In anthem search, Russia looks 'back to the USSR'

After a decade of economic decline and social turmoil, many Russians find themselves nostalgic for reminders of Soviet glory.

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'Been away so long I hardly knew the place. Gee it's good to be back home.

"Leave it 'till tomorrow to unpack my case, honey disconnect the phone.

"I'm back in the USSR..."

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If only it had been penned by a Russian, the former Beatles hit just might have been a contender in the frenzied public search for a new national anthem.

A recent Moscow TV news program featured people in the streets singing their personal favorites, which included not only official choices but Soviet-era marching songs, folk tunes, and a couple of ditties apparently made up on the spot.

While Russians are generally apathetic and exhausted after a decade of turbulence - not to mention new revelations about the Kursk, a nuclear submarine that went down with all hands in August - the quest seems to have seized the public imagination.

Anyone who watched the Sydney Olympics might be forgiven for thinking Russia already has an anthem. "A Patriotic Song," by Mikhail Glinka, was selected in 1993 by former President Boris Yeltsin. But Russian athletes complain about the uninspiring and wordless tune, and politicians say Mr. Yeltsin's decree lacked parliamentary consent. So President Vladimir Putin has given the State Council, a new Kremlin advisory body made up of regional governors, until Nov. 22 to recommend a replacement.

Not everyone supports the search. "All of the surging passions over this are silly," says Alexander Krishtanovsky, dean of sociology at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "This has all blown up because Yeltsin wasn't good at doing things 100 percent legally, and various politicians see this anthem contest as a vehicle for pursuing their own agendas."

One option is to commission lyrics for the Glinka tune. Opinion surveys, however, suggest many Russians don't like the piece, which they associate with a decade of national decline, economic depression, and social disorder under Yeltsin. More popular is a plan to restore the old "Hymn of the USSR" - minus its historically discredited lyrics. Backers include the still-powerful Communist Party, and others. "The Soviet hymn's melody is solemn and easy to remember. It sent goose bumps down my spine when I was in the Army," Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said recently. Rumor has it that Mr. Putin feels the same way.

The lyrics, by poet Sergei Mikhalkov, extol the "unbreakable union of free Soviet republics" marching forward to "build communism." Many Russians associate the anthem not with the dark sides of the Soviet regime but with moments of past triumph, such as Olympic victories, space launches, and superpower summits. "Of course the ideas it expresses are embarrassing in retrospect, but most Russians grew up with and accepted that song as our anthem," says Olga Mikhailenko, a history teacher. "With some new lyrics, I'm sure we could all be proud of it again."

A dark-horse contender is the prerevolutionary "God Save the Czar," backed by Russia's tiny monarchist contingent. But "few Russians have ever heard that song, except in old Soviet movies that always made it seem ridiculous or hateful," says Ms. Mikhailenko.

"Our politicians always prefer to operate on the level of cliches and superficial symbols," warns Konstantin Aksyonov, an expert at the Institute of Sociology in St. Petersburg. "They started this unnecessary debate about a new anthem to distract people from the vacuum of real ideas at the top.

"Let's just hope it gets quickly settled and doesn't become a new source of political strife."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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