I recently acquired Richard Stites’ Russian popular culture: Entertainment and society since 1900 and am working my way happily through the first chapter, “In old Russia 1900-1917.” I was reading about the superstar Alexander Vertinsky, the “Russian Pierrot” (bio in Russian), when I was thunderstruck by the offhand parenthesis in this sentence: “His rendition of ‘Endless Road’ (‘Dorogoi dlinnoyu,’ known in English as ‘Those Were the Days’) is one of the classics of his repertoire.” “Those Were the Days” is a Russian song?! Turns out that indeed it is. (This page has the text in Russian and English.) It was written by the composer Boris Fomin (stress on the final syllable of each name) in collaboration with the forgotten poet Konstantin Podrevsky circa 1917, and according to this Russian page on the history of the song:
[Vertinsky’s] first benefit performance (of whose program “Endless Road” could have been a part) took place October 25, 1917. In the newspapers of those days announcements and notices of the Vertinsky benefit are cheek by jowl with reports about revolutionary bandits seizing the telephone, telegraph, and Winter Palace. But it’s not surprising that on the day of the coup it was not that song that called forth an ovation but “To, chto ya dolzhen skazat'” [What I must say] (“I don’t know why, or who needed it, who sent them to death with an untrembling hand…”). But it was around then that “Endless road” became one of the biggest “hits” in Russia (unfortunately, then as now there were no Russian hit parades, and it’s impossible to verify the fact).
So the song, which for members of my generation calls up that magical year 1968, for an earlier Russian generation brought World War One and the Revolution to mind. Nostalgia is what it used to be, but its objects keep changing.
Jonathan’s Boring But Useful Site (not boring at all!) makes this point: “Consider how much cash has been made from the 1960s hit Those were the days my friend (Mary Hopkin, 1968), and then ask yourself how much of it found its way to the family of Boris Fomin 1900-1948 who wrote the song on which it was based (called Дорогой длинною, with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii).” Jonathan also mentions a recording by Vertinsky, but the link is to a defunct webpage; anybody have a working one? I’d love to hear the voice that first made the song a hit.