Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cossack Braveheart

One of the most evocative folk melodies of all time has to be the Russian Stenka Razin. People in English-speaking countries may recognise it as The Carnival is Over popularised by The Seekers in the 1960s. But although that version has now acquired a nostalgia of its own, it can't compare to the spine-tingling effect of the original, particularly when sung by a great Russian bass or a choir with a balalaika accompaniment. When one knows the tragic lyrics of the song, it adds extra frisson.

Stenka (or Stepan) Razin was a real-life Robin Hood or Braveheart type figure who lived in 17th Century Russia: a Cossack brigand and pirate who fired up the peasant population and created havoc for the Tsar. The best summary of his life and activities can be read on the Russiapedia site.

According to the song, Razin fell in love with a princess he abducted from Persia. But as "happily ever after" does not exist in the lexicon of Russian drama or music, of course things ended badly. His men thought he had become soft with his head turned by romantic notions, as the accusing lyrics go:
He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too.

Razin was outraged and to prove that he was still a tough leader dedicated to his followers and his cause, he threw his beautiful princess over the side of his boat and sacrificed her to the mighty Volga. Other more pragmatic versions say he was prone to terrible mood swings and killed his mistress - no doubt exacerbated by a great deal of vodka or beer - simply because she wouldn't accompany him when he went to war.

Razin was eventually captured and publicly hung, drawn and quartered and bits of him fed to Moscow dogs and that was probably the only possible resolution given the age in which he lived but naturally his gruesome ending was a sure-fire route to immortality.

Whatever the facts, the story has all the elements that Russians adore and for centuries Razin has continued to fascinate artists, musicians and writers. As he was probably also a prodigious drinker, it seemed inevitable that a St Petersburg Brewery was named after him and his image still appears on a beer label today, now owned by Heineken.

I've been unable to find out whether there is any real historical basis to the love story, but Razin did raid into Persia (Iran) and he could have captured a woman there, but whether the romance was reciprocal is another matter. As with all legends, however, maybe there is a kernel of truth in it.
There are numerous interpretations of the song Stenka Razin to be found on Youtube, including a 1930s tango version, and where you can also see the 1908 Russian film (no soundtrack). Another film of the tragic love story was made in 1933.
This modern representation of Stenka Razin comes from George Stuart's gallery of historical figures. Whether Razin really looked like this or not - he was most likely even wilder and scruffier - it is still a great romanticised image to accompany the stirring song. Turn up your volume to get the full effect! 

I'm now off to browse more more of George Stuart's brilliant gallery. Click here.


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