MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian military choir that lost most of its singers in a plane crash Sunday is often described as the Kremlin's "singing weapon."
The Alexandrov Ensemble, sometimes referred to as the Red Army choir, was founded in the 1920s. It won global fame with its patriotic repertoire during Soviet times, but in recent years has sought to cater to modern audiences. Many of its performances have gone viral, including a rousing rendition of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" by singers in full military dress at the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Sixty-four members of the ensemble, including director Valery Khalilov, were heading from Sochi to Russia's air base in Syria to perform a New Year's concert for troops when their plane crashed into the Black Sea on Sunday. All 92 people on board are presumed dead.
"It's difficult to grasp the scale of that tragedy," Moscow city's culture department head Alexander Kibovsky said in televised remarks. "They were raising pride for our culture, our country, across the entire world."
As word of the crash spread Sunday, people placed bouquets of flowers outside the ensemble's Moscow headquarters.
"We all loved this ensemble," said Moscow resident Mark Novikov. "We valued it. They are our brothers, our friends, our colleagues."
The 186-member ensemble includes a band and a dancing troupe along with the choir that had about 70 singers. Viktor Yeliseyev, head of the rival choir of the Russian National Guard, said most of the Alexandrov Ensemble's singers were on the plane.
Among the few who stayed back was soloist Vadim Ananyev, whose wife just delivered a baby and pleaded with him to remain at home to help. The couple has three small children.
"I feel as if I were hit over the head," he said. "I still can't believe it. They are telling me now I was born with a silver spoon."
The Interfax news agency said another member of the choir was denied access to board at the last minute because his foreign passport has expired.
The choir was founded in 1928 by composer and conductor Alexander Alexandrov, and after his death in 1946 was led by his son, Boris Alexandrov. Alexandrov, who headed the choir for more than 40 years, made it famous worldwide.
Pavel Kogan, the director of Moscow State Academic Symphonic Orchestra, described the choir as "a symbol of the country."
"It was impossible to imagine what happened, even in a nightmare," he said, according to Snob online publication.