traditional Russian warriors, Cossacks. With its optimistic portrayal, this song conveys the love and admiration Russian women held for Cossacks, many of whom were their own husbands and sons.
Similarly, the lyrics of "Ty Prosty Menya Rodnaya" ("Forgive Me, My Dear") explore a Cossack's bravery and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his mother country. "Forgive me, my dear, if I won't preserve myself," a Cossack sings. "Where I'll die, I don't know, a daredevil I will be. . . . A Cossack treasures alarm for his beloved country!" Despite its somber undertones, the song's festive nature illustrates the Russians' determination to find light in dark times.
"Ne Dlya Tebya" ("Not For You")
In contrast to those upbeat songs, "Under a Green Willow" by Polegeya explores the topics of perseverance and trying times in a sadder format. The line “don't caw, black raven, over my head; oh, you black raven, I'm still alive” shows the Cossack's fight, even as he lies wounded under a green willow. The themes found in “Under a Green Willow” can be traced back to every event whereas the Russian nation fought against “the times which try men's souls,” such as World War I, the Revolution of 1917, and World War II. Out of all the explored folk songs, the folk song "Ne Dlya Tebya" ("Not For You") probably embodies a Cossack's life and traditional Russian values best. As this is an ancient song of Cossacks, the “you” refers to the traditional Russian warriors; the lines “not for you will spring come, not for you will [river] Don spill, and a maiden's heart will flutter with admirable feelings not for you” show the extent of a Cossack's sacrifice. The last two stanzas introduce the warriors' harsh reality: “For you, there's a piece of lead; it will burrow into the white flesh, and bitter tears will flow—such a life, brother, is for you.”
To the fresh ear, these songs may appear long-drawn or even peculiar. After all, there is nothing in pop culture that remotely resembles this type of music. However, the extent of themes, topics, and wisdom held in ancient folk music will never be replicated in any other genre. Perhaps current and future generations have something to learn by resurrecting a culture.
About the author:
Svetlana Kargetta is an American citizen with Russian ancestry from her mother's side. Thanks to her heritage, Ms. Kargetta had a firsthand and clear observation of Russian and Ukrainian traditions and even often visited her mother's home country, Ukraine. Ms. Kargetta joined the Sterling Student Scrolls as an Eastern European correspondent and hopes to share her knowledge with others.