What really toppled the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union?
The massive arms build-up?
Ronald Reagan's hair?
According to "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin," a documentary by Leslie Woodhead, all you need is love to tear down an Iron Curtain.
But events after the fall suggest that if you really want a revolution, you might need more than Paul McCartney playing in Red Square to make it happen.
The documentary recently aired on PBS to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it makes an intriguing argument about the power of music at a pivotal point in history.
The British documentarian first filmed the Beatles when they were four unknowns playing in the Cavern in Liverpool in 1962. A short time later Beatlemania was circling the globe.
Back in the U.S.S.R., where Western music and culture were strictly prohibited, the Beatles invasion managed to break through and ultimately undermine the repressive regime, interviewees avow.
Forty years after Woodhead first heard the Beatles, he traveled to Russia and other former Soviet satellites, where he heard fantastic stories about the young people who had defied authorities to listen to the Beatles.
"We listened to the music and it saved us," comments Kolya Vasin, considered the biggest Beatles fan in Russia. "We stopped being Soviet slaves. That's what they were afraid of."
For 40 years Vasin has built his John Lennon Temple of Love, and organizes annual concerts to celebrate the birthdays of all four Beatles. When he first heard the music at 18, "my soul flew to the light," the bearded and bright-eyed Vasin says. "I fell in love with the Beatles. They became my friends, my spiritual brothers. It was the salvation of my soul."
Artemy Troitsky, a Russian rock music commentator, believes that the Beatles had more of an effect on the collapse of the Soviet Union that the tens of millions of dollars spent by the West.
When Vasin and others first discovered the Beatles, it was illegal to possess their records. Airport security guards searched travelers for contraband recordings. Gangs of vigilantes roamed the streets and attacked kids with long, Beatles-style hair, forceably shaving their heads.
Young people were expected to follow the "strict and puritanical" youth culture that celebrated communist values, described by Troitsky as "square, uncool, unsexy."
But broadcasts of rock and roll from Radio Luxembourg seeped into the Soviet Union. Kids would tape record the music and then transfer the recordings onto discarded X-Ray film, using streetcorner recording booths. The flexible records were hidden in coat sleeves and sold on the street for three rubles.
"They could listen to the Beatles on Uncle Sergei's ribs," the filmmaker says.
The music opened up a new world to an entire generation. Nikolai Poturaev was inspired to study the English language and literature after hearing the Beatles.
Sergei Ivanov, who went on to become Russia's deputy prime minister under Vladimir Putin, admits that the Beatles helped him to learn English.
Troitsky observes that the Beatles music arrived in the Soviet Union at the right time to have a maximum impact. In the early '60s, "it was cool to be a Soviet," with such heroes as cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin and charismatic leader Nikita Kruschev on the scene.
By 1964, Kruschev had been ousted and replaced by "much more boring guys" who allowed Soviet culture to stagnate.
In came the Beatles to electrify the nation's young people. Officials did what they could to counter this RPM revolution. A 1966 propaganda film claimed that the Beatles once performed in swim trunks with toilet seats around their necks, and that fans were overcome with psychosis.
But this couldn't stem the tide.
"The Iron Curtain after the Beatles was like a fence with holes," Vasin says. "We breathed through those holes."
The urge to emulate the Beatles was so strong that Yury Pelyushonok made his own guitar out of his grandmother's table and a stolen pay phone receiver for the amplifier pickup.
Liliana Pelyushonok recalls her son's obsession with the Fab Four: "They were gods to him."
Soviet officials finally gave in and started manufacturing guitars and bootleg Beatles records.
Andrei McCarovich and his band, Time Machine, became the Soviet Union's first rock stars in the '70s by imitating the Beatles. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were given the privilege of recording in the Abbey Road studios.
By the early '80s, "millions of young people had defected in their hearts and minds," Woodhead notes. Gorbachev came to power as the country's first "rock and roll president" with a more open attitude toward the West. That openness contributed to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.
Vova Katzman, who opened a re-creation of the Cavern Club tavern in Kiev after the Soviet fall, says that the Beatles did more to change the society than Gorbachev. Katzman's club attracts older fans who remember the repressive days, and young people who know all the words to Beatles songs.
TV journalist Vladimir Pozner says that the Beatles conquered communism not by being political "but by being very human."
The final triumph came when Paul McCartney played in Red Square in Moscow in 2003, an event Troitsky describes as "like a huge religious ceremony."
While less draconian, there are interesting parallels to the American Establishment's reaction to rock and roll here. White parents forbid their kids to listen to what were called "race records" by black artists. The specter of integration and sexual freedom that the music threatened was as frightening to '50s suburbia as capitalism was to the communists.
But the kids listened anyway, hiding transitor radios under the sheets at night and holding dance parties in secret.
The payola scandal was more a reaction to the raucous music being played than a crusade against corruption. DJ Alan Freed, who named rock and roll, was hounded from the business. Dick Clark, just as culpable but more white bread, was spared.
Elvis's gyrations were neutered on the Ed Sullivan Show. Some believe that drafting him into the army and shaving off his locks was a way to tame this wild, young Sampson. Elvis came out of the military much more mainstream and less of a menace.
As depicted in the upcoming film \i Pirate Radio\i0 , British kids had to listen to rock music beamed from offshore stations because of a BBC ban.
Ironically, while the Beatles bug was eating into the fabric of Soviet authority, John Lennon was being hounded by the FBI as a subversive.
With the rampant commercialization of the Beatles through video games and other outlets, their message today has been blunted.
And how much of a lasting impact did the Beatles have on the Russian mentality that traded czars for commissars?
In a 2006 article for the New Statesman, Troitsky complains that "in the new Russia of sushi bars and oligarchs, the situation is more shameful and rotten" for those who speak out than it was under Brezhnev, where at least "you knew where you stood."
Most depressing for Troitsky, as journalists are murdered and other voices of dissent are silenced, "is that the so-called democracies of the west are turning a blind eye," a stance he predicts we will one day regret.
It remains to be seen whether the lessons of Lennon will trump Lenin in the East and McCartney's message will triumph over myopia and mass-consumption (which he is part of) in the West.
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Design is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. Bexley Public Radio Foundation. Text is copyright 2009. All rights reserved. John Matuszak. Photos are used by permission of Leslie Woodhead.