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About "The Hills of Manchuria" Waltz

Updated on May 27, 2012
The Rout at Mukden 10 March 1905
The Rout at Mukden 10 March 1905
Ilya Shatrov, Composer of "The Hills of Manchuria"
Ilya Shatrov, Composer of "The Hills of Manchuria"

My favorite waltz of all time is the virtually unknown (outside Russia, at least) "Na Sopkakh Manchzhurii," or, in English, "The Hills of Manchuria." Its composer was a Russian bandmaster named Ilya Shatrov who wrote the song based on his own experiences in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, referring specifically to the rout at Mukden in Manchuria. The story of Mukden was one where the Russian commander, adopted an attrition policy where the Japanese forces would be led deep into Manchuria thus taxing their supply lines. It was, in short, a purely defensive policy. The Japanese commander wished for a speedy victory, meaning total destruction of the Russian forces. When the Russian general ordered a withdrawal, the battle was lost. The words of "The Hills of Manchuria," written in 1905 mourn the heavy Russian casualties of that battle.

For a long while I knew the song's tune but had no idea what it was. My first encounter with it was in a film adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse, Evgeny Onegin, and the song was the main theme of the movie. Its main appearance was during the name day ball scene where Onegin dances with his friend Lensky's fiancée and thus provokes a duel in which he kills Lensky. There was another version of the waltz involved in the film, which was melancholy rather than foreboding and dark, and that one was the one favored most, and sought in vain for years to discover.

When I did discover it, I learnt many interesting tidbits about the song, including the history already related. I discovered through the song the great Russian singer Lyudmila Zykina, for instance, but the most interesting tidbit was its place in Russian culture. Unlike most popular songs, which are written, "performed," and quickly forgotten, I read that "The Hills of Manchuria" became a Russian traditional that has survived and thrived through the tragic years of war, communism, more war, and more communism. One writer mentioned a performance during Gorbachev's reign and how the song's meaning struck its audience. The meaning that has reverberated through the years is one of inevitability, that the question is not if, but when. It was written in the twilight of the Romanov monarchy and was widely performed during the closing years of the Soviet Union. It, in short, expresses a certain fatalism that is the Russian character, a fatalism largely unknown in American ideology based as it is on conquest.

Yet, we too are afflicted with a touch of fatalism and belief in predestination, but mostly we do not want to admit it. That feeling is another item on the list of things to conquer. Hearing "The Hills of Manchuria," with its context of fatalism might bring its listener face-to-face with the accursed fatalism, the accursed question of when rather than if, and bring one the courage and drive to carry forward.

In the end, there is no end after all.

Spite, geroi, pamyat o vas rodina mat' khranit!

Liudmila Zykina's Glorious Performance

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