There is a city


AssaАсса (1987) – was one of the most impressive cult films of the last years of the Soviet Union and it has remained popular ever since. Not only because the film, featuring a band playing for the Soviet upper crust in the Yalta pleasure resort, included the songs of such contemporary underground cult bands like the already mentioned Akvarium, Bravo or Kino. But also because this film was an open revolt against the lying and dreary regime. And not in a destructive way, but simply by placing side by side the sincerity of its young protagonists seeking their own way, truth and beauty, and the cynicism of the all-devastating regime and its beneficiaries.

(The director of the film, Sergey Solovev has just published, after twenty-two years, the continuation of the film with the title Assa 2, likewise with Tatyana Drubich in the main role. I am very curious whether he has managed to continue and actualize his former criticism.)

This spirit pervaded the closing song of the film Перемен! – Change! – performed personally by the greatest rocker of the age, Korean-Russian Viktor Tsoi. The first two minutes of the detail below display how the pianist of the band takes Tsoi to the head of the personnel department of the restaurant who requires of him his – non-existent – documents, certificates and permanent address, while rattling off the regulations of the restaurant in a monotonous voice. Almost as a reaction to it, a song is started in the restaurant (1'55") which by the end of the film enlarges into a live concert with several ten thousand participants, giving news about such an uproar in the heart of the empire of which we, in its Hungarian border province sunken into peaceful compromises, had not much idea at that time.



Вместо тепла зелень стекла,
Вместо огня - дым.
Из сетки календаря выхвачен день.
Красное солнце сгорает дотла,
День догорает с ним,
На пылающий город падает тень.

Перемен требуют наши сердца,
Перемен требуют наши глаза.
В нашем смехе и в наших слезах
И в пульсации вен…
Перемен, мы ждем перемен.

Электрический свет продолжает наш день
И коробка от спичек пуста,
Но на кухне, синим цветком, горит газ.
Сигареты в руках, чай на столе,-
Эта схема проста.
И больше нет ничего - все находится в нас.

Перемен требуют наши сердца,
Перемен требуют наши глаза.
В нашем смехе и в наших слезах
И в пульсации вен…
Перемен, мы ждем перемен.

Мы не можем похвастаться мудростью глаз
И умелыми жестами рук.
Нам не нужно все это, чтобы друг друга понять.
Сигареты в руках, чай на столе,-
Так замыкается круг.
И вдруг нам становится страшно что-то менять.

Перемен требуют наши сердца,
Перемен требуют наши глаза.
В нашем смехе и в наших слезах
И в пульсации вен...
Перемен, мы ждем перемен.
Instead of warmth, just the green glass,
instead of fire – just smoke.
A day ticked off in the calendar.
Red sun shines destructively
burning out our days.
Darkness falls on the smoldering city.

Change, our hearts require change
our eyes require change.
With our laughter and tears,
with the beating of our veins…
Change, we look forward to change.

Electric light continues our day
and the matchbox is empty, but the
blue flower of the gas burns in the kitchen.
Cigarette in hand, tea on the table –
it’s a simple scheme.
And nothing more – all the rest is within.

Change, our hearts require change
our eyes require change.
With our laughter and tears,
with the beating of our veins…
Change, we look forward to change.

We can’t boast with a wise look
neither with skillful gestures.
We don’t need it to understand each other.
Cigarette in hand, tea on the table –
the circle is closed
and we manage to change something.

Change, our hearts require change
our eyes require change.
With our laughter and tears,
with the beating of our veins…
Change, we look forward to change.


However, the most memorable song of the film was not this one, but the ГородCity, or Город золотойGolden city by Akvarium. The English translation below is by Mikhail Morozov.



Aquarium: Город золотой (Golden city). Mosfilm recently does not allow the embedding of this video, but you must listen to this song together with the video taken from the film.

Под небом голубым есть город золотой
С прозрачными воротами и яркою звездой,
А в городе том сад, все травы да цветы,
Гуляют там животные невиданной красы:






Одно, как желтый огнегривый лев,
Другое вол, исполненный очей,
С ними золотой орел небесный,
Чей так светел взор незабываемый.

А в небе голубом горит одна звезда.
Она твоя, о ангел мой, она твоя всегда.
Кто любит, тот любим, кто светел, тот и свят,
Пускай ведет звезда тебя дорогой в дивный сад






Тебя там встретит огнегривый лев,
И синий вол, исполненный очей,
С ними золотой орел небесный,
Чей так светел взор незабываемый.
Beneath the sky of blue
The golden city stands
With crystal-clear lucent gates
And with a star ablaze

A garden lies within
It blossoms far and wide
And beasts of stunning beauty
Are roaming inside

The lion with a fiery-yellow mane
And the blue calf with eyes so deep and bright
And the golden eagle from the heavens
Whose eternal gaze’s so unforgettable

And from that sky of blue
The star is shining through
This star is yours, oh angel mine
It always shined for you

Who loveth is beloved
Who giveth light is blessed
So chase the light of guiding star
Into this awesome land

The fiery lion will meet you at the gate
And the blue calf with eyes so deep and bright
And the golden eagle from the heavens
Whose eternal gaze’s so unforgettable.

It belongs to the subtle allusions of the film that this song starts to play when the to-be-lovers enter the cableway (whose large iron cabins are marked with huge numbers, thus materializing and therefore legitimizing, as it were, the lightness of this former bourgeois entertainment). The cableway elevates them above the former resort area of Yalta, and the camera slowly glances over the eroded buildings, witnesses to a former, more civilized and livable world. The director also pays attention to such subtleties like the expression “awesome garden” being sung exactly (2'09") when the camera arrives to the miserable vegetable-bed knocked together of some broken roofing slates.

But the purpose of the sharp contrast between the “golden city” of the song and the real city is not just mere criticism. The film, in a beautiful way which also elevates us, viewers above the reality, projects the song onto the devastated city, thus letting us see * the surviving fragments of beauty in the houses, the inner courtyards, the few ornamental trees still existing. The fragments that still make the city livable and that we were also seeking so zealously in our Budapest of the 80’s.

For about twenty years this song was attributed to the band Akvarium. It was only in 2005 that Zeev Geizel managed to track down the real authors through a brilliantly executed detective inquiry, and to publish his results on the site of the Israelian Russian bards Israbard. They say that the melody comes from a Canzone attributed to the great papal lutenist Francesco da Milano (1497-1543) which was made popular across the Soviet Union by the disk “16-17th century lute music” of 1972. Geizel has also published the sheet music of this song, and I was already about to register it for the blog in my performance on the lute when I found by chance the original recording: *


“Francesco da Milano”: Канзона. From the album Лютневая музыка XVI-XVII веков (16-17th-century lute music, 1972), performed by Vladimir Vavilov

This melody became so popular that it even found its way into Soviet solfeggio manuals. But when Geizel tried to find out its exact title, he saw with surprise that his search only gave results in Russian language. This piece was completely unknown in the West. It did not even figure in the collection The Lute Music of Francesco Canova da Milano (1497-1543) of Cambridge, compiled in 1970 by Arthur J. Ness. And when Geizel asked the advice of the greatest Israeli historian of the lute Levi Septovitsky, he declared that this melody was neither Italian nor Renaissance, but rather some Russian folk tune.

The great Ukrainian lutenist Roman Turovsky, living in New York and participating in all imaginable lute forums, also informed Geizel that serious lutenists consider the album “16-17th-century lute music” a complete fake. His opinion was also confirmed by Professor Sándor Kallós from the Conservatory of Moscow. He told that the whole album included only one real lute piece, the Greensleeves, while the rest had nothing to do with the lute: they were all modern compositions. Perhaps the performer of this piece Vladimir Vavilov could have declared the truth, but he died just one year after the publication of the disk. In any case, since the publication of Geizel’s article Vavilov has been regularly indicated as the composer of the music of the Golden city.

The identity of the author of the lyrics was somewhat easier to establish. Although various sites have equally attributed it to Boris Grebenschikov, director of Akvarium, to Nikolai Gumilev, the husband of the great poet Anna Akhmatova who was executed in 1921, to the Decembrist revolutionary Mihail Volkonsky and even to Rabindranath Tagore, nevertheless on the site of Akvarium one can unequivocally read: “слова А. Волохонского и А. Хвостенко” – text by A. Volokhonsky and A. Khvostenko.

The names of the great Leningrad authors of lyrics Anri Volokhonsky and Aleksei Khvostenko, says Geizel, have become just as inseparable as those of Kamenev and Zinovev. The texts of Khvostenko who died in 2004 were also published later by his friends, but Geizel browsed it unsuccessfully in search of the Golden city. Finally he decided to call Volokhonsky who lives in Tübingen and who recounted him the story of this text exactly as he told it in a later interview. Of course this text had no place among Khvostenko’s collected poems, he says, because it was written in the short period of late 1972 when Khvostenko had already left the Soviet Union, but Volokhonski not yet. He sadly walked the streets, thinking about how to continue without his friend and co-author. It was then that he heard the album “16-17th-century lute music” at his fried, the painter Boris Akselrod who was just working on his mosaic panel “Heaven”. He was touched both by the music of “Francesco da Milano” and the picture of Akselrod, and under their influence he immediately wrote the text – alone.

However, the original poem and the text of Akvarium show a number of small differences. The most important among them is that Volokhonsky’s original title was not Golden city, but Рай – “Paradise” or “Heaven”. Consequently the first verse was “Над небом голубым”, that is “above the sky of blue” and not “Под небом голубым”, that is “beneath the sky of blue” as Grebenschikov modified it for fear of anticlerical censorship. This frame also helps to understand a number of details of the text. The Russian term “ангел мой”, “my angel” is usually used not for one’s lover but for one’s Guardian Angel in the daily prayer. And the three animals are those serving in front of God’s throne both in Ezekiel’s vision and in the Book of Revelations as it is so often depicted in the frescoes of Orthodox churches. “Grebenschikov made no mistake” says Volokhonsky “to give the title City to this poem. In fact, I wrote this poem about the City. The heavenly Jerusalem.”

One can thus understand the reason why the Hebrew version of this song, sung by Anuar Budagov, is attributed in Israel – as Geizel writes – to the 11th-century mystical Spanish Jewish poet Judah Halevi, although it is a faithful translation of the original Russian poem. And this background also provides with a deeper meaning the contrast between the desired city and the actual reality in the above scene of Assa.

Jan van Eyck: Gent Altarpiece. Central panel with the Adoration of the Lamb, representing
All Saints and the heavenly Jerusalem (detail). I was about to finish this post
when I realized that both have their feast exactly today.

8 comentarios:

shponka dijo...

I came across it when looking for a translation of Город Золотой and was so delighted to discover such a comprehensive post about the song and its history (not to mention the movie Assa).

Большое спасибо!

Studiolum dijo...

Я счастлив что он был полезен для Вас и что Вам понравилось! Возвращайтесь скорее, я буду также писать о других русских песен "золотого века".

I’m really happy that you found it useful and you liked it! Come back soon, I will also write about more Russian songs of the “golden age”.

Alaleh dijo...

Спасибо :-)

Studiolum dijo...

Пожалуйста! – خواهش می کنم

Language dijo...

Fantastic post (as usual), and now I really want to see the movie.

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks a lot, Language! The movie can be found in various versions over the Russian web, but I recommend the full DVD version whose source I have included above in the footnote after the words “thus letting us see”: http://nnm.ru/blogs/vidokss/assa_1987_dvd9_dvdrip/ You will certainly enjoy it.

An Cat Dubh dijo...

Very interesting post, but you shouldn’t rely on Geisel like that, because he obviously doesn’t know what he was talking about. The song is not a translation, it’s just a virtually unknown reference to the original Russian. It has parts in Russian written by Bugadov, and the song seems to be about the difficulties of the immigrants from the USSR/former USSR to Israel.

Studiolum dijo...

Do you mean the duet he sings with Remi Kleinstein? I am really interested whether it has any connection with the Golden city, as Geizel suggests it.

Yes, I also think that at this point, when speaking of the “Hebrew version” of the song, Geizel made some confusion. To me it seems that he has referred here rather to Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim shel zahav, which both has Jerusalem and the “golden city” in its title, and quotes from Judah Halevi.