Sunday, December 25, 2016

Tragic death of the Alexandrov choir is a big loss for Russian culture

Way too many well-known people died in recent days. Physicist Sidney Drell and modern dark matter pioneer Vera Rubin. Fermilab co-father Edwin Goldwasser. George Michael. Carrie Fisher, Leia of Star Wars. Claude Jensac, Louis de Funes' movie "wife" from Saint Tropez. Astronauts John Glenn and Piers Sellers. Russian drinkers of methanol-based bath lotion (cause of death: high ethanol taxation). Czech actress Luba Skořepová was another.

Vesna Vulović, a Serbian flight attendant, died on the same day, December 23rd. She's been a remarkable entry in the Guinness book of records. In 1972, a Yugoslav aircraft exploded 10 kilometers above a Czechoslovak village miles from East Germany – village that is paradoxically called Sorbian Chemnitz [Stoneville] (Sorbs were the "other", now mostly assimilated, Slavs who have lived in East Germany – in the Czech language, we use the word "Srb" for both Sorbs and Serbs). The bomb was planted by the Croatian Ustasche fascist movement – that for some reason failed to evaporate in 1945. Imagine that. An explosion followed by a fall from 10 kilometers. Vesna Vulović survived it because of her fortunate location within the aircraft. She wasn't even shocked and didn't develop any phobia from flying. 46 long years of life were ahead of her.

By far the greatest catastrophe was the demise of a military Tupolev-154 aircraft near Sochi today. The passengers and crew weren't as lucky as Vesna Vulović and all 92 people – who were going to Syria – were killed soon after the takeoff. 64 of them were members of the Alexandrov choir. In Czech, we call them "Alexandrovci" or the "Alexandrov Ensemble of Songs and Dances". Except for 3 soloists, all the members of that music group are gone.

The ensemble was formed sometime in 1928 and as the music wing of the Red Army, it energized the Soviet warriors during the Second World War. Aside from Katyusha above, you should listen to their version of Kalinka, the other war-like motivating Soviet song. The white-dressed soloists nicknamed Mr Kalinka, Mr Vadim Ananev, survived because a son was just born to his wife. Let me remind you that the weapon was named Katyusha after the song that is all about the love between a man and a woman, not the other way around.

But these soldiers – who were always selected by an immensely stringent filter – have also shown their skills on religious music, including Ave Maria, and even jazz.

Although tightly associated with the Soviet army, the ensemble did survive and had to survive the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the arrival of the Russian flavor of democracy. I am confident that this kind of music simply represents a much greater fraction of the music market in Russia than it does in the typical Western countries.

The Alexandrov choir was – and let's hope that after the replacement of the deceased people, still will be – very active. In the first half of 2017, it has scheduled 75 concerts, including 14 concerts in 10 Czech cities. Pilsen was/is scheduled for May 22nd. Some folks close to my family actually possess the tickets for that concert.

It's not clear to me whether there was an explosion or an attack, or whether it was just another sign of the relative inferiority of the Russian flight technology. (Do you remember the discussion of Howard Wolowitz with the two Russian cosmonauts about the leaking fuel? In 9 out of 10 cases, there is no problem. What about the remaining 10%? In the tenth case, there is a problem.) Famous people – including the Polish political elite in 2010 (also Tu-154) and players of an ice-hockey club including three Czechs (Yak-42, 2011) – have often been victims of such crashes.

If I am afraid of imperfections in the investigation, I am afraid that even if this had been an attack, Russian authorities may hide this fact because they don't want to look vulnerable – they're used to other people's claims that they are more vulnerable than they actually are.

Given the frequency of the mass death of the famous people in Russian aircraft, I would recommend Russia to introduce a new policy that only a small fraction of such ensembles etc. may sit at the same airplane. It's a policy that e.g. a top Czech commercial TV station applies in a very strong form. Two news hosts were recently punished for having taken the same flight – which violates the internal regulations of the TV. If the airplane crashed, the poor TV would have to find two new talking heads at the same moment. Imagine that the Alexandrov choir actually has to find 64 excellent singers – and rather quickly.

My condolences to the friends, families, and the Russian nation.

Unfortunately, the 2016 Christmas was George Michael's "Last Christmas", too.

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