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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Anthem At a Loss For Words

Ten years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union — which had one of the most rousing national hymns a country could hope for, even if you didn’t like the sentiments — and Russia, as its athletes at the Sydney Olympics complained, has as yet only got a tune to hum to.

National anthems are often born of a country’s struggle for independence and identity, which is why the lyrics are often about blood, guts, death and ultimate victory over the enemy. They are frequently sung at sporting competitions, which on occasion call for similarly bloodthirsty sentiments, but also get outings for national festivities and events requiring patriotic expression.

Because the old ode to communism is no longer required, the anthem’s words will have to express Russia’s new position and identity in the world, both of which are being hotly debated on a national and international level.

And by tradition, they should reflect something of the circumstances of the time in which they were composed: "La Marseillaise," written in one night in 1792, is all about the French Revolution, and specifically about killing anyone who dared stand in its way. "The Star-Spangled Banner" evokes the cannon fire of the battlefield during the American War of 1812 against the British. The Ukrainian anthem is a rather defeatist "We’re-not-dead-yet" reminder that the enemy will die sooner or later, while the British anthem has a smugness about it born of having conquered entire continents, although the Scots and the Welsh have their own defiantly non-English songs.

Today’s Russia is a country decidedly ambivalent about its Soviet past, in which the main issues concern the economy, organized crime and press freedom — material that Ira Gershwin would have had problems with.

Equally unusable is the Russian "national idea" — debate over which is stuck on an asinine level, hijacked by people with ready-made ideals, and which is not so much puzzling the man on the street as excluding him.

People considering the future of the anthem — among them St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev — could get pointers from two directions. First, he could look at the values of the recent sporting event at which Russia’s athletes publicly pleaded for something to sing, the Olympic Games, where competition between nations is tempered by friendship, dignity and respect.

The other source is the man who wrote the tune, Mikhail Glinka, who took Russian music before him and created something that was the foundation of so much music after him — a synthesis of culture and identity free of aggression and bigotry. Now that’s an ideal.