7 - The Beatles and the fall of the Soviet Union
7 - The Beatles and the fall of the Soviet Union
In mid-2009 a sculpture of The Beatles was unveiled by the Iset River in the center of Yekaterinburg, the largest city in the Ural Mountains in western Russia. The outlines of the four musicians are featured as white silhouettes fixed to a brick wall. Under the figures is the lyric: The love you take is equal to the love you make.
Vladimir Popov, president of the local Urals Beatles Club, said the band is depicted on stage because that is their natural state.
The fact that there are few “Beatle fan clubs” left on the planet – but one of them is in the Ural Mountains – testifies to the love affair the former Soviet Union had with The Beatles. Famed director Milos Forman is convinced that The Beatles are greatly responsible for the fall of communism in The Soviet Union.
“It has long been an argument that teenagers’ desire for blue jeans and western music brought down the Iron Curtain. However it was actually the regime’s criticism of The Beatles that punched a hole in their own credibility.”
Russian academic Mikhail Safonov says The Beatles did more for the destruction of totalitarianism than the Nobel prizewinners Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.
They did more to undermine the system than the most anti-Soviet literature for which people went to jail. Adds Russian rock commentator Artemy Troitsy:
“The Beatles turned tens of millions of Soviet youngsters to another religion. They alienated a whole generation of young, well-educated, urban Soviet kids from their communist motherland. The West spent millions on undermining communism but it had much less impact than The Beatles did.”
In 2006, Yury Pelyushonok, a Canadian-based researcher of Soviet studies who grew up in the Soviet Union, published: Strings For a Beatle Bass. The book dealt with the Beatles generation in the USSR and how it transformed the Cold War.
“The Soviet authorities thought that The Beatles were a secret weapon of the cold war because the kids lost their interest in all Soviet unshakable dogmas and ideals and stopped thinking of English-speaking persons as the enemy. They wouldn’t pay attention to the fact that The Beatles were allowing us a little bit of a way to escape when there was no escape. They were a window to Western culture, whispering a promise that something exciting and worthwhile existed beyond the Iron Curtain. After The Beatles, communism was like a fence with holes. We breathed through those holes.”
It’s been suggested that Soviet communism ended when a new generation of the educated class – who normally would have gone to work as bureaucrats and functionaries to run the system – went missing. The Beatle-inspired youth knew that the Communists and their decrepit system were empty, rotten and corrupt. The Beatles enabled people to see reality clearer. Missing the most capable and smartest people, the quality of the civil services and government-owned enterprises began to crumble. By the late 1980s were no longer able to function as a whole generation went missing.
The authorities refused to even mention their name
Officially, The Beatles were called “the capitalist pollution” and nicknamed “Bugs” by the Soviet media (the word has negative connotations in Russian). “Beatlyi” was the generic word to describe things by The Beatles, but mostly as a catch-all word for seditious teenager or kids who made trouble.
They also influenced the Soviet dress code. Collarless Beatles jackets, known as “Bitlovka”, were assembled from cast-offs; clumsy army boots were refashioned in Beatles style.
Their music was banned in the Soviet Union. The only way to hear it was to pick up a radio signal from Radio Luxembourg, in secret. These were then used to create very low level tape recordings from the radio speaker. They would copy them on to the only vinyl they had – old X-ray plates cut into circles – using state recording booths provided for homesick soldiers to send messages home. It had to be flexible vinyl so black marketers could shove it easily up their sleeves before selling it. The make-do records were referred to as: “Records on Ribs.”
In late 2009, British documentary maker Leslie Woodhead, premiered How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin. He discovered their huge influence behind the Iron Curtain while making a film about “Red Elvis,” Dean Reed, in the 1990s. That put him in touch with people who told him about the importance of The Beatles in the USSR. They were very insistent that not only were The Beatles huge from the Berlin Wall to Vladivostok, but that they’d played a really significant part in helping to wash away communism.
It was then that the British film director realized that they had more of an effect on the youth and the rebellious nature than in the West:
“In the East – The Beatles were branded illegal. You could lose your education or your job if you smuggled in a Beatles album.”
How the authorities dealt with them
By the 1970s the Soviet authorities had awakened to the fact that they had lost the battle and began to bootleg Beatle albums. The state record label pressed millions of Beatle records without having to pay royalties to EMI. The songs were credited to “Vocal Instrument Ensembles”. They were named correctly, but they were credited to “a vocal-instrumental group” with the publisher being simply “a writer.”
“The regime decided since they couldn’t stop the influence The Beatles were having on their youth – they might as well profit from it. They didn’t put the word Beatles on the label – but made it look like they were a Russian creation.”
The film shows how several generations of Soviet kids fell in love with the music – without even understanding the lyrics. They knew the music years before they even knew their individual names.
To delegitimize the capitalist West, the Soviet state used Beatle songs in other ways. For instance, Can’t Buy Me Love was part of a soundtrack in a documentary made by the state of the evils of capitalism. The Soviet authorities claimed the song was about
Academic acceptance of the theory
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian intellectuals have been free to tell the whole story. In a 1996 article in the Kiev Post entitled: Communism Destroyed, Alexander Zheleznjak wrote: “The Beatles destroyed Communism inside of me long before ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’.”
In the August 2003 edition of the academic periodical History Today, Mikhail Safonov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History at St. Petersburg, wrote:
“It was Lennon who murdered the Soviet Union. He did not live to see its collapse, and he could not have predicted that The Beatles would cultivate a generation of freedom-loving people throughout this country that covers one-sixth of the Earth. But without that love of
freedom, the fall of totalitarianism would have been impossible, however bankrupt economically the communist regime may have been. The music came to us from an unknown, incomprehensible world, and it bewitched us. The history of The Beatles’ persecution in
the Soviet Union is the history of the self-exposure of the idiocy of Brezhnev’s rule. The more they persecuted something the world had already fallen in love with, the more they exposed the falsehood and hypocrisy of Soviet ideology.”