On November 9, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, PBS in New York (check your local listings for date and time in your area) will air the 60-minute documentary How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin. The film is co-produced by WNET.ORG and London’s Blakeway Productions.
You’ve probably seen that very raw two-minute clip of the Beatles playing “Some Other Guy” at the Cavern in Liverpool in 1962. That clip was shot by a filmmaker by the name of Leslie Woodhead. Twenty-five years later, while Woodhead was making films in Russia, he first became aware of the major impact that Beatlemania had in the Soviet Union. Now Woodhead has made a film that explores the lasting power of the Beatles in the former communist bloc.
The Beatles and their music were banned in the Soviet Union, but that did little to deter the fans of the Liverpool band. In the ’60s, there was a flourishing black market in Beatles music, which was recorded onto x-ray film, creating flexi-discs that were called “ribs” because you could often see the image of someone’s bone structure on the discs. After purchase, the music on these discs was transferred to tape recorders, giving it a longer shelf life. Tribute bands were formed. In St. Petersburg, Kolya Vasin built a “Temple of Peace and Love” to John Lennon. All of this was illegal and carried a high degree of risk.
In the film we meet Vasin and visit his museum. We hear from Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, who nervously tells us that he learned English from bootleg Beatles recordings. Russian “rock commentator” Artemy Troitsky provides the context in which these events took place, and we see a number of the tribute bands in performance, for better or worse.
Of course the Beatles were never allowed to play in the Soviet Union, although a wild rumor is recounted that has their plane touching down in Soviet territory when they were on their way to Japan, and the claim is made that they gave an impromptu acoustic performance on the wing of their plane at the military airfield. It’s more of a fantasy than anything else. Rumors aside, it was a very big deal when Paul McCartney brought his band to Moscow’s Red Square in 2004. He was the first member of the Beatles to appear in Russia.
The point of all this is that the Beatles provided a glimpse of hope, a sense of freedom to the younger generation in the Soviet Union, and it was when that generation reached maturity that the “Evil Empire” unraveled. The irony is that billions of Cold War dollars were spent in an effort to bring down the Soviet Union while, according to Troitsky, “I’m sure the impact of all those stupid Cold War institutions has been much, much smaller than the impact of the Beatles.”
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