Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Volga Boatmen Big Stick

Russian boatmen without the stick...

Popularised by Shaliapin and Glen Miller, the emblematic Russian folk-song known in the West as the Song of the Volga Boatmen, to Russians is the Song of the Big Stick ("Дубинушка").

The discrepancy is hiding somewhere in the mists of history. There isn't really a dubina there, it's just a metaphor for using brutal force instead of thinking or applying clever machinery. One obvious explanation is that it has its origins as a work-song giving a beat, a rhythm to hard, monotonous manual work, the kind of work done by the men who towed the goods-laden barges upstream along the Volga river, the main trading route through central Russia. In 19th Century they were called the burlaki – the tow men. But the Volga connection must have stuck at some point and the strange burlaki got changed to boatmen.

...and a US boatman with the big one.
In 1870-80s Russian revolutionary intelligentsia started to look to organised manual workers, the proletariat, as the future force for changing the country into a modern democratic nation. Several full-blown song versions appeared building on the theme of what is probably the original folklore chorus of 'hey-ey, ookh-neem' – roughly, 'hey-ho, heave-ho, let's do it'.

The song grew in popularity and was strongly associated with mass protest. So much so that when during the 1905 revolution the tsar yielded and published a manifesto promising personal freedoms and an elected parliament (the Duma) it was sung at rallies throughout the empire. The great singer Shaliapin came to one such meeting, was greeted enthusiastically by the crowd who had demanded that he sing a 'revolutionary' song.

'But I don't know any', he said. 'Will Dubinushka do?'

'Yes!' the crowd roared.

That was how Shaliapin got his 'revolutionary' credentials with the progressive public and was black-listed by the authorities who were preparing a clamp-down. The great singer emigrated from Soviet Russia a few years after the next revolution, the 1917 bolshevik take-over, but Dubinushka, or the Song of the Volga Boatmen, stayed as one of his signature performances. He recorded it several times, including in 1930s.

Glen Miller and his orchestra made a jazz version of the Volga Boatmen which reached number one in the US in 1941 when America had not yet entered the war, but all eyes were on Russia fighting for survival against the advancing nazis. 

In Stephen Ambrose's book' D-Day (link to Amazon) there is a comparison between the American and the British approach to war. While the British were trying to out-think the Germans, inventing new tactics and new machinery, the Americans, he says, were less war-weary, less concerned by casualties. Theirs was push on regardless. The US had more resources, men, tanks and planes, – a bigger stick-dubinushka which they didn't hesitate to throw at the Germans. The Big Stick must have been on the minds of American commanders who grew up in the shadows of Theodore Roosevelt's famous phrase 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far'. In fact, a relative of Roosevelt, also Teddy, was a commanding officer who took part in D-Day landings and died in Normandy.

When I think of that difference, I also think that it explains the symbolism of Dubinushka for the Russians. In the version sung by Shaliapin there is a verse: 
Англичанин-хитрец, чтоб работе помочь,
Вымышлял за машиной машину;
Ухитрились и мы: чуть пришлося невмочь,
Вспоминаем родную дубину:
Ухни, дубинушка, ухни!
Ухни, березова, ухни!

The clever English, to help them with their work,
Have invented one machine after another;
But we, we are clever too: as soon as it gets tough,
We remember our good old dubina:
Hey, dubinushka, heave-ho,
Heave, you're made of birch, heave-ho!
(-ushk- is a Russian affectionate suffix)

That verse points to the same strength of mass action and disregard for 'clever tricks', that the war historian Ambrose noted on the Western front. Of course, in the mind of a Russian the 'dubina' is closely associated with another dramatic episode in their history and a great work of literature. 'The Big Stick of the people's war' was, according to Leo Tolstoy, the ultimate reason for Napoleon's demise in Russia in 1812.

I doubt very much that Ted Roosevelt drew his Big Stick inspiration from War and Peace. He said the source was a 'West African proverb'. 

Perhaps Americans are not as sentimental about their big stick as in Roosevelt's times, I don't know.

What I don't doubt is that Dubinushka has become the source of numerous self-deprecating jokes among the Russians. A friend of mine, who runs a decorating and removals business, once saw me taking measurements of a piece of furniture before moving it and said ‘That’s somehow un-Russian’ - “Это как-то не по-русски. Мы с ребятами один раз американский холодильник на 11-й этаж по лестнице подняли – а он в дверь не проходит”.  – 'My boys and myself once carried an American fridge up the stairs to the 11th floor because it wouldn't fit into the elevator. Only to discover that it wouldn't fit through the door of the apartment either.'

The Big Stick principle doesn't always work.

Fyodor Shaliapin sings the Volga Boatmen:

And Glen Miller's version:

Read the Russian version of this article here.

Text quoted from 'Dubinushka' in Russian by Alexander Olkhin.

Painting by Ilya Repin, The Burlaki on the Volga, 1870-1873, o/c, 131.5cm x 281cm, Russian State Museum.
Cartoon by William Allen Rogers, Theodore Roosevelt and his Big Stick in the Caribbean, 1904, (Courtesy of Granger Collection) link.

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