I happened to catch a documentary on public television the other night called How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin. Released in 2009, and directed by Leslie Woodhead, it has a provocative thesis: All that money and effort that the United States and other Western countries spent trying to sow discontent in the Soviet Union had nowhere near the impact there that the Beatles did, even though the Beatles weren’t trying to have an impact. In fact, to hear the former-Soviet citizens interviewed for the film tell it, the four lads from Liverpool did more to topple communism in the Soviet Union than just about anyone else. This thesis cannot be proven. The evidence for it is entirely anecdotal. But who cares? The film succeeds in documenting the profound and lasting impression that the Beatles made on the Russian people. It’s delightful to watch, as well as deeply reassuring, in that it demonstrates the universalism of great art.
The most fascinating part of the film, for me, was seeing how bootleg Beatles recordings were made by transferring their songs, which had been recorded on tape recorders from foreign radio broadcasts, into cut grooves on used radiographic film, i.e. old, discarded x-rays of, mostly, lungs. The resulting “flexi-disks,” which could be carried on one’s person hidden inside a coat sleeve, were sold on the black market, at great personal risk to buyer and seller from the Soviet authorities, for three rubles a pop. The flexi-disks were referred to as “ribs” because of the x-ray images on them. Due to the limited longevity of these recordings, buyers then usually transferred the songs back to tape for more permanent safekeeping. Now that’s dedication. Also, how many kids in the West went to stores and bought electric guitars as a result of seeing or hearing the Beatles? Millions, undoubtedly. But Beatles fans in the Soviet Union couldn’t buy electric guitars, at least early on, because they simply weren’t allowed. So they made their own, from scratch. I thought I was a pretty devoted fan of the Beatles, but I’m a piker compared to these guys.
To an unusual degree even for a rock group, each Beatle as an individual has always been a focus of intense interest. Fans can expound at great length on the contributions made by, and the differences between, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. It is no surprise that Russians have a special place in their hearts for John. John and George were the more “philosophical” members of the group, but while George projected serenity and acceptance, with John you could feel the anger and pain never far below the surface. Has any recording artist ever made a more blistering album than the one John made right after the Beatles broke up? It seems to me that the Soviets were in a better position to empathize with John than any other fans on the planet. John Lennon was a “brother Russian” as far as they were concerned.
But however much fans made of the individual Beatles, it was as a group that their impact was greatest. I, and many others, would argue that the core of their greatness lay in the songwriting: besides the yin and yang of John and Paul – who, as songwriters of genius, played off each other so well – you had both of them pushed to the max by George’s emerging talent in this department (in practically any other group, he would have been the lead songwriter). And no Beatles song could possibly have meant more to the Russians than “Back in the USSR.” With the Iron Curtain standing between them and a lot of Western music, it’s unclear how many Russians “got” the parodic references in the song to the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry (and his song “Back in the USA”), but it hardly matters. “Back in the USSR” is an infectious, hard-driving rock-n-roll song, and it’s fun. You don’t have to be Russian to love it, but if you are, so much the better.
The film even relates an elaborate mythology that “Back in the USSR” inspired in the Soviet Union: that the boys from Liverpool had trouble with their plane while flying to a concert in the Far East, and had to land in the Soviet Union, and that while waiting they performed an impromptu concert on the wing of the plane! It could never have happened, but the story wouldn’t die, and they’re still telling it to this day.