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How the Beatles rocked the Eastern Bloc

Shrine to John Lennon in St Petersburg
Some feel a reverence for the Beatles akin to religious zeal

By Leslie Woodhead
Director, How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin

While the Beatles were at the height of their success in the West, back in the USSR they were a forbidden influence. But that did not stop them from being heard.

Presiding over his "John Lennon Temple of Peace and Love" in St Petersburg, Kolya Vasin is Russia's ultimate Beatles fan.

An affable bear of a man with a wild beard, Mr Vasin sits amid his fantastic collection of Beatles memorabilia - ceramic statues of the "Fab Four", an All You Need is Love teapot, an Abbey Road street sign - and says: "I fell in love with the Beatles 40 years ago. They became my friends, my spiritual brothers."

Storyville: How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is on BBC Four at 2000 BST on Sunday 6 September
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Generations of Soviet children have shared his passion for the Beatles.

As Russian cultural commentator Artemy Troitsky says: "The Beatles turned tens of millions of Soviet youngsters to another religion."

Mr Troitsky also insists the Fab Four and their music had a more profound impact.

"They alienated a whole generation from their Communist motherland," he says.

Bigger than Gorbachev?

From Russia to Ukraine and Belarus the Beatles played an important part in the lives of millions behind the Iron Curtain.

Kolya Vasin
I was scared if I said anything good about the Beatles, I would be arrested
Kolya Vasin

Although the band were never permitted to play in the Soviet Union, where they were officially denounced as "capitalist pollution", the "four lads who shook the world" unwittingly helped shake the Soviet system to its knees, according to many of those who spent their 1960s east of the Iron Curtain.

"They destroyed Communism - more than Gorbachev," says Vova Katzman, in Kiev.

A music producer in St Petersburg says The Beatles "produced a cultural revolution, the cultural revolution destroyed the Soviet Union".

To Yuri Pelyushonok, a doctor in Minsk, they "made a quiet revolution in our brains. We had it in our hearts."

In Moscow, leading journalist Vladimir Pozner is emphatic about the significance of the Fab Four.

"The Beatles did more to undermine the system than the most anti-Soviet literature for which people went to jail," he says.

Music on X-ray

In the early 1960s, the Beatles were conquering much of the world - but the repressive old men in the Kremlin somehow recognised the threat.

As Mr Pozner puts it: "They had an instinctive detector for things that might challenge their authority."

Many people have vivid stories of their struggles with hostile authorities.

"I was really afraid," confesses Mr Vasin, for whom the 60s was no swinging affair. "In Soviet times, my life was lived in fear. They were so aggressive I was scared if I said anything good about the Beatles, I would be arrested."

In Kiev, Vova Katzman recalls being arrested by police who cut his hair. "I didn't care," he says. "I loved the Beatles. If something is illegal, people want it more and more."

That feeling of being part of a vast Beatles community opposing an authoritarian system was everywhere in the former Eastern Bloc countries.

It helped to inspire wildly ingenious way of defeating the ban on Beatles music.

Veteran fans had what they called "Records on Ribs", Beatles tracks copied from illicit tape recordings and inscribed on to old X-ray plates - so children could listen to Can't Buy Me Love on Uncle Sergei's lungs.

Tapes, secretly recorded from Radio Luxemburg were copied and recopied.

"Those tapes helped to hang the Communist Party," believes Nikita Poturaev in Kiev.

Musical myth-making

If evidence is needed of just how radically Russia has changed, look no further than the country's current deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov - a huge Beatles fan. He even insists he learned his impeccable English from Beatles records.

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"In the Soviet Union official propaganda was one thing, but real life was totally different," he says.

Beatles style seized a whole generation across the Soviet Union.

For impresario Stas Namin "they influenced everything - our music, our way of dressing, our way of living, everything".

Collarless Beatles jackets, known as "Bitlovka", were assembled from cast-offs; clumsy army boots were refashioned in Beatles style. And with much of the Western media blocked out, bizarre Beatles myths blossomed.

Yuri Pelyushonok recalls hearing at school how "the English Queen gave John Lennon a Gold Car; but the Beatles had to play in cages to avoid their fans".

The most persistent myth was that the Beatles had played a secret concert at a Soviet airbase on their way to Japan.

Everywhere, fans claimed it happened close to them.

Each year, Mr Vasin stages a birthday party in St Petersburg for each of the Fab Four.

At the John Lennon Party a dozen tribute bands play Beatles songs to a packed audience of teenagers and grandfathers. They all sing along with every word.

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