Cossacks, Balalaikas, and Martial Arts
May 23, 2007 10:21 PM   Subscribe

The Cossacks, a proud people with a long history, are famous nowadays for their dancing, whether of the mass spectacle variety, or the slightly lower-key celebration of actual Cossacks. They have some pretty famous music, too, often featuring balalaikas. (Behold, the real lyrics to "Tetris") But dancing and singing is not enough for some, apparently, who seek to refine Cossack martial arts.
posted by StrikeTheViol (34 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Oops, someone please fix the title and delete this

While you're at it there someone, could you teach that Cossack choir a little of the funk? (Seriously, though the Cossacks are undoubtedly the funkiest Russians. That shit is funky.)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:31 PM on May 23, 2007

posted by taosbat at 10:32 PM on May 23, 2007

I meant fix my title...the word is balalaika, and I tried to change it in preview, but couldn't on this old, virus-ridden public terminal.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 10:38 PM on May 23, 2007

Thanks, Mefi, I love you.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 10:40 PM on May 23, 2007

As a descendant of cossacks, thank you for this post!
posted by homunculus at 10:58 PM on May 23, 2007

If I only take away the lyrics of for the Tetris music, this post has improved my day 100%. No more de de de de de de de for me, no sir!


Not that I'm going to start singing along in Russian, but I can pretend. Ta!
posted by Jilder at 10:59 PM on May 23, 2007

Seriously, though the Cossacks are undoubtedly the funkiest Russians.

Most Cossacks didn't consider themselves Russian, as I understand it.
posted by homunculus at 11:00 PM on May 23, 2007

first thing that came to mind was: karate lamb chop
posted by phaedon at 11:08 PM on May 23, 2007

God, I'd forgotten how much I love Russian music. And klezmer, which this weirdly suddenly reminds me of. Many thanks. The girl soloist for the choir's first song puts the guys that follow her to shame.
posted by gsteff at 11:16 PM on May 23, 2007

The Hopak, well known as a Ukrainian folk dance, is making a comeback as a type of martial art...Today, Hopak-based martial arts are practiced more as a sport, but war songs, festivities and history often accompany the physical training...all moves express equality and freedom, both of which are reflected in the shape of a circle...At first glance the sessions "look like grand dances ... one of the main ideas is the smoothness of all movements and gestures, which is one more reason why it may not seem is both hard training and art, battle and dancing.

Of course, the big question on everybody's lips is how the Hopak faces up against the Capoeirista in the next version of Mortal Kombat.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:56 PM on May 23, 2007

'Behold, the real lyrics to "Tetris"'

Pardon me for detracting from the cultured atmosphere, but: WTF?

Is the word "Tetris" being used here in a specific and uncommon way? Or are you actually talking about the game, except some funky version of the game that doesn't have Wally Beben's epic 25 minute composition as the soundtrack?

I don't know how to read music any more, but that sure as hell doesn't look like the soundtrack to Tetris, nor does it look particularly long.

If I've misunderstood the statement, please accept my apologies.
posted by majick at 12:34 AM on May 24, 2007

They're so funky, they even get away with wearing the MC Hammer pants.
Serioulsy: awesome post! makes me wanna shout 'hopa!'
posted by borq at 12:54 AM on May 24, 2007

posted by peacay at 12:59 AM on May 24, 2007

The tetris one wins. It wins everything. I had no idea!

Is the word "Tetris" being used here in a specific and uncommon way? Or are you actually talking about the game, except some funky version of the game that doesn't have Wally Beben's epic 25 minute composition as the soundtrack?

They did different soundtracks for different versions.
posted by Many bubbles at 1:39 AM on May 24, 2007

Cossack vodka is the reason I have to wear glasses.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:28 AM on May 24, 2007

If I only take away the lyrics of for the Tetris music, this post has improved my day 100%

posted by briank at 6:43 AM on May 24, 2007

Too much fun, especially the learn-it-for-yourself Russian folk music link.

I always used to wonder if there's a relationship between the words Kazakh and's obviously a bit more complicated than that.
posted by pax digita at 6:56 AM on May 24, 2007

The first Cossacks I ever got a good look at were Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis. (Spoiler alert: don't watch the last 90 seconds if you care about such things.)
posted by LeLiLo at 7:07 AM on May 24, 2007

Gomez: We danced the Mamushka while Nero fiddled, we danced the Mamushka at Waterloo. We danced the Mamushka for Jack the Ripper, and now, Fester Addams, this Mamushka is for you!
posted by fet at 7:13 AM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Awesome post. I never thought that anything would cause my roommates and I to attempt Cossack-style dancing in our living room at 9.30 in the morning. Apparently, I was wrong.
posted by honeyx at 7:46 AM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm glad we got that deletion thingy straightened out. :)
posted by taosbat at 10:52 AM on May 24, 2007

There's a lot of bullshit out there about the Cossacks. Everybody (except the Jews) likes to think of them as a wild and free bunch of independents, beholden to no one, but whatever truth there was to that vanished in the time of Catherine the Great, which was (for those keeping score at home) well over two centuries ago. After that they became another branch of the Russian military bureaucracy, with funny uniforms and titles, good at quashing protests (and, of course, beating up Jews) but completely subservient to the government. From the time of the Revolution on, there have been sporadic attempts at Cossack revivals, but they have about as much authenticity as Civil War reenactors or members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The music and dances are great, though!

Note to Burhanistan: I assumed your first comment was a joke, but your second made me wonder. In any case, I've met Murat Yagan and have a signed copy of his autobiography; he's a very cool guy.
posted by languagehat at 10:57 AM on May 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

A sung version of Korobushka, for those who'd like to sing along with three surprisingly good, slightly drunk amateurs.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 11:24 AM on May 24, 2007

what - no dancing Cossack scene from Fiddler on the Roof?
(romantic tosh, no doubt, but with the chilling subtext!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 11:48 AM on May 24, 2007

Translators are traitors, of course. You get the idea that the lyrics of Korobushka (the Tetris song) are dodgy, but the second verse is even trickier than presented: 'Tam do notchki podozhdu' isn't just waiting till it's dark; it's a playful reference, like 'There I'll wait till nighty-night.' Likewise 'vse tovari rozlozhu' ain't just displaying all your goods; it's 'I will lay out all my goods.'

And languagehat has got it on Cossack history. Katherine II abolished Cossack sovereignty and their form of democracy in 1775.
posted by eritain at 10:04 PM on May 24, 2007

For what it's worth, I have elderly relatives who passed on the stories of the Cossacks running through their towns back in the "Old Country" and beating the living crap out of them. So I'll sit this dance out.
posted by jscott at 8:01 AM on May 25, 2007

As an avid balalaika player, knowing "Korobushka" is a must! I can't hear someone playing Tetris (or at least versions with that as the theme song) without singing along.

Russian history is a long, endless loop of "group subjugates group, positions flip, new group comes in and gets dumped on, repeat". Well, I suppose all history is like that, but the Russians are really good at taking it to the next level.

The Cossack Rebellion of Stenka Razin is another source of some popular folk songs; I think there was a lot of material passed along orally that helped to maintain a cultural identity in the face of generalized oppression from Tsars and Bolsheviks alike. And, of course, the oppressed become the oppressors, spinning the victim-victimizer cycle some more.

Aside from that, it's a little strange trying to explain to people why a midwestern norwegian is so obsessed with traditional Russian folk music. I have a nice collection of balalaikas, domras, bayans, and many other sorts of russian accordions. It's somewhere beyond music geek and in the land of uncomfortably weird (or so it seems.)

However nothing makes better friends when randomly traveling in rural Russia than being able to pull out some vodka, an accordion and start singing folk songs. No need for hostels or camping if you can manage this, it will get you free housing anywhere you go :)
posted by EricGjerde at 2:32 PM on May 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

OK, one more thing- the little girl singing "Katyusha" in that youtube link gives me the sniffles. great track.

Katyusha is a pretty modern tune, though, from the second world war. There always seemed to be some heavy wartime associations with it, particularly given that Russia's main artillery missile was also called "Katyusha". I can't speak to the connection there of course, it just always struck me as odd.

I remember meeting an old man on a country road outside of Suzdal', who showed me the huge tattoo of Stalin he had on his chest. He was so proud of his service in WWII and his part in the Soviet era. Russians are a fascinating people, try as I might I don't think I'll ever really understand them.

I'll stop reminiscing now and getting off-topic from the thread about Cossacks! They'd be upset I was talking about Russians and no doubt slice my head off with a sword.
posted by EricGjerde at 2:46 PM on May 25, 2007

The Cossack Rebellion of Stenka Razin

Though Razin was a Cossack and there were a lot of Cossacks involved, it's not really accurate to call it a "Cossack rebellion"—it was more of a peasants' revolt, except that there were a lot of poor city dwellers as well. Anyone interested should read Paul Avrich's classic Russian Rebels 1600-1800; a few excerpts from his account:
It was the urban and rural poor... from whom Razin won his largest following, that vast floating population of the Don and Volga valleys—Cossacks and streltsy, peasants and tribesmen, convicts and vagrants—who lived on the edge of starvation and responded eagerly to revolutionary agitation. Among the first to join were the Volga boatmen...

Aside from the larger peasant element in Razin's movement, the Cossacks also took a more prominent part, serving as its spearhead and most effective fighting force. An interesting feature was that the social conflict dividing the country as a whole was reproduced in miniature along the Don, where the “naked” Cossacks locked horns with the more prosperous downstream elements. Razin, as his followers sang, refused to “walk with the elders” or to “think as they thought,” but preferred to harness his chariot to the propertyless golytbá and to challenge the privileged stratum from which he himself had sprung. The tribes of the Volga were another group which rose in greater strength than before... The clergy, too, participated in unprecedented numbers... Finally, the towns once more occupied a central place... In the garrison towns of the frontier, streltsy mutinies were more serious than any in the past... and foreshadowed the great streltsy revolts of the end of the century which led Peter the Great to disband this volatile group once and for all.
posted by languagehat at 3:00 PM on May 25, 2007

D'oh - thanks for the correction languagehat.

Still amazed at the reality of peasant life in Russia; one of my favorite books is Ivan Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons" and there's a part in there where they talk about peasant ownership as owning their souls.

So instead of having 30 peasants on your land, you would say "I own 30 souls".

No wonder they revolted so often!
posted by EricGjerde at 8:55 PM on May 25, 2007

Gogol's Dead Souls is the big one on that topic. Totally unrelated to the Joy Division song, as far as I know, the novel is a dark comic story of a guy buying up the souls of dead serfs for next to nothing, which then entitled him to receive money from the government, or something like that. I read it a long long time ago, so am a bit hazy on the details...
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:03 PM on May 25, 2007

D'oh - thanks for the correction languagehat.

Not a correction in the sense that you "made a mistake"—it's perfectly normal to describe Razin's as a Cossack rebellion; I was just providing a more complicated perspective on it.

As for serfdom, yes, by all means read Dead Souls, one of the best (and funniest) novels ever written (plus it's impossible to understand later Russian literature without Gogol); I also strongly recommend Aleksandr Nikitenko's Up from serfdom: my childhood and youth in Russia 1804-1824, one of the very few memoirs by former serfs, and (if you really get interested in the subject) Jerome Blum's classic Lord and peasant in Russia, from the ninth to the nineteenth century.
posted by languagehat at 7:20 AM on May 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

one of the best (and funniest) novels ever written

True. But I would throw in Goncharov: Oblomov for funny, and Bulgakov: The Master & Margarita for best.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:42 AM on May 26, 2007

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