Russian Language Blog

“Журавли”: Cranes Posted by on Dec 11, 2010 in language

Do you remember David, our guest blogger who wrote about letters of the Russian alphabet and also about why we say “двести“? Not surprisingly given his interest in Russian language he is also a member of a Russian “кружок” [club, lit: small circle]. At one of their recent meetings the club members discussed one of the most beautiful and touching songs, “Журавли” [Cranes], about Soviet soldiers killed in the Great Patriotic War. David was kind enough to send me the notes from the discussion and to allow to post them on this blog.


Мне кажется порою, что солдаты,
С кровавых не пришедшие полей,
Не в землю эту полегли когда-то,
А превратились в белых журавлей.

Они до сей поры с времен тех дальних
Летят и подают нам голоса.
Не потому ль так часто и печально
Мы замолкаем, глядя в небеса?

Летит, летит по небу клин усталый –
Летит в тумане на исходе дня,
И в том строю есть промежуток малый –
Быть может, это место для меня!

Настанет день, и с журавлиной стаей
Я поплыву в такой же сизой мгле,
Из-под небес по-птичьи окликая
Всех вас, кого оставил на земле

First verse

«Мне кажется» [It seems to me] – A very useful expression. Another similar and equally useful expression is «по-моему» [in my opinion], however «кажется» indicates a lesser degree of assuredness.

«Порою», form of «порой»  – here the alternative feminine singular instrumental ending «-ою» is used in place of the more usual modern «–ой». «Порою» comes from «пора» and means “at times” or “on occasion”. Compare this to the word «днём»  [by day] that comes from «день» [day] and «ночью» [by night] comes from «ночь» [night]. It is more common to say «порой». «Пора» in its various forms is used a lot, for example «мне пора» [I must go; lit. to me it’s time] or «с тех пор» [since then; lit. from those times]. Later in the song we see a related expression «до сей поры» [until now].

Right stress in the word «пора» is important. Pronounced as «пора» the word means “pore”.

«…солдаты, с кровавых не пришедшие полей…» –  Here we see how the declension system gives the songwriter the freedom to play with word order in a way that just doesn’t work in English. Translating word-for-word we get “(the) soldiers from bloody not returned fields”. However the Russian makes perfect sense when we see how the case endings match up. «Пришедшие» is a past active participle derived from «прийти» (normally to arrive, but here better interpreted as to return), and its ending «–ие» makes it nominative plural, so it goes with «солдаты» [soldiers]. «Кровавых» [bloody] and «полей» [fields] have genitive plural endings so they go together as adjective and noun, despite having another word between them. Not keeping adjectives and their nouns together was common in Latin, but in Russian I think it is confined to songs and poetry. So the whole phrase «солдаты, с кровавых не пришедшие полей» means: the soldiers who didn’t come back from bloody battlefields.

«Не в землю эту полегли когда-то» – more or less literally the phrase means “did not lie down in that ground then”. Usually «когда-то» means “at some time” (definite but not known or specified by the speaker or writer), but here it doesn’t really work in English and “then” is probably the best way of translating it. Note that «в землю эту» is accusative, so «полегли» suggests the act of laying oneself to rest in the ground rather than the state of being buried. A looser translation perhaps more true to the spirit is “Do not lie in the ground where they fell”…

There’s a very strong imagery connected with the word «полегли» [felled]. When grass is flattened by wind, rain or hail, it is said «трава полегла» [felled grass].  So there’s this very emotional tie-in back to the previous line about «кровавые поля» [bloody fields]. The image is of men like blades of grass, reaching for the sun, but felled by force. Also, there’s a counter-point here: «полегшая трава» [felled grass] can straighten up again in a few hours and continue its growth, but fallen soldiers cannot come back.

«А превратились в белых журавлей.» [But turned into white cranes.] –  «Превратиться» [to turn into] is a useful verb that can be used reflexively, like here, or non-reflexively as in the line from another popular song «Миллион алых роз» [A Million of Scarlet Roses]: «Свою жизнь для тебя превратит в цветы» [Will turn his own life into flowers for you.]

Second verse

«Они до сей поры с времен тех дальних» [Since those times until now] – in «до сей поры», we have «пора» in its singular genitive form, so the implication is “right now” rather than “nowadays”.

«Летят и подают нам голоса.» [(they) Fly and give us (their) voices]

«Не потому ль так часто и печально/ Мы замолкаем, глядя в небеса [Isn’t this why, often, sadly,/ we fall silent, looking into the skies.] Note «замолкаем», from «замолчать», perfective of «молчать» [to be silent]. English lacks a simple verb for saying nothing. Note how the interrogative participle «ли» is shortened here to «ль» (like «бы» is sometimes shortened to «б»). «Небеса» is the plural of «небо».   

Third verse

«Летит, летит по небу клин усталый» – A «клин» is a wedge: obviously here it refers to the V-formation in which these birds fly. Direct translation doesn’t really work in English. Perhaps the best way to translate this line (rather loosely) is “the weary formation flies and flies on through the sky”… 

«Летит в тумане на исходе дня,» [ it flies in the mist at the end of the day…]
«И в том строю есть промежуток малый» [and in that formation is a small gap…] – «Строю» comes from the noun «строй» [here – formation]. It is related to the verb «строить» [ to build]. «Строй» is one of those masculine nouns that has a special prepositional ending «у» or, as in this case, «ю». These special «у/ю» endings are always stressed, and they only apply when the preposition is «в» or «на».  Note that although the noun «строй» can also be translated as “array” or “line-up”, the most contextually appropriate translation in this case is “formation” as in soldiers assembled in formation.

«Быть может, это место для меня – Maybe, that place is for me!

Fourth verse

«Настанет день, и с журавлиной стаей» [The day will come, and with the flock of cranes] – literally, crane flock; «журавлиной» is feminine instrumental of crane as an adjective and «стаей» is instrumental singular of «стая» [flock]. «Стая» is not only for birds – «стая волков» [pack of wolves].

«Я поплыву в такой же сизой мгле» [I will fly in just such a grey gloom.] – «Поплыть» would normally imply moving through water, but the physics of swimming, sailing and flying are basically the same.  

«Из-под небес по-птичьи окликая» [calling from the skies in the language of the birds]. «По-птичьи» is formed in analogy to «по-русски», based on the adjective derived from «птица» [bird, noun] – «птичий» [bird, adjective]. Animal adjectives are soft and decline slightly differently to the normal adjectives – apart from the masculine nominative they have the soft sign «ь» before the case ending. «Окликая» (a present gerundive) is derived from the verb «окликать» [to call to, to hail]. The people who are hailed are direct objects, which helps us make sense of the case endings in the last line…

«Всех вас, кого оставил на земле» [All of you, whom I have left behind on the earth] – The songwriter was able to leave out «я» before «оставил», because the only logical subject for this verb is the «я» in the second line of this verse.

So, here is my free translation:


It sometimes seems to me that all the soldiers

Who never returned from bloody battlefields

Do not lie in the ground where they fell

But turned into white cranes

From those distant times right up to now

They fly and give us their voices

Is this not why we often, and with sorrow

Fall silent, looking to the skies

The weary formation flies and flies on through the sky

It flies in the mist at the end of the day

And in that formation there’s a tiny space

It could be – that place is for me!

The day will come, and with the flock of cranes

I’ll be flying in just such a grey gloom

Calling from the skies in the language of the birds

To all of you I’ve left behind on earth.

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  1. Bruce Dumes:

    Wonderful post!

    You can see the entire movie Летят журавли (“Cranes Are Flying”), which is the film in the youTube clip, at the movie page of my Learning Russian site

    It is a sad and beautiful film, one of my favorites.

    • yelena:

      @Bruce Dumes Hi Bruce, the credit goes to David and other members of the Russian Club. Thanks for the link to the movie. It’s such a poignant one and I simply can’t watch it without tears (nor can I listen to the song without tearing up).

  2. Minority:

    It’s such a wonderful song.. And it always reminds me about one more song about cranes – “Журавлиная песня”. I know they’re quite different, but I think second crane song is worth to listen to 🙂

    Может быть пора угомониться
    Но я грешным делом не люблю
    Поговорку что иметь синицу
    Лучше чем грустить по журавлю

    Я стою машу ему как другу
    Хочется мне думать про него
    Будто улетает он не к югу
    А в долину детства моего

    Пусть над нашей школой он покружит
    Благодарный передаст привет
    Пусть посмотрит все ли еще служит
    Старый наш учитель или нет

    Мы его не слушались повесы
    Он же становился все белей
    Помню как любил он у Бернеса
    Песню все про тех же журавлей

    Помню мы затихли средь урока
    Плыл в окошке белый клин вдали
    Видимо надеждой и упреком
    Служат человеку журавли

  3. Roberta:

    Who wrote these songs, both the one in the blog entry and the one in the comment above?

  4. Sam:


    There’s a little information about these songs on the following links. (and audio files as well)


  5. David:

    Thanks Bruce for the film – I will definitely watch it all through. Minority, I like this song – and it is quite a challenge to translate, so it will be useful exercise for us.

    As a postscript: our кружок decided to give ourselves a name, and, shortly after discussing the song, after an email debate, we settled on Журавли!

  6. Angela:

    Too much is credited to the Russian Circle as David must get all the credit for all the work he did to translate this and share it with us. Thanks David

    • yelena:

      @Angela Angela, it’s so great to meet someone else from the Russian Circle! You guys are amazing!

  7. David Roberts:

    In answer to Roberta’s question, this is from Widepedia:

    Zhuravli (Журавли, English: The Cranes), composed in 1968, is one of the most famous Russian songs about World War II and, arguably, the most beloved song in the Russian-speaking world.

    The Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov, when visiting Hiroshima, was impressed by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the monument to Sadako Sasaki. The memory of paper cranes made by the girl haunted him for months and inspired him to write a poem starting with the now famous lines: “It seems to me sometimes that our soldiers That were not to return from fields of gore Did not lie down into our land But turned into a wedge (triangle) of white cranes…”. The poem was originally written by Rasul Gamzatov in Avar language. Its famous Russian translation was soon made by a Russian poet and translator Naum Grebnyov.

    The poem’s publication in the journal Novy Mir caught the attention of the famous singer and actor Mark Bernes (often called the Russian Frank Sinatra) who revised the lyrics and asked Yan Frenkel to compose the music. When Frenkel first played his new song, Bernes (who was ill with cancer) cried because he felt that this song was about his own fate: “There is a small empty spot in the crane wedge. Maybe it is reserved for me. One day I will join them, and from the skies I will call on all of you whom I had left on the Earth.” . Bernes’ new song premiered in 1969 and has since become one of the best known Russian-language songs all over the world. Bernes died a week after the recording.

    In the aftermath, white cranes have become associated with dead soldiers, so much so that a range of WWII memorials in the former Soviet Union feature the image of flying cranes and, in several instances, even the lines from the song.

    Note that the second song makes reference to the original (sung by Mark Bernes) song.

  8. charles laster:

    Lovely poem/song. Any people who survived, and won(!)the Great Patriotic war, are made of sturdy stuff. What film did the video come from?

  9. David Roberts:

    The film is Летят журавли (“Cranes Are Flying”) – see the first comment from Bruce Dumes. I think the film predates the song.

  10. Yelena Meier:

    This is a beautiful song, thank you for the post

  11. Bruce Dumes:

    I would love to hear more about this “Russian Circle”! Sorry to have to post here to request info, I searched for an email contact to no avail. If someone could post a comment at my Learning Russian site, I’d be most grateful!

  12. Peter L.:

    Большой объем информации. Спасибо вам и сохранить хорошую работу.

  13. Ryszard:

    You made an error. In you words:
    не в землю ету… where it correctly should be: не в землю нашу… therefore you missed and exluded the notion of pain and sorrow that those soldiers did not fall in Russian soil (defending it) but somewhere in foaign land.

  14. David:

    Ryszard, you’re absolutely right. I don’t remember where I got ету from,but I’ve just looked up the original and it is нашу. It does add an extra nuance of meaning as you say. Although of course the song still reminds us of the many who did die on Russian soil.

  15. Marina:

    This is a song certainly very dear to every Russian(or in my case Belarusian) person.

    Here is another version of it:

  16. GINO:

    would someone be kind enough to send me a copy of the music “cranes” please.
    my email address is ….

    thank you