The Red Army Choir: A History of Russian Soft Power

Since 1928, the Red Army Choir has inspired Soviet and Russian troops at war while projecting Russian soft power on the international stage.

Apr 7, 2024By Jimmy Chen, MPhil Modern European History, BSc Government and History

red army chor russian soft power


In the early hours of December 25, 2016, a Russian Tu-154 military plane crashed in the Black Sea shortly after taking off from Sochi. Among the 92 killed were 64 members of the Red Army Choir on their way to perform for Russian service members in Syria. While the choir’s ranks have since been replenished, the tragedy devastated one of the world’s most famous military choirs and was lamented by its admirers all over the globe. Read on to discover the history of this famed choir and what makes it so significant.


The Red Army Choir’s Beginnings

alexander vasilyevich alexandrov
Photograph of A.V. Alexandrov, originally published in Alexandrov’s obituary in the Red Star newspaper on July 10, 1946. Unknown photographer. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The collective known internationally as the Red Army Choir was founded in 1928 on the initiative of the Red Army Central House as the Red Army Song Ensemble. Its founding director was Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, a talented musician who had trained at the St Petersburg Conservatory under composers Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov.


While the troupe initially consisted of twelve members (eight singers, two dancers, and two musicians), it grew significantly during its early years. With support from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, there were already 135 members by the end of 1935.


The choir’s repertoire during the early years consisted of folk songs and Red Army songs from the Russian Civil War transcribed and arranged by Alexandrov. In 1929, when Soviet troops under General Vasily Blyukher were sent to Manchuria to fight the warlord Zhang Xueliang for control of the Chinese Eastern Railway, Alexandrov and his ensemble performed for troops at the front and were often under fire.

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The Red Army Choir achieved international renown for the first time in 1937 when it traveled to France to perform at the Paris Exposition. At a time of ideological confrontation between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Alexandrov’s men won a Gold Medal and gave 15 concerts instead of the originally scheduled six. The choir was on its way to the 1939 New York Exposition when it was forced to turn back by the outbreak of the Second World War.


The Sacred War

soviet flag over reichstag
Raising a flag over the Reichstag, photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei, 1945. Source: Wikimedia Commons


On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, opening a phase of the Second World War known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Two days later, on June 24, the poet Vasily Lebedev-Kumach wrote the text to a patriotic song with the following refrain:


Let noble wrath

Boil over like a wave!

This is the people’s war,

The Sacred War!


After reading Lebedev-Kumach’s text at the choir’s rehearsal, Alexandrov immediately sat down at his piano to set The Sacred War to music. Two days later, the Red Army Choir premiered the song at the Belorussky Railway Station in Moscow before Soviet troops departed for the front. At a time when the Red Army’s forces were sent reeling by the Wehrmacht, Alexandrov’s stirring war cry gave hope to the Soviets in WWII. The Sacred War soon became one of Alexandrov’s most iconic compositions and continues to be regularly performed. During the war, the ensemble had over 300 performers and was divided into four independent groups, allowing the choir to entertain troops serving on different fronts, giving 1,500 concerts in total.


In late 1943, the Soviet Union ran a competition for a new national anthem to replace The Internationale following the dissolution of the Comintern. Over 200 entries were received, including a joint submission by famous composers Dmitry Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian. Alexandrov’s submission was based on his 1938 Anthem of the Bolshevik Party with new lyrics by Sergey Mikhalkov and Gabriel El-Registan. Alexandrov’s entry was duly adopted as the State Anthem of the Soviet Union in early 1944. Alexandrov’s tune continues to serve as the Anthem of the Russian Federation, sung to a new text written by the 87-year-old Mikhalkov in 2000.


International Fame

red army choir helsinki 1950
Photograph of the Red Army Choir performing in Helsinki by Esko Manninen, c. 1950. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In July 1946, while the Red Army Choir was on tour in Berlin, Major General Alexander Alexandrov suddenly died of a heart attack at the age of 63. He was succeeded as leader of the ensemble by his son Boris.


With the end of the Second World War, the Red Army Choir now served to promote peace. The choir returned to Berlin in 1948 to sing at a peace concert, giving a performance featuring Russian folk songs, German operatic pieces, and the Ode to Joy chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Solo tenor Viktor Nikitin requested and was granted permission to perform a selection of German folk songs which had the audience singing along.


The Red Army Choir received numerous awards and titles from the Soviet state, and in 1949, it was renamed the A. V. Alexandrov Twice Red-bannered and Red-starred Song and Dance Ensemble of the Soviet Army, or Alexandrov Ensemble for short. The ensemble rose to new heights internationally, undertaking 70 tours during Boris Alexandrov’s 40-year leadership from 1946 to 1987.


During these international tours, the choir popularized a number of Russian songs. These included The Song of the Volga Boatmen, a traditional folk song sung by barge-haulers of the Volga River and performed by a bass-baritone soloist. Another song that became internationally famous is Katyusha, a wartime song about a young woman standing on a riverbank singing about her distant beloved at war.


Mr. Kalinka

alexandrov ensemble china 2019
Photograph of Vadim Ananyev performing with the Red Army Choir on tour in China, 2019. Source: Alexandrov Ensemble, Russian Ministry of Defense


The most famous song in the Red Army Choir’s repertoire is Kalinka, written during the mid-19th century in the style of a folk song, in which the refrain is sung at a faster tempo every time it is repeated. In Boris Alexandrov’s arrangement of Kalinka, the tenor sings each verse while the choir sings the refrain, often with some members whistling to imitate birdsong.


The tenor begins each verse with a long descending “A-a-a-ah” phrase in a single breath, to the astonishment of audiences. Several tenors of the ensemble have been granted the unofficial nickname of Mr. Kalinka by journalists and critics for their virtuosity. Viktor Nikitin was the choir’s first Mr. Kalinka, a title conferred on him either at the Paris Exposition in 1937 or the Peace Concert in 1948. Nikitin ended his career as a soloist in 1952 and returned to the ranks of the choir.


During the 1960s, the title of Mr. Kalinka passed to Evgeny Belayev, who was also known as the “Russian Nightingale” for his performance of Solovii or Nightingales, in which the singer asks the eponymous birds not to disturb the soldiers sleeping (i.e., fallen) on the field of battle. The Alexandrov Ensemble’s current Mr. Kalinka is Vadim Petrovich Ananyev, who has been a soloist since 1999.


Decline & Revival

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Photograph of Alexandrov Ensemble performing in Warsaw, 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Boris Alexandrov stepped down as the head of the ensemble in 1987, a few years before the fall of the Soviet Union. Funding began to dry up due to economic difficulties, and a 1988 tour to the UK featured a much smaller choir with the Ukrainian operatic tenor Anatoliy Solovianenko as guest soloist. When the Red Army Choir made its US debut in 1989, the New York Times critic remarked that the ensemble had been “toned down.”


In 1998, the Alexandrov Ensemble was officially renamed the A. V. Alexandrov Academic Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, though it continues to use the Red Army Choir brand internationally. Since 2006, the ensemble has been under the Russian Ministry of Defense.


The ensemble’s international fortunes revived in the early 2000s under the leadership of Leonid Malev, thanks to its international promoter, Thierry Wolf. Wolf organized a well-received concert in Paris in 2003 and a performance for an ailing Pope John Paul II at the Vatican the following year. At the interval for the first semi-final of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow, the Alexandrov Ensemble sang Kalinka and teamed up with girl duo t.a.T.u to perform their 2003 hit Not Gonna Get Us.  


Thierry Wolf is also the promoter of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) Choir led by Viktor Eliseev, formerly the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) Choir, which performed a memorable cover of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In a confusing arrangement, Wolf’s production company also uses the Red Army Choir name to promote the MVD choir.


Tragedy & Rebirth

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Photograph of Vadim Ananyev and Gennady Sachenyuk performing at a concert in St Petersburg, 2018. Source: Alexandrov Ensemble, Russian Ministry of Defense


Following the fall of communism, the Alexandrov Ensemble has performed for Russian troops in war zones in Chechnya, Yugoslavia, and Syria. This was the context behind the tragic plane crash in 2016, which killed most of the ensemble on their way to Latakia air base in Syria for a New Year concert.


The Alexandrov Ensemble’s leader and artistic director, Valery Khalilov, was among the victims. A well-respected military musician and composer, in 2006, Lieutenant-General Khalilov founded the Spasskaya Tower International Military Music Festival on Red Square, attracting military musicians from all over the world, including China, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He had been appointed to lead the Alexandrov Ensemble in May 2016, a mere seven months before he and his colleagues lost their lives.


The Ministry of Defense quickly began to rebuild the choir around surviving members who had not been on the plane. Star tenor Vadim Ananyev had been granted a leave of absence to take care of a newborn child, veteran bass Valery Gaava also stayed at home, while Roman Valutov’s expired passport denied him boarding at the airport.


On February 17, 2017, the reconstituted Red Army Choir performed for the first time after the tragedy under the baton of Gennady Sachenyuk, who had previously served as artistic director between 2012 and 2016. Alongside Ananyev, Gavva, and Valutov, the ensemble’s soloists include the baritone Maxim Maklakov, formerly of the Krasnodar Philharmonic, and the tenor Alexander Kruze, recruited from the Lipetsk Philharmonic.

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By Jimmy ChenMPhil Modern European History, BSc Government and HistoryJimmy is an independent historian and writer based in Swindon, England. He has an MPhil in Modern European History from the University of Cambridge, where he wrote his dissertation on music and Russian patriotism in the Napoleonic Wars. He obtained a BSc in Government and History from the London School of Economics. Jimmy has written scripts for ‘The People Profiles’ YouTube channel and has appeared as a guest on The Napoleonic Wars Podcast and the Generals and Napoleon Podcast. Jimmy is a passionate about travel and has travelled extensively through Europe visiting historical sites.