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How ‘Russian’ is Russian music?

Like American music, Russian music is the product of a bubbling melting pot — one that combines influences and traditions from far beyond Putin’s so-called ‘Russian World.’

A monument to composer Sergei Prokofiev is seen in an empty pedestrian street in Moscow, Monday, April 20, 2020.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

One of Vladimir Putin’s justifications for waging war on Ukraine is that he wants to protect the “Russian World” (“Russkii mir”). But just how “Russian” is his “Russian World”?

When director David Lean was preparing to cast his epic film “Doctor Zhivago,” based on Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, studio executives urged him to choose a stereotypically Russian blond for the title role. But then one of Lean’s associates reminded him — correctly — that “not all Russians are blond.” So he cast the dark-haired, dark-eyed Egyptian Omar Sharif in the title role, opposite the very blond Julie Christie, with excellent results.


Many outsiders (and insiders) make the same mistake Lean’s producers did when looking at Russians and Russian culture, including music. They proceed from certain narrow presumptions about “Russian-ness.” Not all Russians are blond like Putin. For many centuries, Russia was an enormous multicultural empire encompassing not only a vast territory (today still the world’s largest country by far in land area) but also hundreds of different ethnic groups, with different languages, religions, and musical and cultural traditions. Of these the largest and most important by far were the Ukrainians, until they voted for independence from Russia in December 1991.

Ethnic Russians made up barely half of the population of the late (and, by some, still bitterly lamented) USSR before it abruptly went out of business on Christmas Day that same year. Even today, non-Russian ethnic minorities constitute nearly 20 percent of the population of the Russian Federation — including one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe.

What does this mean for Russian music, long an integral part of the repertoire of the Boston Symphony and many other orchestras and opera companies around the United States, Europe, and Asia? It means that Russian music (not unlike American music) comes from a melting pot, having absorbed many different influences and traditions: orthodox liturgical music that originated in Kyiv in the 10th century; folk music of many diverse groups; the European classical tradition (first German, later French); the exotic “Orientalism” of the Caucasus and Central Asia.


Among the most popular pieces of “Russian” music, heard incessantly on classical radio stations, are the “Polovetsian Dances” from Alexander Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor,” depicting the revels of heathen Tartars in what is today southern Ukraine. (Borodin’s father was a Georgian prince.) Or how about the beloved “Sabre Dance” from the ballet “Gayane” by Aram Khachaturian, an Armenian composer who grew up in Georgia and studied in Soviet Moscow? Sofia Gubaidulina, perhaps the most important “Russian” composer alive today, and a frequent guest at the Boston Symphony, grew up in the Tartar city of Kazan, the daughter of a Russian mother and Tartar father.

The connections between Russia and Ukraine in musical life have been close and complicated. Orthodox liturgical music migrated from Kyiv to Moscow after the Tartar invasion of the 1200s. Later, the baroque musical style entered Russia via Ukraine from Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries. After most of Ukraine came under Russian control in the 18th century, Ukrainian musicians and composers worked in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Russian musicians and composers lived and worked in Ukraine. But the Tsarist government suppressed use of the Ukrainian language, and the rising nationalistic movement in Ukrainian culture. Use of the terms “Ukraine” (“Ukraina”) and “Ukrainian” was actually banned. Instead, Ukraine was officially referred to as “Little Russia” (“Malaya Rossiya”).


Tchaikovsky, whose “1812 Overture” and “Nutcracker” are essential to the American symphonic and ballet repertoire, spent long periods of time in Ukraine. In 1864, he composed his first major symphonic work, the overture “The Storm,” in a manor house in the village of Trostyanets. A statue of Tchaikovsky stands in the town’s central park. Sadly, Russian forces recently destroyed the house on their march toward Kharkiv.

Later, Tchaikovsky spent many summers in the idyllic setting of his sister Alexandra’s estate at Kamianka (Kamenka in Russian) in central Ukraine. He wrote many major works there, including two performed by the Boston Symphony this season. The Symphony No. 2 incorporates numerous Ukrainian folk tunes, and was given the (now embarrassing) title “Little Russian” by a Russian critic. In 1879-80, Tchaikovsky wrote most of his Second Piano Concerto in Kamianka, which became a kind of second home and refuge for the chronically wandering composer.

To his brother, Tchaikovsky wrote: “Kamenka as such, the Ukrainian element, the smell of the river Tyasmin and of the factory, the dialect of the people … Kirila the coachman, Selifan the cook — all this is pleasant to see and hear.”

Sergei Prokofiev, creator of the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” and “Peter and the Wolf,” was born in Ukraine, in the village of Sontsivka (Sontsovka), in 1891, and spent his childhood there. While a student at St. Petersburg Conservatory, he returned every summer. Prokofiev’s parents were Russian; his father, an agronomist, managed a friend’s estate. A tutor imported from Kyiv gave young Sergei his first serious lessons in composition. Every morning, Prokofiev swam in the nearby river. Although he later admitted he found Ukrainian country life a bit dull, he incorporated memories of his early years into several compositions, including “Tales of An Old Grandmother” and the opera “Semyon Kotko.”


In 1967, a Prokofiev museum was established at Sontsivka, only 30 miles west of Donetsk, now capital of the Russian-occupied Peoples’ Republic of Donetsk. A gleaming new airport terminal — the Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport — had been constructed in Donetsk shortly before fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist forces began in the area in 2014, but pro-Russian forces completely destroyed it after a heroic defense that lasted 10 months.

How can the deaths of countless innocent civilians living in Ukraine, and the senseless destruction of a monument paying tribute to one of Russia’s greatest musical and cultural figures, possibly advance the cause of Putin’s “Russian World”? Prokofiev, who abhorred violence and suffered personally and creatively during the Stalin years, would surely be dismayed to see the devastation brought upon his Ukrainian fatherland by Russian soldiers and bombs.

Harlow Robinson is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University and the author of “Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography” and other books.