Posted on 4 July 2011 by Anton Alipov

Category: Soviet mass song

On the Hills of Manchuria (1906/1945)

On the Hills of Manchuria is among the most popular Russian historic melodies, and is widely known abroad as well, having gained the reputation of a “Russian national waltz”. A few decades past its actual creation it was already very often (if not always) labeled as “old-time waltz” on Soviet records, which suggested a kind of ancient folk tune. In fact, this waltz is neither folk nor (even nowadays) very ancient. It was composed by Ilya Shatrov, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/05, who was the bandmaster of the Mokshan 214th Infantry Regiment.

In the battle of Mukden in February 1905 the Mokshan Regiment was enveloped by the Japanese and suffered heavy losses. Shatrov was one of those who succeeded in their break-through. Colonel Pobyvanets was heavily wounded and died, and the legend says it was Shatrov with his band who encouraged the Russians for this last break-through on February 27th – the band played battle tunes thus raising the warriors’ spirits.

Having returned home, Shatrov in 1906 composed, and in 1907 somehow rearranged, his Mokshan Regiment on the Hills of Manchuria waltz – a tribute to his fallen comrades-in-arms. The waltz was published in 1907 in Samara, and for the first time performed live in 1908, also in Samara. That time the waltz did not have any lyrics.

The popularity of the waltz grew rapidly and promoted its numerous record releases. Only within the first three years of its existence, On the Hills of Manchuria was re-released 82 times. By the end of 1910 it left behind all other popular waltzes in Russia in terms of the overall pressing volume. For example, only in the first two weeks of December 1910 Zonophone sold 15,000 copies. Most of the releases were not agreed upon with the composer (thus bringing no royalty to him), and, interestingly, Shatrov was one of the first Russian composers to wage lawsuits on record companies, since it was not before 1911 that first copyright regulations were adopted in Russia. Another interesting fact is that Mokshan Regiment on the Hills of Manchuria was too long a title to be got in place on the label in the center of a record, and so it was truncated to On the Hills of Manchuria, under which name the waltz is known until today. As an example of an early instrumental performance I include here a 1909 version by Life Guards Volyn Regiment band conducted by V. Pavelka, edition of Sirena Grand Record.

On the other hand, the enormous popularity of On the Hills of Manchuria led to the appearance of various lyrics, since folks naturally wanted to sing something to such an appealing melody. Shatrov himself is said to have reacted rather coldly to the very idea of having a text for his waltz, and thus, despite the number of existing (and being sung) versions of lyrics, some of which are completely different, there is no “canonical” text of On the Hills of Manchuria.

The early versions of the lyrics do naturally reflect the events of the 1904/05 war, mourning the loss of the heroes and turning the song into a dirge (not without a decadent scent) with an appeal for revenge. Such is the first known version, which is commonly attributed to Stepan “Skitaletz” (The Wanderer) Petrov. You will find it here performed by Mikhail Vavich, edition of Zonophone, 1910.

From the texts that appeared after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the decadent essence fleed. Although the lyrics still spoke of the wail and of the future revenge, they were now more in the requiescat in pace vein, describing the mournful serenity of Nature surrounding the battlefields of the past. Please find here one classical example (the author being unknown) sung by Ivan Kozlovskiy. This version of lyrics was widespread in late Soviet songbooks, it is obviously an arrangement of the poem by Skitaletz. Another version (presumably an earlier one) was full of revolutionary pathos and told of the will to build a new life for the people, as well as assured the fallen heroes in that their memory is deeply honoured.

Ilya Shatrov pointed that the melody he composed was not a requiem. Some editions even came with his remarks such as “sadness”, “widows’ talk”, “soldiers’ rage” etc. clarifying parts of the waltz. However, as the story of the lyrics shows, it was perceived precisely as a requiem among the people. This was obviously due to the fact that the Russo-Japanese war was a huge defeat for the tsarist Russia, and has left upon the broad masses a severe and dull impression.

It was not until the end of World War II that the story of the song took an unexpected way. In August 1945 the Red Army inflicted a crushing defeat to the Japanese, the central operation being the overthrow of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria. This at last put an end to the bloodiest war mankind has ever known, and to the four decades of the Russo-Japanese military confrontation.

These events inspired Pavel Shubin, a poet and frontline reporter, then with the 1st Far Eastern Front operating in Manchuria, to create a wholly novel version of lyrics to the old song. It was published in the frontline newspaper Stalinskiy Voin (“Stalin’s Warrior”) and was quickly adopted in the units. Undoubtedly, it is one of the finest poems by Shubin. This is no more a requiem, but a song of a veteran full of duty and love to his native land. Interestingly, the poet introduces intentional conrast with all the previous texts, making in the first verse a reminiscence to the “old waltz”, which is played in a foreign land (Manchuria) by soldiers at rest. The soldiers recall that they have danced it in the times long gone in their native country, and this brings forth memories of home. Musically, the two waltzes are the same, but lyrically this “waltz within a waltz” concept leads the way of the tradition, negating at the same time the mournful component of the latter, since it is now no time to mourn. It is now a song of the victor, not the defeated. Port Arthur and Dalny are Russian again, and the listener feels proud for the glorious deeds of the people victorious.

We do not know what Shatrov thought about this new version. His own response to the 1945 events was creation of the Blue Night Over Port Arthur waltz. Anyway, the Shubin’s poem seems more close to the musical concept of On the Hills of Manchuria than the earlier texts. The brilliant performance of Pyotr Kirichek (1957) adds to the overall impression.

On the Hills of Manchuria exists in foreign languages, at least in Finnish. For example, it was performed by Laila Kinnunen (“Mandshurian kummut”). I can also recommend the instrumental Mandshurian kummut from the 2001 album Valkea ja kuulas by the Finnish band Viikate to your attention.

Ilya Shatrov was transfered to the reserve in 1913 and did not participate in World War I. One would imagine that after such a creative success the author would dedicate the rest of his life to peaceful composing. However, this was not the case with Shatrov. On the contrary, his musical legacy is not extensive. Russian Revolution came, and he moved to Novonikolaevsk (presently Novosibirsk) where in 1919 he joined the Red 5th Army as a bandmaster of a cavalry regiment. Once again he encountered the Japanese, now in Transbaikal. In 1921 he retired from the military service, but in the thirties entered it once more. During the World War II the bandmaster was summoned to the field force again, and again raised the spirits of the soldiers on the frontline.

Major Shatrov died in 1952 and is buried in Tambov. Born and died in central Russia, studied in Warsaw, served in Ukraine and Azerbaijan, fought in Manchuria, Buryatia and Austria – a man of a military fate was he, the veteran bandmaster, the creator of the “old-time waltz”.


Russian, text by Skitaletz (circa 1909)

На сопках Манчжурии

Страшно вокруг,
И ветер на сопках рыдает.
Порой из-за туч выплывает луна
И могилы солдат освещает.

Белеют кресты
Далёких героев прекрасных,
И прошлого тени кружатся вокруг,
Твердят нам о жертвах напрасных.

Средь будничной тьмы,
Житейской обыденной прозы,
Забыть до сих пор мы не можем войны,
И льются горючие слёзы.

Плачет отец,
Плачет жена молодая,
И плачет вся Русь как один человек,
Злой рок судьбы проклиная.

Так слёзы бегут,
Как волны далёкого моря,
И сердце терзает тоска и печаль,
И бездна великого горя!

Героев тела
Давно уж в могилах истлели,
А мы им последний не отдали долг
И вечную память не спели.

Мир вашей душе!
Вы погибли за Русь, за Отчизну,
Но верьте, ещё мы за вас отомстим
И справим кровавую тризну!

English, text by Skitaletz (circa 1909), literal translation

On the Hills of Manchuria

It is dreadful around,
And the wind wails on the hills.
Now and then the moon emerges from behind the clouds,
Illuminates the graves of soldiers.

The crosses of the distant gallant heroes
Stand white,
And shadows of the past whirl around,
Harp on the vain losses.

In the humdrum darkness,
Worldly ordinary prose
Still we can not forget the war,
And scalding tears flow.

Father is weeping,
Young wife is weeping,
All Russia is weeping as one,
Cursing evil fatality of destiny.

So the tears run
As the waves of a distant sea,
And yearning and sorrow rankle in the heart,
And the abyss of the great grief.

The bodies of the heroes
Have long since rot in their graves,
But we have not paid them the last tribute,
And have not sung them memory eternal.

Peace to your souls!
You have perished for Russia, for Fatherland!
Believe, we will yet avenge you
And celebrate a bloody feast!

Translated by Anton Alipov

Russian, pre-World War II text, author unknown

На сопках Манчжурии

Тихо вокруг.
Сопки покрыты мглой.
Вот из-за туч блеснула луна,
Могилы хранят покой.

Белеют кресты –
Это герои спят.
Прошлого тени кружатся вновь,
О жертвах боев твердят.

Тихо вокруг,
Ветер туман унёс.
На сопках манчжурских воины спят
И русских не слышат слёз.

Плачет, плачет мать родная,
Плачет молодая жена,
Плачут все как один человек,
Злой рок и судьбу кляня.

Пусть гаолян
Вам навевает сны.
Спите, герои русской земли,
Отчизны родной сыны.

Вы пали за Русь,
Погибли за Отчизну,
Но верьте, мы за вас отомстим
И справим мы славную тризну!

English, pre-World War II text, author unknown, literal translation

On the Hills of Manchuria

It is silent around,
The hills are covered by the haze.
Now the moon glanced from behind the clouds,
The graves keep quietude.

The crosses stand white –
These are heroes sleeping.
The shadows of the past whirl again,
Harp on the losses in battles.

It is silent around,
The wind has carried away the mist.
On the Manchurian hills warriors sleep
And hear not Russian tears.

Weeping, weeping is mother dear,
Young wife is weeping,
All are weeping as one,
Cursing evil fate and destiny.

May kaoliang
Drowse you.
Sleep, you heroes of the Russian land,
Sons of the dear Fatherland!

You have fallen for Russia,
Perished for Fatherland,
But believe, we will avenge you
And celebrate a glorious feast!

Translated by Anton Alipov

Russian, text by P. Shubin (1945)

На сопках Манчжурии

Меркнет костёр,
Сопки покрыл туман.
Лёгкие звуки старого вальса
Тихо ведёт баян.

С музыкой в лад
Припомнил герой-солдат
Росы, берёзы, русые косы,
Девичий милый взгляд.

Там, где ждут сегодня нас,
На лугу в вечерний час
С самой строгою недотрогою
Танцевали мы этот вальс.

Вечера свиданий робких
Давно прошли вы, скрылись во тьму…
Спят под луною манчжурские сопки
В пороховом дыму.

Мы сберегли
Славу родной земли.
В битвах жестоких мы на востоке
Сотни дорог прошли.

Но и в бою
В дальнем чужом краю
Припоминаем светлые дали,
Родину мы свою.

Далека, ах, далека
В этот миг от огонька!
В ночи хмурые из Манчжурии
Уплывают к ней облака

В тёмный простор,
Мимо ночных озёр,
Легче, чем птицы, выше границы,
Выше сибирских гор!

Покидая край угрюмый,
Летят за нами в радостный путь
Все наши самые светлые думы,
Наша любовь и грусть.

Меркнет костёр,
Сопки покрыл туман.
Лёгкие звуки старого вальса
Тихо ведёт баян…

English, text by P. Shubin (1945), literal translation

On the Hills of Manchuria

The camp-fire fades away,
The mist has covered the hills.
The accordion silently steers
Light sounds of an old waltz.

In tune with the music
The hero soldier recalled
Dews, birches, blond tresses,
Maiden’s sweet look.

There, where today we are being waited for,
On the meadow in the evening hour
We have danced this waltz
With even the most austere prude.

Evenings of timid appointments,
Long gone you are, disappeared in the dark…
Manchurian hills are sleeping under the moon
In the powder fume.

We have preserved
The glory of our native land.
In cruel battles in the East
We have walked through hundreds of roads.

But even in the fight
In the far away alien region
We recall lucid horizons,
Recall our Motherland.

Far, ah far
In this moment it is from the embers!
In gloomy nights from Manchuria
Clouds float toward it

Into dark vast,
Past the nightly lakes,
Lighter than birds, higher than the border,
Higher than Siberian mountains!

Leaving the dismal region,
All our most lucid thoughts,
Our love and sadness
Fly after us into a joyous journey.

The camp-fire fades away,
The mist has covered the hills.
The accordion silently steers
Light sounds of an old waltz…

Translated by Anton Alipov

The photo above shows the lighthouse of the Port Arthur harbour, circa 1904. The audio files are taken from Virtual Old-time Record Library, and Soviet Music.


View/add comments

  1. Karen · 25 January 2016, 08:14 · URL

    Great history. You might want to add the version by Dmitri Hvorostovsky, it is so haunting.

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