My Search for the Old Russian Soul

When I was 23, I embarked on a feverish journey in search of the old Russian soul–if one can call it that. Every evening at 5pm, I locked myself in and immersed myself in Russian music, cinema, art, literature, biographies, history, and even the language, until 4or 5am each morning. This went on for many months, and I share some of the gems I found here–perhaps some will be a revelation. I imagined there were arcane truths and spiritual awakenings and unprecedented discoveries of arresting beauty passed down through the ages in the very soil and air there. Here I limit myself to discoveries on Youtube, and a couple of images that captured my imagination and have stayed with me ever since–it’s really too many to take in all at once here, but perhaps something will resonate with you. I would love to hear about favorites of yours, as surely you have many to add?

The Churches of Kizhi (c1764)

The Churches of Kizhi (c1764)

For me there is nothing more haunting than Russian Orthodox choral music, and here is a favorite. Listen for when the soloist enters:

old Russia

Sergei Rachmaninoff was forever in the world of old Russia, and a truly incredible find is this film of Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. Gripping and impassioned from start to finish–almost crackling with vitality and rebirth, here is an excerpt from the development of the first movement. Rachmaninoff’s love of Tchaikovsky and his Sixth Symphony is apparent throughout. I have always thought of Svetlanov as a Russian Carlos Kleiber with his warmth and flexible gestures–be sure to listen all the way to the climax at 13:49:


From Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece “Vespers/All-Night Vigil”, the Ave Maria–truly other-worldly. He even imitates bell sonorities with voicing, brought out in this incredible performance with Polyansky conducting:

One of the most spiritual films I have ever seen, and one of the unprecedented and ambitious films in all of cinema: here is the preview to Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark”–it was done in one take, and in one continuous shot, with three live orchestras conducted by Gergiev–bringing to life 300 years of Russian culture, with a stunning realization at the end:

This is a portrait of Russian philosophers Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov from 1917. Mikhail Nesterov (1862–1942)

This is a portrait of Russian philosophers Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov from 1917. Mikhail Nesterov (1862–1942)

One of the most remarkable scenes in Russian cinema is this one with the birches in Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood”:

“Rival Ladies” from 1890 by Nikolaj Alexejewitsch Kassatkin

“Rival Ladies” from 1890 by Nikolaj Alexejewitsch Kassatkin

A film that will forever capture my heart is this famous animated short “Hedgehog in the Fog” from 1975–I was left in a state of awe and wonder:

Perhaps the most famous Russian icon painter was Andrey Rublev, born in the 14th century. Here is his depiction of the Archangel Michael

Perhaps the most famous Russian icon painter was Andrey Rublev, born in the 14th century. Here is his depiction of the Archangel Michael

A traditional folk song in Russia is “Powder and Paint”–here is none other than Rachmaninoff at the piano in his arrangement with the famous Nadezhda Plevitskaya, who specialized in gypsy songs. Rachmaninoff manages to add in the Dies Irae tune (starting from 1:51) that so haunted his music, and listen at 1:57 how the music seems to give up a certain resignation to the skies–some type of musical sublimation. Then what ensues seems to be some type of fatalism. This is considered to be one of the supreme recorded examples of piano accompaniment for voice:

Rachmaninoff’s music wasn’t all doom-and-gloom however, and here is music about rebirth, played here by my teacher Sergei Babayan–listen to the sadness in the coda and the wild harmonic progressions again in what I call sublimation:

One of the most gripping and emotionally harrowing films I have seen is Zvyagintsev’s 2003 “The Return” which references so much of Russian film and culture. With stunning acting and photography, it follows two brothers as they travel with their father after his mysterious return. Here is the preview:

“Sea of Mud” 1894. Alexei Savrasov (1830–1897)

“Sea of Mud” 1894. Alexei Savrasov (1830–1897)

Rachmaninoff said that the inspiration for all his music and his sound world initially came from the voice of the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin. Here I am in 1998 at his grave in Moscow:

At the grave of Chaliapin in 1998 in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, an extraordinary site

At the grave of Chaliapin in 1998 in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, an extraordinary site

Perhaps the heart of Russian music at its most primal is Modest Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov” (premiered 1874). For me the performance that stands out is the live one from London 1928 that by some miracle was captured for posterity, Chaliapin‘s charisma and acting ability, even, come through. Here is the Farewell, Prayer, and Death of Boris. Listen to how touching the shift in color is at 6:43. Years later, Christian and I listened to this performance over and over:

Troika (1866) by Perov–very much evokes the hardship of the people in Godunov

Troika (1866) by Perov–very much evokes the hardship of the people in Godunov

In the world of acting, here is what even western critics argue was the greatest Hamlet, in Innokenty Smoktunovsky:

Similar in tone is from my favorite opera, Tchaikovsky’s “Yevgeny Onegin”, with the great Ivan Kozlovsky in Lensky’s Aria, lamenting his lost youth:

Two Letters from Young Soldiers in 1941-1942

Yuriy Divilkovsky, age 16, the year he died fighting as a soldier during the Battle of Moscow:

“Respect what is human in everyone. Seek it out and create it. The true citizen of the future is he who is free from prejudice and convention, who does not fear for himself and does not fear the misunderstanding of others, who places above all else in life a marvelous emotion of love, and a happiness of untrameled creativity. That is the humanity for which I die.”

For every U.S. soldier killed in WWII, 7 Japanese died, 20 Germans died, and 85 Russians died. To underline the obvious in this massive scale: 10 Americans perish, 850 Russians. The Battle of Moscow, the single largest battle in human history, involved nine million soldiers. happened when Hitler suddenly invaded Russia and charged towards Moscow. On April 17, 1942, 17 year old Petya Sagaidachny wrote to his mother from the front:

“Good morning, dear Mummy, Today is indescribably beautiful. There was some frost during the night and the tender spring sun has not yet succeeded in driving the frost from the ground from the snow and from the trees. We are going out on patrol again today to carry out an important task we’ve been given by our commander and when it’s done I’ll write to you again more in detail. The boys have boiled some potatoes and bacon fat in the cooking pot and want me to join them so I’ll have to finish now. I kiss you hard. I really need your letters, and am looking forward to your next one.” He was killed next day.

A soaring three-minute A-B-A form aria that nobody knows is from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride” in music that also flies to the skies (39:25). Here is a film version conducted by Svetlanov, with glimpses of the Russian steppes:

A film I cannot forget is a simple and evocative love story called “Ballad of a Soldier” by Grigory Chukrai (1959) made at the height of the Cold War. Here is a trailer:

For me one of the most special offerings of all is this 1950 recording of the Scriabin Fantasy with Lazar Berman–I’m not sure I have heard a greater recording of anything ever. It comes at the verge of Scriabin’s heroic period, and is music that evokes temperatures, colors, textures, even fragrances. This is a metaphysical performance of a metaphysical piece. Listen at 7:43 how Berman treats the consequent phrases as they fall off one another:

“Christ the Redeemer” by Andrei Rublev

“Christ the Redeemer” by Andrei Rublev

Another song by Tchaikovsky “Again, as Before, Alone”, apparently the last he wrote was this fatalistic and chilling one, and reaches an operatic climaxes before dying. I listened to this over and over and over again this summer on my long solitary road trip. It ends with “pray for me, pray for me” to the tolling of bells:

Mikhail Pletnev plays this melancholic and homesick piece by Rachmaninoff on Rachmaninoff’s own piano. One can sense the vast steppes and the sadness unique to Russian soul:

Vladimir Sofronitsky was the son-in-law of Scriabin and was simply the best there was when it came to his music. Here three miniatures that show his incredibly penetrating tone, and his his ability for characterization. The second one is magical, with the bells at the end:

I cannot be without Mussorgsky’s “Old Castle” as played by Sviatoslav Richter in 1958, with the paintings of Hartmann. It seems to be vibrant with dark melancholia and impassioned darkness.

A remarkable recording that caught the attention of Emil Gilels was that of Swiss pianist Albert Ferber, who was neighbors with Rachmaninoff and prepared this piece with him–one even senses the presence of Rachmaninoff in this, his First Sonata. Here are four essential excerpts:

Listen to how the lines unfold with this dark inevitability and brooding development–and listen to the evocation of bells at 6:48–then emerges from the darkness and roars with ecstasy:

Here is the Orthodox chorale at 0:54

From the third movement- hear the imitation of bells, and the lament, followed by the demonic and quicksilver character as Rachmaninoff introduces the Dies Irae once again:

Listen to this ecstatic music from here to the finale:

The triumph of the Russian spirit in music about rebirth is here, to end on an uplifting note. Rachmaninoff’s “Spring Waters”. Astonishing music and voice and performance:

An important clip that will not embed externally: here was the great Russian Imperial Court Tenor Dmitri Smirnov singing “Before My Window” in 1912 (music starts at 15 seconds in)–listen to how he pulls back on the high note:

Also, this romance by Tchaikovsky “Wait!” has recently been with me every day–it is so evocative and haunting. Can any of my Russian-speaking friends find a translation to this? Listen to how the Italianate Russian tenor Sergei Lemeshev slides to the high note with such beautiful legato at 1:40:

Too many great books and stories to list, but be sure to read Gogol’s “The Overcoat” which is a favorite of mine.

Did anybody read this far? Let me know!