Popular Soviet War Ballad May Come To The Defense Of The Motherland As Russia’s Olympic ‘Anthem’

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Olympic ice hockey players from Russia wear their gold medals under the Olympic flag during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Olympic ice hockey players from Russia wear their gold medals under the Olympic flag during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

As Russian athletes prepare for the day when they again hoist Olympic medals to the sound of an unfamiliar anthem and a generic flag, they are calling on Katyusha to help assuage their loss.

The ballad of a Soviet woman yearning for her partner fighting on the front lines of World War II was received warmly by troops who had left their wives and girlfriends behind to fight the Nazis:

“Say hello from Katyusha
Let him remember a simple girl
Let him hear her sing
May he protect his native land
And Katyusha will save her love.”

 

With Russian national symbols barred from the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo and other international events owing to Moscow’s state-sponsored doping program, the country’s finest athletes have collectively decided it could replace the Russian national anthem during medal ceremonies and other events — if it is allowed.

“This is a patriotic song that is known not only to Russians, but also to the international community,” Olympic fencing champion Sofya Velikaya said on January 14 as head of the Athletes’ Commission of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). “Children love it.”

Russia's Sofya Velikaya: "[Katyusha] is a patriotic song that is known not only to Russians."
Russia’s Sofya Velikaya: “[Katyusha] is a patriotic song that is known not only to Russians.”

But other teams might not love it as an anthem for a country that is not supposed to have one played at the ceremonies, and an effort to win approval might spark further disputes.

Reputedly the inspiration for the name of the legendary Katyusha artillery rocket, the use of the popular ode to the motherland is gaining traction up high as an anthem replacement, even though it is highly questionable whether it would be permitted.

I have great respect for Katyusha. It has a very long tradition in the Soviet Union, in Russia.”
— Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matystin

The idea arose after ROC President Stanislav Pozdnyakov suggested it while discussing the December 17 decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to back Russia’s ban from the Olympics and other international competitions due to its continued failure to adequately address its state-sponsored doping program.

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In upholding the ban imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2019, the CAS determined that Team Russia would continue to be barred from international competition. Despite blasting Russia for engaging in a “cover-up of the cover-up” relating to its doping scheme, it reduced the ban from four years to two.

The punitive action is a continuation of measures taken by the world body in response to a decade-long doping scandal that has led to scores of Russian athletes being stripped of medals won in Olympic and other international competitions.

In the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, they competed as “Athletes of Russia” without Team Russia uniforms, without the Russian tricolor in sight, and with the Olympiakos Ymnos — the Olympic hymn — used as a stand-in for the Russian national anthem during awards and other ceremonies.

Katyusha is the ballad of a Soviet woman yearning for her partner fighting on the front lines of World War II. It was received warmly by troops who had left their wives and girlfriends behind to fight the Nazis.
Katyusha is the ballad of a Soviet woman yearning for her partner fighting on the front lines of World War II. It was received warmly by troops who had left their wives and girlfriends behind to fight the Nazis.

“It will be a bit complicated in terms of playing our anthem…and we are limited,” Pozdnyakov told the Russian state news agency TASS on December 23 regarding the upcoming competitions, including the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which were postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic; various world championships; the Paralympics; and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

However, Pozdnyakov claimed that “we can play any music or melody that may be connected directly or can be somehow associated with Russia.”

He announced that a competition would be set up to determine what the most suitable replacement might be, and the ROC’s Athletes’ Commission voted on their preference.

“We had a substantive discussion concerning the musical composition that could be temporarily played at those competitions where Russian athletes and teams will be deprived of their national anthem in the next two years,” Velikaya told reporters on January 14. “As a result, they came to a consensus that the well-known Katyusha could become such a composition. Which, by the way, is often performed by the fans in the stands in support of our teams.”

Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matystin has since given his support to the athletes’ choice, telling TASS on January 17: “I have great respect for Katyusha. It has a very long tradition in the Soviet Union, in Russia.”

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Honorary ROC president and former International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Aleksandr Zhukov, meanwhile, told the news agency: “I think no one will confuse our athletes [with those of another country] when they hear Katyusha.”

That recognizability, especially coming from a war song steeped in patriotism, would seem to miss the point of the actions taken against Russian sport and of the Olympic movement in general, and might elicit protests from other countries or athletes as a result.

[Katyusha] is known and sung by the whole world, and it is not clear whether [the world] will want to keep singing ‘the anthem of a humiliated sports country.'”
— Telegram channel Kremlyovsky BezBashennik

Andy Brown, editor of The Sports Integrity Initiative website, said that it is unclear which body Russia might turn to — WADA or the IOC — if it decides to request that Katyusha be allowed as an anthem replacement.

But “given the song’s political connotations,” Brown told RFE/RL in written comments, WADA “would have a strong argument” that its use would violate not only the sanctions reinforced by the CAS in December, which are considered final, but also the ROC’s commitment to political neutrality contained in the Olympic Charter.

“I guess it really depends on whether the ROC wants to push the IOC & WADA’s buttons,” Brown said.

In written responses to questions by RFE/RL, the CAS clarified that “the execution of the CAS award (choice of outfit, colors, music, etc. …) is the responsibility of WADA, the IOC, and the International Federations concerned.”

In a statement following the CAS’s ruling on December 17, the IOC said it would “now carefully evaluate the award and its consequences for competitions within the Olympic movement, in particular with regard to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.”

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In this respect, the IOC added, it planned to “consult with the International Federations and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) with a view to having a consistent approach in the implementation of the award.”

The IOC wrote separately to RFE/RL on January 18 that “the consultation with the International Federations and the IPC is not finished yet and we will communicate in due course.”

WADA said in e-mailed comments to RFE/RL on January 18 that details concerning the implementation of the CAS decision were “being finalized,” discussions with the IOC and other bodies aimed at having a consistent approach to its implementation are continuing, and that while WADA “is not responsible for the details of the consequences,” it would monitor enforcement.

“As regards anthems,” WADA said, “under the terms of the CAS decision, the Russian national anthem (or any anthem linked to Russia) shall not be officially played or sung at any official event venue or other area controlled by the signatory or its appointed event organizer (including, without limitation, at medal ceremonies and opening/closing ceremonies).”

In any event, even the suggestion of a replacement anthem comes with controversy in Russia.

“Katyusha is a lyrical song, not a contender for the anthem,” read a post on the Telegram channel Metodichka. “It lasts almost 3 minutes.”

The Telegram channel Kremlyovsky BezBashennik suggested that use of Katyusha could taint it by association.

“It is known and sung by the whole world, and it is not clear whether [the world] will want to keep singing ‘the anthem of a humiliated sports country.'”

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