Is This the Most Popular Russian Song Ever?

Posted on 29. Nov, 2013 by in Culture, Russian song lyrics

Here’s a trivia question for you. What Russian song has been translated into at least 15 languages with the English-language version getting to #1 spot in the UK Singles Chart? What is this song that has been covered by such artists as Bing Crosby and Dolly Parton and its melody was sampled by 50Cent?

Of course, it’s Дорогой длинною (Along the long road) known in the West as Those Were the Days.

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The modern day version, the lyrics to which follow, are somewhat different from the original one popularized by Тамара Церетели and Александр Вертинский almost a century ago. You will also notice that the English text of Those Were the Days has nothing to do with the original Russian version.

Since the song is still popular and the tune is so catchy, let’s learn the Russian words to it. First, a few key words you need to know:

Тройка – in its most general meaning, тройка means a set of three. There are quite a few times you might come across this word in the famous works of Russian literature. One example is the famous line “Тройка… Семёрка… Туз…” (A three… a seven… an ace…) from Пиковая Дама (The Queen of Spades) by none other than Alexander Pushkin (he is everywhere!) Here тройка is just a three card from a card deck. Another famous тройка is, of course, птица-тройка from Nikolai Gogol’s Мёртвые души (The Dead Souls). In this case тройка is a carriage drawn by a team of three horses. The third example would be infamous bureaucratic triumvirate from Сказка о тройке (Tale of the Troika) by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. The iconic image of the three horses also appears on the Moscow’s Тройка card that is similar to MetroCard.

Бубенцы – jingle bells. If you want to listen to the Russian-language version of the classic Jingle Bells song, search for Бубенцы. A troika is incomplete without these bells.

Душа – soul. It is one of the must-know words if you want to get past the superficiality of 7-day “Highlights of Russia”-type tours. Fortunately, there is an old post on this blog that can help you understand both this word’s cultural importance and the nuances of grammar.

Тоска – a feeling of a melancholic yearning heavily spiked with regret and hopelessness. The feeling seems to be the hallmark of virtually every major work of Russian literature. Do not confuse тоска with another very Russian emotion, ностальгия (nostalgia) which is similar, except for the hopelessness part.

Семиструнная – literally it means seven-stringed. Семиструнная гитара is also known as русская гитара (Russian guitar), but also цыганская гитара (Gypsy guitar). It was much more popular than the classical 6-string guitar until the beginning of the 20th century.

Задаром – for free. You will not see this word on any giveaway or promotional items. A more proper word даром (free of charge, as a gift) or в подарок (as a gift) would be used. But you might hear it in a conversation as in да мне это и задаром не надо (I don’t need this even if it were free). However, in this song, задаром is synonymous with напрасно (in vain). Note that понапрасну, a form of напрасно, appears in the very next line.

Жечь – to burn. Again with the classical literature here – you might come across a phrase прожигать жизнь (to waste one’s life; lit: to burn through life). Прожигать is to burn through. One can прожечь жизнь by leading an aimless, ungrounded, or chaotic life. It is also something that is associated with youth, particularly with бурная юность (tumultuous youth) and young men.

And here’s the interesting grammatical tidbit about the song. By switching from first person singular to first person plural pronouns, the song successfully avoids identifying the singer as either a man or a woman and thus can be performed by either.  And now, the song along with its almost literal translation (I did take some liberties with it, but tried to stay as close to the Russian text as possible):

Ехали на тройке с бубенцами,

(They were riding troika with bells jingling,)

А вдали мелькали огоньки.

(Far away were glimmering the lights)

Эх, когда бы мне теперь за вами,

(How I wish that I could simply follow,)

Душу бы развеять от тоски

(To lift the heavy sadness from my life…)

Дорогой длинною, да ночью лунною,

(Along this long-long road and by the moonlit night,)

Да с песней той, что в даль летит звеня.

(And with the song so crisp that it takes flight)

И с той старинною, да с семиструнною,

(And with that ancient one, the seven-string guitar,)

Что по ночам так мучила меня.

(That I obsessed with every single night.)

Да, выходит пели мы задаром.

(It turns out that our songs did not last)

Понапрасну ночь за ночью жгли.

(And we burned through our nights in vain)

Если мы покончили со старым,

(If we lay to rest all that is our past,)

Так и ночи эти отошли.

(Then those nights would also go away.)

Дорогой длинною, да ночью лунною,

Да с песней той, что в даль летит звеня.

И с той старинною, да с семиструнною,

Что по ночам так мучила меня.

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Now that you’ve practiced, try singing it karaoke-style with Нани Брегвадзе.

And please, do suggest better ways of translating this wonderful song!

11 Responses to “Is This the Most Popular Russian Song Ever?”

  1. Jeannie 29 November 2013 at 4:13 pm #

    Хороший весёлый блог! Спасибо!

  2. Ken 29 November 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Just a couple points, I noticed your version of the lyrics has да ночью лунною rather than погодой лунною as I learned it, so I assume that’s just a variation (the video version also has погодой). I remember when reading about this song some time ago someone commenting on the richness of the phrase погодой лунною.

    Also, I wouldn’t presume to say I have a better translation but I always thought of it as “tortured me at night” rather than “obsessed with”. But your translation probably captures the original intent better.

  3. Dave 29 November 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    Awesome post. As I am only learning the Russian language, I love to hear the music and learn of the culture of Russia. Transparent Language is awesome!

  4. yelena 30 November 2013 at 3:16 am #

    Thank you, Dave!

  5. yelena 30 November 2013 at 3:37 am #

    Ken, both are excellent points! Yes, ночью лунною is just a variation of the lyrics (there are, it seems, as many variations as the artists singing this song).

    And yes, мучить means to torture. However, I wanted to highlight the emotional aspect as opposed to physical harm. So I thought of the synonym of мучить which is терзать as in the phrase терзать душу. It just seemed to go better with the overall тоскливое настроение of this song. Терзать literally means to tear to pieces, but can also be translated as to bedevil. Now, I could say that I connected “to bedevil” to “to obsess” via Dostoyevsky’s “The Devils” aka “Demons”, which, as you know, was first translated into English under the title “The Obsessed”. But in reality I simply chose to translate it as “obsessed” because it rhymed better that way :)

  6. yelena 30 November 2013 at 3:38 am #

    Спасибо Вам, Jeannie, за то, что продолжаете читать!

  7. Irene Kwasha 30 November 2013 at 6:17 am #

    Thank you so much, I hear so little Russian spoken nowadays, it is wonderful to be able to find how much I do remember by following all the great things you put on here, but this one I received today I love so much.

    Sincerely Irene Kwasha, NSW Australia.

  8. David Roberts 3 December 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    Would Нани Брегвадзе be Georgian by any chance? I liked her version as much as Mary Hopkin’s English version – which she made in 1968 after winning a talent show and being spotted by Paul McCartney. Although she (Mary, not Нани) is Welsh, as far as i know she never did a Wesh version of this great song.

    Many thanks for this great nostalgia-producing post!

  9. yelena 6 December 2013 at 4:34 am #

    Indeed, David, you’re correct. Нани was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the post. I kept wondering whether “Zhuravli” had a chance to work with this song.

  10. Kay 10 December 2013 at 8:22 pm #

    Что по ночам так мучила меня.
    Ken is right — it means “tortured”
    I would even suggest “night after night torturing me….”

  11. Kirill 6 February 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    The version performed by Alexander Vertinski (Александр Вертинский) has different lyrics.

    1.

    Ездили на тройках с бубенцами,
    А вдали мелькали огоньки.
    Мне б сейчас, соколики, за вами,
    Душу б мне развеять от тоски.

    Refrain:

    Дорогой длинною
    И ночью лунною,
    Да с песней той,
    Что в даль летит, звеня,
    И с той старинною,
    С той семиструнною,
    Что по ночам так мучила меня!

    2.

    Так, живя без радости, без муки,
    Помню я ушедшие года
    И твои серебряные руки
    В тройке, улетевшей навсегда.

    (Refrain)

    3.

    Дни идут, печали умножая,
    Мне так трудно прошлое забыть.
    Как-нибудь однажды, дорогая,
    Вы меня свезете хоронить.

    (Refrain)


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