10 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 10 August - The Beatles

Mankind is looking for something, and will certainly find it. Oh, if it only happened more quickly.
- Anton Chekhov

There is a moment or two in the car when we all get used to one another. I am unprepared and not quite certain how to proceed. Vadim switches his brain to English, and settles in to it carefully, consciously, while speaking of consciousness, I am mindful of communicating well in my feeble English-only-but-excellent-at-hand-gestures-in-fact-I-always-win-charades-and-can-provide-several-alternative-word-choices way. (Note: I really am quite excellent at charades and do not recommend being on an opposing team at a party... don't challenge me to a duel... you will lose and curse my name).

The radio hums un-imposingly in the background. There is a pause that fills the car when the small talk and general inquiries die down. "Do you like the Beatles, Alexandra?" he finally asks. "Yes," I reply, "Who doesn't?"

"Paul McCartney played Moscow in 2003..." he trails off. "I was there..." It was three tiny words, but it rang out, sending energetic ripples throughout the atmosphere of the American car. I was there was pregnant with meaning. I begin to suspect there is more to it than your average Western Beatle-mania.

"You see," he explains "being a Beatles fan in the West was easy. Not so in Soviet Union. In those days," he explains, "it was illegal to bring a Beatles record into Soviet Union and if you were found with one, it was usually taken away. The Beatles were considered the sound of the capitalist threat during the Cold War," he adds.

It is true. Apparently in Soviet times, if one did try to smuggle a Beatles record in to the country they authorities would put the record on a special device, scratch it, and return it to the smuggler as a souvenir. Owning one was considered to be a form of treason. Recordings that did manage to pass through the tight screen were like gold. Most of the Beatles music that Vadim managed to listen to was, at best, third- or fourth-generation copies.

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 apparently happened to the souls of Soviet "teenagers" (incidentally, a word Russia learned thanks to the Beatles).

"Beatlyi was the Russian word to describe things by the Beatles," Vadim adds. "I remember hearing the word for the first time. I knew exactly what it meant." He smiles wryly, the sensation of it ever present even now. "But 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, it took hold of our spirits and imaginations."

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.

"The youth of the Soviet Union do not need this cacophonous rubbish," stated Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev of the Beatles in the early 1960s. "It's just a small step from saxophones to switchblades."

Yet the Soviet youth, claims Vadim, did need the Beatles, and went to enormous lengths to be more like them. Vadim contends that the Beatles, more so than any other band of the time, was the single-most important factor in shaping pop culture behind the Iron Curtain.

"Later on, you could bring Rolling Stones albums into the country," he states, "but not the Beatles. The Beatles were an event. The Rolling Stones were just a rock band, but the Beatles were the cultural event of our century. 100 out of 100 youths, if asked who invented the electrical guitar," he continues, "would answer 'The Beatles.' Who invented rock-and-roll? The Beatles. Every event has a master, and the master of modern music was the Beatles."

He adjusts his black glasses in a swift, efficient movement. We are still for a moment, lost in thought. After a few minutes, he speaks again. His voice is quiet. His tone definite, what he is about to say is specific.

"The Beatles brought this message about love and peace. They allowed us a little bit of escape when there was no escape..."

We drive on. Flying through the traffic-less city streets with abandon.


  1. How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin on BB4 last night! On BBC iPlayer for a week. Amazing!

  2. I love his face.

    ...truth be told I am trying to get over the suspicion that you made Vadim up....just saying...

  3. "Oh, show me round your snow peaked
    mountain way down south
    Take me to you daddy's farm
    Let me hear you balalaika's ringing out
    Come and keep your comrade warm
    I'm back in the USSR
    Hey, You don't know how lucky you are, boy
    Back in the USSR
    Oh, let me tell you honey"

  4. PS)




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