Pop Music and the Russian Army

In addition to its fascinating and tragic history, The Alexandrov Ensemble offers a unique and exciting listening experience.

Pop Music and the Russian Army

Ryan Nash, Staff Writer

When the word “ensemble” comes to mind, even though the word simply means a pack of musicians performing together, images of choirs in a chapel or a group of well-dressed, crusty old men in a massive auditorium playing classical music flashes into my mind . No one thinks of the music that even the so-called “kids today” listen to. Although, as the title indicates, a certain ensemble happens to be one I quite enjoy, and while, yes, it does include plenty of ‘crusty’ old men, it is a bit different than the usual presentation of one. And no, not just because they are Russian.

Founded in 1928, the Alexandrov Ensemble, commonly known as the Red Army Choir, is one of the most widely known ensembles around the world. Named after Russian Choir master Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, this ensemble has been the official choir of the Russian armed forces since it was founded. Historically, they have sung a wide range of Russian patriotic and folk music, from Katyusha to The Volga’s Boatmen’s Song, and still largely do. However, this is not why they became prevalent in pop culture, particularly eastern European pop culture.

In 1993 the choir went on another tour around Europe, from Helsinki to Berlin, but this time something was different. A popular and still well known Finnish rock band named Leningrad Cowboys performed with them on this tour. The contrast of a bunch of singers in military uniforms singing with a rock and roll band, punk outfits and all, drew crowds in the tens of thousands. This caught the attention of the television company MTV, who, in 1994, had the two groups performing “Sweet Home Alabama” during the MTV Music Awards. 

Although their popularity is still mostly just in eastern Europe, they are nonetheless listened to by many people around the world, even to this day. This has been helped by their love of cooperating with popular musical artists from around the world. Despite this popularity, tragedy struck.

On Christmas day, 2016, the ensemble was in the headlines once more, but not because of another tour. While en route to Khmeimim Air Base, Syria, a Tupolev Tu-154 airliner, which a large portion of the ensemble was in, crashed. This occurred at 5:27 local time, just two minutes after taking off from the Russian city of Sochi where the plane had stopped to refuel. All 92 passengers, including 62 members of the Assembly, including its then directory Valery Khaliov, were killed.

Although the exact cause was originally thought to have had terrorist involvement, with several high witnesses reporting a large flash in the direction of the crash, further investigations over the next few months showed it was most likely caused by the pilot already being sick a few hours before leaving. This sickness is believed to have assisted in causing a severe case of a phenomenon known as somatogravic illusion, a very rare condition where delusions and hallucinations occur caused by air travel for long periods of time. It is believed the pilot thought the plane was sharply turning, making him move the plane to stop this, crashing it in the Black Sea.

Despite this tragic event, choir members, knowing that their compatriots would want them to continue what they all enjoyed, managed to regroup and allowed new members after several days of auditions. In 2019, they went on tour again, from all over Europe, China, and Canada. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they haven’t had public performances, but are still active.