Best Russian Songs: Nezhnost’ (Tenderness)

On the 55th anniversary of the first manned space flight, The Russianist remembers Gagarin’s favorite song, and one of the best Russian songs ever written.

“You keep flying, and stars share with you all their tenderness . . .”

—N. Dobronravov, S. Grebennikov, “Tenderness” (translation by V. Zakharov)


On the chilly morning of April 12th, 1961, Russian test pilot Yuri Gagarin called out “Poekhali!” (“Let’s go!”) and became the planet’s first astronaut (or, rather, cosmonaut), turning the page in the history of space exploration.

Four years later, poets Sergey Grebennikov and Nikolay Dobronravov and composer Alexandra Pakhmutova wrote a song dedicated to all Russian aviators and cosmonautst, which turned out to be one of the best Russian songs of all time. Performed by the peerless Maya Kristalinskaya, it captures everything that was good about the Soviet music scene: lyrical, sensuous (but not sensual), breathtaking and throat-lumping.

One look is worth a thousand words:

Notice how Kristalinskaya, with nothing but her eyes, makes all the underfed and underclothed starlets of our time pale in comparison.

We can only guess if it really was Gagarin’s favorite song as an urban legend claims, but we know for sure that the cosmonaut did love it. In Pakhmutova’s own words:

We were good friends with the family of test pilot Georgy Mosolov. Once, we were celebrating his birthday. It was 1967. Gagarin called Mosolov, congratulated him, and asked me. I picked up the phone, and he said: “Alechka, I want to tell you that, right before the launch, Volodia Komarov asked me to thank you and Kolia [Nikolay Dobronravov] for ‘Tenderness.'” It was Komarov’s last flight . . .

Below is my loose translation of the first verse of the song—although it miserably fails to convey the piercing power of the original lyrics.

Earth is empty when you’re not around;
Minutes flow like hours, and hours like days.
Still, the orchard leaves keep falling down,
And the cabs keep rushing on their ways.

Oh, how empty has the world become without you.
And you, you keep flying, and stars
Share with you all their tenderness . . .

Note how the writing moves from more or less conventional rhymes in the beginning to almost prose in the end. This creates an effect akin to moving from imagination to reality; to an almost tangible feeling of loneliness.

Interestingly, the music of this song preceded its lyrics and was written by Pakhmutova on a request from Tatyana Lioznova, the director of Three Poplars at Plyuschikha. But Dobronravov admits that the first line—”Earth has become empty without you”—was born in his mind right after he heard the music. The fact that Pakhmutova and Dobronravov were (and still are) spouses probably helped.

There exists a “male” version of the song, telling the same story from the perspective of the astronaut who had left his loved one on the ground:

In the age when partings rule the world,
Life is tougher yet for those who stay,
For to wait is harder than to risk
For the billion stars dividing us.

As the radiation storm is raging below,
I still feel you down there on Earth
Sending me all your tenderness . . .

There are many covers of “Tenderness” — perhaps (?) more than of any other Soviet-era song. But my personal favorite is the one by the punk-rock band Priklyucheniya Elektronikov, which gives it a heavy (but still very romantic) twist:

This is just one example that shows that the Soviet legacy lives on in the modern Russian culture. Which, if you ask me, is a good thing, for the USSR was not only about repressions and restrictions, but also about ambitions and aspirations. And sometimes even tenderness.