If you want to understand Russia and its culture, you need to hear these Russian folk songs at least once in your lifetime.
According to a popular Russian proverb, “a man without a homeland is a nightingale without a song.” When we look at this proverb, we quickly understand that this is not just a cliché. Russian culture is strongly marked by patriotism.
Moreover, while Russia hosted the FIFA World Cup in the summer of 2018, the official Russian song “Komanda 2018” (Team 2018), sung by the famous Polina Gagarina and rapper Egor Kreed, highlighted the Russian culture.
We have gathered the top 12 of the most famous Russian folk songs so you can discover even more about the Russian-speaking world!
The Essential Russian Folk Songs List
While we don't claim to be “definitive” by any means, these Russian folk songs will definitely give you a good idea of traditional Russian music:
1. Kalinka, the famous military song
If you want to get to know a bit about the Russian tradition, then you have to listen (at least once) to the particularly surprising song, Kalinka.
The song conjures up stories of fir trees, raspberries, and little berries (which is the literal translation of “Kalinka”). But in reality, there are many meanings hidden.
Kalina, a derivative of “Kalinka”, is also a traditional Slavic given name.
There is indeed a metaphor with the natural beauty of young women, which makes it a very popular folk song.
Composed by Ian Petrovich Larionov in 1860, the song has been reinterpreted many times, especially in its folk dimension.
Also, there is a version made by Cossacks of this song, with a much more military tone.
The song, Калинка in Cyrillic, literally translates to “little berry berry”. This famous Russian song has become a traditional love song.
If at first glance, the lyrics only talk about fruits and plants, you have to look at the third verse to notice that the author speaks very explicitly of a “pretty girl”. We then understand the double meaning of the song, led by a metaphor spun between the elements of nature and the pretty young lady in question.
2. “Katyusha”, the song that makes you cry
Traditional Soviet song par excellence, “Katyusha” is another staple of Russian culture.
Composed in 1938 by Mikhaïl Issakovski and Matveï Blanter, it tells the story of a young girl writing a prayer to her lover who left to fight on the front.
At the end of winter, when the fighting resumes, a young girl makes a prayer to her lover who has gone to war, in response to the letters he sent her.
Note: the name “Katyusha” is an affectionate diminutive of Lekaterina, or the first name Catherine in Russian
Infinitely military, it is part of the repertoire of the Choirs of the Red Army.
Over and over again reinterpreted, it is considered to have a moral contribution to the Russian populations.
It was notably used during the Second World War, by the singer Lidia Touslanova to support the morale of the soldiers of the Red Army.
It is also this song that was chosen to evoke a more sordid object: the famous multiple rocket launchers used by the Soviets during the Second World War. These weapons were called “Stalin's organs” by the Nazis.
For several years, it has been performed by a young girl, Valerya Kournouchkina, who accompanies the Choir on tour.
In Russian, this song is very catchy, but also moving! During the World Cup, at the time of the Russian defeat against Croatia, more than 100,000 people started the song “Katyusha” on the way home. It's a poignant song, symbolizing success in defeat!
3. “Song of the Trololo”, the comic Russian song
Known internationally for the unexpected turn of this song, the “Trololo” was performed in 2009, in Saint Petersburg, by Édouard Khil.
The song was originally titled “Я очень рад, ведь я наконец возвращаюсь домой” (meaning, “I'm very happy to have finally come home”), and contains lyrics.
Namely: at the time, the lyrics of the song, which evoked the story of a cowboy returning home to America, were censored by the Soviet Union, hence the desire for rehabilitation.
Reinterpreted with onomatopoeias, of the type “hoho”, “lololo”, the nickname of “song of Trololo” succeeds it shortly after, racking up more than 41 million views on YouTube.
The singer, Édouard (1934-2012), a then-Soviet Russian singer, enjoyed rapid success, due to his somewhat comical and cliché look: a big smile and impeccable hairstyle. In 2009, the baritone received the 4th class of the Order of Merit for the Fatherland.
4. “Podmoskovnie Vetchera” (Moscow Nights), an ode to the city
This song is to Russian music what Minor Swing is to Django Reinhardt. It's simply iconic!
“Podmoskovnie Vetchera” was composed in 1955 by Mikhail Matusovsky, and was so successful that it became the official credits of Radio Moscow, hence its rapid dissemination.
The song Podmoskovnie Vetchera means “Moscow Nights.” It is one of the most popular folk songs in Russia.
With the author being a native of Leningrad, the song was to be called “The Nights of Leningrad” (currently Saint Petersburg).
The lyrics of the song were indeed changed to speak of Moscow instead of Leningrad, at the request of the then Soviet Ministry of Culture.
Performed initially by Vladimir Troshin, it spread in China from 1957. It is in particular thanks to the World Festival of Youth and Students, organized the same year in Russia, that the song saw international notoriety.
This song was played on the piano by pianist Van Cliburn to welcome Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 to the White House in the United States. So it's a song to listen to while thinking back to the context of the Cold War.
The song has also been repeated on numerous occasions, notably by the Choirs of the Red Army.
5. “Dorogoï Dlinnoyou” (On the long road), the unexpected success
Better known by its English name Those Were The Days, the song “Dorogoï Dlinnoyou” is a traditional Russian gypsy folk song.
Translated into 6 languages (French, Spanish, German, Italian, Persian, Hungarian), it was composed in 1926 by the Russian composer Boris Fomine (1900-1948).
The lyrics are from Konstantin Podrevski. You will probably recognize the tune of the song the first time you listen to it!
Composed in the 1920s in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), it became popular in the 1960s in Western Europe, more particularly in the United Kingdom and France.
The song got international success in 1962, thanks to the American group, The Limeliters.
The single, recorded in 1968, sold 5 million copies and is one of the best-selling singles in the world.
In present-day Russia, it remains popular, so also is it in its Moscow version, with dancers.
It is one of the Russian songs which has had the highest number of international recordings: more than 40 versions in a few decades!
6. “Kombat” (Battalion Commander)
The song ” Kombat “, created in 1996 by Russian composer Igor Matvienko, is one of the most famous in Russia, simply because it was sung by the Russian rock band Lioubè.
“Kombat” is the contraction of the Battalion Commander. The song tells the story of a commander who steps up to the front lines of battle instead of hiding behind his soldiers. The lyrics, therefore, values the men who serve the country with honor, defend Russia until the end.
These Russian singers are renowned for their tongue-in-cheek music. They have also specialized in war music since the 1990s.
The lyrics of the song are quite telling: “bullets, vodka, cigarettes, shoot, where you die”. Like many other songs from Russia, it focuses on the notion of victory, defeat, war. It was composed a decade all the more marked by the reconstruction of present-day Russia, following the fall of the Soviet Union.
It just goes to show that Russian culture is in tune with its history!
7. “Farewell to Slavianka”, from the Red Army Choirs
The main Russian songs are performed by the Red Army Choir, an essential harmonic ensemble!
It is more exactly a Russian patriotic march, composed by Vassili Agapkin, echoing the First Balkan War (1912-1913). She tells the farewells of Bulgarian women to their husbands and lovers, who have gone to war.
This song exists in two versions, in the lyrics, the texts were slightly adapted in 1912 and 1997.
For several years, great reputable Russian composers have sought to make this music the National Anthem of Russia, without success.
The song is now part of the unofficial repertoire of the Red Army Choirs, although it is sung at every performance.
Moreover, the National Anthem of Russia was adopted by Vladimir Poutine in December 2000, replacing The International.
8. “Roumka Vodki na Stole” (Glass of vodka on the table), the unusual
Here is a pretty emblematic song, if not cliché, about Russia! It's simply a case when music speaks of a scourge of public health in Russia. Composed and sung by Grigory Leps, of Georgian origin, the song is popular in Russia, but also in the post-Soviet space.
Can a glass of vodka fix it all? No, but it's always taken (at least, in Russia)
Particularly pessimistic, this song was influenced by the era of Soviet repression and translates the following Russian proverb: “Do not swear that you will never know the beggar's wallet or the prison”, which assumes that repression can affect all categories of populations.
9. “Alyosha”, the symbolic song
Composed in 1966 by Eduard Kolmanovsky, the song “Alyosha” is about a monument with the eponymous name, which is erected in Bulgaria, in Plovdiv.
This monument exists in memory of the Soviets who died during the Bulgarian occupation, during the Second World War, and the song is intended to be a continuation of Russian memory.
The song is not to be confused with Ukrainian singer Alyosha, a participant in Eurovision 2010. The song is particularly popular in Bulgaria and Russia, and the two countries regularly offer mutual performances and interpretations of this unique song.
10. Kazatchok, the dance of the Cossacks
Here is a Russian-speaking song, originating in Ukraine, but which can designate all that is “Russian”. The Cossacks is a name given to the Slavic populations of Eastern Europe, adjacent to the Caucasus and Asia.
The song rose to fame in the 1970s when a Bulgarian singer Boris Rubashkin fled the Communist Soviet bloc to move to Western (capitalist) Europe.
He would have composed the song there and invented the Kazatchok dance on occasion.
The song is considered to be a traditional Russian song, faithful to the dance tradition of the Cossacks.
11. The Boatmen of the Volga
Here is almost an opera song, while being quite martial, as often in a Russian orchestra.
The Russian folk song of the Boatmen of the Volga depicts the suffering of the working classes during the time of the Czars of Imperial Russia (1721-1917).
The song pays homage to the mooring pullers of the Volga (by extension all boatmen in the world) who are operated by their boatmen.
Released in 1866 by Mili Balakirev, the song has established itself as one of the most famous traditional Russian compositions.
It became so famous that it crossed its borders. In 1922, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla created an arrangement under the title “Canto de los remeros del Volga”, that is, “Song of the Volga rowers.”
The song was used by the League of Nations to provide financial assistance to the several million Russian refugees displaced, deported, or imprisoned during the First World War.
Fédor Chaliapine (1873-1938) popularized the song, and the title took an essential place in the repertoire of basses and choirs.
In the United States, the song rose to number one in sales in 1941, under the name, translated into English, Song of the Volga Boatmen. It will later be part of the repertoire of the Choirs of the Red Army and the Choir of Cossacks of the Urals.
12. Slavianka's farewell, a historic song
This Russian folk song is a patriotic march written by Russian composer Vassili Agapkin in commemoration of Bulgarian women who bid farewell to husbands mobilized for the First Balkan War (1912-1913).
Performed for the first time in 1912, the march pays homage to Slavic civilization (hence the name Slavianka).
Becoming popular in Russia, the melody toured Slavic countries during World War I, when people were to suffer the same fate: women had to say goodbye to their husbands again when another conflict started, this time around, global.
The march was taken up as an unofficial anthem by the White Army (the army designated after the Bolshevik revolution, opposed to the revolution of 1917) of Admiral Alexander Vassillievich Kolchak (1874-1920), a Russian officer. It was also listed in the collections of songs of the Red Army.
Recorded at the beginning of the 1940s under the direction of Ivan Petrov, this march has been performed regularly since then. It is often broadcast from boats crossing the Volga and on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok.
It just goes to show that the history of Europe is inseparable from the history of music and popular songs!
Over to you
Russian folk songs are popular, sometimes old, sometimes recent. They constitute the essence of Russian culture and long history. Most of these songs talk about war, peace, defeats, victory, love, and anyone conversant with the history of Russia will understand why.
Header image credit: PikRepo