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By Sean — 10 years ago
The BBC World Service has an interesting documentary on Beatlemania in the Soviet Union. When the Fab Four hit the international scene in 1964, youth in the Soviet Union were no exception in succumbing to their tunes. But unlike fans in the West, the Beatles’ aficionados had to record songs off the Western radio, smuggle their records and then copy them ton x-ray machines (the new hit movie Stilyagi opens with how this was done.), and pass the copies hand to hand or peddle them in underground markets. To be a Beatles fan in 1960s Russia meant you had to be in the know, have connections with those “above,” or just have plain luck. The Beatles were more than just a past-time; it was a way of life.
The Beatles’ penetration into the Soviet Bloc was more than just a symbol of Soviet youth’s hunger for the imagined West. If anything the Beatles’ popularity proved that the Iron Curtain proved quite porous in the face of globalization.
Put simply, for many hearing the Beatles for the first time was a transformative experience. In an interview with popular music scholar Yngvar Steinholt, Nikolai Vasin, Russia’s No 1 Beatles Fan, recalled his first time hearing John, Paul, George and Ringo:
When did you hear about The Beatles for the first time?
It was in the beginning of 1964. I had just finished school, I was still a teenager, I was 18 years old. And I remember that I met, I even, I didn’t learn about it from the radio, not from the papers. But I learned it by the way of what we call the jungle telegraph [narodnaia molvá]. I tell you that radio is the most important radio – the jungle telegraph. And so I met this friend of mine from school. And he asks:
-Have you heard the Beetle-beaters [zhuki-udarniki]?
-I don’t even have an idea what that is. I know Bill Haley, I know Little Richard, but the Beetle-beaters I don’t know.
-How can that be! That band’s a must! It’s the newest, coolest band in England!
That’s what he told me, and he goes:
-I’ll bring a tape player over to your place tomorrow and we’ll listen to it! And so he comes to me with a little Aides-player, a player from Riga, and we listen to a recording made from BBC radio, the frequency changes, noise, cosmic interference hardly lets the music through. I remember hearing a kind of music that I had never heard before. I had a feeling of utter [nevizny] and unusualness and I even leaned over to him and said something like:
-Now I’ll be damned, that’s something new, there wasn’t anything like that before! And that’s it. That’s how it began. And from then on the further the more. A whole cardboard box of recordings of the Beatle-guys were brought to me, that is the Beetle-beaters from Liverpool, that’s what they were called at the time. On BBC Radio there was a musical programme and it call them the Beetle beaters or the beaters from Liverpool. And literally in the cause of a couple of months I became a passionate Beatles-fan. I suddenly felt spellbound, enlightened, I enjoyed everything wildly and I already started collecting all kinds of articles about them, I don’t know what, recordings on bones there were, too. Then there was this newspaper from England, the Morning Star. I started running around to kiosks to get to know when the next issue would arrive, when it would be brought in and already in the early morning I would run over and buy the fresh issue, because there were very often articles about pop-music. It was called pop-music back then.
By Sean — 3 weeks agoGuest: Steven Seegel on Map Men: Transnational Lives and Deaths of Geographers in the Making of East Central Europe published by University of Chicago Press.
By Sean — 3 years ago
Many people have asked me about the theme song to the SRB Podcast. So instead of answering the question over and over by individual request, I’ve finally decided to post it on the blog for all to enjoy.
The song is Moya Marusechka (Моя Марусечка) by Petr Leshchenko, 1898-1954 (his Russian Wikipedia page has a more extensive biography). Leshchenko is considered the “King of Russian Tango.” He was born in the Odessa region but ended up in Romania after he was wounded in WWI. He only returned to Odessa during the war, where he performed as the Romanians occupied the city in 1941. After the war, he was arrested by the Romanian secret services in 1951, interrogated and imprisoned, until his death in 1954 in a prison hospital.
His music wasn’t officially available in the Soviet Union because tango and the foxtrot were considered counterrevolutionary and generally corrupting of good Soviet youth. It also didn’t help that the Soviet’s considered him a White. I have no doubt the fact he played a few concerts in occupied Odessa didn’t help either.
Leshchenko’s musical style was a blend of popular jazz and cabaret of the interwar years with a large helping of Roma influence.
Moya Marusechka was written and composed by Gerd Wilnow and released by Bellaccord-Electro Records in Latvia in 1937. Recordings of Leshchenko performing the song weren’t officially available in Russia (though I’m sure it was available nonetheless as was a lot of banned music) until Melodiia released a recording in 1988. Leshchenko’s music experienced a resurgence in those late Soviet days. Though the song was featured in the 1969 Soviet war film “The Path to Berlin” and Leshchenko’s music was played on Soviet radio and television. It just wasn’t available as a purchasable recording.
The song itself is a typical pop tune of boy walks into a party, sees girl dancing her heart out, boy falls in love. The lyrics are hardly a masterpiece but they’re saved by the music and Leshchenko’s singing. Here’s the last verse:
And so I want to live with you,
I can’t take it, I beg you-
You’re my babydoll,
You’re my darling.
And so I want to live with you,
I can’t take it, I beg you-
Hardly a work of literary genius. But hey, most good pop songs aren’t.
As part of a general fascination with Russian and Soviet emigres, let alone a general rehabilitation of the “Whites” under Putin, an eight part miniseries about Leshchenko’s life was broadcast on Russian television in 2009. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a copy with English subtitles for all you non-Russian speakers. Here’s the first episode (the rest can be watched on YouTube).
There’s no rhyme or reason why I picked Moya Marusechka as the podcast’s theme song. I have a CD collection of old Russian tunes from the interwar period and I just thought the song sounded cool. Apparently many podcast listeners do too.