In our recent conversation regarding Revolver and Pepper the historical setting of The Beatles in general and those albums in particular have come up a lot. How much should historical context matter when judging an artistic work? Should it matter at all? Does something as squishy as historical importance trump more concrete metrics like sales or popularity, or even more nuanced ones like influence within important groups like fellow musicians?
With that stuff swirling about, this evening I ran across a documentary called Soviet Hippies, about the counterculture which sprang up in the Soviet Bloc after 1966 and persisted until the end of the Cold War. This reminded me that what we in our privilege often see as purely cultural preference was then—and is still now—a powerful political choice.
It can be difficult for us in the West to perceive this in a sort of “what is water?” kind of way, but The Beatles are a language. And this semiotic function is growing stronger, as time passes and their original contexts fall away. The same can be said of “the Sixties” in general, but this particular quartet of Liverpudlians represent freedom, creativity, personal expression, and love. It’s expressed most powerfully in their music, of course, but Beatle photos and interviews and haircuts and clothes also stand in for these values. It’s because of this semiotic power that they were banned in the Soviet Union—for much longer, amazingly, than other groups like the Stones—and why, according to some Russians (including some historians) the Fabs were essential in ending the Cold War. “Beatlemania washed away the foundations of Soviet society,” says one in the 2013 book How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin. The fall of the USSR was, in the words of an old doctor of mine, “multifactorial,” but we can be sure that John, Paul, George and Ringo were the best ambassadors the West ever had. (Better by far than all the jazz and abstract art the CIA was pushing in the 50s.)
Soviet Hippies isn’t online or streamable (unless someone smarter than me can find it); but here’s an extended interview with the filmmaker, Terje Toomistu. As you listen to her, keep in mind: the reaction of both Western and Soviet systems towards the counterculture was different only in degree. Here it was Operation CHAOS, over there, the KGB. The degree made all the difference, as it often does, but if you ever doubt that The Beatles were political, just remember: the threat of the Fabs was one of the very few issues that both the CIA and KGB agreed upon. We can rest easy knowing that John, Paul, George and Ringo will always be arrayed opposite history’s Meanies, whatever color those Meanies might be wearing.