While at university, one of my most interesting extra-curricular activities was singing in the Yale Russian Chorus (YRC). The choir performed beautiful renditions of music from the former Soviet Union and other parts of Eastern Europe and toured these places as well as many regions in the US. During the COVID pandemic, I was grateful to the YRC for reaching out to me to record songs from our repertoire, virtually. The project manager, Lewis Johnson, has been remarkable in his organization, musical insight and grace.
I recently took part in another Yale Russian Chorus virtual recording, this time of the song Kонь /Kon’ (Steed). The piece was written in the 1990s but, intentionally, has the sound of a pre-Revolutionary ode of a peasant farmer declaring his love for the land. (I like modern songwriters who choose to write new songs in styles and idioms long gone by. For example, you can check out Gillian Welch’s “By the Mark” or anything on her 1996 album “Revival” to hear a modern take on Old-Timey country.)
Kon’ tells the story of a Russian farmer who quietly rides his horse alone into the night, under a star-filled sky to find the place where “the field gives birth to the dawn”, wondering if that place even exists. He poetically describes the rows of grain and colors of the dawn building to a climax where he exhorts, “Sing, golden rye! Sing, bushy flax! Sing of my love for Russia!”
Hearing this description, you might assess that the song is one big nationalist cliché and you wouldn’t be wrong. But you wouldn’t be right either. The melody and harmonies are nothing if not rousing. Russian speakers will appreciate how the writers utilize word repetition with variation, onomatopoeia and verbal percussion to punctuate the accelerating crescendo until the peasant actually exclaims, “I’m in love with you Russia!”
On a personal level, the song raises a lot of questions. Listening as an outsider, I tend to want to support and encourage Russians expressing love for their country and land. Why not be large? However, it’s not that simple. As a Jew of Russian descent, married to an émigré from the Soviet Union, I have many personal stories of how people close to me, living next to the very farms described in the song, were subject to murderous Anti-Semitic attacks, by just the kind of people who might have sung or continue to sing “Kon’”.
I love Russian literature, poetry, music and art and for decades have invested time in appreciating them and the culture from which they grew. Can I partake in the farmer’s declaration of love for Russia? Would it be a betrayal of the lives of dear ones ruined or lost because of this ideal? Would I even be allowed a share in this declaration? In multiple interactions with non-Jewish Russian speakers, I have been corrected when I said that I was of Russian extraction (“русского происхождения”) and told that I was “by extraction – Jewish” (“еврей по происхождению”).
That’s a lot of water for one song to carry but because it was heavy for me, I decided to ask my readers’ help in bearing it and hope that I didn’t impose too much. With or without these extra burdens, I hope you enjoy the song: