Insult Russia’s anthem, get a year in jail! Or perhaps not

Putin sings!

“You’re the one that I want. You are the one, one…”

This week, Russia’s Supreme Court gave the go ahead for a bizarre law that would make “distorting” the country’s anthem a criminal offence – punishable by up to a year’s prison.

The law’s the idea of two politicians who were shocked by an incident in Russian-held Crimea last month when the anthem was sung at the opening of that region’s congress.

The anthem’s lyrics were beamed up onto a screen at the event, but the computer technician “accidentally” used the words from a parody so everyone got to sing about Russia being “crazy” and “insane” rather than “sacred” and “mighty”.

If this all seems a bit familiar, it’s because it is. A few years ago, in neighbouring Kazakhstan, someone accidentally played Ricky Martin’s Livin’ la Vida Loca instead of their anthem. The result? A law making insulting the Kazakh anthem a criminal offence, punishable by a year in jail!

Is the Russian law going to pass? Of course not!

Putin’s not nuts. It’d technically mean you’d have to arrest every bad singer in Russia. And it’d also stop Russians doing amazing things like playing the anthem backwards while drinking orange juice on a plane (see below; watch to the end). And who on earth would want to stop that?

Vladimir Putin and the case of the disappearing Motherland

Stolen from Alexey Druzhinin of AFP. Sorry as always. Clearly not that sorry, but...!

“Hello, ladies!” Picture stolen from Alexey Druzhinin of AFP. Sorry, as always. Clearly I’m not that sorry, but…

First things first, I don’t work for an intelligence service looking to undermine Russia! I should probably say that given recent comments from the Kremlin.

Second things second, I’ve written a lot about Russia’s national anthem before – both on here and in my book – because its story is amazing, especially the fact that one of the first things Putin did when he came to power was change it back to the anthem Russia had used during the Soviet Union.

It was a shrewd move, symbolising to every Russian he was bringing back the glory days.

But what I haven’t mentioned before is that he also apparently changed the lyrics. This is the anthem’s Soviet chorus:

Sing to the Motherland, home of the free
Bulwark of peoples in brotherhood strong
O Party of Lenin, the strength of the people
To Communism’s triumph lead us on

Obviously the Lenin bit needed a makeover, and definitely that bit about Communism triumphing. I mean, you can’t have oligarchs running around with those lyrics in place.

But how about that first line; that Motherland? Seems perfect for Mother Russia, doesn’t it? Well, this is what the anthem says today:

Be glorious, our free Fatherland
Age-old union of fraternal peoples
Ancestor-given wisdom of the people
Be glorious, our country. We are proud of you

I’ll let you jump to your own conclusions about what that change means.

I only realised this had happened last weekend while listening to an interview with Bridget Kendall, the BBC’s retiring diplomatic correspondent (from 31 minutes in).

“When I first went to the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, I was a student…propaganda was in full swing and you heard the anthem all the time,” she says, before discussing how its use is one of the best ways to trace how the country’s changed.

She’s surprisingly even-handed during the interview and doesn’t remotely criticise Putin. “I’m a long-term optimist when it comes to Russia,” she says at one point. “They’re on a difficult political twist at the moment, but you think what they’ve been through over the past 30 years. Of course it’s going to take decades to sort it out.”

Update: I’ve been told this actually might just be Kendall’s mistake and there was no change at all. A sign of every people’s prejudices of Russia? That’s just as interesting a story.

Putin’s musical attempt to stop the next Pussy Riot

Putin with a dog!

If you wanted a song to symbolise authoritarianism, what’d you pick? Fair chance, if you gave it a few minutes’ thought, you’d go for Russia’s national anthem.

Over the past few months, I seem to have heard it at every play or art event I’ve been to – its massed choirs acting as musical shorthand for the end of liberal civilisation, perhaps unsurprisingly given Pussy Riot (watch this film now!) and the country’s recent anti-gay laws. It’s an easy shorthand.

But the anthem’s use isn’t just increasing in London. Last week, Vladimir Putin asked his parliament to pass a law requiring Russia’s schools and universities to play the anthem. “Watching the flag and listening to the anthem will bring our citizens back to patriotic feelings,” he said. The word ‘back’ seems the key one in that sentence.

Every student will now have to listen to the anthem at the start of the school year and before going on holiday. Somehow I doubt the move will have the desired effect, but it’ll certainly bolster Putin’s support among conservatives.

As an aside, it’s interesting that Russia’s anthem isn’t as remotely as aggressive as it sounds. The first line’s actually the dull, “Russia, our sacred homeland.” The dangers of singing in a high-pitched voice!