Glorious Sea the Sacred Baikal: History

June 16 2010   10 Commented

Lake Baikal

In 1848, the district school superintendent of Upper Udinsk, a local historian and writer, Dmitri Pavlovich Davydov (1811-1888), wrote the poem “Thoughts of a fugitive on Baikal.” It was devoted to the fugitives from prison. In an interview, the author told the St. Petersburg newspaper Golden Fleece:

“Fugitives from factories and settlements are generally known as “passers” They are extraordinarily courageous in overcoming the natural obstacles along the way. They go across mountain ridges, through swamps, swim enormous rivers on fragments of wood, and there were some cases where they risked crossing Lake Baikal in barrels that they sometimes found on its shores.” The fugitives were supplied with bread and other items by local inhabitants, who would leave them outside of their houses at night.

The poem became the basis for the lyrics of this very popular folk song, Glorious Sea, the Sacred Baikal, whose music was composed by unknown prisoners working in the Nerchinsk mines.

Lake Baikal is located in the south of the Russian region of Siberia (between Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and the Buryat Republic to the southeast, near the city of Irkutsk.) It is the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world with an average depth of 744.4 m (2,442 ft) and contains a total of roughly 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. It is also the world’s oldest lake, being more than 25 million years old and is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, two thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

A powerful wind—the Barguzin—blows across the central part of the lake. In the song, the singer implores the Barguzin to “stir the billowing waves….” The barrel referred to as the “glorious ship” is a barrel used to cure the omul fish. This species, found only in Lake Baikal, is considered a delicacy but is also listed in Russia as an endangered species. The sail—the “caftan all in holes”—refers to the escapees’ use of their clothing to make a sail for their fish barrel ships.

The towns mentioned in the song, Nerchinsk, Shilka and Akatuy were all places where both criminal and political prisoners served their sentences at hard labor. A silver-lead mine was opened at Akatuy in 1815, and prisoners were used in ore extraction from the mine. Prisoners at Shilka worked on building the Trans-Siberian Railway. Read the special section below for more about these towns.

On the shore of Lake Baikal
Leonid Kharitonov on the shore of Lake Baikal.

Leonid Kharitonov was born not far from Lake Baikal in the small Siberian village of Golumet and so feels a special connection to this song. He grew up in Golumet, attended school in Irkutsk and got his start singing with the chorus and as a soloist of the Irkutsk Philharmonic. He relates that when he decided to go to Moscow at age 17 to begin his singing career, he first went to Lake Baikal “in order to ask for its blessing.” During later years, when he had the chance, he often returned to the lake to give thanks for its blessing and spiritual help. Living in Moscow since 1952 and performing all over the world during his long career, he was especially pleased to return yearly to Siberia to perform between 2001-2005.

This performance is from a 1991 solo concert in Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, accompanied by the Osipov Orchestra of National Folk Instruments directed by Nikolai Kalinin.


Славное море – священный Байкал!
Славный корабль – омулёвая бочка!
Эй, баргузин, пошевеливай вал, –
Молодцу плыть недалечко.

Долго я тяжкие цепи носил,
Долго бродил я в горах Акатуя.
Старый товарищ бежать подсобил,
Ожил я, волю почуя.

Шилка и Нерчинск не страшны теперь,
Горная стража меня не поймала,
В дебрях не тронул прожорливый зверь,
Пуля стрелка миновала.

Шел я и вночь, и средь белого дня,
Близ городов, озираяся зорко,
Хлебом кормили крестьянки меня,
Парни снабжали махоркой.

Славное море – священный Байкал!
Славный мой парус – кафтан дыроватый!
Эй, баргузин, пошевеливай вал,
Слышатся грома раскаты.

Glorious sea the sacred Baikal!
Glorious ship – the omul fish barrel!
Hey, the Baikal wind, stir the billowing waves –
The lad doesn’t have far left to sail.

I’ve been wearing heavy chains for a long time
I’ve been  wandering in the mountains of Akatuy
An old pal helped me to escape,
And I returned to life, feeling the newly found freedom!

I’m not afraid of Shilka and Nerchinsk anymore –
The mountain guards didn’t manage to catch me,
The wild beasts didn’t touch me in the thickets,
And the shooter’s bullet passed me by…

I was going at night time and in the day time
Near the towns I was carefully looking around.
Country women fed me with their bread
And lads supplied me with tobacco.

Glorious sea the sacred Baikal!
My glorious sail – the caftan all in holes!
Hey, the Baikal wind stir the billowing waves –
The rumble of thunder can already be heard!

Coat of Arms of Nerchinsk Nerchinsk: The city was founded in 1653 by Cossacks. The city is located on left bank of the Nercha river, 7 km from its point of connecting to the Shilka river and 305 km to the east of Chita city. It was the main location in Eastern Siberia for criminal and political prisoners sentenced to a hard labour. In 1869 the Nerchinsk state convict prison’s headquarters was founded and subordinated to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tsarist Russia. First, the state convicts arrived in Sretensky transit prison and then they were distributed to convict prisons of three neighbouring administrative districts, including the town of Akatuj. During the Civil War, Nerchinsk was occupied by the Japanese interventionists.

Akatuy: Here, in 1815, the silver-lead mine was opened. And beginning in 1832 the Akatujsky convict prison existed in the town at the Akatujsky mine located 625 km from the city of Chita. The prisoners’ labour was mainly used in ore extraction. In 1890 it was converted to penal servitude for political prisoners.
Coat of Arms of Shilka Shilka: The town used to be a Cossack center. It was named after the Shilka river, known from the very beginning of the Baikal region’s development by the first Russian explorers (pioneers). A railway station of the Trans-Siberian main line was under construction then and the state convicts from neighboring communes worked on it.


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10 Responses to “Glorious Sea the Sacred Baikal: History”

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  5. Informatika says:

    How does the folk song “Glorious Sea, the Sacred Baikal” depict the courageous journey of fugitives known as “passers” across Lake Baikal and the surrounding region, and what are some notable geographical and historical references within the song? Please visit tel u

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  7. Justus Naumann says:

    Thank you, thank you. Finally the lyrics and a translation to this beautiful song I have listened to for nearly 30 years. A public radio program in Minneapolis, KSJN, had a “roots” and folk music show for many years. Every once in a while they would play Beautiful Lake Baikal by the Pyatnitsky chorus, and even without knowing the words it always brings tears to my eyes. Thankyou.

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    • admin says:

      You’re very welcome! We’re glad that you have enjoyed this wonderful song for so many years and can continue to enjoy it even more due to our modest efforts. We’re trying to provide translations and lyrics for all the songs in the singer’s repertoire in order to fully share his work of art with fans all over the world.

      All the best to you!

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  8. Joel Fithian says:

    Thank you so very much. A beautiful song! A Place and history I know so little of. Beautifull Lake Baikal! Best always, Joel Fithian

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    • admin says:

      Dear Joel.

      We’re very happy that you appreciate this song and history! Thank you for your good wishes, and all best to you too!

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      Rating: 3.0/5 (2 votes cast)

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