How Paul's "CHOBA B CCCP" Russian LP
became barter for Russian sailors

A true story by Yury Pelyushonok  

Photo of Dr. Yury Pelyushonok's appearance of the ABC television special:

"The Beatles Revolution" which aired November, 2000.

Listen nowStrings for a Beatle Bass - the album
by John Whelan

Tony Copple and I first met Yury Pelyushonok during the planning stages of a Beatle convention here in Ottawa.  Yury's thick Russian accent became apparent as he spoke to us.  He was still picking up the English dialect but was conversant enough to explain "his passion" about the Beatles.  We learned that Yury was once a doctor aboard a Russian ship and that he decided one day to leave Russia and come to Canada to seek out a better quality of life for himself.  During the conversation, Yury made a couple of interesting remarks about the "Russian perspective" on the Beatles: first of all, the first official double-sided Beatle 45 r.p.m. on "Melodyia" was released in 1973.  The single had "Here Comes the Sun" b/w "When I'm 64" and was largely collected by Beatle fans in Russia. Secondly, contrary to what many would assume, "Back in the USSR" was not the song which helped break down the communist wall or to get the government to start re-thinking their policies on pop music.  Oddly enough, it goes back to a 1966 writing of Paul's "Yellow Submarine".  That song, apparently, had got the Kremlin to start re-thinking its policies on foreign pop music.  "Everyone loved Yellow Submarine in the Kremlin" said Yury.

At the meeting, Yury also revealed an interesting ambition that he had: he was currently writing a book on the Beatles.  It was to be based on his personal experiences, and it was also to explain how album/single releases made their way into the Soviet consciousness of youth and into the Russian market place.  I thought this was a pretty big project for Yury to undertake.  Somehow I didn't doubt his word about getting his book out.  Yury eventually first released a "short excerpt" in 1996 - which is what you are about to read below this introduction.  The little 10 page manuscript highlighted an excellent snippet from his book.  Then, approximately 18 months ago, Yury had the book released in a hard-bound cover "limited edition".  Copies of the book sold out and the author self-published it as a limited paperback edition in the Spring of 2000.  He did the same thing again in 2004 but this time adding two new chapters to his book.  Beatle fans can obtain a copy of his book through Yury's Space.

Since the launch of his book Yury has appeared on the ABC Television for the television special "The Beatles Revolution", transmitted on November, 2000, which coincided with the release of "Beatles 1".  A few years later his book was used as a research tool for "Paul McCartney - In Red Square" by the producer/director Mark Haefeli for the A&E channel.  The concert film was eventually released on DVD by Paul McCartney.  In December 2004, Yury was interviewed by Natasha Cuculovski of SBS Radio-Australia (click here to listen to the broadcast).  He was also interviewed for a BBC World Service radio broadcast by Paul Gambaccini on 13 Feb 2009.   The BBC also took interest in presenting a television documentary called "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin" by award-winning film producer Leslie Woodhead.  It was transmitted (original featured length) on September 7, 2009.  The American broadcast on PBS (was shortened by about 4 minutes) transmitted on November 9, 2009.  Canadians finally saw Leslie Woodhead's documentary twice on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on January 4 and 9, 2010.

The Ottawa Beatles Site would like to give a special thank you to the Ottawa Citizen newspaper who rose to the occasion by providing excellent coverage regarding the two television specials in which Yury appears in: "The Beatles Revolution" and "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin."  Some of the Citizen's coverage appears in a short video clip at Yury's Space with comments from the author as he tells the us the fascinating "story-behind-the-story" of the Beatles influence in the U.S.S.R.

- John Whelan, October 28, 1999.  Updated on August 29, 2010

An excerpt from the book

The Golden Disc

A Story About a Priceless Gift given by Paul McCartney to Soviet Sailors
by Yury Pelyushonok

Translated from the Russian by Olga Sansom

Car fever, like most epidemics, broke out during the summer. That summer, Soviet sailors were finally allowed to bring used foreign-made cars into the country. Even customs duties had been lowered. Such a relaxation of restrictions came as a pleasant surprise. There was only one small detail left to consider: money. But, where were the sailors supposed to get money from, if the most they could afford on the official monthly salary paid on Soviet ships was two pair of jeans? The captain of the ship with the "Hammer and Sickle" on its smokestack earned less than a cabin boy on a Puerto Rican scow. Whether by chance or not, the solution was found by someone who was far removed from the problems of Soviet sailors, even though he had been born in a famous seaport. Was this just a coincidence?

It's possible. But, what a pleasant coincidence, indeed.

This is how it happened. Early in June the cargo ship on which I was working as a ship's doctor was preparing to sail from Tallinn to Ghent. The small Belgian town of Ghent enjoyed the reputation of a "Car Mecca" among sailors. An old friend of mine, Vitalik, lived not far from there in neighbouring Holland. He'd been working at a university there for more than two years, teaching advanced mathematics. Before setting sail, I called his mother and asked if he needed anything from back home. His mother thanked me for my trouble, but told me he had everything. The only thing he had asked for in his last letter was for her to send him a record album. She read out the title to me: "Paul McCartney, Back in the USSR" As we were saying good-bye, we agreed that she would call Vitalik and ask him to meet me in Ghent.

If Vitalik was going to make a special trip from Holland to Belgium to get this record, then, in order to really make his day, I went to the nearest department store and bought two copies, since they cost less than a pack of cigarettes.

Paul McCartney had recorded "Back In the USSR" in July of 1987. This recording was meant exclusively for the USSR. By releasing this album, as it was explained on the back cover, "he was extending his hand of peace and friendship to the Soviet people." On the front cover there was a picture of Paul set against an enormous red star with the words "Back in the USSR" in the bottom right-hand corner. At first glance, it would appear that this was a recording of ideological speeches from a Komsomol convention. For this reason, or perhaps because the record didn't have any of Paul's usual songs on it, it wasn't enormously successful. People were buying it willingly enough, but they weren't exactly lining up for it. It could already be found in any record store in early 1989. If, on the other hand, Paul McCartney had released an album like "Ram" or "Band on the Run" in the USSR, the stores wouldn't have been able to keep them in stock, and they would have been reselling on the street for ten times the original price.

I spent the entire first day after our ship pulled into Ghent sitting in my cabin, waiting for Vitalik. Just before evening, I went to the dock and called him from the nearest phone booth. An answering machine informed me that he was at a symposium in London and would be staying there for two weeks. The message ended like this: "If you would like to leave a message, please do so after the tone." "Greetings from Ghent from Paul McCartney," I said and hung up. It was obvious that Vitalik wasn't coming. I flipped through my notebook, but it had only his telephone number, not his address. I wouldn't be able to mail the records to him.

When I got back to the ship, the crew were all excited. Those who had been to town were telling the rest about the incredibly low prices for used cars. Still, no one was seriously talking about buying a car, since even five hundred dollars obviously wouldn't be enough to buy one. After supper, the boatswain Mikhanoshin came to the ship's hospital. He was getting on in years, one of those guys who had sailed all their lives but who hadn't managed to save anything. There was nothing unusual about his case. He didn't even have an apartment of his own, but lived with his family in a shipping company hostel called "Neptune".

"Can I get something for my headache?" he asked, and, by way of explanation, he added, "I'm dead tired, Doctor. I spent the whole day walking around town looking for a suitable car, but, good luck buying anything with our money."

"Headache is the first symptom of car fever," I jokingly made my diagnosis. "Personally, I wouldn't even bother crossing the street to look for a car. I mean, you have to save up for years for such a 'toy.'"

The next day, I left for the city, along with two cadets. According to the regulations, you could only leave the ship in a threesome. Twosomes were not allowed to leave because they figured that two people could come to an agreement and run off. On that particular day, I ended up with two cadets from the naval college, who were undergoing practical training. Since I was the oldest in our group, I decided where our journey through town would take us. I only wanted one thing, and that was to sightsee in the centuries old centre of the city. However, looking into the cadets' eyes, I understood that we would be heading for the scrap yards and used car lots. "We're dying to take a look," my cadets begged.

We walked around the entire town of Ghent, stopping at all the scrap yards and places selling cars and noting every single car parked on the streets with a "for sale" sign. At the Ford car showroom, one of the cadets began bargaining over a rusty car with no wheels which was sitting on top of some brick supports in the back of the showroom. He was attempting to speak to the car salesman in English. Time was going by, and they kept on repeating the same conversation, over and over again. The Belgian would answer "It's sold," in response to the cadet's question. "I understand that it is old, but I wanted to buy it," the cadet would say, and repeated his question: "Is it for sale?"

Realizing that this could go on forever, I decided to intervene. "Doctor," the cadet said to me, "Belgians are honest people, but boy, they're thick! This salesman keeps on warning me that the car is old, but he can't seem to understand that I want to buy it!"

I informed the student sailor that the car was sold and that the irregular verb "to sell" becomes "sold" in the past tense. Then I explained what was going on to the Belgian. When he realized what had just happened, he laughed so hard that I thought I'd have to administer first aid if he didn't stop soon. He was really enjoying our company and even offered to see us to the gate of the car showroom. By the gate, we stopped beside a mother-of-pearl 1966 Ford Mustang. I'm quite indifferent where cars are concerned, but I couldn't walk by this little beauty without stopping. It had a light blue interior, and a black leather roof with blue velvet interior, and a black leather roof with a mother-of-pearl finish. The body was slightly rusted in a few spots. It was this rust that prompted me to ask the price. The Belgian quoted the price in francs. I asked him to convert it to dollars. He took a calculator from his pocket and had the little answer in one second: "Nine hundred, but, for you, I'd be willing to go down a hundred, making it eight."

"Buy it, Doctor, you won't regret it. It's a classy set of wheels," the cadets said, as they crowded around me.

"What's the matter with you guys? All I have in the ship's bank is a hundred bucks," I said, shaking free of them. "You buy it."

"We would, but we have ten dollars between us," they answered.

"Then why in the world have you been going around visiting scrap yards all day long and bargaining everywhere?"

"We're bargaining in order to get some practice. It'll come in handy some day," answered the cadets.

We said good-bye to the Belgian. It was time to go back to the ship. On our way back there was a music store. We still had some time left before we had to be back, so we decided to go in. The guys headed for the "hard rock" section while I began to flip through a stack of albums in the "Pop" section, under the "B's". After a minute, a salesman came up to me. I asked him to explain why some of the Beatles albums in the store had light blue circles on them. He told me that the circle indicated that the record had been made from the original master copy. I joked that in these days of compact discs the vinyl records are not so important even if they are made from the master copy.

"Oh, but it is," the salesman told me. "For the true collector, everything is important, like the first original edition of a record, along with the cover that was printed when it was released."

Realizing that I was speaking to an expert, I decided to find out about something, and asked about Paul McCartney's album, which he made specially for the USSR. Both the master copy and the production rights at this time belong to the Soviet company Melodiya.

I began to wonder whether such a record was of any value to a collector.

"Oh," the salesman shook his head, "that's a special record. Just a minute, I'll be right back with a catalogue," he said as he walked away.

At once I felt as if a substance had been released into my bloodstream, which was awakening a hunter's instinct in me. Waves from the future were emanating towards me, harbingers of pleasant changes. "That's a special record" - the salesman's words kept echoing in my head. But the main thing was that Vitalik, who had everything and who needed nothing, had asked for that very same record. As far as I could remember, he had enjoyed the reputation of a "wunderkind" from childhood, his mathematical mind setting him apart from his peers. He never did something simply for no reason, and, above all, he never asked for something just for the heck of it. All of his actions were well calculated. Therefore, it was no wonder that, right now, he was attending a symposium in England and I was wandering around scrap yards. A question came to mind: "Where, pray tell, would the albums that I'd bought end up?" It would seem that they would stay in Belgium rather than making the return trip to the USSR. Now it was my turn to be the wunderkind.

The salesman returned with a thick catalogue. He opened it to a page that was covered entirely with a picture of Paul McCartney, with a red star in the background.

"Excuse me, but do you have this record in your store?" I asked innocently.

"I believe that there isn't a copy in the whole of Belgium, never mind our store," answered the salesman.

"But why can't Belgium import it from the USSR?"

"Belgium and the USSR don't have a trade agreement covering this import item," explained the salesman.

"Well, how much might it be worth?" I asked, nonchalantly.

"No one knows. There's no price listed in the catalogue," he shrugged his shoulders.

"Still, how much do you think?"

The salesman gave me a look over the rims of his glasses, apparently beginning to tire of my childish questions.

"It would be very, very expensive," he answered.

"Perhaps you'd be interested in some other recordings," he said, in an attempt to change the subject, and leading me to understand, at the same time, that he didn't have time to waste on unrealistic matters.

"What time are working until today?" Was my last question.

The following evening, our ship was sailing out of the car wonderland of Ghent. On the roof of the refrigerator hold sat a mother-of-pearl 1966 Ford Mustang.

After his work was done, the boatswain dropped by my cabin. "Everyone knows about the "magic record" now, except for the commissar, of course," he began. "Sailors are saying that you managed to bargain a car for two albums. I beg your pardon, but I don't believe that fairy tale. So, I'm asking you, like a decent human being, to tell me the truth about how you managed to pull it off?"

"I swear to God," I told him, "there's no secret here. Listen, and remember what I'm going to tell you. There's this songwriter called Paul McCartney. You know him - he's a former Beatle. Anyway, he released an album specially for the USSR..."

"Doctor," the boatswain gave me a reproachful look. "If you don't want to tell me the truth, don't say anything at all." He gestured with his hand to indicate that I was hopeless, and left my cabin.

Some members of the crew believed my story, some not. But no doubt everyone was calculating how many albums to take on the next trip. In the evenings in their cabin the cadets were secretly planning to purchase a Porsche.

At the Soviet port, the customs official spent a long time examining the papers for my car. (I had asked the car salesman to make out the receipt for the equivalent of my one month salary).

"Can it be that prices have fallen this much?" the official finally asked.

Pretty soon you'll be able to buy a car for even less," I answered, as seriously as I could.

My friend was already waiting for me at the gates of the port, as my car was rolled out after the customs inspection was over. He'd come specially to help me drive the Mustang home.

"How did you manage to acquire such a beautiful car?" he asked after we'd driven a hundred meters past the entrance gate.

"Paul McCartney helped," I told him truthfully.

"Of course," he nodded. "But did you at least get to shake his hand?"

"No, he helped me without even knowing it."

Whether Paul McCartney knew it or not, by granting exclusive rights for the release of his album to the Melodiya company, he reached out not only a hand of friendship but also a helping hand to hundreds of Soviet sailors. Now that the Soviet customs is a thing of the past, and the commissars on board the ship have slipped into history, I can disclose all kinds of secrets without risking anything.

For the next two years, "Back in the USSR" was the sailor's main source of foreign currency when purchasing cars aboard. Paul magnanimously presented to the Soviet marines hundreds of Audis, BMWs and even Mercedes, depending on the quantity of discs they managed to take on board. Sailor's referred to the album as the "golden disc". A funny thing happened once, concerning this name. A certain sailor happened to bring ten copies of the record on board a ship just before it was to set sail. He then called his wife from a telephone on board the ship, telling her that everything was OK, that he had ten "golden discs" with him, and that she could go ahead and buy a garage for their future car. Such a call, placed from a telephone on board the ship, could hardly go unnoticed. Customs officers spent several hours going through the sailor's cabin in search of gold. They moved a pile of Paul McCartney records from one spot to another dozens of times before they finally grew curious.

"Why do need so many copies of the same record?" they asked the sailor.

"I listen to McCartney all day long, and records get ruined quickly at sea because of all the tossing," the sailor managed to blurt out. That was the end of the questions.

The commissars who were on board Soviet ships, watching the sailors and acting as internal customs officials, never asked a single question about these records. That native red star on the cover hypnotized the constantly suspicious commissars and dulled their vigilance.

A year-and-a-half later, I was walking along a wet street one autumn day in Tallinn, on my way to the port drugstore to pick up some medication for an African voyage. Suddenly, there was a squeal of tires. I turned around. The boatswain I had sailed to Ghent with stepped out of a Volkswagen Beetle.

"Check out my steed of steel, Doctor!" he said, pointing to the car. "I got it in Hamburg for twenty 'golden discs'."

"Why so expensive?" I joked.

"They've brought in so many records now that Europe is flooded with them and prices have gone down," answered the boatswain seriously.

"Doctor, you think you're the first to have 'discovered America'?" He gave me a wink. "Every steamship company in the country has known about these records for a long time. I was just in Odessa a while ago and the local sailors there have been bringing the records abroad since 1987."

"But the record came on the market only in 1988," I said, not believing him.

"What's the matter with you? Don't you know what the Odessans are like?" laughed the boatswain. They even have money for a down payment on an apartment.' I'm a rich man now. But, listen, I'll tell you what the important thing here is. Over here, they put up monuments all over the place in honour of all sorts of Party riff-raff. And what have they ever done for us? Personally, I'd put up a monument to Paul McCartney instead of Marx. I swear to God, I would. And, on the pedestal I'd write: "To Paul McCartney from the Soviet sailors, and the boatswain Mikhanoshin in particular."

Having said his bit, the boatswain got into his car and started the engine.

"Hey!" I called out over the noise of the engine. "Don't forget to write thank-you from the doctor on the pedestal..."

The Volkswagen let out a cloud of blue smoke in response, as it drove off down the road.

More info on the Beatles musical influence during the period of Russia's communistic rule...

Review of "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin", released in North America on PBS 11 Nov 09
Beatles in the USSR - audio documentary by Paul Gambaccini, the complete broadcast on BBC World Service 13 Feb 2009
Leslie Woodhead -
working on a new project: “How the Beatles rocked the Kremlin" 2007
Leslie Woodhead's visit to Ottawa
1 Aug 07 to interview Yury and film the Strings for a Beatle Bass band
He Loves Them, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
- an exclusive interview with Yury Pelyushonok by the Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 17, 2000
The Liverpool Fourth - by Yuri Yarotsky, January 12, 2004
Beatles Brought Down Communists - an exclusive interview with film director Milos Forman by BBC, March 2001
Yury Pelyushonok's letter to the Guardian, Dec. 2, 2000
Moscow Awaits Sir Paul's Russian Debut - by Sergey Chernov, Moscow Times, May 22, 2003
John Lennon Wall in Prague, circa July 20, 2000 - by Jean-Pierre Allard, Ottawa Freelance Sports Writer
Lennon Street in Chelyabinsk - Reuters news report, Oct. 12, 2000
CHOBA B CCCP - Back In The USSR -  Paul McCartney's Russia-only release 1988
Review of "In Red Square" DVD of the May 24, 2003 McCartney concert
The Oz  Che Lennon, punk opera, 2008

- "The Golden Disc" is an excerpt from "Strings For A Beatle Bass" - the Beatles Generation in the USSR. Copyright by Yury Pelyushonok 1996, 1998. This excerpt was used with permission from the author. ISBN 0-9682258-5-3.

SPECIAL FOOTNOTE : Interestingly enough, on a somewhat related production note, the Russian "Melodyia" record company pressed a series of "Rolling Stones" albums using different photos for their album covers. The song selections for these albums were "butchered" so-to-speak from various European releases just as Capitol records in the USA had done to the EMI releases of Beatles albums. The only saving grace regarding the "butchering of Stones material" on the Melodyia label was the fact their final song selections still maintained the normally large repertoire of cuts on the LP -- just like you would expect from typical European releases, ie., the usual 13 or 14 cuts per album. I've actually had a chance to see three of these Stones albums from the "Melodyia series" at "Get Back" records here in Ottawa, and of course, the albums have by now probably made their way into the home of some Stones collector.
John Whelan

Page updated on August 29, 2010