A Christmas Lesson for Our Time

(Russian music and Russian lies)

Russian Troika [i]

One of the few Christmas pop songs which actually bears listening to is Greg Lake’s I believe in Father Christmas. The lyrics, suggest that Lake (or at least Peter Sinfield who actually wrote them) had a rather jaundiced view of the festive season – especially in its religious aspects – and of the deceptions that underlie it. And the song and, especially, the video lament the fact that Christmas is typically a time of war, rather than peace, on earth. But the music is jolly enough and is, of course, partially based on Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite.

Despite what is often supposed, Prokofiev's piece has no connection with Christmas, though it does have a Troika movement named after the traditional Russian three-horse sled. This section does have a Christmassy vibe and, in the early 1970s, was used by BBC television as the theme music for its Christmas output announcements. I suspect this reinforced the popular association between Prokofiev's music and Christmas, and probably played a role in Lake’s choice of this theme for his song.

There are, however, connections between what Sergei Prokofiev's Kijé Suite is about and the war that will play out on our television screens this Christmas:

The Suite was composed in 1933 for a film of Kijé which was one of the earliest Soviet movies with sound. The film in turn was based on a novella by Yury Tynyanov (who also wrote the screenplay for the film). That novella was based on a short piece entitled Stories of the time of Paul I by the Ukrainian born Vladimir Dal (or sometimes “Dahl”) and Dal cited anecdotes told by his father as the original source.

The story grew in the telling but the basic idea throughout the various versions is that a clerical (or mishearing) error results in the promotion of a non-existent soldier to the rank of lieutenant. Because nobody dares admit the mistake to Tzar Paul I, a series of ever more elaborate deceptions unfold. These culminate in the holding of a grand funeral for Kijé when, having been summoned to meet Paul in person, he dies suddenly – and fortuitously.

The parallels with current events in modern day Russian hardly need to be spelt out. There are daily news stories about Vladimir Putin being kept in the dark as to the true state of Russia’s armed forces and their equipment, and the true progress of his war against Ukraine. Deaths-of-convenience – albethey, sadly, of real people – are also a regular occurrence.

We can only hope that on the coming Christmas morning, or one day soon thereafter, the Russian people will awake “with a yawn at the first light of dawn” and see their leader for what he really is.

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