It inspired partisans and sustained dissidents. Ever since Matvei Blanter and Mikhail Isakovsky penned the neo-retro-folk song in 1938, it has been a perennial favorite in Russia and many of the former Soviet Republics. Kandis Friesen traces its personal and familial significance in her life, as well as its cultural and military influence within the former Soviet sphere of influence in the short but provocative documentary Katyusha: Rocket Launchers, Folk Songs, and Ethnographic Refrains, which screens during the 2017 DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.
Frankly, this is exactly the sort of film that usually doesn’t work, but it does in this case, thanks in large measure to the song’s rich history. The tale of Katyusha pining for her brave lover off defending the motherland in the Great Patriotic War touches many of the same “We’ll Meet Again”/“White Christmas” heartstrings that made plenty of wartime hits in the West, but “Katyusha” continued to linger in the collective memories of plenty of Russians and Ukrainians. In fact, Soviet-era pop star Anna German’s most popular recording was her mid-1960s rendition of “Katyusha.”
However, German had secrets that led Friesen to feel a kinship with the singer, who died prematurely from cancer. They shared a Ukrainian Mennonite heritage and both had relatives who disappeared in the night during the Stalin era. Friesen grew up in Canada, but discovered “Katyusha” as it drifted through the Slavic diaspora, with the help of an expatriate Chinese violinist. In addition to the “soft power” of “Katyusha,” Friesen chronicles its more militaristic side as well. The same lyrically romantic ballad was indeed the inspiration for the name of the Katyusha rocket launcher, recommended by 9 out of 10 leftist insurgents around the world.
Somehow, through “Katyusha,” Friesen creates a chain of links that include the Kalashnikov assault rifle and Sam the Record Man suburban mall stores, in a way that never sounds forced. Her own family history dovetails eerily neatly with that of German’s, as well as that of other divas who have interpreted the song. Frankly, the tragic tone of the song perfectly suits the realities of the Soviet and Putin eras. Friesen’s collage-style visual approach also evokes a sense of a shattered history that must be pieced together as well as possible.