For us, the Beatles were a flame of freedom," Kolya Vasin tells me, his huge bearded face alight with devotion. "I hated official Russian culture with its politics and its orders. The Beatles told me, Don't be afraid—be human." Russia's ultimate Beatles fan, Vasin has been building a shrine to the band in his cramped St. Petersburg apartment since the sixties, when the Communist leadership denounced the Fab Four as "enemies of the people." The temple is a mix of Aladdin's cave and a teenager's overstuffed bedroom. Life-size dummies of the band's members jostle with cascades of Beatles buttons, while ceramic guitars stand next to a T-shirt John Lennon once wore (now sealed in a plastic bag). Presiding over it all is Vasin, an affable bear-shaped man in a hippie fez. He scoops up his tabby cat and tells me its name is Hey Jude. Hugging the cat, he croons a snatch of the song.
Vasin cannot be dismissed as a lone Beatles nut. An entire generation of Soviet kids fell in love with the mop-tops from Liverpool, and Beatlemania in the USSR became much more than just a replay of a similar hysteria in the West. Serious people insist that the band had a real role in the collapse of the Communist system. "Beatlemania washed away the foundations of Soviet society," wrote Mikhail Safonov, of St. Petersburg's Institute of Russian History, in a 2003 article. "One could argue that the Beatles did more for the destruction of totalitarianism than Nobel winners Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrey Sakharov."
Predictably, the Soviet rulers of the sixties were not fans of rock and roll. Almost all Western music was prohibited and bands were forbidden to perform behind the Iron Curtain. But the Beatles were seen as a special threat, described as "subversive weapons" and de-nounced as "the bugs" in official papers. The party went so far as to stage a Beatles show trial at a Leningrad school. The proceedings were broadcast and the four were found guilty of antisocial behavior.
All the attention only made them more popular. Copied from crackling radio stations despite KGB jamming, recorded on X-ray plates, and smuggled into schools, the music spread across the vast country. A ten-year-old boy named Sergei Ivanov heard "Love Me Do" and vowed to learn English—today Ivanov is Russia's deputy prime minister.
By the mid-seventies the Soviet defenses began to crack. A few songs were released, but the authorities continued to spin them in anti-Western ways. "Can't Buy Me Love" was presented as a critique of the sordid way that affection could be purchased in the capitalist West. Lennon's murder was credited to a political assassin. The government allowed Soviet groups to perform but only under strict rules. (They had to incorporate balalaikas and accordions and they couldn't use the term "beat" in their names.)
Today Russia rocks, and two of the biggest bands, Time Machine and Aquarium, celebrate the Beatles' influences on their music. In St. Petersburg Vasin tells me about the greatest moment in his life, the time in 2003 when Paul McCartney played for a crowd of 100,000 in Red Square, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin. Gorbachev told McCartney, "I don't think yours is just pop music. It's something much greater." Vasin was there, too, of course. McCartney gave him a hug. —L.W.
On the Big Screen: I Was an Oligarch for a Day
It's rather funny, but I seem to have the face of an oligarch. For just that reason, I was recently cast in two Russian movies in which I, a nonactor, played a tycoon. In Nevalyashka (named for a popular plastic baby toy), I was more the traditional type—I had a chauffeur-driven Bentley limo, a Rubens painting in the dining room, and a ballerina daughter. The wardrobe was my own: Paul Smith camel's-hair coat, Woodhouse turtleneck, Marks & Spencer cashmere jacket. What I really hated about this role was the bodyguards' following me everywhere. In the second movie, Glamour, I portrayed a younger, more cosmopolitan mogul. This time I drove (not really, alas) a yellow Lamborghini, was surrounded by models, and wore a Murphy & Nye yachting jacket, Hugo Boss linen trousers, and some nice Italian sandals. What annoyed me most in this case were the models! I'm not shy—I published the Russian edition of Playboy for five years—but having a half-dozen girls hanging on me all the time was almost as bad as a wall of bodyguards. Still, I've been a very lucky oligarch, because in most films (and often in ruthless Russian reality), that character gets killed in the end. —A.T.