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The Red Army Choir – the story of the world’s most famous military choir and the Kremlin’s “singing weapon”

Goran Blazeski

64 members of the Red Army Choir, considered by many the world’s most famous military choir, lost their lives in a plane crash on Sunday. The army’s official musical group and its conductor, Valery Khalilov, were on board the Tu-154 traveling to Syria to celebrate the New Year with Russian troops.

Often described as the Kremlin’s “singing weapon,” the Military Alexandrov Ensemble, also known as the Red Army Choir, was founded in 1928, when the Minister of Defence, Kliment Yefremovich Voroshilov, asked Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov to create a military choir.

The Alexandrov Ensemble, Bielsko-Biala, 2006. Photo Credit

The Alexandrov Ensemble, Bielsko-Biala, 2006. Photo Credit

Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov was born on 13 April 1883 into a peasant family in Plakhino, a village in Ryazan Governorate, southeast of Moscow. Even in his early days he was an impressive singer and went on to study composition at Saint Petersburg and in Moscow, where he eventually became a professor of music in 1918. Later, he became the first artistic director of the ensemble; he was also a choirmaster, a conductor, and the public figure who wrote the music to the National Anthem of the Soviet Union, which was revived as Russia’s national anthem by President Vladimir Putin.

Alexander Alexandrov

Alexander Alexandrov

The Red Army Choir, which consisted of twelve soldier-performers, officially performed for the first time on 12 October 1928 in the Central House of the Red Army. In 1929, the ensemble visited and entertained the troops working on the Far Eastern Railway. By the mid-1930s, the numbers of the ensemble grew to 300 people and became known around the world for its performances.

In 1937, the choir performed at the International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life and brought home their first great success, winning the Grand Prix, the highest honor bestowed by the jury.

Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg, where it all started. Here A.V. Alexandrov, who would one day create the ensemble, began to learn his trade

Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg, where it all started. Here A.V. Alexandrov, who would one day create the ensemble, began to learn his trade

During World War II, the all-male ensemble toured the front lines and gave over 1500 performances singing propaganda songs to the troops. The performances of the ensemble helped Soviet troops to forget about fear and rediscover their confidence and courage to fight for freedom. It is said that Stalin was so impressed by the ensemble that he commissioned the choir’s founder, Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, to write the music for the Soviet national anthem.

The founder of the Red Army Choir, Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, died on 8 July 1946 while on tour in Berlin, and the ensemble was taken over by his son, Boris Alexandrovich Alexandrov, who had been the deputy artistic director of the Alexandrov Ensemble since 1937.

Alexandrov ensemble dancers, Budapest, 1951. Photo Credit

Alexandrov ensemble dancers, Budapest, 1951. Photo Credit

His ultimate task was to create a “choir of the elite” and that is why he had to choose every member of the choir very carefully. Under the leadership of Boris Alexandrovich Alexandrov, the choir started making extensive tours worldwide and the members of the Red Army Choir became real international stars.

In 1948, when Berlin was divided into four occupation zones, an American officer suggested a concert in the Gendarmenmarkt and the Alexandrov Ensemble was chosen to perform. The Red Army Choir performed German opera extracts, Russian folk songs, German folk songs, and the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in front of 30,000 people for three hours. The concert was a huge success and a spectacle never seen before in Berlin.

The Alexandrovci with Iosif Kobzon as soloist. Photo Credit

The Alexandrovci with Iosif Kobzon as soloist. Photo Credit

During the Cold War era, Boris Alexandrovich Alexandrov led the Red Army Choir on tours beyond the Eastern bloc in order to present the values of the revolution to the rest of the world. The ensemble, led by Boris Alexandrov, traveled abroad sixty-eight times. He retired in 1987 and was succeeded by Igor Agafonnikov the same year.

In the 1980s, the Iron Curtain was starting to unravel. Mikhail Gorbachev began to reform the Soviet system by allowing perestroika (competition in business) and glasnost (freedom). On 10 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, symbolising the end of the Cold War. On 8 December 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, but the choir lived on and gained even more international fame.

In 1993, accompanied by the most outlandish Finnish group of the time, “Leningrad Cowboy,” the Red Army Choir performed “Just a Gigolo” in Helsinki in front of 70,000 people.

The Leningrad Cowboys. Photo Credit

The Leningrad Cowboys. Photo Credit

The Red Army Choir was always warmly received at the Vatican and The Red Army Choir and Dance Ensemble have performed for His Holiness The Pope.

The Alexandrov Choir with Dance Ensemble, Warsaw 2009. Photo Credit

The Alexandrov Choir with Dance Ensemble, Warsaw 2009. Photo Credit

The Red Army Choir performed at the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Moscow and every year the ensemble takes part in the official parade on 9th May, when Russia celebrates its victory in the Second World War.

Read another story from us: Nadezhda Krupskaya – The woman at the very center of the organization of the Russian Bolshevik revolution

The Red Army Choir have performed in many languages to over 17 million people. They have never used playback and they always performed like it was their last time.