How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin
by Leslie Woodhead (2013), following his 2009 documentary film of the same name.
Book review By Alan Chrisman, 2 August 2013
Shortly after I wrote my own book about how Beatles’ music has influenced my own life “IT’S A LONG WAY HOME”, I got a copy of Leslie Woodhead’s new book “HOW THE BEATLES ROCKED THE KREMLIN”. I turned first to the chapter about my friend, Yury Pelyushononk. I had met Yury at the first Ottawa Beatles Convention which I organized in 1995. He told me some amazing stories about what it was like trying to play banned Beatles’ music growing up in the Soviet Union. And I suggested at that time that he write it down. And he did by two years later and gave me one of the original copies of his book, “STRINGS FOR A BEATES BASS”, of anecdotes and personal experiences, such as having to making his own guitar and using old X-rays to record, etc. Upon reading it I thought it would make a great movie.
And it was to partly inspire BBC film director, Mr. Woodhouse’s 2009 film” HOW THE BEATLES ROCKED THE KREMLIN”. In 2007, a handful of us had met in Yury’s Ottawa, Canada backyard for Yury to be interviewed and to film his song” YEAH YEAH VIRUS” which was used as a sort of theme throughout. In fact, even myself and Tony Copple, co-founder of the Ottawa Beatles Site, are mentioned, not by name, but description (Vietnam war escapee, a sweet man in a ‘96 Beatles Convention T-shirt; and an urbane British gentleman) in Mr. Woodhead’s chapter on Yury. As I said, Yury had told us these interesting stories and his, what seemed at the time hard to believe, theory that The Beatles and their music had somehow helped to bring down the Soviet Union.
But Mr. Woodhead’s film and book substantiates what Yury had first told us and written down. For Mr. Woodhead has spent the last 25 years tracking down and documenting this story. And what a journey it’s been! Mr. Woodhead had shot the only known footage of The Beatles at the Cavern in 1962 and met the Fab Four before they were the Fab Four. And before that Mr. Woodhead had been a cold war snoop (he has a previous book “My LIFE AS A SPY”), stationed in Berlin listening in to the Russians, which first developed his special interest in the Soviet Union. He has made many trips there over the past several years and has developed many contacts there. With these Russian connections and his involvement in also meeting and filming many British and American rock stars(he also did The Brian Jones memorial film concert by The Rolling Stones , for example), he is the perfect person to capture these two seemingly different worlds, rock’n’ roll and politics, and show their strange intersection in the Soviet Union.
He shows that the various Soviet leaders feared , even as far back as the 30’s, outside Western music such as jazz. Yury had quoted in his book that Khrushchev had said,”it’s only a small step from saxophones to switchblades.” So in that sense this theory that later Beatles’ music could have had such a role does make sense. But Mr. Woodhead interviews many of the Beatles Generation in the Soviet Union from musicians to record producers to journalists to historians to even politicians (including the Russian Defense Minister and Putin’s deputy, who said he learned English from Beatles’ songs). A curious fact is that most of the Russian rock stars and Beatles’ fans, were the sons of the Communist Party elite. Of course they were one of the few who would have had access to the West. Yury, although not of the elite class, had opportunity because he was a doctor in the Russian Navy and was to sail around the world. But all of these consistently backed up Yury’s belief that somehow Beatles’ music had this profound effect on the Soviet Union. And I think perhaps there was an especially Russian character aspect to all this. They spoke of this “Beatles Effect” as almost having a quasi-religious part to it, something that’s hard for us to imagine in the West. Of course Beatles’ music changed our lives in the 60’s and a whole counterculture developed in the West along with it. But in the repressive and isolated Soviet Union, it took on a whole other meaning, and The Beatles perfectly represented both the forbidden fruit and an artistic and spiritual freedom. And because of that Soviet youth found very resourceful ways indeed to get around the state’s disaproval and banning of it.
In fact, in the chapter on Yury, Mr. Woodhead describes how it is even today in Belarus (where he took Yury back to reunite with his teenage band in 2008). It sounds like something out of a Marx Bros. film, but with a leader like North Korea’s absurd but dangerous current dictator ( which gives some idea of how it must have been growing up in that earlier time all across the Soviet Union). Yury actually moved back to Minsk in 2010, because his Russian Navy doctor’s accreditation was not recognized in Canada, where he had immigrated in the early 90’s. Yury had left me in charge of the masters of his book and accompanying CD when he returned there, but in May, 2013, he visited Ottawa again and we reconnected and he talks of perhaps returning to the West and trying again to get recognition of his doctor’s skills.
So Mr. Woodhead’s book documents quite a life journey (including meeting Yoko in Liverpool) and the mindbogling but now proven theory that my friend Yury had first proposed to us- that The Beatles could have had such an effect on another even more oppressive system. Mr. Woodhead ends his book with the occurrence where the Russian Punk band “PUSSY RIOT” is arrested by the Putin government in 2012. On July 7, 2013, Paul McCartney played in Ottawa (the first time a Beatle had performed here) and during “Back In the U.S.S.R. , Paul told the story how high ranking officials had told him they had learned English from banned Beatles’ music when he played Red Square in 2003. And also during that song, flashed on screen was “FREE PUSSY RIOT”. My Russian Beatle friend, Yury, had written for his book, how “A Yellow Submarine had landed in Red Square” and I had outlined in my own book a similar feeling of almost like an alien spaceship (Yellow Submarine) landing in my small Midwestern town in the U.S. growing up in the 60’s, with these talented, witty, fun beings offering us joy and hope. Ironically, it had taken these four working- class Liverpool lads from a far away mythical land of Robin Hood and knights to reintroduce us to American rock’n’roll which had in turn inspired them. And how that would encourage us to maybe go on and create our own magical music and stories.
And Mr. Woodhead’s fascinating book and film and Yury’s book show it was to have an even deeper effect half way around the world. I was interviewed before the McCartney concert by CBC radio as to why he and the Beatles were still so popular a half a century later, and I mentioned how they had influenced me to not to go fight in the Vietnam war and come to Canada, but also they were and are as Yury would often say ”a cultural event of the 20th Century”. One of those few times in history when it was an almost social revolution and universal in scope. Also as my friend, Tony, said they also wrote some of its best popular songs. And for all these reasons, they will be remembered. The Beatles and music changed the world and they still do. “ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE”.
Leslie Woodhead’s book” HOW THE BEATLES ROCKED THE KREMLIN” (2013), is highly recommended. And Mr. Woodhead is as good a writer as he is a filmmaker; he makes you feel as if you are right there.
Alan Chrisman’s book ” IT’S A LONG WAY HOME “(2013) chronicles his own journey and Beatles’ influences and is available on disc (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Watch the film (some countries only)