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Beatlemania behind the Iron Curtain

by at 29/04/2013 19:38

Excerpt from Leslie Woodhead’s ‘How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin: The Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution,’ Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2013

Andrei Makarevich opened his school book. As he turned the pages they crackled, releasing the fusty smell of a Soviet classroom a quarter- century ago, and triggering memories of his boyhood obsession with the Beatles. There were pages of elaborate calligraphy and intertwined song titles, painstaking acts of homage inscribed by the young Makarevich. They reminded me of illuminated manuscripts labored over by monks, and they seemed inspired by an almost religious devotion. SERGEANT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND curled into SHE’S LEAVING HOME, A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS tangled up with LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS. Russia’s most famous rock star gazed at his doodlings, looking wistful. “This was more than a bible for me. I’m sure I did it during a maths lesson or something I hated. My hand did it by itself.” On the corner of the first page, he had adapted his name, another Beatles homage: MCCAREVICH.

In a room just off Red Square, with the fantastic domes of Saint Basil’s cathedral peeping through the window, Makarevich unwrapped his old schoolbook. As he turned the pages where he had transcribed the Beatles’ lyrics, he talked about how he had shared the yearnings of his generation. “Every guy who tried to be a Beatle had a book like this – with the words of the songs as we tried to hear them on our terrible tape-recorded copies. I listened ten, twenty, thirty times, trying to write it just as it sounds, without looking for any sense in the words.” I asked Makarevich about the first time he heard the Beatles. “I was twelve or thirteen. My father was an architect and he was allowed to travel abroad. He brought back two albums, A Hard Day’s Night and a collection of early Beatles songs. I remember I came home from school, and I heard something absolutely extraordinary.” As he talked, he seemed to recover the electricity of that first encounter. “It was like lightning. I began to listen twentyfour hours a day. I got crazy.”

…[T]he ultimate dream was to become a Beatle. “Of course I had to try to make myself an electric guitar. There were none in the shops, so I tried to copy from a photo of Lennon’s guitar. I made the body from a piece of wood and painted it red, but then I couldn’t find a pickup.” A friend told him you could make one from a telephone handset in a public call box. Makarevich raided the nearest box, and soon telephones across the Soviet Union had been disabled by kids scavenging pickups for homemade guitars… “It looked easy to play like they did, but of course it wasn’t at all. We thought we could just get a guitar, grow our hair, get a Beatle jacket and we were them. And if you walked down Gorky Street with a guitar case you were a hero. So everybody forgot mathematics and sport and literature, and became Beatles.”

Author Q&A

“How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” recounts Soviet youths’ love affair with the Fab Four – and the state’s efforts to suppress it. The book’s author is the awardwinning documentary filmmaker Leslie Woodhead. Through interviews with cultural critic Artemy Troitsky, Russian rock stars such as Boris Grebenshchikov and everyday fans, Woodhead documents the USSR’s ultimately doomed attempt to control culture, and how the Beatles’ music helped a generation of young Soviets question official culture and ideology.

What was the inspiration behind the book?

During the Cold War, I was taught Russian by the RAF [Royal Air Force] and that sparked my interest in the mysterious USSR. As a young TV trainee in 1962, I made the first-ever film with an unrecorded band in Liverpool called the Beatles. When I began to make documentaries in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, I heard stories about how the music of the Beatles – who were always illegal and never allowed to play – had played a vital part in winning the hearts and minds of Soviet kids and turning them away from the totalitarian ideas of their fathers and grandfathers. Since that time I filmed regularly in the USSR and heard the extraordinary stories of the Soviet Beatles generation and their dedication to the music of the Cold War enemy.

Why do you think the Beatles were more popular in Russia than other bands of the same era?

The Beatles’ songs had beautiful melodies and a spirit of youthful energy; this had a natural appeal for Soviet kids who were uncomfortable with the more aggressive approach of artists like The Rolling Stones or Little Richard.

Are there any stand-out stories about state persecution of fans?

Soviet-era fans such as Kolya Vasin in Leningrad or Vova Katzman in Kiev were threatened with the loss of their job and the loss of education. There was even a Stalin-style show trial of the Beatles and their music in Leningrad, broadcast on state radio, in which students were required to condemn the Fab Four.

Did the band mean more to them than fans in the West as a result?

During my travels in the former Soviet Union, I came to feel that the Beatles and their music were more vital for fans in the USSR than they were in the West. The lengths they went to in order to listen to their music was incredible: Soviet fans would inscribe Beatles music onto medical x-ray plates of their uncle’s lungs because it was the only vinyl available. They offered a glimpse of a freedom which transformed the attitudes and expectations of several generations of Soviet youngsters.

What role did their music play in the collapse of Soviet ideology?

The arts always had a powerful role in producing change in the USSR, and the Beatles had a place alongside Soviet artists such as Vladimir Vysotsky in challenging the authority of the state. By opening up a void between young Beatles fans and their leaders, there’s no doubt that the Beatles helped to chip away at the foundations of socialism. As Art Troitsky says: “They melted the hearts and minds of a Soviet generation and prepared them for a different life. The Beatles provided the vitamins our souls needed.”

Interview by Jack Oates

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