Although its roots are often disputed, the balalaika does resemble many East Asian stringed instruments, like the dombra and tanbur. Before the 1500s, jesters or roving minstrels, called skomorokhs, played the balalaika as a form of rebellion, accompanying their tunes with lyrics which ridiculed politics and the Russian Orthodox Church (Wikipedia). Because of this, the church tried to exterminate Russian folk music and its radical underpinnings during the 1600s. It is unsurprising then that the first written documentation of a balalaika is an arrest record from the year 1688. However, the church was unsuccessful in its endeavors, and folk music thrived during the 1700s (Findeizen). Serf orchestras were formed and new demand for music teachers arose all over Russia. Folk music spread over the entirety of Russia (Shepherd), and the balalaika itself became so popular with the lower and middle classes during this period that it seemed every household owned at least one (Rogosin).
Throughout the 1800s, the balalaika remained common, and attitudes toward it paralleled the increasing revolutionary spirit in Russia. During the 1890s (that is to say, the years leading up to the Russian Revolution), Russia experienced two important developments. The first was rapid industrial growth, meaning that more people were working at dangerous factories for a low wage than ever before, and the second was the emancipation of the serfs. From a modern perspective this seemingly benevolent act should have gained the tsar more support. However. while the tsar required that the serfs be freed and that their owners give them a part of their land, the amount of land that the serfs were to be given would never allow them to be anything more than subsistence farmers. Furthermore, the owners were able to choose what land to give the newly freed peasants. The land they chose was often the worst land they owned, making even the most marginal life nearly impossible. While workers' dissatisfaction about poor conditions at factories escalated, the peasantry's disappointment over failed reform grew (Chung). Discontentment was developing in the lower classes, and communism was gaining popularity. A revolution was brewing.
The new subversive attitude of both the proletariat and the peasantry can be seen in their treatment of the balalaika in art. For example, a manufactured glass bottle from the 1890s, currently on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, depicts a peasant playing the balalaika. It is a beautiful object which openly celebrates the common man, symbolized by the balalaika (which was a quotidian instrument). The idolization of the peasant class through this object shows the new focus and empowerment of the former serfs. And because the bottle unites the peasants (the focus of the art), and the proletariat (the creators and intended consumers of the art), the bottle can also be read as a precursor to communism, which would unite these two groups again under the crossed sickle and hammer. The bottle, while aesthetically pleasing, is purposefully utilitarian. The proletariat and the peasants, unified as emerging communists, would have regarded it as artistically attractive because of its functional nature. Future consumers were anticipated to decorate their homes with these bottles, covering their walls in symbols of a singular communistic group of proletariat and peasantry. Due to its appearance in this bottle, the balalaika would have been connected even more strongly to communism and collaboration between workers and peasants.
The history of the balalaika is similar in many ways to the history of the American banjo. Like the balalaika, the banjo is a folk instrument with unclear origins. It is also stringed and fretted and came into conflict with church teachings. During the mid-1700s, evangelical Christians held sway in the United States. Because these people considered dancing to be sinful, they mistrusted the banjo, whose sordid music might bring about dancing or worse. The most important parallel between the banjo and the balalaika was their role in revolution. From the 1600s to the 1800s, the banjo was a common symbol of American slavery. The idea of a contented slave, strumming away on his banjo exemplified a pro-slavery view point. The slaves were contented living as they were- just look at how they danced and played their banjos! However, this image presented a paradox. How could one recognize the slaves' human emotions (like happiness), and human talents (like the ability to create music) and still deny them their humanity (Epstein, 1975)? The question of slaves' humanity became a debate, then a civil war, then a revolution in which an entire class of people was elevated from property to human being.
Although the balalaika's history differs from the banjo's history in that the balalaika was a symbol for unity (the unification of the peasants and workers), while the banjo was a symbol of conflict (abolitionists disagreements with slavery's supporters), the two histories do interweave. The physical resemblance and dissension with established religion draw a connection between the two instruments, but their greatest similarity lies in both instruments' affiliation with revolution and a restructuring of society. Perhaps through revolution in music, man will achieve greater harmony, and discord will fade out like glass bottles.
- Katie Soo, November 2009
Note: The first of these two balalaikas is highly ornate, with hand painting on the body of the instrument and an intricately carved neck. The second is very plain without any painting or carving. Their contrasting styles show the wide variety in the level of decoration found in balalaikas.