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Blatnyak - Russian Criminal Song
July 23, 2010 18:03

Blatnyak (criminal folklore,) is the song genre that sings of life and customs of the criminal world, originally meant for the milieu of prisoners and people close to underworld. The genre originated in the Russian Empire and spread in the Soviet Union and subsequently in the CIS countries. With the lapse of time this genre came to include songs beyond criminal subjects, however keeping the specific genre features, i.e. melody, slang, narration, and outlook. Since the 1990s criminal songs in the Russian musical industry have been marketed as the «Russian chanson».

('Solntse vshodit i zahodit' (Perfomed by Fyodor Shalyapin) )

Blat (German “Blatt” — "sheet") is a slangy word, widely spread on the territories of the former USSR, which meant acquaintance or connections traded on and infringing interests of the third parties. The present meaning of the word "blat" is useful connections and acquaintances thanks to which it is possible to gain some benefits bypassing standard rules and laws, as a rule, to the prejudice of interests of the society or the state. «Po blatu” means thanks to favourable acquaintance, through "the necessary" people. In the early 20th century in Odessa obviously, this concept passed on to the slang of the Jewish criminal world and came to mean, accordingly, members of the thieves' gangs living according to the thieves' law. In the Russian linguistic literature the word "blat" was first time recorded in 1908 in V.F.Trakhtenberg's dictionary «Criminal music. Prison slang».

In the USSR the word "blat" again got another sense. Under the conditions of deficiency acquisition of goods often depended on connections with sellers or officials allotting these or those goods. So the word “blat” came to mean such useful connections and the very process of acquiring goods in such a way.

So, speaking about the genre of blatnyak, its main features are the presence of plot, close connection with real concrete situations, positions and experiences of people in the criminal world, quite primitive melody, use of informal conversation and slang in the lyrics.

As a rule, the criminal folklore does not directly glorify cruelty and murders; rather, the authors try to somehow justify representatives of the criminal world, telling about the atrocities of life and blat prisoners’ way of living in prison. The cult of mother is also quite characteristic of these songs.

In the mid 19th century there were the so-called “songs of freedom and bondage”, “gangsters’ songs”, “convicts’ songs”, and “gaol songs”. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was a prisoner of the Omsk convict prison in 1851—1854, in The House of the Dead quotes different genre samples that he derived from the prison environment. The term of “criminal song” arose in the early 20th century, along with the arrival of performers of such music on variety stage. At that time there developed fashion for the so-called “tramp” or “ragged” genre, caused by the society’s heightened interest in the outcast people, who were represented in literature as victims of social injustice, or as bearers of rebellious spirit. For the first time a prison song was performed on stage in Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths on the stage of Moscow Art Theatre in 1902. The formation of the genre was deeply influenced by the city romance.

Traditional melodies of the Russian blatnyak were adopted from restaurant songs and the couplets written and performed by Jewish performers in Odessa in the early 20th century. Musically these songs were strongly influenced by klezmer, which is still traceable in the genre.

In 1923 the composer Oscar Strok in Odessa wrote a classical tango song to the lyrics of the journalist and screenwriter Jacob Yadov. The song Murka in the following years turned to be a widely popular folk criminal song, with its lyrics changed by some unknown authors, who added some slang words. The tune of this song is sang in a den of thieves by the protagonist of the famous feature film The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed, which is set in autumn of 1945 in Moscow.

('Murka' (Perfomed by Bernard) )

For the first time blatnyak songs were released on phonograph records in the 1930s. They were performed by the well-known native of Odessa, the Soviet composer and jazzman Leonid Utyosov. One of such songs was Gop so smykom stylized to songs by dwellers of Odessa. In those years at the request Joseph Stalin’s Utyosov with his Orchestra performed the blatnyak song S Odesskovo Kichmana in the Kremlin.

('Gop so smykom' (Perfomed by Leonid Utyosov) )

('S odesskogo kichmana' (Perfomed by Leonid Utyosov) )

In the 1930s - 1940s there appeared songs about sufferings of the convicts in Gulag camps. The song Vaninsky port (the authorship is still controversial) about people confined in hard conditions in the camps on Kolyma in the Magadan Region became a hymn of prisoners and was very popular in the 1950s.

Another tragic hymn of the condemned, written by the unknown author Vorkuta-Leningrad («Po tundre, po zheleznoi doroge») appeared in the second half of the 1940s. In the 1930s and the early 1940s escapes from prisons were rare, being severely suppressed — the fugitives were simply shot down. With the arrival in Gulag camps of the former war prisoners of Hitlerite camps and the former insurgents-nationalists, first of all Ukrainian ones, escapes became a serious problem for the penitentiary facilities in the USSR. The song poeticized aspiration to freedom and hatred to those who guarded prisoners and convicts.

('Po tundre po zheleznoi doroge' (Perfomed by Vladimir Sorokin) )

During the rule of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev criminal songs, including those by Leonid Utyosov, stopped to be released on records and broadcasted on radio. One of the most known performers of criminal songs in the late 1960s — 1970s was Arcady Severny who gave underground concerts and had no prison experience. Researchers find some motives of the criminal song in early works by Vladimir Vysotsky.

('Na Derebasovskoi' (Perfomed by Arkady Severny) )

The 1990s in Russia saw springing up of numerous musicians and bands performing blatnyak on the variety stage. The former criminal Mikhail Tanich, who had experienced camp imprisonment during Stalin’s reign, became a well-known Russian songwriter; his band Lesopoval became very popular: its records were released with millions of copies, and performances were broadcast over leading federal TV channels.

('Bely lebed'' (Perfomed by Lesopoval) )

In the early 1990s, according to memoirs of the director of the Moscow Concert Sergey Godunov, nobody referred to blatnyak song as chanson, the latter term being applied only to the French music. In 1990 the first festival of blatnyak (called Gop-Stop Show) was held in the Moscow Variety Theatre. In 1991 a similar festival named «Russian chanson. Ligovka−91» took place in St. Petersburg. By that time one of the most well-known performers in the genre of blatnyak and the so-called «city folklore» Aleksander Novikov was released from a strict regime colony.

('Kogo kupil ty, suka?' (Perfomed by Aleksander Novikov) )

In the mid-1990s millions of tape record copies of albums by Shura Karentny were sold; these were songs stylized to criminal songs, with dialogues rich in unprintable language and ironic stories told by a person who had ostensibly served repeated sentences in prison. Later it came to light that the nickname «Shura Karentny» belonged to the People’s Artist of Russia, the actor of the Moscow "Hermitage" Theatre Aleksander Pozharov, who had had no criminal past, but merely used an image seen by him as a youth.

In the early 21st century blatnyak came to be called “Russian chanson” on radio and TV and turned to be a part of mass culture. In particular, the song Murka — one of the symbols of blatnyak music of the Soviet period – is nowadays performed in new arrangement even by rappers.

The symbols of new Russian "chanson" are the songs “Vladimirsky Tsentral” (Vladimir Central Prison) by Mikhail Krug and “Ushanochka” (Ear Cap) by Gennady Zharov, the authors of which have never been imprisoned.

('Vladimirsky central' (Perfomed by Mikhail Krug) )

('Ushanochka' (Perfomed by Gennady Zharov) )


Tags: Russian music     

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