|Confessions of a Soviet moptop
Brezhnev and his cronies did all they could to block the 'corrupting' influence of Beatlemania. But, says historian and closet fan Mikhail Safanov, the four lads from Liverpool eventually destroyed the Soviet Union
Friday August 8, 2003
During a chess match between Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov in the 1980s, the two grandmasters were each asked to name their favourite composer. The orthodox communist Karpov replied: "Alexander Pakhmutov, Laureate of the Lenin Komsomol award". The freethinking Kasparov answered: "John Lennon."
A few years ago, Russian television screened a film on Mark Chapman, the man who assassinated John Lennon in 1980. Chapman thought Lennon preached one message but lived by a quite different set of commandments. Lennon therefore was a liar and a cheat. He must die. The name of Chapman has become linked with that of Lennon, as other murderers are connected to their victims: Brutus and Caesar, Charlotte Corday and Jean-Paul Marat. Paradoxically, Lennon himself can be linked with the name of the Soviet Union in just the same manner. It was Lennon who murdered the Soviet Union.
He did not live to see its collapse, and 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.
I first heard of the group in 1965. An article about some unknown "Beatles" was published in the journal Krokodil. The name grated on the ear, perhaps due to its phonetic content, associated in my mind with whipped cream (vzbeetiye slivki) and biscuits (beeskvit).
The article described how a BBC announcer had told the world that Ringo Starr had had his tonsils removed - but had pronounced tonsils so indistinctly that listeners thought the drummer had had his toenails removed, and how the Liverpool postal service was having to work overtime due to the number of letters requesting the toenails in question.
The first song I heard was on Leningrad radio. It was A Hard Day's Night. I didn't like it - it seemed monotonous, and I doubted if it was worth all those "toenail" requests. Then a collection of songs was released in the German Democratic Republic, taken from the first album. It was impossible not to listen when all anyone was talking about was the Beatles. The music came to us from an unknown, incomprehensible world, and it bewitched us.
In his 1930s novel, The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov says that love fell upon the heroes like a mugger with a knife from a side street. Something similar happened to the souls of our "teenagers" (a word we learned thanks to the Beatles).
In the Soviet Union, the Beatles were proscribed. In the early days, infatuation with the Beatles implied an unconscious oppositional stance, more curious than serious, and not at all threatening to the foundations of a socialist society. For instance, during an astronomy lesson, my schoolmate had to give a talk about a planet. Having recited everything that he had copied from a journal, he made his own addition: "And now the latest discovery of four English astronomers - George Harrison, Ringo Starr (and the two others) - the orbit of such and such planet is approaching the Earth, and in the near future, there may well be a collision." The physics teacher barely knew more than we did about the planets. So she listened to this talk of "a possible collision" unsuspecting. She had not heard of these "astronomers". She hadn't even heard of the Beatles.
My classmates formulated their love for the Beatles in the following manner: "I would have learnt English in its entirety, exclusively from the things that Lennon spoke about." This was a paraphrase of the words of Mayakovsky inscribed on a stand in the literature classroom: "I would have learnt Russian in its entirety, exclusively from the things that Lenin spoke about." In the 1960s, you could not be imprisoned for changing the name of Lenin to that of Lennon, but trouble awaited anyone who blasphemed against the name of the immortal leader: problems dished out by the Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) could wreck your career. And so, bit by bit, we Lennon fans became ensnared in doubting the values that the system was trying to inculcate.
To make the slogan about the English language come literally true would have been impossible, as we were learning in a class of 40 pupils and had just two hours of foreign language teaching per week. We wrote down the texts of the English songs using Russian letters. Many of us didn't understand their meanings, but sang them all the same.
There was a fashion to have Beatles hairstyles. Young people, "hairies" as the old people called them, were stopped on the street and had their hair cut in police stations. I myself completed my schooling with a grade that qualified me for a silver medal. But, with my own Beatles-inspired haircut, I might not be awarded my medal - I needed a "state hairstyle", with my hair brushed back and washed in a sugar solution. After the leavers' evening, at which I was solemnly awarded my school-leaver's certificate, I was walking out of the Palace of Culture when I was seized by police officers and pushed into their pillbox - all because of my haircut. I said: "What are you doing? Do you want to spoil the best day of my life? I have just been awarded a medal and you push me into a pillbox." The policemen began to laugh at me. "A hairy hippy has been awarded a medal - what a laugh!"
One of the Leningrad schools staged a show trial against the Beatles. A mock public prosecutor was appointed, and the proceedings were broadcast on the radio. The schoolchildren proclaimed themselves outraged by all that the Beatles had done. The verdict of the trial was that the Beatles were guilty of anti-social behaviour. All this reeked of 1937. But even in Stalin's time, show trials were not held for famous foreigners, who had become almost an integral part of the way of life of the Russian people.
Yet the more the authorities fought the corrupting influence of the Beatles - or "Bugs" as they were nicknamed by the Soviet media (the word has negative connotations in Russian) - the more we resented this authority, and questioned the official ideology drummed into us from childhood. I remember a broadcast from a late 1960s concert of some high Komsomol event. Two artists in incredible wigs, with guitars in hand, walked around the stage back to back, hitting one another and making a dreadful cacophony with their instruments. They sang a parody of a Beatles tune: "We have been surrounded by women saying you are our idols, saying even from behind I look like a Beatle! Shake, shake! Here we don't play to the end, there we sing too much. Shake, shake!"
The Komsomol members raved wildly at this caricature, not because they enjoyed the absurd parody, but because they needed to demonstrate to colleagues - and to the leadership - that they approved of how the Beatles were being pilloried. Yet everyone knew those same Komsomol functionaries listened to the Beatles every day: it was through them (and through sailors) that we found out about all new rock bands. These loyal and duplicitous shows of enthusiasm by Komsomol workers are some of the most negative memories of my teenage years.
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.
Despite gloomy forecasts of the imminent collapse of the Bugs, the Beatles became more and more of a phenomenon in the cultural life of the planet, something impossible to ignore. So the original blanket condemnations changed as the bans were gradually removed. The first song to be released was Girl, included in a collection of foreign popular music. I will never forget when I first got hold of it, looking down the titles, scarcely believing a Beatles song could be released in our country. And there were no Beatles listed. I searched for the title Girl. It was not there either. At the end of the list was "Dyevushka [Russian for girl]: An English folk song".
It was not possible to put the names of Lennon and McCartney on the record after all the dirt that had been poured over them. In the 1970s, after the break-up of the group, records with just four Beatles songs appeared. All the songs were named correctly, but they were credited to "a vocal-instrumental group" - rather as if A Hero of our Time were published in England, but instead of MY Lermontov's name, the publisher put simply "a writer". It was these details that forced people to feel the full inhumanity of the regime.
Why did the communists persecute the Beatles to such an extent? Deep down, the communists felt that the Beatles were a concealed and potent threat to their regime. And they were right. Andrei Tarkovsky's film The Mirror (1974) opens with a boy undergoing a doctor's examination. The doctor skilfully encourages him to lower his defences and a flood of confession starts.
The creativity of the Beatles can be compared to such a flood. There was a definite kinship between Tarkovsky and Lennon. The communists despised the film director, who wanted to make a film of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and to use Lennon's music for the soundtrack. This flood washed into the collective consciousness. Becoming swept away by it, Soviet citizens started to be aware that individuality is in itself one of the most important values of life. This was in such contradiction to the socialist message that, when a person had educated himself in the culture of the Beatles, he found he could no longer live in lies and hypocrisy.
Beatlemania washed away the foundations of Soviet society because a person brought up with the world of the Beatles, with its images and message of love and non-violence, was an individual with internal freedom. Although the Beatles barely sang about politics (our country was directly mentioned only once in their repertoire, in Back in the USSR), one could argue that the Beatles did more for the destruction of totalitarianism than the Nobel prizewinners Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.
The Beatles slipped into every Soviet flat, on tapes, just as easily as they assumed their place on the world's stages. They did something that was not within the power of Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov: they helped a generation of free people to grow up in the Soviet Union. In 1993, I was invited to the Russian mission to the UN in New York to talk about my research into the death of Rasputin. After my lecture, there was a small party. Throughout the evening we listened to the music of George Harrison: clearly all the Brezhnevites had been replaced by people of the Beatles' generation. I wondered if Harrison now meant more to our new managers than he did to Americans. The following day, I went into a large music shop on Broadway and asked where I could find George Harrison's recordings. The assistant replied: "What kind of music does he write?"
© History Today. Mikhail Safonov is senior researcher at the Institute of Russian History at St Petersburg. A fuller version of this article appears in the current issue of History Today.