Beatlemania Soviet Style

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beatles-back-in-the-ussrThe BBC World Service has an interesting documentary on Beatlemania in the Soviet Union. When the Fab Four hit the international scene in 1964, youth in the Soviet Union were no exception in succumbing to their tunes.  But unlike fans in the West, the Beatles’ aficionados had to record songs off the Western radio, smuggle their records and then copy them  ton x-ray machines (the new hit movie Stilyagi opens with how this was done.), and pass the copies hand to hand or peddle them in underground markets. To be a Beatles fan in 1960s Russia meant you had to be in the know, have connections with those “above,” or just have plain luck.  The Beatles were more than just a past-time; it was a way of life.

The Beatles’ penetration into the Soviet Bloc was more than just a symbol of Soviet youth’s hunger for the imagined West.  If anything the Beatles’ popularity proved that the Iron Curtain proved quite porous in the face of globalization.

Put simply, for many hearing the Beatles for the first time was a transformative experience. In an interview with popular music scholar Yngvar Steinholt, Nikolai Vasin, Russia’s No 1 Beatles Fan, recalled his first time hearing John, Paul, George and Ringo:

When did you hear about The Beatles for the first time?

It was in the beginning of 1964. I had just finished school, I was still a teenager, I was 18 years old. And I remember that I met, I even, I didn’t learn about it from the radio, not from the papers. But I learned it by the way of what we call the jungle telegraph [narodnaia molvá]. I tell you that radio is the most important radio – the jungle telegraph. And so I met this friend of mine from school. And he asks:

-Have you heard the Beetle-beaters [zhuki-udarniki]?

I say:

-I don’t even have an idea what that is. I know Bill Haley, I know Little Richard, but the Beetle-beaters I don’t know.

-How can that be! That band’s a must! It’s the newest, coolest band in England!

That’s what he told me, and he goes:

-I’ll bring a tape player over to your place tomorrow and we’ll listen to it! And so he comes to me with a little Aides-player, a player from Riga, and we listen to a recording made from BBC radio, the frequency changes, noise, cosmic interference hardly lets the music through. I remember hearing a kind of music that I had never heard before. I had a feeling of utter [nevizny] and unusualness and I even leaned over to him and said something like:

-Now I’ll be damned, that’s something new, there wasn’t anything like that before! And that’s it. That’s how it began. And from then on the further the more. A whole cardboard box of recordings of the Beatle-guys were brought to me, that is the Beetle-beaters from Liverpool, that’s what they were called at the time. On BBC Radio there was a musical programme and it call them the Beetle beaters or the beaters from Liverpool. And literally in the cause of a couple of months I became a passionate Beatles-fan. I suddenly felt spellbound, enlightened, I enjoyed everything wildly and I already started collecting all kinds of articles about them, I don’t know what, recordings on bones there were, too. Then there was this newspaper from England, the Morning Star. I started running around to kiosks to get to know when the next issue would arrive, when it would be brought in and already in the early morning I would run over and buy the fresh issue, because there were very often articles about pop-music. It was called pop-music back then.