Back in the USSR: the Beatles shaped a generation in Soviet Russia
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By Alexander Bratersky, special to Russia Now
08 Nov 2012
Despite attempts to protect Soviet citizens from the influence of the Beatles, the band was as popular in the USSR as it was in Britain.
The news that John Lennon had been fatally wounded by a gunman in December 1980 shocked his fans behind the Iron Curtain as much as it did those in the West.
The news was heard in Soviet Russia by those who listened to radio news from the West and immediately relayed to all major cities.
On that day, a spontaneous memorial service was held in front of Moscow University by several hundred students. Some had brought an American flag with the stars painted red and claimed the US had not been able to protect Lennon’s life.
In 2012, as the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' first single, Love Me Do (and Sir Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday), the slogan “Lennon lives” is as popular as in Soviet times, when schoolchildren chanted the old Communist slogan: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live,” but replacing “Lenin” with “Lennon”.
“In the rock and roll of Elvis and the ballads of the Beatles we discovered more meaning than in all the articles by Lenin that we were made to read in school and at university,” wrote rock musician Aleksei Rybin.
The Beatles were first mentioned in the official Soviet press in 1964 when the London correspondent for the Soviet youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Boris Gurnov, published an article about the band. Gurnov later said his bosses had taken a dim view of him meeting Lennon.
“At the time the Soviet press saw this as a ‘bourgeois eccentricity in art’," he says. “I wrote a long piece in which I tried to analyse the appeal of the Beatles. I attributed it to certain Freudian complexes: Beatles fans were mostly at the age of sexual maturation.”
Soviet leaders kept any news of these “noxious western trends” out of the media. Meanwhile, Soviet Beatles fans ardently collected facts about the group from the odd western newspaper or magazine that came their way, as well as from the slightly more free Eastern European press.
Despite the dearth of information about the Fab Four, their songs were occasionally included in the Soviet music collections released by the USSR’s only record company, Melodia. Soviet fans heard Girl for the first time in 1967, and in 1972 they were treated to Let It Be – each two years after their UK release. More than 20 Beatles songs were released in the USSR in violation of copyright.
But in 1988 Paul McCartney put together an official album of Beatles songs for his Soviet fans called Back in the USSR (after a White Albumtrack of 1967) and issued half a million copies, the biggest release in the Soviet Union by a foreign musician.
The album sold out almost instantly and was in high demand on the black market. Resale prices rose as high as 100 roubles (the average salary was then 150 roubles a month).
On the cover was a quote from McCartney: “In releasing this record made especially and exclusively for the USSR, I am extending a hand of peace and friendship to the Soviet people.”
But the gesture did not impress the Soviet press, where some commentators referred to the band as “the bugs”. Even the venerable Soviet composer Nikita Bogoslovsky joined the criticism, declaring: “I am ready to bet you that 18 months from now there will be a new group with even more idiotic haircuts and even weirder voices and all the fuss will die down.”
Despite the misgivings of Soviet leaders about the Beatles, a rumour circulated that the Beatles had played at a private government concert in the USSR.
However, it’s more likely that, if there was a concert at all, it would have been performed by the Soviet tribute band Blitz who hailed from the Soviet republic of Georgia. The group, which was approved by the authorities, were renowned for how well they sang Beatles songs in English and were said to have worked hard on their pronunciation. They mastered the haircuts, too.
“Of course, this was fake Beatles,” says Rybin, who attended a Blitz concert.
“But we all grew up on fake sausage, played fake guitars, studied fake history, bought records by fake singers with our fake money, and listened to the fake leader of our government on TV… So fake Beatles was far from the worst of it.”
Paul McCartney eventually came to Russia in 2003 and performed in Red Square. During his visit, he met President Vladimir Putin, who explained the past animosity of former Soviet leaders by saying: “At the time it was thought that the direction in which the Beatles were headed did not fit in with the accepted ideology.”
Today in Russia, the generation that grew up on Beatles songs is in power. Fans include chief of the presidential administration Sergei Ivanov, who was at McCartney’s Red Square concert.
The Beatles inspired a generation of schoolchildren to study English so that they could understand their lyrics, including future economist and politician Grigory Yavlinsky.
“When in the Eighties it became possible to go abroad, I found that there was almost no barrier to communication,” he says. “Then it turned out that people of my generation all had a ‘fundamental code’, a single language: this was the decade spent with the Beatles.”