Welcome to a new week, and with it a very special adventure!
As it is impossible to ignore – unless you’re American, or Italian maybe – this week will see the beginning of the largest and most famous single sport tournament in the world. Thursday will see the beginning of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Russia.
As someone living in England such an occasion is impossible to ignore. The air is electric with anticipation already, and it’s still a week until an Englishman will kick a ball in anger.
These tournaments are always exciting in terms of the sporting quality and athleticism on show, but what I believe these football tournaments do so well – more so than the Olympics – is how they become a fantastic collection of culture, not just from athletes across the world but particularly of the host nation. Long-time subscribers will remember the piece I did on the 2016 European Championships in France. These global events are a special opportunity, and while Russia may not be as glamorous from a sporting standpoint as France or previous World Cup hosts Brazil, this tournament presents an opportunity for us to understand some of the beautiful sides to a country often feared.
One thing that Russia has always excelled at is its classics. From gorgeous classical architecture to world-renowned ballet recitals, Russia, stereotyped for its straight-jacket-ness, has a history of putting on beautifully and painstakingly perfect recitals. Our example, our song for this week, comes in the form of a piece of classical music called Очи чёрные.
Ochi Chernye, Dark Eyes.
Dark Eyes was written by Ukrainian Yevhen Hrebinka. It was translated by the man himself into Russian and published in 1843. It was most famously played by Adalgiso Ferraris, an Italian-born British composer who published his version in Russia, where he had lived for many years, in 1910.
However, as one of the most famous Russian classical love songs and being over 100 years old, it has had countless iterations since and where you hear the music can dramatically change the feeling of the piece. We have featured here a version by the German Ivan Rebroff, as this is closest to the version I first heard, the version that made me share this song, but more about that in a moment.
What makes this so interesting is the paradox between this and my opening paragraphs. Football tournaments are fantastic occasions where cultures come together and people have fun celebrating their favourite sport in a welcoming atmosphere and at a beautifully colourful occasion. However, this tournament does feel slightly different. Russia is, famously, an unwelcoming country, and while as the tournament gets closer many people are warming to the idea people were, originally, very uncomfortable about Russia hosting this.
The bidding process by which Russia won the rights to host this event ended with the biggest sporting scandal the world has ever seen (although Russia was cleared of wrongdoing), while the county’s intolerance of homosexuality and the cold aura projected by the stone-faced Vladimir Putin have made this an interesting tournament in a totally new way to that of Brazil 2014. Meanwhile the dreadful incidents in Marseille at the 2016 Euros where Russian mobs systematically attacked England fans following the two sides opening match at the tournament has left many England fans staying at home.
This is, if you like, the cold World Cup, which makes the World Cup advert that introduced us to this song particularly interesting.
The BBC’s introduction to their UK World Cup coverage is, ultimately, a tragedy.
The romantic song plays out over the top of a literal string* of England’s most tragic moments at the tournament, while other iconic moments and people are featured with a sense of unconquerability – daunting figures that stand in your way, impossible to move. It’s a fantastic twist on something that everybody, especially in England, instinctively wants to see as something full of hope. By the end of the beautifully created trailer below, you will be feeling the heavy weight of the Russian World Cup on your shoulders!
*Yes, the advert was entirely knitted!
Ochi Chernye is a beautiful song, and the combination of beauty and tragedy in music is something especially Russian. Regardless of your love of sport I hope that you will enjoy and explore the many iterations of this piece, and take it with you as a source of pride, an adventure into the lesser known, behind the stone walls of Russia.