- 01. “Kalinka”, the Most Famous Military Song
- 02. Can I learn Russian with Music?
- 03. Russian Music: “Katioucha”, the One That’ll Make You Cry
- 04. The “Trololo” Song, Russia’s Comic Side
- 05. “Podmoskovnie Vetchera” (The Moscow Nights)
- 06. What Music Should I Listen to to Learn Russian?
- 07. Dorogoï Dlinnoyou (The Long Road), An Unexpected Success
- 08. Russian Music: “Kombat”
- 09. “Farewell of Slavianka” by the Red Army Choir
- 10. “Rumka Vodki na Stole” (Glass of Vodka on the Table)
- 11. Russian Music: “Alyosha”, a Symbolic Song
- 12. How to Memorise Russian Songs?
- 13. “Ostrov Nevezeniya”, from the Film The Diamond Arm
“Listen more, talk less.” - Russian Proverb
When Russia hosted the World Cup in 2018, a lot of people were introduced to different aspects of Russian culture, including the music.
Thanks to that gleeful event, there are now hundreds of thousands of football fans (and certainly millions more) who know the most famous Russian songs. Your Superprof will now broaden that audience as much as possible.
There's just one problem: the Russian language uses the Cyrillic alphabet.
For the purpose of this article, we’ve transcribed the titled using the Latin alphabet.
The music of Russia is as expansive as the country itself and Russia has an impressive orchestral and classical music repertoire including Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovitch, and plenty of contemporary music, too: opera, folk, pop and rap.
We can't go through all of Russia's music; the anthology is simply too vast. However, we will look at a few must-hear songs that you have to listen to if you want a better understanding of music in Russia.
In this article, we're taking a quick tour of the Russian musical landscape and 10 Russian songs that you may not necessarily like, but definitely should listen to.
“Kalinka”, the Most Famous Military Song
If you know much about Russian popular culture, you’ll have probably have heard the song Kalinka at least once in your life. You might have even heard one of the various translations into other languages.
Kalina, from Kalinka, is also a common Slavic name. The song “Kalinka” is essential, it’s a metaphor for women’s natural beauty, something which made the song hugely popular. It was composed by Ivan Petrovich Larionov in 1860 and was performed by many, which eventually gave it its Russian folk music version.
There’s also a Cossack version of the song with a really militaristic feeling to it.
Can I learn Russian with Music?
The name ‘Kalinka’ incorporates the diminutive form of the ‘Kalina’; inserting a ‘K’ before the last letter, particularly in a female’s name a common practice in Cyrillic and Slavic languages.
This marker of affection works much like the way English speakers add ‘Y’ to the end of both male and female names as an expression of endearment: Bobby, Christy, Ricky and others.
Furthermore, this song title reflects the Russian convention of names for females ending in ‘A’… an aspect of Russian culture you surely know if you are a student of the Russian language.
Language and culture go hand in hand. You can hardly learn how to speak Russian without understanding that country’s social norms and customs.
Some might aver that the Russian language, with its complicated grammar, declensions and pronunciation – to say nothing of having to learn an entirely different alphabet is impossible to learn on one’s own.
Superprofs and Russian nationals who are inordinately proud of their language would agree but we can still make the case for using Russian songs to aid you in mastering Russian pronunciation.
Many of the traditional songs featured in this article present you with the best selections to gain exposure to essential elements of Russian culture and traditional language.
Exposure is one of the best tools in your learning arsenal.
Hearing Russian words enunciated so clearly in these songs gives you lots of sounds to imitate; repeating easy-to-distinguish sounds is one of the best ways to pick up on Russian pronunciation specifics.
Another good reason to select more traditional tunes, especially if you’re only just beginning to learn Russian, is that they tend toward the militaristic, meaning they pretty much match the tempo and cadence of marching soldiers.
This slower tempo, combined with clearly enunciated words and a precise delivery devoid of standard lyrical shortcuts such as chopping off end-syllables or contracting words means that you get a full blast of Russian, sung as it is formally spoken.
How to make use of this trove to improve your Russian speaking and listening skills?
- Listen to the same set of songs over and over
- Hum along so you can get the feel for the melody
- As you recognise units of sound – syllables or entire words, sing them
- Focus on the refrain and/or other repeating lyrics for quicker mastery
For instance, in ‘Kalinka’, that name is repeated throughout the song. As you hear it, sing it!
Can music also be used to improve your Russian reading and writing skills?
Fortunately, we live in a time where any information is only a few keystrokes away so, once you’ve settled on a handful of Russian songs to master, you can likely find their lyrics online and copy them.
Copying Russian song lyrics in their original Cyrillic form gives you the chance to practise writing in this new system; an opportunity that simply downloading lyrics or printing them out would not allow.
Besides, studies have proven a definite link between handwriting and memory gain so, if you hope to master Russian reading and writing as quickly and effectively as possible, dust off that old notepad and get your hand moving!
Final tip: as you write the lyrics in Cyrillic form, leave a blank between each line so that, as your Russian vocabulary grows, you can write the translation for each word beneath it.
In closing a last word about name: Russian family names are also altered according to gender.
A baby girl’s surname will end in ‘A’ even though her father’s name will have a different ending meaning that, if Anna Karenina had a brother, his name might be Igor Kareniny.
Russian Music: “Katioucha”, the One That’ll Make You Cry
Katioucha is the quintessential Russian song. It was written in Mikhail Isakovsky and Matvey Blanter and tells the story of a young girl writing a prayer for her lover who’s fighting on the front lines. The name “Katioucha” is the diminutive of Catherine in Russian.
As a military number, it’s part of the Red Army Choir’s repertoire. It’s a rousing song that has been used to lift the spirits of the Russian people on numerous occasions, especially during the Second World War.
For a few years, Valeria Kurnushkina has performed it alongside the Red Army Choir. It’s a very moving song! During the World Cup, Russian fans sang this song on their way back home following their defeat to Croatia.
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The “Trololo” Song, Russia’s Comic Side
This song became a huge internet meme and was performed by Eduard Khil. The song’s real name is “Я очень рад, ведь я наконец возвращаюсь домой” (I Am Very Glad, as I'm Finally Returning Back Home) and the original version had lyrics.
The original lyrics told the story of an American cowboy that was heading back to the US before being changed either through censorship or down to the artist’s choice.
The version without lyrics was nicknamed the “Trololo” song online and has been viewed millions of times on social networks and sites like YouTube and BuzzFeed.
The singer, Eduard Khil, became famous outside of Russia almost overnight. He was actually a holder of the Merited Artist of the RSFSR.
Find out more about famous Russian people.
“Podmoskovnie Vetchera” (The Moscow Nights)
This song is as famous in Russia as TV themes are in the UK. In fact, Podmoskovnie Vetchera was composed in 1955 by Mikhail Matusovsky and became the theme tune for Radio Moscow.
Did you know that the lyrics were changed at the request of the Minister of Education at the time since the song was about Leningrad rather than Moscow?
It was originally performed by Vladimir Troshin, broadcast in China as of 1957, and a French version was created and performed by Francis Lemarque in 1959.
The song was used to welcome Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 to the White House.
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What Music Should I Listen to to Learn Russian?
Russia – a land and people with a long and tragic history, marred by conflict and punctuated with shows of military might.
That is why so much of Russia’s traditional music sounds like soldiers going off to war. Indeed, quite a few of the most popular numbers among older Russian citizens are these military-sounding tunes.
Remember: their slow, cadenced delivery make them ideal for beginner Russian students to learn from them!
More recently, the Russian people have emerged from intense economic and political restriction and social isolation. The Soviet regime, an era whose soundtrack was propaganda, party loyalty and military marches, collapsed less than 30 years ago.
The three decades since could hardly be enough for Russian artists and musicians to fully explore and push the boundaries of their creativity, let alone pivot very far away from their traditions and musical roots.
Still, there are some great pop songs and even some rap in Russian that you might find helpful to practise listening and singing in Russian.
Bear in mind that these songs, much like modern songs in any other language including English, have a much faster tempo and take a certain amount of liberty in shortening or distorting words to keep the rhyming structure.
Furthermore, there is a substantial amount of slang and updated vocabulary to reflect the times.
With those caveats clearly outlined, we recommend a few selections for Russian learners who are a bit more advanced in their learning; who could better pick out individual words and phrases being sung in an accelerated tempo.
Sati Kasanova – Until Dawn
A lush story of love that suggests thinking about the future is too hard; lovers should just enjoy their moments.
The song is a duet featuring former boy-band member Arsenie Todiras, also known as Arsenium.
Pizza – Arms
This music group incorporates pop, funk and lyrical elements into their songs.
Arms is a wistful-sounding ballad about teenaged love seen through the prism of time.
“The soul was flying over puddles but April didn’t give me a cold / I think I killed myself with your deadly weapon.”
Is there anything more melodramatic and bittersweet as teenaged love?
Anna Semenovich – I’ll Follow You
This former figure skater now flexes her vocals in this song about a woman who loses her head and follows her heart into love.
UPD1 Leningrad – Exhibit
This parody of modern young womanhood is one of today's most popular modern Russian songs; it’s YouTube video has been watched over 150 million times!
Bonus: the video starts with a fresh-faced young woman discussing her life (and presumed happiness) via web-chat; what an excellent peek into Russian native speakers’ conversation!
It also shows the generational gap as the young star in the video faces constant criticism and instruction from an older female, presumably her mother.
Gradusy – Movie Director
This pop group is led by Dmitry Bakhtinov, a prolific songwriter who experienced a profound personal loss. He wrote this song in response to that life-altering tragedy.
Coming out of his funk, he realised it was a bit too dark to unleash onto the world so he changed the lyrics a bit, making it a life-affirming anthem: after loss, get up and move on.
These are just a handful of Russia’s up-and-coming music artists representing a range of musical genres.
There is so much great music coming out of Russia these days that you could never run out of songs to help you learn Russian!
If these artists, in particular, appeal to you, you can simply search their names in your favourite music app or video platform. That search will certainly lead to more artists you'll love to hear...
Dorogoï Dlinnoyou (The Long Road), An Unexpected Success
This song is known in the English-speaking world as Those Were the Days. However, it was originally a Russian romantic folk song. It was translated into French, Spanish, German, Italian, Persian, and Hungarian and was famously covered by Paul McCartney and Dalida.
It was composed in the 1920s under the Soviet Union and became popular in Western Europe in the 1960s, particularly in the UK and France. The Muscovite version, with dancers, is the most popular version.
This is one of the most-recorded Russian songs of all time with over 40 different versions having been recorded.
Russian Music: “Kombat”
The song “Kombat” was created in 1996 by the composer Igor Matvienko and became famous with his group Lyube. They’re famous for their music without the political waffle present in songs by other artists.
The lyrics speak for themselves: “bullets, vodka, cigarettes, shoot or you die!”. Like a lot of other songs in Russian, it focuses on the idea of victory, defeat, and war. The 90s was the decade during which modern Russia was being rebuilt following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian culture is definitely in sync with Russian history.
“Farewell of Slavianka” by the Red Army Choir
This is a patriotic march written by Vasily Agapkin about the First Balkan War (1912-1913). It’s about Slavic women saying goodbye to their husbands and partners as they head off to war. There are two versions of the song, one from 1912 and another from 1997.
For many years, there were famous Russian composers advocating the song’s use as the Russian national anthem. The song is now an unofficial part of the Red Army Choir’s repertoire.
The national anthem of Russia is the melody of the Soviet anthem but with new lyrics and replaced “The Patriotic Song” in 2000.
“Rumka Vodki na Stole” (Glass of Vodka on the Table)
Here’s a song that’s as emblematic as it is cliché.
Isn’t vodka an essential part of Russian culture, after all?
The song describes it perfectly. It was written and performed by Grigory Leps and was a success in Russia, especially at the end of the Soviet era.
Can a glass of vodka fix everything?
No, but it might make a difference (in Russia, at least). This pessimistic song was inspired by the repressive Soviet era and is based on a common Russian proverb that states that repression can affect people from all walks of life.
Russian Music: “Alyosha”, a Symbolic Song
Symbolism is never far away in Russian culture and the song “Alyosha” was composed in 1966 by Eduard Kolmanovsky. The song is about the Aloysha monument in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. The monument honours the Soviet soldiers who died during the occupation of Bulgaria during the Second World War.
Not to be confused with the Ukranian singer Alyosha who performed at Eurovision in 2010.
The song is particularly popular in Bulgaria and Russia and the two countries often exchange performances of the song.
How to Memorise Russian Songs?
Unless you are learning Russian for some reason not wholly within your control – maybe you’re being transferred at work or your postgraduate studies can only be completed at any of Russia’s fine universities, you likely have a connection to Russia.
You might have Russian ancestors, love the Bolshoi or simply have an overwhelming affinity for all things Russia.
Nobody could blame you for emotional ties to this rich culture; everything from Russian food to art and philosophy is admirable.
Having an emotional connection to Russia is one of the best reasons – and the best way to memorise Russian songs.
Russian songs are infused with tradition and culture; even the most modern tunes reflect Russia’s history and progress into modern times. Again, nobody could blame you for loving all of it so put that love to work by learning one of her most accessible cultural legacies: music.
Through listening to Russian music, you might develop a loyalty to a particular artist or genre of music. Believe it or not, this type of fandom is another aspect of music appreciation that can lead to memorising songs quickly and well.
Admittedly, not many Russian songs are translated into English so, if you want to understand what your favourite recording artist is singing about, translating song lyrics can help you remember them, too.
Many of the tools and tactics English speakers use to learn other languages, such as learning articles and verb tenses… don’t work for learning Russian because, among other things, the Russian language uses no articles.
Also, the many Russian grammatical cases – genitive, dative, accusative and others may completely change how the word looks. And then, throw in grammatical gender and syntax…
In using songs, you have an enjoyable, palatable way of learning Russian, unencumbered by all of the language’s rules and with no need to fear embarrassment at mispronouncing anything.
Shed from the stress and pressure of learning, enjoying music for music's sake... what better tools could you have to memorise Russian songs?
“Ostrov Nevezeniya”, from the Film The Diamond Arm
Andrei Mironov is one of the most famous actors in Russia. The Diamond Arm (1978) was one of the most watched films in Russia and “Ostrov Nevezeniya” (The Island of Misfortune) is a popular song that many groups have covered.
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To learn more about Russian literature and culture, there’s nothing better than watching films or listening to songs.
While most of the emblematic Russian songs come from famous ballets like the Nutcracker or Swan Lake, there are also plenty of Russian songs from popular culture, too. Whether they’re about the Russian revolution, the Russian Federation, or even the country’s relationship with the West, they’re all popular.
So which one would you like to listen to?
Whether you like the violin, flute, percussion, harp, fiddle, cello, accordion, mandolin, balalaika, or choral music, there are plenty of Russian folk songs, instrumental pieces, contemporary music, concertos, and pop tunes from the days of the Russian Empire, the time of the USSR, and new music for a new Russian Federation.
You needn't be a professional musician, performer, or studying composition to appreciate traditional music from Russia or a few of the country's most famous bands! Additionally, you can always listen to Russian music on the radio or at concerts. Be it a symphony orchestra led by a famous conductor or composer, chamber music, or something with melodies more similar to Western music, there's something for all tastes in Russia.
If you're interested in learning more about the Russian language, you should definitely consider getting in touch with a private tutor to help you achieve your linguistic goals and better understand Russian music and the surrounding culture.
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