Twenty years ago this week, Sting's song "Russians" entered the US top 40:

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
Mr. Krushchev said we will bury you
I don't subscribe to this point of view
It would 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 of 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 the words in the mouth of the President
There's no such thing as a winnable war
It's a lie that we don't believe anymore
Mr. 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 that the Russians love their children too

Although I didn't really encounter it until a year or two later, this song expressed a lot of my fears (and hopes) about nuclear war and the end of the world (which as you may have noticed, hasn't happened. Yet.) Despite the peacenik overtones, though, it's essentially an affirmation of mutually-assured destruction: our being able to kill their children is the best way to make sure they don't kill us.

Did anyone ever write a "Germans"? Was light entertainment used to comment on the shadow of the bomber in the same way that Sting, and many others, later used it to comment on the shadow of the Bomb? Did popular music express popular fears? I wouldn't be at all surprised to find topical references to gas masks and searchlights in songs of the later 1930s, for example, but I don't know that popular singers and songwriters took themselves seriously enough, back then, to try to comment meaningfully on such weighty topics as the next war and what it's going to do everyone listening to their songs. But then, I don't know much about popular music in my period -- something else to add to the list of things to read up on!

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9 thoughts on “Russians

  1. I don't know if it quite fits your bill, but Noel Coward's song "Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans" definitely expresses some tensions....

    I heard that on the 10-CD set "Songs That Won The War", though I don't know if it's still available. It's quite an education, that collection.

    You might also look at some of Woody Guthrie's music of the time, which was quite inspirational but very frank, as well.

  2. While I'm no expert on popular music in your particular period, Brett, this is a fascinating idea and right up my street in general. I'll be very interested to see how this one develops. I'm also reasonably good at sourcing recordings: even moreso sheet music. If others can point you in the right direction I'm willing to help (or at least attempt) to source anything which might be easier to obtain here in 'the old country'. Just let me know.

  3. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Thanks, Jonathan. It did occur to me that good old Noël was a likely candidate! (Spartacus Educational has the words, if anyone is interested.) It was evidently written well into the war, though -- so it's not quite what I was thinking of. The search continues ... possibly by buying the collection you mentioned! Or something similar.

  4. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Thanks for the offer Jack! It's not really an active line of enquiry at the moment, it's partly idle speculation and partly thinking about ways to get a better handle on the culture of my period. But if I come up with anything concrete that you could help me with, I'll let you know!

  5. Chris Williams

    Don't forget censorship. While popular songs per se may not have been censored in interwar Britain, most of the likely vehicles for their mass dissemination - plays, musicals, film and the radio - all were. So had it been present, the sentiment would not have expressed itself so easily as was possible in the 1970s.

  6. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Oh, I didn't think of that! Was censorship really that heavy? I'm not really thinking of any expression of extreme political views (I wouldn't be surprised if Oswald Mosley And His Orchestra were banned from the BBC), just some sort attempt to understand or address the big international questions of the day through music. The more I think about it, the more it seems likely that there must have been, somewhere -- afterall, back in the 1870s music-hall performers weren't afraid to "discuss" world affairs:

    We don't want to fight, but, by jingo, if we do,
    We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money, too.

    By the 1930s the sentiment expressed would (I expect) be more pacifist than jingoist. But (as usual) I am just speculating, one of the prerogatives of ignorance ...

  7. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Thanks, the uni library has that so I'll have to have a look at it.

    I'm only a third of the way through Warfare State so don't tell me how it ends! :D Where is your review going to appear (if you can say)?

  8. Chris Williams


    Minitech did it.

    It's for _Cultural and Social History_ a newish, light green journal which is produced by the UK's Social History Society. I'm also doing a version for the newsletter of the course I look after at the OU, 'Total War and Social Change'.

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