By Alan L. Chrisman (updated version)
Nov. 9 is the 25th anniversary of the coming down of the Berlin Wall. But not many people and Beatles’ fans may know just how important The Beatles and their music were in helping to bring that about and the downfall of the Soviet Union.
I didn’t either until I met Yury Pelyushonok, Russian/Canadian Beatles fan at the first Ottawa, Canada Beatles Convention which I organized in 1995. And this was to be quite a Magical Mystery Tour for Yury and us, his friends and close supporters.
He told me some amazing stories about what it was like trying to play banned Beatles’ music, growing up in the Soviet Union. And I suggested at that time that he write it down. He did, by two years later, and gave me one of the original copies of his book, STRINGS FOR A BEATLE BASS, of anecdotes and personal experiences, such as having to make his own guitar and using old X-rays to record, etc. Upon reading it, I thought it would make a great movie.
At our 2nd Beatles Convention the next year, he was interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen about how in the 8o’s, Soviet sailors (he was a medical doctor in the Russian Navy) had smuggled a Paul McCartney LP out of Russia and traded them for even cars in the West. He had written this first story down in a tiny booklet called the “Golden Disc”. And a couple years later, he had gotten a Canada Council grant to publish a fuller book about his theories and experiences growing up as a Beatles fan and musician (he had made his own guitar) in Russia. He presented me with one of the original, only 147 copies of, ”STRINGS FOR A BEATLE BASS”, which had been translated into English by his wife. Upon reading it, I thought it would make a great movie. He was going to London, in April, 2000, and I suggested he leave a copy with the Beatles’ manager, Neil Aspinall (the BBC lady had given me his contact at the Connecticut convention in’94). Yury did leave a book there and upon returning, he called me one morning and said he’d had a dream, that Neil Aspinall had called me. I’d always wanted to meet Aspinall because he had been there since the beginning and was their closest confidant. And the very next day Yury calls me back and says, “Guess who just called?” I said “Who?” He says, “Paul McCartney’s personal assistant, Geoff Baker!”
The Beatles’ record company, Apple, would also call back for more copies for George and Ringo. Yury approached me about finding some musicians for some songs he had written to go along with the book for a CD he wanted to make. I suggested John Jastremski (from “The Mustards”) and Al Findlay, (from ““The Ground”) who had also played my ‘96 convention; they were both Beatles fans and songwriters. Yury had already written the first song,”Yeah Yeah Virus” and three others in 2000 and together they wrote and recorded four more songs in 2003. Yury went back to the Beatles’ Apple headquarters in London a couple more times to discuss the possibility they would publish his book. Neil Aspinall told him in advance that Paul McCartney was to play in Red Square in May, 2003; it was to be a world event. Yury had taken a lot of flak for suggesting that the Beatles could have helped bring down Communism. But Yury was interviewed in N.Y. on ABC- TV “BEATLES REVOLUTION” in 2000 with several celebrities who agreed, including Czech director Milos Forman and Keith Richards (“What brought it down, in the end, was blues jeans and Rock N’ Roll”). And there was soon to be growing evidence that what Yury had first said, was indeed true.
Yury was contacted by Leslie Woodhead, a BBC director who had read Yury’s book and was planning a film on the Beatles’ influence there. Mr. Woodhead had actually shot the only footage of the Beatles at the Cavern, which was known to exist, in 1962. On a hot August day in 2007, a handful of us gathered in Yury’s backyard in Ottawa to have him interviewed and then to film his song,”Yeah Yeah Virus”. Later, Mr. Woodhead would take Yury back to Russia with him to recreate his experiences and reunite with his teenage band. Mc Cartney was once again to perform in Russia at that same time. Yury had grown up in Minsk, and his friends there had been shown how to make amplifiers by the guy whom had worked with and knew Lee Harvey Oswald, when he had defected there in the early 60’s.
Yury’s book and experiences were to partly inspire BBC film director, Leslie Woodhead’s film, HOW THE BEATLES ROCKED THE KREMLIN. As I said, Yury had told us these interesting stories and his, and what seemed at the time hard to believe, theory that The Beatles and their music had somehow helped to bring down the Soviet Union. In 2013, Mr. Woodhead released a book of the same title, chronicling the making of his film, including a whole chapter on Yury and the visit to Ottawa to film the interview with him and the video shooting of his song, “Yeah Yeah Virus” in 2007.
And Mr. Woodhead’s film and book substantiates what Yury had first told us and written down. For Mr. Woodhead has spent the last 25 years tracking down and documenting this story. And what a journey it’s been! Mr. Woodhead had shot the only known footage of The Beatles at the Cavern in 1962 and met the Fab Four before they were the Fab Four. Before that, Mr. Woodhead had been a cold war snoop (he has a previous book “My LIFE AS A SPY”), stationed in Berlin listening in to the Russians, which first developed his special interest in the Soviet Union. He has made many trips there over the past several years and has developed many contacts there. With these Russian connections and his involvement in also meeting and filming many British and American rock stars (he also did The Brian Jones memorial film concert by The Rolling Stones , for example), he is the perfect person to capture these two seemingly different worlds, rock ’n’ roll and politics, and show their strange intersection in the Soviet Union.
He shows that the various Soviet leader were afraid , even as far back as the 30’s, of outside Western music such as jazz. Yury had quoted in his book that Khrushchev had said,”it’s only a small step from saxophones to switchblades.” So in that sense this theory that later Beatles’ music could have had such a role does make sense. Mr. Woodhead interviews many of the Beatles Generation in the Soviet Union from musicians to record producers to journalists to historians to even politicians (including the Russian Defense Minister and Putin’s deputy, who said he learned English from Beatles’ songs). A curious fact is that most of the Russian rock stars and Beatles’ fans, were the sons of the Communist Party elite. Of course, they were one of the few who would have had access to the West. Yury, although not of the elite class, had opportunity because he was a doctor in the Russian Navy and was to sail around the world. But all of these consistently backed up Yury’s belief that somehow Beatles’ music had this profound effect on the Soviet Union. I think perhaps there was an especially Russian character aspect to all this. They spoke of this “Beatles Effect” as almost having a quasi-religious part to it, something that’s hard for us to imagine in the West. Of course, Beatles’ music changed our lives in the 60’s and a whole counterculture developed in the West along with it. But in the repressive and isolated Soviet Union, it took on a whole other meaning, and The Beatles perfectly represented both the forbidden fruit and an artistic and spiritual freedom. And because of that Soviet youth found very resourceful ways indeed to get around the state’s disapproval and banning of it.
In fact, in the chapter on Yury, Mr. Woodhead describes how it is even today in Belarus (where he took Yury back to reunite with his teenage band in 2008). It sounds like something out of a Marx Bros. film, but with a leader like North Korea’s absurd but dangerous current dictator (which gives some idea of how it must have been growing up in that earlier time all across the Soviet Union). Yury actually moved back to Minsk in 2010, because his Russian Navy doctor’s accreditation was not recognized in Canada, where he had immigrated in the early 90’s. Yury had left me in charge of the masters of his book and accompanying CD when he returned there, but in May, 2013, he visited Ottawa again and we reconnected and he talks of perhaps returning to the West and trying again to get recognition of his doctor’s skills.
Mr. Woodhead’s book documents quite a life journey (including meeting with Yoko in Liverpool) and the mindbogling but now proven theory that my friend Yury had first proposed to us-that The Beatles could have had such an effect on another, even more oppressive system. Mr. Woodhead ends his book with the occurrence where the Russian Punk band “PUSSY RIOT” is arrested by the Putin government in 2012. On July 7, 2013, Paul McCartney played in Ottawa (the first time a Beatle had performed here) and during “Back in the U.S.S.R., Paul told the story how high ranking officials had told him they had learned English from banned Beatles’ music, when he played Red Square in 2003. During that song, flashed on screen was “FREE PUSSY RIOT”. My Russian Beatle friend, Yury, had written for his book, how “A Yellow Submarine had landed in Red Square” and I had outlined in my own book a similar feeling of almost like an alien spaceship (Yellow Submarine) landing in my small Midwestern town in the U.S. growing up in the 60’s, with these talented, witty, fun beings offering us joy and hope. Ironically, it had taken these four working-class Liverpool lads from a far away mythical land of Robin Hood and knights to reintroduce us to American rock’n’roll which had in turn inspired them. And how that would encourage us to maybe go on and create our own magical music and stories.
Mr. Woodhead’s fascinating book and film and Yury’s book show it was to have an even deeper effect half way around the world. I was interviewed before the McCartney concert by CBC radio as to why he and the Beatles were still so popular a half a century later, and I mentioned how they had influenced me to not to go fight in the Vietnam war and come to Canada, but also, as Yury would often say, they were, “ Beatles: the cultural event of the 20th Century”. It was one of those few times in history when it helped create an almost social revolution which was universal in scope. Also as my friend Tony said, they also wrote some of its best popular songs. And for all these reasons, they will be remembered. The Beatles and music changed the world and they still do. “ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE”.
Leslie Woodhead’s book, HOW THE BEATLES ROCKED THE KREMLIN (2013), is highly recommended. Mr. Woodhead is as good a writer as he is a filmmaker; he makes you feel as if you are right there.
Alan Chrisman’s book, IT’S A LONG WAY HOME “(& How Beatles’ Music Saved My Life), chronicles his own life and Beatles’ influences . Available www.rockthistownproductions.com