After initial hesitation, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has expressed support for President Vladimir Putin's proposal to resurrect the musical setting of the communist Soviet national anthem.

President Putin is pushing ahead with the proposal, which is about to be discussed by the Duma in Moscow, despite stiff opposition from liberal politicians and intellectuals. Putin's plan has caused astonishment in Western capitals.

The president wants Russia to have a range of national emblems combining both tsarist and Soviet symbols, including the tricolor pre-revolutionary flag, the tsarist double-headed eagle and the music of the Soviet national anthem by Soviet composer, Alexander Alexandrov, for which new lyrics are to be written. Putin believes this mix will ensure a sense of continuity with the many strands of Russia's past.

"I think that the president has made a very worthy decision," the spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, told Interfax news agency this week. "It is very important that all the symbols of the country are viewed in a combination: a pre-revolutionary flag and coat of arms, which show the continuity with the pre-revolutionary period of our history, and at the same time Alexandrov's music, which shows continuity with the Soviet era, in which, of course, there were terrible tragedies, but there were also a lot of good things. Thus the continuity of all Russian history is restored and demonstrated."

During a heated public debate about the anthem, several Russian media outlets reported, without citing any sources, that the church's head, Patriarch Alexei II, opposed the return of the Soviet anthem. But Chaplin stressed this week that the patriarch had never publicly expressed his opinion. "His Holiness has never rejected the possibility of the old anthem's melody returning," Chaplin said. "He said only that the issue of state symbols should not divide society, but unite it."

In fact, discussions about the anthem have proved highly divisive in recent weeks. The Soviet anthem, which cleverly combines musical features of both a march and a song, was written by Alexandrov in 1943, originally as the Communist Party anthem. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin approved the music and ordered the lyrics to be rewritten so the song could serve as the national anthem. After Stalin's death, lyrics praising him were dropped and eventually new lyrics were added retaining praise of Lenin and the Communist Party.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the tricolour was adopted as Russia's flag. But the Communist-dominated parliament refused to accept President Boris Yeltsin's proposals to make the double-headed eagle the national emblem and the "Patriotic Song" by the 19th century composer Mikhail Glinka the national anthem.

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In 1993, after Yeltsin put down a parliamentary rebellion, he imposed the emblem and the anthem by presidential decree. But the eagle has never been approved by two thirds of the parliament, as required by the Russian Constitution.

The anthem has proved even more problematic. No official lyrics had been adopted for Glinka's music, which most Russians find complicated, uninspiring and hard to remember.

In October, President Putin raised the matter in public after Russian athletes complained that they had no words to sing when they were awarded medals at the Sydney Olympics.

The president put the issue on the agenda of the State Council - which is made up of regional governors but has limited powers. Various options were discussed, but a public poll taken at the same time showed that Alexandrov's music, familiar to most Russians, led with 49 percent support.

"Let us not forget that we are talking here about the majority of the people," President Putin said last Monday in a passionate plea on national television. "It is possible that the people and I are mistaken," he said, but he added that rejecting all Soviet symbols would suggest that "our mothers and fathers lived a useless life, lived their lives in vain. I cannot agree with this, either in my head, or in my heart!"

A group of 35 prominent intellectuals, including a progressive Orthodox priest, Alexander Borisov, published an open letter to the president warning that a return to the Soviet anthem could cause a national schism. "The attempt to resurrect the music of the Soviet anthem triggers nothing but protest and disgust," the letter stated. "There is no new text that could hide the immortal [original] words praising Lenin and Stalin."

Leading Orthodox Church officials appear to have changed their mind during the debate. A prominent church leader, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, initially expressed support for Glinka's music in a newspaper article. But late last month he appeared on the state-owned RTR television station to support Alexandrov's music.

Other religious leaders also contributed to the discussion. A Muslim official, Mufti Talgat Tadzhutdin, said he had no problem with either the double-headed eagle or with the Soviet-era anthem. "It is our past, and you cannot escape it," Tadzhutdin told Interfax. "For seven decades we and our ancestors lived in the Soviet state, and many recall their youth with warm feelings. It is wonderful that we won't forget that period."

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More argument is expected when the new lyrics for the anthem are published. A draft by the poet who wrote the lyrics for the Soviet anthem, Sergei Mikhalkov, and another by former prime minister Yevgeni Primakov have appeared in the press in recent weeks. In his new version Mikhalkov, who once composed verses to glorify Lenin and Stalin, writes: "With hope and faith, forward, Russians! And may the Lord safeguard us on the path!"

Some of the drafts were clearly ironic, including one from a liberal party, the Union of Right Forces, stating: "We work honestly and pay our taxes! Glory to you, O private property!"

But despite the opposition and the irony, Putin's proposal is almost certain to be approved by the Duma.

Copyright © ENI.

Related Elsewhere

Other media coverage of the Russian national anthem includes:

Putin Out of Tune With YeltsinInternational Herald Tribune (Dec. 8, 2000)

Bitter feelings as Putin dredges up the pastThe Age (Dec. 7, 2000)

Soviet anthem revival stirs RussiansThe [Baltimore] Sun (Dec. 6, 2000)

Putin Urges Revival Of Soviet SymbolsInternational Herald Tribune (Dec. 6, 2000)

The Soviet National Anthem is available in a variety of formats here.