Sergei Mikhalkov, the author of the lyrics of the Soviet and Russian national anthems (and father of the Russian film director Nikita Milhalkov), died in Moscow yesterday, August 27th, aged 96. The life of the Russian writer is truly extraordinary. He lived through almost a century of Russian history and, from the Stalinist Soviet Union to the 21st century, rewrote the words of the Russian national anthem three times in accordance with the prevailing political agenda.
Mikhalkov was first commissioned to write the words for a national anthem, which would inspire the Red Army troops fighting Nazi Germany, in 1943. The lyrics, co-authored with the journalist Gabriel El-Registan, were set to music by Aleksandr Aleksandrov and praised Stalin as a great leader who had ‘raised [the Russian people] to be loyal to the nation, inspired us to labour and great deeds’.
In the aftermath of Stalin’s death in 1953, under Khrushchev’s policy of De-Stalinisation, all references to Stalin were discarded. The anthem was still used, albeit without any official lyrics. Mikhalkov reworked the words for the 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1977. The lyrics were approved by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and became official with the adoption of the new Soviet Constitution in October 1977.
In 1991, however, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the music and lyrics of the national anthem were replaced with a piece by the 19th-century composer Mikhail Glinka. Nevertheless, in 2000, President Vladimir Putin decided to restore the old music by Alexamnder Alexandrov and Mikhalkov was commissioned, once again, to rewrite the lyrics for a third time. The current version, which extols Russia’s uniqueness and vastness and describes it as a land ‘protected by God’, was first used officially on December 30th, 2000, during a ceremony at the Great Kremlin Palace in Moscow.
Mikhalkov began his career as a children’s writer and adopted various European and Russian fairy tales to make them conform with Stalinist propaganda. He was decorated by the State for his works and notably received three Stalinist prizes for plays and film scripts. In 2003, Putin presented him with the Order of Service to the Fatherland. An article published on The Times website quoted President Medvedev’s praise of Mikhalkov, yesterday, who described the author as having ‘lived up to the interests of his Motherland, served it and believed in it’.
Nevertheless, Mikhalkov’s membership of the state-controlled Union of Soviet Writers and consequent involvement in various smear campaigns against alleged anti-Soviet writers such as Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn continues to be a source of controversy. Formed by the Communist Party Central Committee in 1932, the Union promoted the theory of Socialist Realism and other writers groups were effectively banned.
According to the article published by The Times, his lyrics also continue to cause controversy. The reproduction of those of his first national anthem in praise of Stalin in the Kurskaya station on the Moscow Metro has been heavily criticised, notably by human rights activists. However, the controversy surrounding the author’s legacy and lyrics provides, above all, an insight into how Russia has dealt, and continues to deal, with the memory of its Soviet past.
Catherine Merridale’s latest research on the topic, published in the September issue of History Today, explained this return to Russia's Stalinist past. She concluded that
‘Stalin’s ghost still walks, […] and, though it is easy to condemn the Kremlin’s
new occupants for evoking it in their pursuit of power and wealth, the strategy
could work only because a large proportion of Russia’s people was ready to
welcome the old villain home with open arms’.