“May there always be sunshine, may there always be blue skies/May there always be Mama, may there always be me.”
Galina would have known this song in its original version – used here as the refrain – the sweetly hopeful words composed by a child in 1928. That her mind would take her to this place of safety following an especially difficult ordeal is not at all surprising.
The patriotic verses, set to Ostrovsky’s music, were added by Oshanin later, during the Cold War, mixing martial tones with an innocent message of peace. But the chorus, especially when sung by children, remains captivating and universal, prompting artists like Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Raffi to each record their own English versions.
“The first time Franz came into the toy shop, Galina was dusting the nearly immaculate shelves, her back to the door. She was half-singing a new song she had heard in the park, filling in the spaces between words with uncertain humming. My heart, it is not peace you want…hmm hmm my heart…
“Spasibo, siertze,” he prompted, causing her to spin around in surprise, the dust cloth clutched to her chest. One of Ilya’s carved squirrels fell to the floor behind her….
After he left, the figurine pieces tucked securely in his shirt pocket, she stood a moment, recalling the touch of his fingers against her palm, and the way he nodded politely at the door, waiting until he stepped outside to put the cap back on his head. Siertze, kak horosho na svete zhit’. The lyrics rushed in from some recess of her memory.
“What nonsense,” she said aloud. How good it is to be alive, indeed. Try to remember that when in line for a half-kilo ration of worm-eaten potatoes, the skins creased like walnuts and about the same size, too.”
“Father Stefan’s sonorous basso cut through Filip’s fruitless ruminations. In a voice both louder and brighter than before, the deacon intoned the words vechnyi pokoi – eternal peace – for the departed. Filip closed his eyes and heard the congregation join in the singing of the final words, in a rising minor motif of such mournful beauty that even he felt the pricking of tears behind his eyelids. Beside him, Galina’s clear voice rose above the others, then broke down, the last Vechnaya Pamyat’ no more than a hoarse whisper between her barely stifled sobs. Eternal Memory.”
From Roads: A Novel, copyright 2017, Chicago Review Books
Another song I heard countless times growing up, though never in such a charming rendition. Katyusha is the song playing in Galina’s head after the birth of her child, and the name that springs to her lips when she sees her daughter for the first time. Why?
The song was a big wartime hit. It celebrated constancy, home front support for men fighting to protect their country from the fascist invader. Its portrayal of women as passive tenders of the hearth (and heart) could not have been farther from the truth. Women served alongside men in the military, not only as nurses and administrative staff, but as fearless bomber pilots – the famous Night Witches who inflicted real damage on the enemy.
As in the US, women worked in munitions factories, sewed uniforms and parachutes, ran government offices and farms. Like their American and British counterparts, they did important work decoding enemy messages; some were spies. They were teachers, machinery operators, bus drivers, keeping the country running, often while raising children and managing things at home.
Katyusha was also a powerful Soviet missile launcher instrumental in the defense of Stalingrad and other key battles. It seems ironic that this lethal weapon would take its name from such a sweet song. But then war is nothing if not ironic.
Here’s a popular 1940s song staged as a commemorative musical production number (note the obligatory ballerinas). The Soviet pop singer Klavdiya Shulzhenko added some patriotic verses, turning an already popular romance into an anthem to fidelity and sacrifice. With its lilting melody, Sinyi Platochek belongs to the young, to lovers’ partings and the hope of triumphant reunions.
In Roads, which version did Galina sing to Filip, who was no soldier? Truthfully, I don’t know. With Yalta under Nazi occupation, he was in no danger of Red Army conscription, but the possibility of separation loomed large, nonetheless.
I may have first heard this song at home, the LP spinning on my father’s record player on a Sunday afternoon, my mother humming along while setting food on the table for our early dinner. Or it might have been at one of the frequent Russian club social evenings, where for a modest monthly fee, members enjoyed dancing to a small instrumental ensemble, bring your own vodka to accompany the tasty treats at the buffet. I only know my mother loved this song, because it was a waltz, and because blue was her favorite color.
I chose this title, or, rather, it presented itself to me, the way these things do, early in the writing of the book. There are the obvious associations – the family’s journey, from their homeland into enemy country, along unfamiliar paths leading to unknown destinations, moving, by whatever means, to the next stop.
It refers to actual roads, of dust and stone and asphalt, grassy forest paths and railroad tracks. But also to metaphorical ones, progressing toward self-knowledge, compassion; traversing the torment of guilt toward the promise of joy. Roads to love, and to death.
Behind all that, for me, there was a song.
My father was a factory worker; he spent his days assembling machinery, reading blueprints drawn by other hands not, to his infinite regret, his own. He was well-liked, a quiet, deep-thinking yet sociable and witty man. Gradually, as the effect of the war years receded, he filled our home with books, and with music. His vast record collection encompassed opera and spoken word (I will never forget how the elephant got his trunk), and stacks upon stacks of folk songs. These ranged from romantic renditions of Soviet recording stars to the virile sound of the Red Army Chorus and the defiant protest songs of Bulat Okudzhava and Volodya Vysotsky.
When I started work on Roads, these songs, this soundtrack to my life, were always with me. One in particular, Dorogi, played in my mind again and again, bringing with it a sense of history, and more levels of meaning than I can begin to describe.