“We are the Red Cavalry . . . Lead us, Budyonny!”

By Jun-Hee Lee

Front and back covers of the photobiography of Semyon Budyonny (1883–1973), stored in the Wende Museum’s vault.

As a history major (now with a Bachelor’s Degree) whose primary research interest lies in East Asia and yet loves classical and “traditional” Russian music, the Wende Museum has perhaps been my most enjoyable place to work so far. While I came to enjoy encountering various interesting objects – East German-made Walkman, for instance – I also came to the realization that a collections intern could have its limits – one can’t touch music, after all!

I began to change my mind when I came across the small Soviet vase the museum purchased this year (among other things), shown below:

(Мы – красная кавалерия и про нас былинники речистые ведут рассказ: “We are the Red Cavalry, and storytellers will eloquently speak about us in their stories”)

What fascinated me about this vase was that it had on its sides the first lines from a song I happen to know: Budyonny March, a Russian Civil War-era military song that I learned thanks to a recording made by the Alexandrov Song and Dance Ensemble (better known as the Red Army Chorus in the West) in 1994, released in a CD published by Naxos in 1996 (there hasn’t been any commercial studio recording by the ensemble since then, but I digress – that’s another story).

As its name suggests, the song commemorates Semyon Budyonny, a Soviet military figure who led the First Cavalry Army during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). He was a prominent figure under Stalin’s reign, becoming one of the first five marshals of the Soviet Union.

When I had my hands on the vase, I realized that I could “connect the dots”. A couple of months back I also came across a Soviet-era photobiography of Semyon Budyonny, whom Budyonny March commemorates. So this “discovery” is what led me to write a blog post, in order not only to share my delight but also to leave my mark on the museum in writing.

A little bit about the song itself. Composed by Dmitry Pokrass, resident composer at the headquarters of the First Cavalry Army in Rostov-on-Don with words by Anatoly D’Aktil (alias of Antoly Frenkel’), the song is one of the most frequently performed and well known songs from the Russian Civil War era, especially so during Soviet years. This song no doubt contributed to the formation of the “Red Cavalry” iconography, an example of which can be seen on the vase mentioned earlier.

So, how does the song sound? To help you with that question, follow the video link below from 1984 in which the Central Military Band of the Ministry of Defence performs the music, conducted by Anatoly Mal’tsev:

According to traditions, the song had been known to have come into existence in January 1920 as the Red Army began advancing westward, recovering territories that had been lost under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. That, however, most likely does not mean the song’s text, as we know it today, also came into existence around that time. See if you can spot inconsistencies in the lyrics (while you listen to the song!):

Alexandrov Song and Dance Ensemble of the Soviet Army from My Love, Dear Army (Тебе любимая, родная армия) (1978), dressed in the First Cavalry-style uniform specially for this occasion

We are the Red Cavalry,
And about us
Storytellers will eloquently speak
In their stories:
About how on clear nights
And on rainy days
With boldness and pride we go into battle!

Lead us, Budyonny, boldly into battle!
Let there be thunders,
Let fire rage around us
We are selfless heroes,
And our whole life is a struggle

Budyonny is our dear brother,
We have with us all the people
He orders: do not lower your head,
And look forward!
We have with us Voroshilov,
The first of the Red officers,
We shall shed our blood for the USSR!


High in the sky flies a red flag
We are flying there, where the enemy is
And in battles intoxicating,
Like an avalanche we bring a swift blow
To Warsaw and to Berlin
And we hit Crimea!


Below are some of the inconsistencies pointed out by several Russian websites:

1. “We shall shed our blood for the USSR”: the USSR came into existence in December 1922

2. “We bring a swift blow to Warsaw and to Berlin, and we hit Crimea”: when the USSR was formerly proclaimed, the Red Army had already taken control of Crimea; the Peace of Riga had been signed in 1921 after a failed attack on Warsaw. This part of the lyrics would have made sense until August 1920, from which point the Red Army started engaging armies of the White Poles and Wrangel. In either scenario, an attack on Berlin does not make sense unless it is to be seen as a part of the world revolution; and yet the text places Berlin in between Warsaw and Crimea, not after.

3. It would have been too early to call Budyonny “our dear brother” – such an honor, especially on national scale, had yet to be earned. The same goes for Kliment Voroshilov, who served as a political officer in the First Cavalry Army at the time, and praising him as “the first of the Red officers” would have been premature as of 1920.

4. No manuscript or publication of the song from the Civil War years has turned up.

(Source: http://waracademy.narod.ru/music/mb.htm)

Consequently, it is logical to infer that the texts underwent several changes after 1922, most likely for political reasons – it is perhaps no coincidence that neither of the two prominent figures praised in the song — Budyonny and Voroshilov — was removed from power during their lifetime. In fact, the other three marshals were executed during the Great Purge!

Budyonny’s photobiography dates Budyonny March’s text to 1924

Another Russian website provides the following information:

1923-1924: Budyonny March first appeared on publication in 1923-1924, presented as a folk song until 1926

1926: Dmitry Pokrass claimed authorship in a publication (music only without words) from Nizhny Novgorod

1929: Included in “First Cavalry Army in Songs” (Первая Конная в Песнях), a concert program for the Red Army Song Ensemble of the Central House of the Red Army (Ансамбля красноармейской песни ЦДКА), the group that would later become the Alexandrov Song and Dance Ensemble; recorded by other groups around this time
(the cover of “First Cavalry Army in Songs” can be seen here: http://fotki.yandex.ru/users/varjag-2007/view/174135/?page=8)

1938: Included in “50 Russian Revolutionary Songs”; the editor commented that the song was composed at the headquarters of the First Cavalry Army in Rostov-on-Don in 1920 and that the song could not be published at the time “due to the front’s circumstances”
(the website, however, points out that, from 1920 until the end of the Russian Civil War, the First Cavalry Arm in fact published poems and songs in its newspaper “Red Cavalrymen”)

(Source: http://www.pseudology.org/songs/My_krasnye_kavaleristy.htm)

The text’s inconsistencies notwithstanding, the song became an integral part of the official Russian Civil War memories and the “Red Cavalry” iconography, with the latter serving as an inspiration for numerous subsequent musical, visual, and literary presentations.

Thus concludes my first blog entry on the Wende Museum blog. Now, let me leave you with other videos on Youtube, from both past and present!

Academic Russian Choir of the Central Television and All-Union Radio (1974)

Alexandrov Song and Dance Ensemble of the Soviet Army, from Visiting the Red Banner Ensemble (В гостях у Краснознаменного ансамбля) on Central Television of the USSR (1986)
There is a lot I can talk about this video. “First Cavalry in Songs” (Первая Конная в Песнях) is shown briefly before photographs of the Alexandrov Ensemble from its early years are shown; Anatoly Mal’tsev, who conducts the Central Military Band of the Ministry of Defence in an earlier video, also appeared in this program – He became the director of the ensemble in 1987 after Boris Aleksandrov, who led the ensemble between 1947 and 1987, retired; His father, Aleksandr Aleksandrov, was the founder of the ensemble and was also the composer of the national anthem of the USSR, which was “restored” as Russia’s national anthem in 2001.

And lastly, a child Red cavalryman, supported by his family!

This entry was posted in art and design, Music, Russian and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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