The Beatles: ‘You Say You Want a Revolution’

Mikhail Safonov argues that the Beatles did more for the break up of totalitarianism in the USSR than Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

During a chess competition 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 Georgian Kasparov, though, answered, ‘John Lennon’.

No-one would claim that Kasparov won the world chess championship simply because he was a Beatles fan. However, Kasparov has won the sympathies of people far beyond the game of chess, and his musical preference reflects his particular character – one that was not afraid to declare out loud the name of a person who could never, ever have become Laureate of the Lenin Komsomol Award.

A few years ago Russian television screened a film on Mark Chapman, the man who assassinated John Lennon in 1980. The advance publicity suggested the story  was comparable to that of Salieri and Mozart,  but the film highlighted a rather different theme. The murderer, on setting off from his New York hotel room to do the deed, left a copy of the Bible, open on a page on which was printed ‘The Gospel According to St  John’. Chapman had amended it so that the text read ‘The Gospel According to John Lennon’. After the assassination he made no attempt to hide, and when the police arrived he was quietly reading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, whose young hero Holden Caulfield is shocked by the falsehoods of the adult world. Chapman associated with Caulfield. He considered that 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, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Kennedy. Paradoxically, Lennon himself can be linked with the name of the Soviet Union in just the same manner. It was Lennon that murdered the USSR.

Lennon did not live to see the collapse of the USSR, and could not have predicted that the Beatles would cultivate a generation of freedom-loving people throughout this country that covered one-sixth of the Earth’s surface. Without that love of freedom the fall of totalitarianism would have been impossible, however bankrupt economically the Communist regime may have been. Lennon himself would probably be very surprised to read such words. But it is so. I will begin with my personal memories; trying to give order to what I saw and heard and to what I myself was witness.

I first heard of the group at the start of 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 had 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’, and the presenter added the comment, ‘in pursuit of money’. 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. Initially I listened, not because I particularly liked the songs, but it was impossible not to listen when all anyone was talking about was the Beatles. Then someone gave me recordings of  ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help’, which had been brought from France: the cover read ‘Quatre garçons chantent et dansent’. For many Russians, Beatlemania began here.

It is worth recalling what it was like to listen to music in those days. At home we had a radio-tape recorder, the Minia-2, a big wooden panelled box which dominated our small flat. Cassettes didn’t exist back then so it was a reel-to-reel system. If you wanted to move forward or back through the tape you needed to have assistance, as the tape kept on tearing, and we had to stick it with home-made glue, which gave off a pungent smell. The rewind often failed, so we had to do it by hand. The sound was scratchy mono.  But the music itself came to us from an unknown, incomprehensible world, and it bewitched us. In his 1930s novel The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulagakov 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).

Beatlemania took a variety of forms in Russia. There could not be the same fan hysteria of the kind that we would see on our television screens years later. In the West the governments encouraged Beatlemania, and even tried to use it for their own purposes. In the USSR the Beatles were proscribed, and ‘well-brought up’ boys dreaming of a successful career were forced to hide their worship of the group.

In the early days, infatuation with anything to do with the Beatles implied an unconscious oppositional stance, more curious than serious, and not at all threatening to the foundations of a socialist society.

A few instances: during an astronomy lesson in our tenth-year class,  my schoolmate was given the assignment of giving a talk about one of the planets in the solar system. Having recited everything that he had religiously 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.’

Astronomy was taught as a kind of additional burden and 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. Similarly, once when she told us that the Soviet scientists Basov and Prokhorov had been awarded a Nobel prize, someone in the class shouted, ‘The Beatles were given the prize!’ (not long before, the group had been awarded the Order of the British Empire). The teacher replied, ‘Don’t shout: I didn’t say that foreign scientists hadn’t been awarded the prize, all I am saying is that Soviet scientists have been awarded the prize as well.’ In our teenage adulation for the pop stars, even the merest mention of their names was a minor victory.

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 actually 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 forty 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. One lad gave a rendition of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ with his guitar. It sounded like ‘Ken pomyeloo, oo’.

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 for them 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 would never 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 (though not the medal, which would be awarded on another occasion), 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 to the officers, ‘What are you doing? Do you want to spoil the best day in 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!’ Although I didn’t have the medal itself yet, I showed the policemen my certificate. They let me go because I had humoured them so …

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 of this kind, 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 that had been drummed into us from childhood. I remember a broadcast from a late 1960s concert of some high Komsomol event: it wasn’t a Party Congress nor an anniversary of the establishment of the Leninist Young Communist League of the Soviet Union, but something of the sort. 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, even more than real English fans raved at true Beatles’ concerts. They raved not because they enjoyed this absurd parody, but rather because they all needed to demonstrate to their colleagues – and most importantly to the leadership – that they approved of how the Beatles were being pilloried. Yet everyone knew that those same Komsomol functionaries listened to the Beatles every day: it was through them (and also through ocean-going 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.

Similarly, during a broadcast from a Komsomol Congress, Brezhnev had made a speech, and the Komsomol members had had to be given a dressing-down for the way in which they had interrupted the General Secretary’s speech with rapturous ovations. Brezhnev had problems with his speech: certain words stuck in his throat, and  he needed to rest after each short phrase. It was revolting to watch young people doing all they could to show their enthusiasm short of climbing up the walls, all shouting, ‘Lenin is with us! Lenin is with us!’ Even the General Secretary seemed to grow tired of them towards the end.

The government tried to persecute the Beatles and nailed their fans to the pillar of shame. But 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 whole 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, no collapse transpired. Instead the Beatles became more and more of a phenomenon in the cultural life of the entire planet, something impossible to ignore. So the original blanket condemnations changed as the bans were gradually removed. The form that this recovery took was fantastical. The first song to be released in the USSR was ‘Girl’, which was included in a collection of foreign popular music. I will never forget when I first got hold of this recording, looking down the titles, scarcely believing a Beatles song could be released in our country. And indeed, 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’.

To think of it, the music was of the people – in a sense it was folk – and the words were too. But 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 in the USSR. 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 M.Y. Lermontov’s name the publisher put simply ‘a writer’.

Machiavelli was right to contend that people are willing to forgive big insults, but small ones are impossible to forgive. The Soviet authorities committed so many sins against their people that these musical ‘misunderstandings’ seem to be childish prattle. But it was these ‘misunderstandings’ that sometimes hurt the most, forcing people to feel in these small details the full extent of the inhumanity of the regime.

Why did the Communists persecute the Beatles to such an extent? It would be a huge simplification to argue that they saw in the pop industry a reflection of the rotting culture of bourgeois capitalism. This, though, was how it was officially branded. Deep down, the Communists  felt (though no-one expressed it openly) that the Beatles were a concealed and potent threat to the 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 from which all barriers have been removed. There was a definite kinship between Tarkovsky and Lennon. (It wasn’t by chance that the Communists so despised the film director. Tarkovsky 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 the individual is highly valuable, and individuality is in itself one of the most important values of life. This was in such contradiction to the socialist message of the primacy of the collective 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 ‘Back in the USSR’), one could argue that the Beatles did more for the destruction of totalitarianism in the USSR than the Nobel prizewinners Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. This might seem blasphemous to these victims of the Communist regime, but neither the novelist nor the physicist had an audience in the Soviet Union like that of the Beatles. Solzhenistyn told the truth about the Gulag, but the population of the USSR in the mass was afraid of his samizdat writings. The intellectual trajectory of Sakharov was far from accessible to everyone. Had it not been for his exile to Gorky, which turned him into a martyr, his analytical constructions would barely have escaped the limits of his intellectual circle.

The apolitical Beatles, though, slipped into every Soviet flat, packaged as tapes, just as easily as they assumed their place on the stages of the largest stadia and concert halls in the world. They did something that was not within the power of Solzhenitsyn nor Sakharov: they helped a generation of free people to grow up in the Soviet Union. This was a non-Soviet generation.

In the 1970s and 80s people of the Beatles epoch began to take posts that previously had been occupied by Brezhnevites. Among them were many who had ‘furiously applauded’ the Komsomol parodies. They had experienced the full influence of the Beatles although they will never admit it. It would be interesting to study the role that the Beatles have played in the lives of those who have influenced the fate of Russia during the last decade.

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 with Russian hors d’oeuvres. 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 perhaps now meant more to our new managers than he did to Americans, and 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?’

A sceptic will ask if the Beatles generation is also responsible for the disorder currently seen in Russia. Of course they are. Internal freedom cannot be simple. It is a breeding ground for evil, and what we see today around us also developed from internal freedom. This is an unavoidable consequence of emancipation from the slavery of totalitarianism. It is impossible to reconcile this fact, but we can understand the reasons why it is so. What will make the heart calm? As Apollinaire said, ‘Happiness always comes after sadness’. And ‘damned poets’ are always right!

  • Mikhail Safonov is senior researcher at the Institute of Russian history at St Petersburg, and is a writer and broadcaster.

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