Plane Crash and Politics Notwithstanding, Red Army Choir Soldiers On

The veteran choir was back on stage just weeks after 65 of its members were killed in 2016. Ahead of its tour in Israel, the group's director reveals some of the secrets of its charm

Gennady Sachenyuk conducting the Red Army Choir
The Red Army Choir

Among the innumerable quips attributed to Winston Churchill, one can find an apt description of the Red Army Choir: “the singing weapon.” That is how the legendary British leader supposedly described a performance by the impressive all-male choir at the Yalta conference of 1945.

There’s no doubt that during World War II, the army choir of Russia served as one of the more powerful and effective propaganda tools of the communist regime. Thus, the song “The Sacred War," composed by the ensemble’s legendary founder, Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, became an anthem during the Great Patriotic War – as it was called in the Soviet Union of that era – when millions were dispatched to the killing fields with their heads raised high. Among the lyrics are the words: "Arise, vast country / Arise for a fight to the death / Against the dark fascist force, / Against the cursed horde."

The Red Army Choir singing "The Sacred War," in 2011.

Created in 1928, the Alexandrov Ensemble, as the choir is also called, chalked up successes overseas as well. In 1937, at the peak of the Stalinist period, it garnered praise at the World Exhibition in Paris. The memory of its performance among the ruins of Berlin in 1948 was embedded in the hearts of the audience for years to come, due to the German songs it included.

Underlying the glorious history of the veteran choir, however, is an ironic twist: Alexandrov, who died in the 1940s and gave his name to the group, began his career far away from the Red Army. Actually, about as far as one can get. He served as the last conductor of the choir at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which was demolished by the communist regime. As director of the Red Army Choir, he also composed the music for the national anthem; while the lyrics have since changed, his melody is still used today.

In a phone interview held with Gennady Sachenyuk, the choir's chief conductor and artistic director, in advance of its upcoming tour in Israel, I ask whether Alexandrov’s life story attests to a lack of artistic freedom – regardless of where someone like him may be, and given that he ultimately sings what he’s told to sing and composes what he’s told to compose, in accordance with the ideological climate of the day.

“I don’t agree. All artists are free people,” replies Sachenyuk. “If someone does this [engages in artistic acts], it means that this is what he likes doing, it’s a matter of free will. I believe Alexandrov wrote the songs he thought were necessary to write." 

"No one," he says, "ordered him to write 'The Sacred War.' It was an internal impulse, it was something he wanted to do based on the events of that period, and he freely expressed his attitude to those events. True, as conductor of a church choir he also had some rich spiritual experiences, which only helped him in his artistic work on behalf of the collective group he created.”

The spiritual experience of its founder served the Red Army Choir in a direct manner for years after he died, relates Sachenyuk. In the 1980s and '90s the ensemble performed across Europe, singing liturgical music composed by Alexandrov in his early years.

The Red Army Choir singing the Russian national anthem

Miraculous recovery

The choir’s visit to Israel, from March 19-24, will include nine performances in conjunction with the Gevatron choral group. It will be the choir’s second tour after disaster struck it in December 2016, when 65 of its members died in a plane crash en route to performing before Russian soldiers in Syria. Besides almost all the singers, the group's accompanying dancers, soloists and artistic director, Valery Khalilov, were among the dead.

In the days after the accident, many wondered whether the choir could recover, but a mere month-and-a-half later it performed with new singers (a feat befitting Russian folklore). Since then, it has maintained a dizzying pace of concerts, in Russia and abroad.

Sachenyuk, an army colonel, has served in different roles in the choir since 2000. Directly after the disaster he was appointed artistic director and conductor. In photos accompanying media interviews, he is seen in uniform. Even on the phone he maintains an official tone that seem to leave no room for views or feelings that do not accord with Russian defense department policy. He refuses to relate to the plane crash but does not hide his pride at the virtually miraculous recovery of the ensemble.

“The first performance we put on was on February 17, 2017,” he says. “We put out a bid [for new staff], we hired players and prepared programs, working hard and meticulously during rehearsals.”

What differentiates the previous ensemble and the current one?

“The only difference is the period of work the collective has undergone together. All the rest is unchanged – the professionalism, the desire to work, the wish to create – and, accordingly, the striving for high artistic achievements.”

What’s the difference between a military musician and any other musician?

“That’s a very broad question. First of all, a military musician is someone who is affiliated with the defense establishment. Secondly, there is always the issue of perfect discipline, and of attention to service and to artistic creativity. Obviously, the people involved want to perform a certain kind of music, of a patriotic nature, as well as classical pieces that constitute the epitome of artistic prowess.”

Artistically, Sachenyuk stresses, the Red Army Choir is completely autonomous, despite being under the aegis of the defense ministry. Some of its members are not military men. When asked in an interview shortly after the plane crash whether the choir would visit Syria soon, he said that, “We’re military men and will go wherever we are sent.” In our conversation he confirms this, but insists on a correction: “Wherever we are dispatched, not 'sent.'”

When Alexandrov wrote "The Sacred War," no one, certainly not in the Soviet Union of that era, had any doubts about the sacredness of the goal the song talked about, and for which Soviet soldiers were fighting. Today, however, the country's military activities in Syria and Ukraine are subject to pointed criticism both in some quarters in Russia and around the world.

Does the question “what are we singing for” have any meaning for you?

“That can be answered by people working in the foreign ministries of various countries. It’s not a question we discuss. We’re are creative people, working in the realm of culture and art. Accordingly, our program is of interest to a wide audience, unrelated to the opinions of this or that individual regarding events around the world.”

So, what is the secret of the Red Army Choir’s charm? What song represents it most of all – is it the sombre "Sacred War" or the joyful "Kalinka"?

“A person who experiences different moods is alive. A collective is also a living entity; it can express itself very seriously in relation to a historical event such as the Great Patriotic War, but at the same time it can perform a folk song like 'Kalinka,' from which you can learn about the Russian soul and the Russian man, while smiling from your seat in the auditorium. In that song we expose our soul, showing that we have come to you with open hearts and seeking peace.”