Get Back in the USSR

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, documentary argues the Beatles helped bring down the Soviet Union. What rockers do you think changed the world?

In “Revolution,” the Beatles declare, “We all want to change to the world.” A new documentary argues that the Fab Four did so in at least one way they could never have imagined, even during their 1960s hey day.

"How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin," broadcast on PBS Monday, on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall, makes the lofty claim that the four sons of Liverpool helped bring down the Soviet Union.

The thesis may sound kind of flaming-pie-in-the-sky. But filmmaker Leslie Woodhead offers a fairly compelling, if quirkily anecdotal, case: Soviet youths made bootleg Beatles recordings by using old X-rays salvaged from hospital garbage cans. The authorities so feared the Beatle influence they would grab shaggy teens off the streets and give them haircuts. The Soviet leadership even commissioned an anti-Beatles propaganda film that claimed the group played concerts "in swimsuits." 

But the heart of the documentary comes in the testimonials of folks who say the band spurred an interest in Western culture, a sense of rebellion – and a longing for freedom. "We listened to this music and it saved us," one middle-aged fan said.

The sentiment was echoed by Vladimir Putin when he gave Paul McCartney a personal tour of the Kremlin before the former Beatle performed in Moscow in 2003. "You are loved here," he reportedly told McCartney, noting the Beatles brought the USSR "a taste of freedom, a window on the world." Putin, while a child of the 1960s, is a former KGB agent and no saint. But his embrace of the Beatles is a far cry from the days of, say, Nikita Khrushchev, whose most memorable musical moment consisted of banging his shoe against a table.

There's little doubt the Beatles transcend entertainment, and they hit it big at a time when communist governments struggled to keep mass media from the masses. The group also borrowed from the folk playbook and helped make rock-and-roll a socially conscious force, a legacy that stretches to Bono, whose “Red” campaign would have meant something much different pre-Glasnost.

Music – and information – are harder to supress today, thanks to the Internet and social media, which have been used as anti-oppression tools, most notably in Iran.

Speaking of the Internet, WNET, the PBS station in New York, is running an online poll that asks which musical act has exerted the greatest impact on history. The top five choices, culled from more than 1,800 nominees, are: Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Bono/U2, Michael Jackson, and of course, the Beatles.

Which musical act do you believe most influenced the world? Or do you think the idea that music can change history is a bunch of post-hippie hooey? Use the comments section to weigh in on the revolution.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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