A Russian Music Playlist for Edward Snowden

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Edward Snowden is getting a crash course in Russian culture.

Last week, a lawyer acting for the NSA leaker told reporters at Moscow's international airport that he gave his client Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment along with books by Chekhov and Nikolai Karamzin to read. Crime and Punishment, which tells of a young man's moral dilemmas and mental anguish, was intended as a window on "the reality of life" in Russia, where, as of Thursday, Snowden has been granted asylum.

If Snowden has time to read the classics, one must also ask: what pieces of music should he (or anyone) download to get a feel for the Russian soul? We asked some experts for suggestions on a playlist; share your ideas in the comments box below.


Simon Morrison, Professor of Music, Slavic Studies at Princeton University

Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov tells the story of the 16th-century autocrat who destroys his rivals, only to see his reign end in what is known as the "time of troubles." The clangorous splendor of the Coronation Scene has both a "very traditional Russian sound on one hand but it’s quite ominous on the other," said Morrison.

For beautiful Russian choral music, Snowden might consider Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. The composer wrote this work during World War I and it is sometimes seen as a pacifist statement. Morrison notes that its themes of martyrdom may resonate with Snowden. Try the fifth canticle, "Now Let Thy Servant Depart."

Prokofiev’s film score to Ivan the Terrible is another suitable choice. While partly released in 1944, the second half of Sergei Eisenstein's film didn't pass muster with Stalin's censors and was not available until after his death, in 1958. Morrison suggests the Chorus of the Oprichniks, the "incredible, deeply macabre music" for Ivan’s political thugs.

Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, is based on the mythical trickster who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity. It features plenty of colorful orchestration and a strong mystical bent.

Before Shostakovich ran afoul of Soviet officialdom for his part in "the formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies in music" the composer wrote some startlingly rebellious, countercultural music. One example is The Bedbug, a one-act comic ballet which Morrison describes as a “political free-for-all – experimental, mocking, musical subversion.”

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1, a work from the 1970s, was a reaction to a time when authorities sought tried to control every aspect of music. “His reaction was to create music where, as Richard Taruskin once suggested, everything musically is possible but nothing matters,” said Morrison. The piece mixes strains of Bach with jazz and dissonance in a grim riot.


Peter Schmelz, Chair of the Musicology Department at Washington University in St. Louis

Schmelz also suggests the Schnittke and Mussorgsky pieces, plus these three works:

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5. Written as a public apology after Stalin slammed his adventurous opera, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, Shostakovich inscribed the 1937 score, "A Soviet artist's practical, creative response to just criticism." This rich, sprawling work captures "the complicated role between official power and the arts in the 20th century," said Schmelz.

Another symbol of power and the arts was Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 7. A lively and optimistic coda was added after its original ending was deemed too depressing. But before the composer died, he indicated the original quiet ending was to be used.

Valentin Silvestrov, Symphony no. 5 (1980-82), reflects this Ukranian composer's belief that music was ending. Slow and meditative, “the symphony spins out melodies that repeat, showing music concluding, but not concluding,” said Schmelz.



Martin Daughtry, Assistant Professor of Music, New York University

Daughtry recommends Prokofiev's opera Semyon Kotko and Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya Dama, which captures the people's adoration for the Russian monarch.

He also suggests the popular songs of Aleksandr Vertinsky (1889-1957), who fled the nascent Soviet Union in 1920. "He spent the next 23 years in exile, concertizing in Russian enclaves around the world and suffering (according to his memoirs) from a rather acute case of nostalgia for his lost motherland." His song "Foreign Cities," ("Chuzhie goroda") describes the desperately sad plight of the exile, "who is surrounded by people who haven't shared his experiences, and so will never understand him."

Another important singer-songwriter is Vladimir Vysotsky. "Anyone spending any time at all in Russia should learn about Vysotsky. He was a national hero of sorts, an iconoclastic folk singer who epitomized the progressive zeitgeist of the 1970s/1980s." The song "White Steam Bath" is about a man just released from the Gulag, and wants to steam away all his troubles and self-doubt in a Russian "banya."

"If Snowden is going to become a Russian citizen, he needs to know about Vysotsky, but he also needs to know about the country's complicated history, and about the Gulag in particular," added Daughtry. "As for the banya, that's the first place I'd want to go if I had to spend a month at Sheremetyevo!"

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