Defender of the Fatherland Day: Five Russian military marches

Today, 23 February, Russia marks Defender of the Fatherland Day. This is a holiday dedicated to the Russian armed forces, commemorating the establishment of the Red Army in 1918. In recent years the day has also been come to seen as a celebration of men, as a counterpart to International Women’s Day on 8 March. To mark this celebration, here are five military marches closely associated with the Russian army throughout the centuries:

  1. March of the Preobrazhensky Life-Guard Regiment
    This famous march was the regimental march of the oldest Guards regiment of the Imperial Russian Army. The Preobrazhensky Guards were founded by Peter the Great and named after the village of Preobrazhenskoe to the northeast of Moscow, where Peter spent his youth and where he formed the regiment. Sadly, name of the composer of this march is unknown. Several sets of lyrics have been written to accompany the march. The most popular begins “Знают турки нас и шведы” (The Turks and Swedes know us well) and was written by the dramatist Prince Alexander Shakhovskoy for the 1812 opera Казак-стихотворец (The Cossack Poet) composed by Caterino Cavos.

    Battle drum
    Napoleonic era battle drum. Museum of the War of 1812, Moscow.
  2. March of the Semenovsky Life-Guard Regiment
    This march was the regimental march of the Semenovsky Regiment, second in pedigree to the Preobrazhensky Guards. Like the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the Semenovsky Guards were founded by Peter the Great and named after a village near Moscow where they were formed. It is commonly believed that the march was composed by General Alexander Rimsky-Korsakov in 1796. An ancestor of the composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, General Rimsky-Korsakov was an amateur musician who served as colonel-in-chief of the Semenovsky Guards in the late 18th century. The words to the march emphasise the guardsmen’s sense of loyalty to the Tsar.
  3. The Farewell of Slavianka
    This well-known tune was composed in 1912 by Vasily Agapkin, a musician who served as a cavalry reservist in the Imperial Russian Army. The march was composed during the First Balkan War of 1912-13, when Russian volunteers fought to liberate the Orthodox Balkan states from Ottoman occupation. The earliest set of lyrics to the music dates from the beginning of the First World War in 1914, but the march became especially popular among the volunteer armies of the White movement, who fought against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War (1917-21). The Reds subsequently adopted the popular melody accompanied by a new set of words, and the march became a common feature of Soviet military parades.

    WWI Monument
    First World War Monument, Moscow, Russia.
  4. March of the Defenders of Moscow
    This march was composed in November 1941, when the German armies were bearing down on Moscow, months after the outbreak of war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Songs such as this one were usually published in newspapers and patriotic journals in plain text, and only later supplied for music. The song text was written by poet and war correspondent Alexei Surkov and publihed in the Krasnoarmeyskaya Pravda and Vechernaya Zarya newspapers. The text was then taken by composer Boris Mokrousov for the documentary film ‘The Defeat of the Germans outside Moscow’, screened in February 1942. By this point, the Soviet armies were already assuming their own offensive operations and the Germans were driven further away from Moscow.
  5. ‘On the Road’
    This popular Soviet march from the mid-1950s comes from the comedy film Maxim Pereplitsa. The words by Mikhail Dudin were set to music by Vasily Soloviev-Sedoi, a composer of many popular Soviet songs (including Подмосковные вечера/Moscow Nights, one of the most well known Russian songs in the western world). It was often performed by the Alexandrov Ensemble under the direction of Boris Alexandrov. During the middle of performances of this march the conductor often stepped away from the stage, leaving the ensemble to their own devices. He would then return to the stage after a minute or two, and continue to conduct the ensemble, which maintained the beat of the march perfectly throughout their conductor’s absence.

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