The Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov, when visiting Hiroshima, was impressed by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and its monument to Sadako Sasaki, a girl who contracted leukemia as a result of the radioactive contamination of the city. Following Japanese traditions, she constructed one thousands paper cranes, hoping (in vain) that this might save her life. The memory of paper cranes folded by this girl—a girl who to this day serves as one symbol of the innocent victims of war—haunted Gamzatov for months and inspired him to write a poem starting with the now famous lines:
"I sometimes think that the fallen soldiers
Who have not returned from fields of blood
Never lied down to rot beneath our soil
But must have flown off as white cranes..."
The poem was originally written in Gamzatov's native Avar language, with many versions surrounding the initial wording. Its famous 1968 Russian translation was soon made by the prominent Russian poet and translator Naum Grebnyov, and was turned into a song in 1969, becoming one of the best known Russian-language World War II ballads all over the world.
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 on 16 August 1969, about five weeks after recording the song, and the recording 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."
In the aftermath, "Cranes" became a symbol of the fallen soldiers of World War II. So much so that a range of World War II memorials in the former Soviet Union feature the image of flying cranes and, in several instances, even verses of the song, e.g., the Cranes Memorial of St. Petersburg.
Today, "Cranes" is still one of the most popular war songs in Russia.
Since 1986, every 22 October, the Russian republic of Dagestan, the birthplace of the poet Rasul Gamzatov, holds "The White Cranes' Festival."
In 1995, fifty years after the defeat of the Nazis, Russia released a stamp in memory of the fallen of World War II. The stamp depicts flying cranes against the background of the Kremlin's War Memorial to the Unknown Soldier.
Covers and use in other media
- In 2000, Russian opera singer Dmitry Khvorostovsky has released his own version of the song for the 55-year anniversary of Soviet Victory Day.
- In 2003 Marc Almond recorded an English version "The Storks" for his album Heart on Snow.
- This song was featured in a famous Korean Drama called Sandglass (TV series).
- This song would become the theme song of Choi Min-soo, who starred in Sandglass, in Korean variety game show Running Man (TV series).
- The Mark Bernes version was featured in a 2017 episode ("Dyatkovo") of the television series The Americans.
- Valery Leontiev performed this song in 2004
- Serebro performed this song in 2007
- Elena Polyudova (2016). Soviet War Songs in the Context of Russian Culture. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 178. ISBN 978-1-443-88974-2.
- "www.school.edu.ru :: Журавли". Litera.edu.ru. Retrieved 2013-05-24.
- "43 года назад не стало Марка Бернеса". Tatar-inform.ru. Retrieved 2013-05-24.