The most depressing baby songs ever: Russian ones


In America, we sing songs to babies to calm them down, to get them to go to sleep, and to make them feel safe and loved.  This is not the case in Russia.  In Russia, women sing songs to their babies to warn them of death, starvation, and wolves. And this is sung in a mildly soothing and pacifying voice, one that has been carried through generations of Russian Suffering. In my mom’s case, it was also Russian Jewish suffering.  

I’m not kidding.  Strangely enough, these songs were the highlight of my youth and something I plan to sing to my children when they are born (which will not be at least for another two years, no matter how many times my mom tells me that she’s not getting any younger and will most likely die next week without seeing her grandchildren.)

In America, we have lullabys like this:

“May you wake when the day chases darkness away.” Something about lilies and gently sleeping. This could be a Serta mattress ad. So peaceful and calm and happy.

In Russia, this is the song I was sung when I was little:

Here are the lyrics, not kidding:

Oh, such an evening, such an evening.

I slept little last night

I slept little last night,

And in my dream, a vision came to me:

In my dream, a vision came to me:

As if my black steed,

Played and danced and went wild,

And bucked under me,

Played and danced and went wild,

And bucked under me

And Esau the prophet (as in, he predicts the future),

He deciphered my dream

Oh, he said, your wild and untamed head will fall (as in someone will decapitate you),

Then the wild, untamed winds came upon me

From the Eastern side

And they tore the black hat from my wild and unruly head

And they tore the black hat from my wild and unruly head

Oh, such an evening, such an evening.

I slept little last night

I slept little last night,

And in my dream, a vision came to me:

That’s right. It’s a song about how a guy, Stenka Razin, a famous Russian folk hero, has a dream that his horse will throw him and the wind will take his hat, which his seer interprets to mean that he will get his head cut off in battle. It’s a pretty good reason to have insomnia. It’s a GREAT song to sing to a 3-year-old.

Here is another gem that my mom sung to me when I was little:

Why do you stand, swaying

Oh slender birch tree

With your head bent

To your very stem?

But across the road

Across a wide river

Similarly lonely

Stands a tall oak tree.

How can I, birch tree,

Clamber over to the oak tree?

I wouldn’t bend and sway then as I do now,

I wouldn’t bend and sway then as I do now,

With my slender branches,

I would lean against him

And with his foliage

I would whisper day and night.

BUT THE SONG ENDS. AND THE BIRCH TREE IS STILL ALL ALONE. What kind of sick person would sing this song to their children? My mother, that’s who. Keeper of Top 40 Songs of Grief and Sorrow. Basically, all the songs on the Top 40 are Russian national folk songs.

But just so you don’t think my mom crushed my spirit early, it was pretty much everyone in Russia that sang these songs to their kids. There are worse ones. And there’s a reason I’ll sing them to mine, aside from the fact that I would also like my children to become cynical about life at an early age. EVEN THE FREAKING BIRCH TREE CAN’T GET ANY LOVING.

I remember, one lonely winter night sophomore year in college, at Penn State. I was doing my homework in the computer lab, listening to Russian radio on my headphones. It was cold and dark and miserable outside, and all my friends were somewhere else. My roommate at the time, who I hated, was also not around. It was just me, and I was feeling a little bit homesick. And then, the first song “Oi to ne vecher,” about Stenka Razin, came on the radio. I think I hadn’t heard that song for about 12 years or so. And suddenly, I felt extremely sad, as if someone had plucked a single chord inside of me, like a harp and the sadness resonated inside, near my heart.

I ran to my dorm room and started bawling. And I didn’t even know why. I just bawled for about half an hour with that song in my head. And then I remembered it was because my mom had sung that song to me when I was little and that I missed her. That’s when I started going home more on weekends from college and spending more time with my parents.

That’s the kind of thing I want to instill in my children. That, and the sense that at any moment, they could die.