I Can See ‘Russians’ from My House — The Cold War Makes a Comeback, Thanks to Sting

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Let’s Play Thermonuclear War!

Sting singing "Russians" (A&M Records)
Sting singing “Russians” (A&M Records)

Russia, the Ukraine, military invasion, tensions, conflict, Putin, Obama… Oh brother, here we go again! If the news from Moscow is bleak of late, then turn off that CNN program and turn up the volume on your CD player.

Not that hankering for the “bad ole days” of the Cold War is good for anyone’s health, but we’re certainly up for some great pop music to help set aside our fears — played, naturally, by one of our all-time favorite singer-songwriters, Sting.

For a nostalgic round of Communists vs. Capitalists, there’s nothing that can compare to the track “Russians,” the Stinger’s fondest stab at “serious classical hymnology” (in the words of reviewer Jon Pareles). Recorded in July 1985 — and one of the major components that comprised his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles (A&M) — Sting’s lyrical outburst puts our country’s testy relationship to the former Soviet Union into context by taking a plainly humanistic perspective.

If you’ve never heard this piece before now, prepare for a shock, dear listener. While Sting has had his fair share of politicized statements throughout the years (for example, his work with Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and his later song “They Dance Alone,” about the Pinochet regime’s crackdown of Chilean dissidents), this one slices through the bullcrap and goes straight to the heart of the matter: how can we possibly fear all-out nuclear war from these folks if our Russian rivals venerate their families as much as we do? That’s the essence of the number in a nutshell.

Beginning and ending with the ominous ticking of a clock (or is it a portentous time bomb?), Sting makes full use of a memorable melody that Soviet-era composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote for the film Lieutenant Kijé (circa 1933). It’s the Romance from a suite of tunes he compiled soon after that’s become a concert hall standard.

In the original scoring the tune is played by the saxophone. Ironically, in Sting’s treatment the theme resounds forcefully, at key intervals, via the employment of a present-day synthesizer. The companion video clip is even more impressive, with black and white images of Ruskies, young and old, in various guises: from gymnasts and ballet dancers to priests with crosses painted on their foreheads, along with some retired bureaucrats gazing nostalgically at their younger selves, or those being led away in wheelchairs to a convalescent home.

Sting’s vocals are placed stratospherically in near-falsetto range, giving a sense of strain on the highest notes which helps to convey the urgency of his message. There is no lack of hope. However, a noticeable sense of caution is present, as is a touch of guarded optimism — despite an apparent nuclear winter in the barren, windswept landscape. The tolling of Kremlin-like bells completes the sonic picture.

Along with this “synthesized snatch of Prokofiev’s music,” the powerful and opportunely-timed lyrics are what make this tuneful relic a near-classic. Note how Sting’s verbal imagery and his use of repeated phrases (“I don’t subscribe to this point of view” and “I hope the Russians love their children too”), along with the conditional tense, make for a convincing argument for greater understanding and rapprochement among the world’s nuclear powers — a theme that’s as relevant and newsworthy as today’s front-page headlines.

"What save us me and you / Is if the Russians love their children too" (Sting)
“What might save us, me and you / Is if the Russians love their children too” (Sting)

Russians

In Europe and America there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mister Khrushchev said, ‘We will bury you’
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too

How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

There is no historical precedent to put
Words in the mouth of the president
There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore
Mister Reagan says ‘We will protect you’
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me and you,
Is if the Russians love their children too

(Words and music by Sting, with a sampling of Prokofiev)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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