How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin. The untold story of a noisy revolution. By: Leslie Woodhead. Publisher: Bloomsbury, New York, 2013.
What began as the peak of youthful idealism collapsed under unprecedented cynicism, long before outsiders expected. Whether it was external influences, the corrupting influence of money, or sheer internal opposition, the departure of a key member meant that the rest could not go on. The stab in the back myth continued for many years. Some still refuse to forgive Paul McCartney for leaving The Beatles.
Of course, the lifespans of the Soviet Union and the Fab Four were not exactly parallel, nor entirely similar. Yet according to Leslie Woodhead, a documentary film-maker and former associate of The Beatles, the role of the latter in the decline and fall of the world’s foremost communist state deserves more attention. In a series of visits to the former Soviet Union, Woodhead made it his mission to track down the Soviet Union’s Beatles generation. How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is the story of their resistance to the norms imposed by leaders who, if not omnipotent, allowed no area of popular culture to survive independently of the state.
As in Europe, the Beatles came at an ideal time. Postwar austerity was giving way in the early 1960s to a more dynamic culture, fuelled in no small amount by the invention of the teenager. In the late 1950s, Moscow was roamed by packs of “Style-hunters” (Stilyagi), wearing eccentric outfits and renaming the main thoroughfare through Gorky Park, “Broadway.” These Stilyagi initiated dance-crazes and went to see the few Western films available over and over again, leading Komsomol leaders to fear for their ideological purity.
The so-called “thaw”, initiated under Nikita Khrushchev, poured oil on these flames. American bands were readmitted for the first time since the early 1930s. Khrushchev was then deposed and replaced with a more conservative group of leaders less sympathetic to diversity. But it was too late for the young population of the Soviet Union who had already tasted a more exciting life than the one on offer by the conservative Soviets.
Into this combustible mix of fate, we find John, Paul, George and Ringo. Not the individuals, of course, but the music. Soviet citizens, who had gone for jazz in a big way in the 1930s, found American rock ‘n’ roll too fast and frenetic for their tastes, but the melodies written by The Beatles caught on. Some went to extreme lengths to copy clandestine discs, while others were able to listen through Western radio stations. Most took considerable risks – Soviet hippies were beaten in the streets. Those who sold records could have been charged with profiteering and in extreme cases treated with electro-shock therapy – but this merely led to greater feats of ingenuity in satisfying the burning demand for the music of The Beatles.
Woodhead’s aim in his new book is to explain how this reaction against a period historians have long referred to as one of “stagnation” came to define the generation that oversaw the dismantling of the USSR. His style is anecdotal, allowing the force of his interviewees to come across without dwelling extensively on the causal link between subtle and outright resistance. Rather, Woodhead explains what one fan refers to as the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own country: the feeling that something as innocuous as popular music could be contraband limited the extent to which younger people could identify with the Communist Party and the Soviet state. According to another fan: “After The Beatles, the Iron Curtain was like a fence with holes. That was our secret. We breathed through these holes.”
What is surprising is not merely that the Communist Party officially considered The Beatles undesirable, but that their response was so often contradictory. Soviet leaders would decry the influence of electric guitars, then they would seek to create ersatz alternatives to Western rock groups, such as the American-born troubadour, Dean Reed. Unsurprisingly, these were often far behind the fashion of the times, while the state also put up obstacles, preventing musicians from publishing their songs. The famous Mr Tra-la-la was originally a lyricist, whose frustration at having his songs so frequently rejected, led him to forsake words altogether.
The Beatles themselves were in an ambiguous category. While bodies such as the Komsomol would lead the ridiculing of the Bugs, one enterprising soul had the song Girl released as “an English folk song” on an album of acceptable Western songs published by the then-Soviet Melodiya record label.
As popular music seemed to reach a tipping point, the state press schizophrenically began to cast John Lennon in the image of a peace campaigner, perhaps worthy of admiration after all – so long as the American government remained a common enemy. So ridiculous did these efforts at propaganda become, that parts of 1985’s Live Aid were broadcast as a Soviet-organised concert in support of peace and disarmament in the world. Embarrassingly, this paved the way for a Chernobyl relief concert shortly afterwards, organised by rock fans independently of the state.
These contradictory approaches to popular music had many causes. One early factor in favour of the Soviet Beatles fans was that they were so often the sons of privilege – the ones who had first access to precious records from abroad. Stas Namin, the improbable eclectic grandson of Anastas Mikoyan (an Old Bolshevik who briefly served as head of state in the 1960s), is an instructive example.
Yet another feature of the Party’s approach to popular culture was the conflict between the internationalist ideals of the October Revolution and the “Socialism in One Country” pioneered by Joseph Stalin. As the latter gained ground during the 1930s, Soviet consumerism increasingly came to revolve around home-produced goods, such as Sovetskoe champagne, and Socialist Realist artworks, while jazz, the “proletarian music of American blacks and Jews”, fell out of favour as Russian nationalism was emphasised. Several attempts under Stalin to stamp out use of the saxophone proved not wholly successful, and after his death, the regime conspicuously failed to provide continuity. Instead, creeping dissent was disguised in films such as The Diamond Hand. Khrushchev himself went to the West, promising to bury America, but also to exceed their sausage production. Even his entourage remained unconvinced by the rhetoric, and the nomenklatura used trips abroad to stock up on new suits and consumer goods.
If hatred of The Beatles went as far as the gerontocracy of Andropov and Chernenko, Gorbachev’s glasnost generation was the generation that knew the Beatles. Indeed, if Woodhead’s interlocutors are to be believed, Gorbachev himself may have been a fan. Paul McCartney even recorded an album exclusively for release in the Soviet Union (1988’s inevitably titled Back in the USSR).
You don’t know how lucky you are, boys
Back in the USSR
Based on contacts and parallels drawn with the use of music in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Woodhead links the Beatles generation to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While the scope for the public at large to influence events was limited, a large turnout during the August 1991 coup did cause the plotters to hesitate. Yet this is not in itself sufficient to say that The Beatles brought down communism. Instead, the most that can be said about the freedom Soviet citizens found from official censorship is that The Beatles “prepared Soviet kids for a different lifestyle, different ideologies, different human values”.
That the majority of Woodhead’s interviewees are male is surely significant, but does not necessarily invalidate the point. Women may have had alternative modes of retreat from the oppressive, outmoded public sphere, or they may simply have been marginalised. Woodhead does not attack the subject deeply enough for one to say one way or another, but this is surely an important question. Those who professed their undying admiration for The Beatles betray what Woodhead considers a peculiarly Russian tendency to approach culture with religious fervour. Certainly, some attribute their passion to the Soviet Union’s official disavowal of religion, and others dream of building temples to their idols.
Now that Beatles fandom is normal, their significance is on the wane. Even in the late Soviet period, the legacy of The Beatles was instrumentalised. McCartney’s “golden disc” was often sold to Western collectors, giving Soviet citizens the opportunity to engage openly in entrepreneurial activity. For some, that meant fulfilling lifelong dreams, yet also undermined the feeling of loyalty that had been incubated over so many years of longing.
Music was able to sustain the population of the Soviet Union through a long period in which the government appeared to be stagnating, but in the new, “normal” post-socialist era, its significance is diluted. This is not to say that McCartney’s concerts in Kyiv’s Independence Square and Moscow’s Red Square did not have a tremendous effect on The Beatles generation. On the contrary, Woodhead describes the many who regarded them as a dream come true.
Nonetheless, there is a palpable sense that after so many years of struggle, there is a generational shift, and that in Russia, at least, the politics of music no longer has great relevance. When Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, declares his love of The Beatles and Vladimir Putin is seen tapping his foot at a Paul McCartney concert, the anti-systemic element of rock music is lost, as it arguably has been in the West.
However, it need not be so forever. With Western music no longer so emblematic of freedom and there being little need for rejection of imposed national identities, rock music in countries such as Russia and Belarus has already experienced its own revival. As Evgeny Kaprov reported in New Eastern Europe recently (issue 2/VII/2013), the Belarusian underground music scene is actively subverting the government’s monopoly on culture and politics.
The story of How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is an exciting one, and will instantly appeal to Beatles mythologists. Woodhead’s reminiscences about his time with the band, as well as his stint as an intelligence analyst during the Cold War allow him to pull together a narrative from a string of quirky encounters. Like other works on Soviet rock, including Art Troitsky’s tome, there is plenty of food for thought in this version of the history of the late-Soviet period for specialists and non-specialists alike. Hidden though they may be, there are all kinds of diversity in humankind. Whether diversity will always find ways at undermining attempts to deny human choice, or whether the USSR was a morass of contradictions susceptible to human culture, only one thing remains certain. It really is hard to find someone who really dislikes The Beatles.
Josh Black studied Russian and Eastern European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and now works as a freelance journalist.