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.


  1. When I started my German degree at King’s College in the Strand in London, in 1965, either that year or the following year, I learnt Russian from a man who worked for the BBC World Service. As far as I understood then, he was the person who suggested the Russian song to whoever produced it with Mary Hopkin. But I don’t remember his name or much about the circumstances, just the mention of the song at the time. That would mean it was made before 1968, wouldn’t it?
    I realize this doesn’t quite add up, but in autumn 1967 I went to Berlin for a year.

  2. Having read more online, and that Gene Rask (?) was heard singing the song in London clubs in the early 1960s, the dates fit better. Perhaps my Russian teacher heard it there and passed on the information?

  3. Willy P’s Russian page on the history of the song (linked in the post) says:
    …the American folksinging group the Limelighters sang it in English with the text of Gene Raskin. The English verses – perhaps no less talented than the original – distantly call to mind the Russian story… In the ’60s events developed swiftly. On March 4 the bored model Twiggy… turned on her TV and suddenly the voice that came from the screen made her shiver. They were showing one of the endless English pop-music contests, “Opportunity Knocks.” On the screen was the shy provincial girl Mary Hopkin (who had just turned 18). According to the British tradition of those day she was singing an American (actually Russian) song, “Those Were The Days.” One of Twiggy’s fashionable friends was Paul McCartney… Just then the Beatles were creating their own company, Apple Records, and advertising for young talent. And what was Mary Hopkin if not obvious talent? It’s not clear whether Twiggy called Paul that very evening or the next day, but a month later Paul presented the young Scottish lass on one of the most popular American TV shows, “David Frost Presents…” Right then work began on the first recording.
    This short biography of Gene Raskin doesn’t say when he wrote his version, but says:
    …the song gained international recognition when it was performed by Maria Schell in the 1958 movie adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov — Raskin’s version contained new English lyrics but retained the original’s lovely melody. Both “Those Were the Days” and Raskin’s original “That’s Just the Way It Goes” were later popularized by the Limelighters; in 1966, while Gene & Francesca were headlining London’s Blue Lamp Club, Paul McCartney caught their act and two years later, while assembling material for his protégé Hopkin’s Apple Records debut, he suggested she record “Those Were the Days” as well.
    That sounds more plausible than the “Twiggy called him up excitedly” story from Willy’s site, I guess. But how the hell do you fit “Those Were the Days” into The Brothers Karamazov??

  4. Not this particular song, but plenty of others collected, if you want to hear authentic Vertinsky, in this audio archive

  5. I’ve found this song by Vertinsky on this site.

  6. ‘The young Scottish lass’ indeed! She was (or is) Welsh.

  7. xiaolongnu says

    You know, that song didn’t just make its way west, but east as well: I have a cassette recording, acquired in China, of a North Korean military chorus and soloist singing a Korean-language version with heavy synthesizer backup. If I can figure out how to produce a digital file of the song, I’ll post it (but don’t hold your breath, we’re moving this week).

  8. Just to highlight the generation gap, until I listened to the Vertinsky I thought you were talking about the theme song to All in the Family (“Boy, the way Glenn Miller played” etc.). For most of us who grew up in the 1970s that is the first song we think of when we hear the title “Those were the days”, and it certainly does not sound very Russian so I was quite confused.

  9. breckes: Many thanks, that was very satisfying (and very Russian!).
    vanya: Generation gap indeed! Of course I’m familiar with the TV show and song, but it will never be my first association.

  10. michael farris says

    xiaolongnu, I am so desperate to hear that it’s not funny. Here’s hoping you get the technology figured out in a hurry!

  11. I was playing a klezmer rendition of this song in a bar the day before yesterday 🙂

  12. xiaolongnu,
    finding recordings of Vertinsky East of Russia (vs.West) is not so surprising: he relocated to China in the 30’s, got married there. His daughter Marianna (who became a famous Soviet movie actress) was born there.
    See Wiki.
    LH, what: not even a cold *thanks*?

  13. I grew up with leftist parents, so this song was frequently in the air. I’ve always assumed it was of Russian origin (perhaps because of the feel of the melody, or the general Dostoyevskian air of the lyrics), though I never knew that definitely till today, I think.

  14. michael farris says

    Uh … since I’m here, I’m surprised that someone as erudite (and a russophile to boot!) like Mr. Hat didn’t know this was originally a Russian song.
    I didn’t know the specifics behind the origin (I thought it was probably WWII vintage) but I knew it was a Russian song translated and popified into English (as My Way was translated from French and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me was from Italian) and I thought everybody in the world and their dog knew that too. I guess we all have puzzling blank spots in our data banks and this makes me less self-conscious about mine…

  15. Tat: Sorry, thanks to you too, of course!
    michael: You’re free to look at it that way, but until I see evidence to the contrary I’m going to go with my assumption that your knowledge rather than my ignorance is the outlier. I’m pretty sure you’d have to go through a lot of fans of the song before finding one who knew it was originally Russian.

  16. In Michael’s defense I don’t think you can spend more than 5 consecutive days in Russia without hearing “Дорогой длинною” blaring out of some speaker or restaurant band so I too would assume most Russophiles are familiar with the song. In fact if they’re under 40 they’re probably far more familiar with the Russian version than the Hopkin (like me). But in LH’s defense I can well imagine that if you grew up with the Hopkin you could hear “Дорогой длинною” for years on end without making the conscious connection that it is actually the same song as “Those were the days” – there are plenty of pop songs with very similar melodies and music appreciation is very subjective. Is My sweet Lord the same song as He’s So fine? No to me, but a judge apparently felt differently.

  17. BTW, “My Way” was translated from French? What’s the story with that? I thought Sid Vicious wrote that song…

  18. Oh, I’m sure anyone who spends significant time in Russia would become aware of the fact, but Michael didn’t say “anyone who spends significant time in Russia,” he said “everybody in the world and their dog.” While I am quite immersed in Russian literature, I have spent very little time in the country: only a few weeks in 1971, a third of which time was spent resentfully playing canasta in a hotel room in Sochi (where our tour leader had scheduled 11 days so she could get a tan). Had I heard “Дорогой длинною” I certainly would have made the connection, but I would also have assumed it was a Russian translation of the Hopkin hit.
    Is My sweet Lord the same song as He’s So fine?
    Absolutely! Not “the same song,” of course, but a clear case of copyright infringement. The first time I heard the Harrison song (which is wonderful), I knew it was a ripoff of the earlier one (which is one of the supreme classics of rock and roll, right up there with the immortal “Be My Baby”).

  19. michael farris says

    My comment may have read a little more harshly than I intended.
    I’ve never spent a day in Russia and don’t remember how/when I learned the song was originally Russian (definitely some years after the Hopkins version which I loved as a kid). Somehow I managed to assume it’s provenance was general knowledge and was just surprised to find that wasn’t the case.
    If it makes Hat feel any better: I was 13 or 14 I think before I realized Omaha was a city and not a state, though I’d been in Nebraska several times by then…and I confused the Phillipines and Puerto Rico too, thinking they were alternate names for the same place until a similar age.
    As for the French origin of My way, there’s some info at:

  20. Very interesting — Céline says it’s a cover of “Comme d’habitude,” a French song written in 1968 by Claude François, and she gives the lyrics in French, English, German, and Spanish. Thanks, Michael!

  21. The site breckes links to above seems to be down now. For those who missed it, an mp3 may be downloaded from here.

  22. ive lived in russia 6 years and never heard that song on the street ever, and im a big fan of vertinsky, im afraid id have recognized it…

  23. My two cents: “Those Were The Days” is not the only sixties pop song based on a Russian antecedent; the Seekers’ song “The Carnival Is Over” takes its melody from the folk song “Стенька Разин”, which is also sometimes called “Волга, Волга, мать родная”. The English lyrics were written by Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom. Okay, that’s one cent. Here’s the other: The English lyrics to “My Way” are by Paul Anka.

  24. Oh dear, that’s the song I was thinking of when I wrote about the BBC World Service earlier. That would confirm the year 1965.

  25. Hi
    Go here
    I run a website for Mary Hopkin perhaps you will find this page of some interest…
    Twiggy did see her and recommend her to Paul, but she was singing Pete Seegers Turn, Turn, Turn…

  26. Come on! I’ve been to Russia many many times, and never, ever heard Дорогой длинною blaring from a loudspeaker- Russians are hardly interested in this style of music. Old style music has long since been replaced by Zemfira, Pugacheva, et al, and they,too, are probably being replaced. I have also known all my life (54) that “Those were the days…” was an English version of a Russian song, probably because I grew up with a Russophile. The song was high on the pop charts here in the US in the 60’s.

  27. Maybe I’m an old fart but I lived in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine from 1990 to 2000 and I heard Дорогой длинною, along with Очи черные, Moscow nights and the other standards many, many, many times and all over the former USSR – on televison, in restaurants, on car radios, etc. I assume Ryazan’ and Gwain have never had the pleasure of dining in a restaurant in Nizhny or Petropavlovsk. Maybe it is all pop music all the time today, but I don’t think everyone over 40 is dead yet. I know plenty of Russians who are hardly interested in Zemfira.

  28. Hi all,
    I am afraid that the song “Those were the days …” is not of purely Russian origin. I guess that it stems from the cultural world of old Galicia, what is today in or nearby southern Ukraina, a region where so many cultures came together. Various folks, Sinti, Roma, Jews, Greeks, people from the mountains where each village had another tradition.
    I just realized that one world-famous song often is attributed to Shostakovich, but in reality it is folk music.
    Listen to the background music:

    In the US this music is attributed to Al Jolson, son of a Jewish cantor:
    But in my view this music is clearly folk from the shtetl, and everybody made use of it,
    paying no single dime to the originators.

  29. Well, nothing human is of pure origin. The fact that struck me is that the song is from Russia and of WWI vintage, which is undeniable. But I take your point, which is a good one; I’m always glad to see reminders of the cultural mix of Eastern Europe in the old days, which so many people are now so eager to forget or deny.

  30. I wondered if more research has surfaced in the 8 years since LH posted it. What I see reported now is that the 1917 provenance is highly questionable, 1924 or even 1925 is more likely (Vertinsky’s recording is from 1926); that Boris Fomin also composed another eternal romance hit, “Только раз бывает в жизни встреча”; that the Russian comeback of the Endless Road also happened in the late 1960s when Nana Bregvadze performed it in a TV movie; that there are versions in French (Dalida), Italian, German, Swedish and many Eastern European languages. Many Russian versions have an unabashedly Gypsy appeal, but the song is also influenced by coachmen’s singing tradition, of course.

  31. What I see reported now is that the 1917 provenance is highly questionable, 1924 or even 1925 is more likely

    Interesting — got a link I can visit?

  32. LH, you can check the first comment on the page I already linked (from the custodian of the author’s archive). Also here:
    Also this page links to site which I think you block, which says that Vertinsky did make his inaugural performance in October 1917, but it isn’t known if *this* song was a part of it. It sounds like a pure conjecture linking one of Vertinsky’s early hits (actually recorded in 1926) with the concert which started his career:
    Песня входила в ранний (до эмиграции)репертуар Александра Вертинского и по одной из версий, с большой вероятностью могла быть впервые исполнена в программе первого бенефиса певца, который состоялся в Москве 25 октября (по старому стилю) 1917 года. В газетах тех дней объявления и заметки о “Бенефисе Александра Вертинского” соседствуют с репортажами о захвате революционными бандитами телефонной станции, телеграфа и Зимнего дворца. Однако не удивительно, что в день октябрьского переворота, овации на концерте вызвала не эта песня, а более мощная, душевная и патриотическая композиция – “То, что я должен сказать” (“Я не знаю зачем и кому это нужно, кто послал их на смерть недрожащей рукой…”). Отдельные исследователи считают что примерно в то “смутное” время песня “Дорогой длинною” и стала одним из главных “шлягеров” в охваченной революцией и гражданской войной России (к сожалению, русских хит-парадов тогда не существовало и проверить это точно невозможно).

  33. I always assumed that it was a Gypsy song originally.

  34. It sounds like a pure conjecture linking one of Vertinsky’s early hits (actually recorded in 1926) with the concert which started his career

    Ah, that makes sense, thanks! I did think “of whose program ‘Endless Road’ could have been a part” (emphasis added) in the blockquote in the original post was a little suspicious.

  35. There is even more legend-making and conjectures in Vertinsky’s story, which is probably not surprising for the Russian fans of the days when his songs remained essentially underground, and when we just knew that he returned to the USSR after many years in Shanghai (while his previous career in Europe and the US, and before that, in pre-revolutionary and Civil War Russia, wasn’t much talked about).

    Nowadays, official discographies list the double with his “Endless Road” (on reverse of this disk) as the US edition, by Columbia Records, dated 1932.

    The much-cited October 25th, 1917, bénéfice of Vertinsky wasn’t a charity event for a cause, as a “benefit concert” translation above might suggest. In Russian parlance, bénéfice was to raise money for the performer himself (the бенефициант worked for the full net proceeds of the concert rather than a fixed fee), and generally to honor one’s record of success. So this bénéfice didn’t have a special meaning (other than associated later by the date of the event), it was just dotting the i’s of the public renown.

    And the equally much-cited applause to What I must say (“I don’t know why, or who needed it, who sent them to death with an untrembling hand…”) is most definitely an anachronistic misconjecture, too. Vertinsky himself insisted that he wrote this song after the events of the October Revolution – that he was moved by the November 13th, 1917 mass funeral of the Junkers killed in brutal fighting against the Reds in Moscow. But others are on record saying that at his Civil War-era concerts in Ukraine, Vertinsky dedicated the song the memory of another group of senselessly killed patriotic kids – of the volunteer defenders of Kiev who took position against advancing Nationalists of Symon Petlyura’s at Petropavlovskaya Borschagovka, at the Western outskirts of town, and were slaughtered on December 1st 1918.

  36. Jose Linde says

    It actually sounds like an Argentine Tango.

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