The Null Device
A new book, How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin, makes the claim that the Beatles contributed greatly to the collapse of the Soviet Union (or at least to the collapse of the legitimacy of the communist regime among its youth; whether glasnost, perestroika and the disintegration of the USSR would have happened as they did without the Beatles is a matter for historical inquiry):
The book's main character, the Russian writer and critic Art Troitsky, makes the claim that: "In the big bad west they've had whole huge institutions that spent millions of dollars trying to undermine the Soviet system. And I'm sure the impact of all those stupid cold war institutions has been much, much smaller than the impact of the Beatles."
A grand assertion, maybe – but widely shared. "Beatlemania washed away the foundations of Soviet society," explains Mikhail Safonov at the Institute of Russian History. And the Russian rocker Sasha Lipnitsky – snowflakes falling on his beret as he talks to Woodhead in a park bandstand – insists: "The Beatles brought us the idea of democracy. For many of us, it was the first hole in the iron curtain."The Soviet authorities didn't quite know how to respond, and alternated between trying to co-opt the new fad and attempting to stamp it out, but to no avail; once music fans contrasted the music with the authorities' denunciations of it, they became more sceptical of the official party line:
Indeed, the repression and harassment of the music ebbed and flowed as the party controls lapsed or intensified. "It went in waves: sometimes you could be approved for an official recording, and sometimes you were banned, losing your job or education. It must have driven them insane," says Woodhead. He not only excavates the minds of the rebels but also the propaganda machine at work. He recounts how a school staged a mock trial of the Beatles – broadcast on radio – with a prosecutor and denunciations in the manner of Stalin's show trials of the 1930s. A critical bulletin shown on state TV, entitled Pop Quartet the Beatles, told the story of how "these gifted guys could be real cash earners" while, "struck down with psychosis, the fans don't hear anything any more. Hysterics, screams, people fainting!" So ran the TV commentary, accompanied by shots of dancing fans intercut with images of the Ku Klux Klan and dire poverty in the American south. "Keep on dancing, lads, don't look around," the programme taunted, "You don't really want to know what's happening. Keep going, louder and faster! You don't care about anyone else."The article also mentions the USSR and its satellite states' interaction with other forms of countercultural and popular music, some deemed less threatening than others. (Disco, it seems, is OK because it's easy to contain. By then, the sclerotic Brezhnev-era USSR must have given up on trying to inspire its youth with Leninist zeal in its vision and was merely hoping that their recreations would remain safely apolitical, and, dare one say, bourgeois.)
Looking through the other end of the telescope, it is enlightening to find what the Soviet authorities approved of. They "positively encouraged" disco music – the Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever, Abba and Boney M (though Rasputin was officially banned) – because, says Woodhead, "it was musically rigid and could be contained within the dance floor, it wasn't going to spill out on to the streets".
Why the Beatles? There is no hint of the Rolling Stones or the Who in all this. In Czechoslovakia, the underground was being inspired by dark dissonance in the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. "I think the Czechs had that recent memory of democracy, before the war," reflects Woodhead. "And their culture has roots in Kafka and the surreal. But Soviet taste was more melodic, they like tunes above all, even a little sentiment, verging on the beautiful – and there, I'm describing a McCartney song, not hypersexual rock'n'roll, or Street Fighting Man.