Sometimes I think soldiers, who have never
come back to us from the blood-covered plains,
escaped the ground and didn’t cross the River,
but turned instead into white screeching cranes.
And since that time the flock is flying, narrow
or wide, or long – and maybe that is why
so often and with such a sudden sorrow
we stop abruptly, staring at the sky.
On flies the wedge trespassing every border –
a sad formation, ranks of do-re-mi,
and there’s a gap in their open order:
it is the space they have reserved for me.
The day will come: beneath an evening cloud
I’ll fly, crane on my right, crane on my left,
and in a voice like theirs, shrill and loud,
call out, call out to those on earth I’ve left.
by Расул Гамзатович Гамзатов (Rasul Gamzatovich Gamzatov) (1968)
translated by Irina Mashinski
This poem was set to music, first performed in 1969, soon becoming one of the most famous Russian songs about World War II.
The poem’s publication in the journal Novy Mir caught the attention of the famous actor and crooner Mark Bernes who revised the lyrics and asked Yan Frenkel to compose the music. When Frenkel first played his new song, Bernes (who was by then suffering from lung cancer) cried because he felt that this song was about his own fate: “There is a small empty spot in the crane flock. 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 earth.” The song was recorded from the first attempt on 9 July 1969. Bernes died a month after the recording on 16 August 1969, and the record was played at his funeral. Later on, “Zhuravli” would most often be performed by Joseph Kobzon. According to Frenkel, “Cranes” was Bernes’ last record, his “true swan song.”