Moscow, Russia – A Russian military plane that crashed on Sunday in the Black Sea on its way to Syria nearly eliminated an iconic artistic outfit that was dubbed “Russia’s singing weapon”, counted Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a fan and toured the world for decades with an epic combination of song and dance.
Its official name is clunky – the Alexandrov Russian Army Song and Dance Ensemble. But in the West, it is mostly – and wrongly – known as the Red Army Choir. Apart from an all-male choir with dozens of singers, it also enlists dancers and musicians playing classical and Russian folk instruments.
All of them are military officers on active duty, with ranks, uniforms and tours to warzones to entertain Russian servicemen – the primary mission of the ensemble.
But for decades, it has been better known as an awe-inspiring entertainment machine whose renditions of military and patriotic songs, operatic arias and Russian folk songs were performed in concert halls, city squares and stadiums on all continents.
“This is an ensemble of victory, because many military and patriotic songs that were symbolic and sacred were performed by this ensemble,” political analyst Alexei Mukhin told Al Jazeera.
The ensemble included some 180 performers – their number varied depending on the type of performance – and 64 of them were aboard the Defense Ministry Tu-154 plane that crashed on its way to the Khmeimim airbase near the western Syrian city of Latakia on December 25.
Since the performance of the ensemble Syria was supposed to be mostly a cappella, only 14 dancers, balalaika and accordion players were on the plane – along with 50 choir members, led by the ensemble’s head, Lieutenant-General Valery Khalilov, a stern, grey-haired conductor and composer who always performed in uniform.
Only three singers had stayed behind in Moscow. “I stayed home to help my wife” who had just given birth to their first child, singer Vadim Ananyev said in televised remarks.
The rest of the choir were less lucky. Russian military officials said hours after the crash that none of the 92 passengers and crew members survived the crash, and hundreds of fans, musicians and relatives flocked to a brick mansion in central Moscow where the ensemble was based with flowers and candles.
Kremlin’s singing weapon
“They were called the Kremlin’s singing weapon, and that’s who they were,” Alexander Kibovsky, head of the Moscow government’s culture department, told journalists outside the mansion. “Yes, they performed in uniforms, fulfilled their duty, could not refuse if dispatched somewhere, and most of them performed in warzones.”
From its inception, the ensemble was a military outfit – and a well-tuned propaganda instrument.
Its primary goal was to cheer up Soviet servicemen wherever they were – on the frontlines of World War II, where it played more than 1,500 times, in desolate garrisons in the Arctic or on the Chinese border, in war-torn Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, post-Soviet Tajikistan and Chechnya.
Alexander Alexandrov, a classically trained singer with a background in Orthodox church music, had formed the ensemble in 1928 to commemorate the Red Army’s 10th anniversary – and eventually expanded it to forge a flawless fusion of vocal, instrumental music and dance that would befit operas by German composer Richard Wagner.
The 12-man unit soon employed more than 300 performers, and their domestic and international success brought a shower of state awards, including two Stalin Prizes. These laureates were personally picked by the Soviet dictator, who dabbled in singing during late-night parties in the Kremlin.
In 1943 Alexandrov wrote the music for the new Soviet national anthem, which has remained Russia’s national anthem after a slight change of lyrics – and the ensemble’s place at the very top of the cultural nomenclature seemed permanent.
It was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who dubbed the Ensemble “Russia’s singing weapon” – after its performance at the 1945 conference in Yalta, where Soviet, British and US leaders mapped the post-WWII world order.
The ensemble became Cold War’s epitome, when both the USSR and the US used art to promote their political agendas.
The musicians tirelessly toured the world, visiting pro-Moscow nations or European capitals. Several times, the ensemble was barred from entering the US – but in 1989 triumphantly stormed American concert halls with a seven-week tour.
The perestroika years and the 1991 Soviet collapse shattered the position of the ensemble as official art was crumbling amid ridicule and underfunding.
But it made a comeback after a series of unexpected leaps, performing with Leningrad Cowboys, a Finnish rock band whose grotesque hairdos, pointy shoes and happy-go-lucky musical style was light years away from the Soviet musical dogma.
More world tours and unexpected collaborations followed – with French pop star Jean-Jacques Goldman and Canadian artists Steve Barakatt and Dave Foster. They covered songs by The Beatles and Queen, performed with scandalous Russian duo T.a.t.u., and sang Get Lucky, a funky anthem by French duo Daft Punk, at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the southern Russian city of Sochi.
“The Alexandrov Ensemble would have remained a purely Soviet, rudimentary phenomenon if it wasn’t for its extremely varied repertory that included foreign folk songs such as [Georgian folk song] Suliko or Neapolitan folklore,” Sandjar Yanyshev, a Moscow-based author and music critic, told Al Jazeera.
“It sometimes created a comical effect, but the ensemble was self-ironic enough to move in such paradoxical ways.”
‘The ensemble will live on’
In recent years, however, as the Kremlin tilted to the neo-conservative right and turned bellicose in its ex-Soviet backyard, the ensemble dusted off its Soviet songbook – and added new propaganda fare to its repertoire.
In 2014, it performed Polite People, a pseudo-folk song dedicated to thousands of balaclava-wearing, taciturn Russian troops in unmarked uniforms who appeared throughout Crimea in February 2014, ahead of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation.
The ensemble also went back to the roots of its founder Alexandrov by performing Orthodox Christian chants and other religious music.
The Sunday plane crash thwarted the ensemble’s third performance in Syria this year. After the initial shock, culture and military officials pledged to keep the ensemble alive by hiring a new choir and conductor.
“The ensemble will recover no matter what,” Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said in a statement. “If needed, the Culture Ministry will provide any assistance.”
“The ensemble will live on,” Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov said in televised remarks.