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Finland’s love affair with melancholy Russian melodies

by Tero Heinänen

Finns have long had a deep affinity for music of Russian origin. Perhaps that says something about the Finnish mental landscape or “national psyche”. But it should also be noted that the status of Russian music in Finland has fluctuated over time and according to political circumstances – musical trends echoing trends in society at large.

When Finland was detached from the Kingdom of Sweden and incorporated into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, the change was not huge as far as ordinary Finns were concerned. Yet in cultural matters and in music in particular, new winds soon began to blow: the traditionally melancholy Finnish folk songs were joined by melodies of nostalgia, yearning and longing from Russia. This musical stock was readily welcomed and assimilated into Finland’s musical culture, unlike the happier Swedish major-key tunes, which never really caught on over here.

In terms of musical theory, the falling fifth – a characteristic interval in Finnish folk songs – was joined by the rising sixth – ditto in Russian melodies. St Petersburg became a conduit for new cultural influences and international trends, and in the process the Slavic minor-key melancholy firmly established itself on the Finnish musical scene.


Waltzes, romances, marches

lt was through St Petersburg that Finland received European-style salon music, waltzes, brass bands and military music in general, and of course the Russian romance. New restaurants in Helsinki featured fine dining and the latest music, and Russian military bands provided outdoor entertainment in parks in the summer. Sheet music sold briskly, and music-making at home was all the rage.

At the turn of the 20th century, Finland enjoyed an influx of magnificently pompous waltzes – the swell of Autumn Dreams (Osenniy son) and The Amur Waves (Amurskie volny), the lilt of Beryozka and the memorable melodies of The Danube Waves (Dunaiskie volny) and Carmen Sylva by Romanian composer Josif lvanovici became perennial favourites. Originally embraced by high society, the new fashions soon trickled down through all social classes.

Russian romances were an offshoot of the European popular song tradition. White Acacias (Belye akaatsii), The Chrysanthemums (Otsueli khrisantemy) and Have pity on me (Pozhalei) were major hits. The emerging labour movement, on the other hand, began to recycle military marches from the Imperial era: Farewell of Slavianka (Prozhanie slavyanki) became Free Russia, and Longing for Home (Toska po rodine) became the Barricades March.


Independence had little musical impact

Finland declared independence in 1917, and almost immediately the Civil War broke out between the labour movement and the bourgeoisie, the Reds and the Whites. The latter, backed by Imperial Germany, emerged victorious, and hence the identity of the new sovereign nation was staked out through nationalism and anti-Russian sentiments. Meanwhile, some 20,000 “White” Russian refugees fleeing the new regime arrived in Finland.

Some of these refugees stayed, and because many of them were culturally inclined- musicians, dancers, visual artists – a Russian subculture emerged in Finland that would have an impact for decades to come. This subculture was tolerated, even though Finland’s mainstream culture was firmly orientated towards Germany and preferred to have as little as possible to do with anything across the eastern border. This was nothing new: Finland has always had a dualist attitude towards Russian culture, at once embracing and shunning it.

That the fledgling nation turned towards the West was not readily apparent on the musical scene. Of course, new fashions such as jazz and the foxtrot did arrive from Western Europe, but the public at large still liked their Russian-tinted minor-key tunes. Indeed, in the 1920s and 1930s the nascent record industry in Finland depended wholly on the Russian romance genre, recycling many of the salon favourites from the Imperial era – waltzes, marches, romances – into schlagers of the day. Dark Eyes (Tshornye glaza), Two Guitars (Dve gitary) and a handful of other tunes established a canon of Russian numbers in Finnish popular music.


From foe to friend

In the Second World War, Finland allied with Germany against the Soviet Union. One of the most evocative Finnish hits of the war years was Life in the Trenches, which was a strange paradox considering that the tune was originally a Russian waltz from the days of the Tsar’s Army. Germany lost, but Finland retained her independence, although relations with the Soviet Union had to be immediately and completely overhauled. Almost as soon as hostilities had ceased, in January 1945, the Red Army Chorus gave a concert in Finland to great success, charming their audience with Kalinka and Evening in the Harbour (Vecher na reide).

Foe had become friend; that which had been prohibited was suddenly permitted. The Red Army Chorus even made a recording in Finland, but a new Russian music boom was yet to come.

Russian tunes enjoyed a new vogue in Finland at the turn of the 1960s. This was perhaps partly due to a change in the general mood of the country, to the active policy of close relations with the Soviet Union pursued by President Urho Kekkonen and to the huge surge in Soviet trade, but the prime mover in promoting Russian music was a new record label, Scandia.


Soviet hits in Finnish

The production manager of the Scandia record label was Harry Orvomaa, a jazz musician and an immigrant with roots in Russian Jewish culture. He profiled folk songs and klezmer tunes from Odessa that he recalled from his youth (including Katinka, Boys, Josef), jazzily arranged by Jaakko Salo into melancholy schlagers. Finnish superstars of the day such as Brita Koivunen, Laila Kinnunen, Annikki Tähti and others recorded them, hit after hit. Old favourites such as Troika, Katyusha and White Acacias also made a comeback.

It is perhaps indicative of the spirit of the day that the top slot on the charts was held in turn by I Love You, Life (Ya lyublyu tebya, zhizhn), a new Soviet schlager recorded in Finnish by Kauko Käyhkö, and Twist and Shout by The Beatles. We should note that all Russian tunes played in Finland were performed with Finnish lyrics; the original Russian recordings were never heard.

A new phenomenon emerged in the late 1960s with descendants of post-Revolution Russian immigrants hitting the popular music scene. Yet the best-known of these, siblings Kirka and Muska Babitsin, no longer sang romances but rock’n’roll. Tamara Lund and Viktor Klimenko upheld the old romance tradition, while Marion Rung and Johnny Liebkind focused on schlagers. All of the above had Russian roots.


Another boom

Russian songs were translated into Finnish and recorded all through the 1970s, but the next massive Soviet boom in Finnish music did not come until the next decade. By the 1980s, the ground had become exceptionally fertile: all key political parties swore by the doctrine of upholding close relations with the Soviet Union, and nearly half a million Finnish tourists visited Moscow, Leningrad, Yalta and Sochi every year. Lada was the best-selling make of car in Finland, and the Finnish Broadcasting Company had a weekly radio programme named Tunes from the Soviet Union, originally deliberately created as a vehicle for balancing the dominance of Anglo-American pop music. The programme reached a respectable audience of half a million listeners every week. Having a national monopoly in radio broadcasting, as the Finnish Broadcasting Company did at the time, certainly helped in being a trendsetter.

It was also fortunate that Soviet popular music at the time relied on grand, melodic schlagers. Songwriters such as Raimond Pauls, Igor Nikolayev and Vladimir Matetsky wrote tunes that were eminently marketable in Finland too. In the mid-1980s, a collection ofthe greatest hits of singer Alla Pugachova sold 40,000 copies, which meant platinum at the time, and when Vera Telenius from Tampere recorded a cover in Finnish of one of Pugachova’s greatest hits, A Million Roses (Million alikh roz), it sold more than 70,000 copies. Although Finnish versions of Soviet schlagers were the really big sellers, original recordings in Russian were also released in Finland, and all the major stars toured Finland too: Pugachova, Yuri Antonov, Sofia Rotaru and Zhanna Bichevskaya. This was the first time that recordings in Russian became popular in Finland.

And number-one hits for Finnish artists with Russian songs kept on coming: Ships (Parokhody) by Rauli Badding Somerjoki, Come Swimming, Boy (Bylo no proshlo) by Anna Hanski, O Moon (Luna luna) by Rainer Friman, Without You (Bez menya) by Paula Koivuniemi and many, many others. This hit parade lasted until the end ofthe 1980s.

Small wonder, then, that the production manager of the Musiikki-Fazer record label at the time, songwriter Toivo Kärki, told his employees to listen to Tunes from the Soviet Union if they wanted to find hit songs!

Melancholy yet hopeful, Russian minor-key melodies continued to tug at Finnish heartstrings more than six decades after our nation parted ways with Russia. Eventually, even the works of intelligent troubadours such as Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotsky began to find their way to Finnish turntables. Okudzhava performed in Helsinki in the early 1980s.


Finland turns West

The last edition of Tunes from the Soviet Union was broadcast in spring 1990. Time seemed to have passed it by, although no one could have anticipated at the time what a major historical upheaval was just around the corner. Once the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Finnish media changed its tune quickly about our easterly neighbour: now it was all just poverty, crime and environmental problems over there. Russia came to be seen as a threat. At the same time, Finland’s interest in Russian culture and music subsided for many years. Finland turned towards the West and soon joined the European Union.

The only major proponent of Russian music left on the Finnish music scene was the tongue-firmly-in¬cheek rock band Leningrad Cowboys, whose grotesque, humorous performances – including concerts with the actual Red Army Chorus! – were a smash hit.

The more serious kind of Russian music was now upheld almost exclusively by newly arrived Russian immigrants, among whom there were very proficient musicians. They also began to bring in Russian performers to appear at events they organised. These efforts, however, failed to reach the mainstream audiences and media. Genuine Russian music in Finland had again become an immigrant subculture, as it had been in the 1920s and 1930s.

Today’s Russian popular music is virtually unknown in Finland, being almost completely unavailable other than via sources such as YouTube. The Tusovka festival (See article, pp. 20-21) continues to fly the flag of Russian rock music, and a friendship society occasionally imports performers – folk music, church choirs and rock musicians, including the legendary band DDT. Scarcely any Russian songs have been recorded in Finnish translation for the past twenty years.

For the moment, then, Russian melancholy melodies are biding their time somewhere in the wings, awaiting their next moment in the sun.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Helsinki Balalaika Orchestra in 1915