The acclaimed Red Army Choir, which lost 64 members in a plane crash Sunday, has been a potent symbol for projecting Moscow’s military and artistic prowess to millions across the globe.
Founded in 1928, the military Alexandrov Ensemble, more widely known as the Red Army Choir, has for decades showcased its repertoire of famed Russian folksongs and spiritual music on the global stage.
The booming baritones and melodies of the all-male choir -- performing in their pristine army uniforms -- presented a human face to many beyond the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union’s fearsome Red Army that swept across Europe as part of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
During the Cold War period, when the USSR and the West were locked in a nuclear standoff, the group was one of the rare Soviet ensembles to tour beyond the Eastern bloc, playing a prominent role in the Kremlin’s attempts to portray itself to the rest of the world.
Along with ballerinas from the world-renowned Bolshoi theatre and the orchestra of Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky theatre, for many beyond the country the military ensemble - which has some 200 members -- came to be synonomous with Soviet culture.
The ensemble was directed for its first 18 years by Alexander Alexandrov, after whom the group is named, a legendary Communist-era composer who wrote the music for the stirring Soviet national anthem, which was revived as Russia’s anthem by President Vladimir Putin.
After Alexandrov’s death the ensemble was taken over by his son Boris.
The current head of the choir Valery Khalilov, who was only handed the baton earlier this year, was one of the members aboard the ill-fated military jet that crashed into the Black Sea Sunday on its way to Syria where the ensemble was due to perform a New Year’s concert for Russian soldiers serving in the war-torn country.
- ‘Calling card for Russian culture’ -
In the wake of the crash, officials and cultural luminaries in the shocked nation poured praise on Khalilov and the Red Army Choir performers.
Khalilov “made a huge contribution in contemporary culture above being the head of the orchestra and a composer”, Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets told the TASS news agency, adding that his death was an “irreplaceable loss”.
“It is an enormous injustice,” said pianist Denis Matsuyev, calling Khalilov a “remarkable maestro”.
“The Alexandrov ensemble is a calling card for Russian culture,” he told RIA Novosti news agency.
The group’s travels have often coincided with the tumultuous flux of history as the Soviet Union stamped its authority as a superpower on the globe, before later collapsing and seeing modern Russia emerge from its ashes.
Concerts have taken them not only from the ruins of post-WWII Europe but also to Afghanistan during the disastrous Soviet intervention and later to Chechnya, where Moscow has fought two brutal separatist conflicts over the past 20 years.
The latest trip to Syria comes as Russia under Putin has thrust itself back into the centre of the international arena by launching a bombing campaign last year to back up ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Sunday’s plane crash casts a grim shadow over what should have been a time of celebration for the Kremlin after the recapture of Syria’s second city of Aleppo handed Assad his biggest victory in more than five years of bloody combat.
Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev bemoaned the loss of the performers.
“They were going to Syria on a very good mission, on a mission of peace,” he said.
“It is impossible to accept this loss.”