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An interview with Sergei Nikitin: ‘Young people in the Soviet Union instinctively knew the Beatles embodied the idea of freedom’

posted 31 Dec 2016, 07:23 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 31 Dec 2016, 10:37 ]
31 December 2016

Early in December, Rights in Russia spoke with Sergei Nikitin, who has headed the Moscow office of Amnesty International since 2003. Sergei has been coordinating Amnesty’s work in troublesome times. In recent months, in particular, Amnesty International has faced serious difficulties. In November Amnesty staffers were locked out of their office for 16 days over a dispute about rent, and in December the state-controlled NTV station broadcast a vicious and mendacious attack on the organization.

With a Little Help from my Friends

Sergei’s friends also know him as an expert on the Beatles; he regularly posts items about the band on Facebook. ‘Most of my friends,’ he comments, ‘are people who work in human rights. Every day we have to deal with a lot of negative things - injustice, torture, violations of all kinds, and this is very difficult. That’s why it’s good to post things of a different kind, otherwise we would all go mad.’ When we spoke with Sergei on 9th December, he was quick to point out that this was the 26th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon in New York. Lennon had been shot dead on 8th December 1980 (as Sergei noted, already 9th December in Russia). We decided to ask Sergei in more detail about his love for the Beatles, and the impact these musicians had in the Soviet Union and Russia. Appropriately, our conversation would also mark the passing of John Lennon, whose most famous lyric imagines people living in peace and harmony, an aspiration which Amnesty members and supporters of human rights the world over will share.

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

Sergei says he has always been interested in the Beatles, at least since his early days as a high school student in St. Petersburg. Over the years he has developed a deep knowledge of the Fab Four. But growing up in Soviet times, it was certainly not easy to listen to the Beatles or to find out about the group. Almost the only way to hear their music was on foreign shortwave radio stations. ‘Shortwave radio was the only source of real news available to us,’ he comments. ‘The Beatles were not banned by the authorities, as such, but they were ignored, and certainly not encouraged. Since the Beatles were not mentioned in the official press, this means they were considered anti-Soviet, though there was no punishment as such for listening to their music.’ Sergei especially remembers hearing the Beatles on the programmes of Seva Novgorodsev on the BBC (Sevoborot and Rock-posevy). But the Beatles could be heard on other stations, such as Voice of America. Sergei first heard Lennon’s album Imagine in 1971 on a Romanian radio station, and later remembers hearing the lead song from the album on a Swedish broadcast of a Beatles concert in Stockholm.

Sergei says that despite the difficulties in hearing the music, many young people in the Soviet era were Beatles fans: ‘I remember in my class at high school in the ‘60s, my friends talked about the Beatles and listened to their music.’ Sergei and his friends would write out the lyrics of the songs by hand, in a kind of samizdat: people who had the lyrics would lend them to be copied. Moreover, wanting to understand the songs was one more motivation to learn English. Sergei remembers puzzling over various slang words and grammatical abbreviations, the strange word ‘gonna’ being a special puzzle.

In the Soviet Union you could not buy the records or any of the paraphernalia that was on sale in the West - boots, bags, clothing, and so on – and Beatlemania was out of the question. For most of the country's citizens there were no contacts with foreigners at that time. But some records did manage to reach a Soviet public. Sergei remembers: ‘I had some friends whose fathers worked at a research institute in St Petersburg. One of them visited the Nils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and brought back a copy of Sergeant Pepper. Another went to England in 1972 and bought Abbey Road. It cost about $10, a fantastic sum for those days, especially considering they only had $30 for the whole trip.’

If the Beatles were ever heard on official Soviet broadcasts, it was by accident. For example, Sergei relates that there was an occasion in the 1960s when a Soviet documentary, ‘Sport, Sport, Sport’, showed one of the heroes of the film talking about being at an athletics competition in England. And for one brief moment they showed the Beatles. Sergei also says that the Soviet record label Melodiya once recorded a Beatles song - Girl (Devushka) - on a compendium of various songs, with credits as a ‘folk song’ sung by the ‘Beatles quartet’.

The way the news of Lennon’s death reached Soviet citizens was typical of how information seeped through from the West. The day Lennon died, Sergei says he was listening to the BBC on a shortwave radio at his home, and wondered why they were playing so much of Lennon’s music. He recalls the huge shock of learning Lennon had been shot dead. Desperate to find out what had happened, he set off to downtown St. Petersburg looking for more news. The obvious places to go were hotels where foreign tourists stayed: ‘Soviet papers wrote very little about Lennon’s death, so I went out to look for foreign newspapers that were only available in hotels for foreigners. I went to the Evropeiskaya Hotel to look at the foreign papers there. I thought there might be more news, for example in the Morning Star, the paper of the British Communist Party. A woman working in the hotel said, “I know what you are looking for” and showed me the latest issue of the Italian newspaper, Il Messagero, that had a picture of John Lennon on its front page. I paid a lot of money to buy it!’

The Long and Winding Road

Looking back, Sergei says there was always a strong link between the Beatles, and rock music in general, and human rights for many young Soviet people of the time. ‘Young people in the Soviet Union instinctively knew the Beatles embodied the idea of freedom,’ Sergei says, ‘It was obvious from the music. It didn’t need explaining. They were against censorship, against the banning of works of art.’ Sergei says the Beatles were spontaneously able to guess and express the feelings of young people. And in the Soviet Union adolescents had a yearning for freedom – and feelings of rebellion - just as in the West. ‘The music and the human rights themes went hand in hand,’ Sergei says. When he used to listen to the BBC on shortwave radio, Sergei recalls, ‘One moment they would be playing the Beatles and the next there would be a broadcast about violations of human rights, for example about the situation of the Crimean Tatars, or about reports of torture.’

The first time Sergei heard of Amnesty International was in connection with rock music: ‘I heard rock musicians were supporting Amnesty International. The first time I saw the Amnesty candle symbol was probably in 1986 when there was a big concert tour in support of Amnesty in the US with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, U2 and others. It was a tour that helped Amnesty reach a larger audience in the US. But news about it also reached us in the Soviet Union.’

Lennon’s death was so shocking partly because he had been the most politically outspoken of the Beatles, and was well known for his opposition to violence. Sergei recalls that Lennon had condemned the Vietnam war and refused to perform before US soldiers. In 1969 he returned his MBE over his opposition to the Vietnam War and British involvement in events in Biafra. Lennon was also known to be critical of the Soviet Union.

For their part, the Soviet authorities, especially in the Gorbachev era when the attitude to rock music became more permissive, seized on the social content of the music. Sergei comments that under Gorbachev the authorities stressed that ‘good’ Western rock musicians were progressive and against capitalism. And Sergei agrees with them to a great extent, but unlike the Soviet authorities he insists that human rights was an essential part of the music’s message: ‘Of course the Soviet authorities were right that the music was attractive not just for its musical content, but because it embodied radically new views about society, and about important issues, but of course these included human rights.’

Back in the USSR

In a Soviet Union largely isolated from the rest of the world, Sergei says that listening to the Beatles ‘was part of wanting to find out about a world where we could never go.’ This is one reason why the song ‘Back in the USSR’ caused, to say the least, mixed feelings. It was released in 1968 in the year the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia. Sergei says it is up to the listener to decide whether the references to balaikas, ‘Daddy’s farm’ and ‘keeping your comrade warm’ were ironic. But of course many young Soviet people were delighted to hear the Beatles singing about their country. Sergei also recalls that at the end of the 1980s, Paul McCartney issued an album exclusively for a Russian audience entitled ‘Снова в СССР’ [Back in the USSR]. Sergei was amused to discover it is also known in England, where it is referred to as ‘Choba b CCCP’, pronounced in the English fashion and mispronouncing the Cyrillic letters. Sergei says that at the end of the 1980s fans were delighted when Paul McCartney took part in a live phone-in on the BBC Russian Service. But Paul McCartney’s first visit to Russia did not take place until 2003.

While the Beatles as a group never visited the USSR, Sergei says there were legends to the contrary. For example, there was a story that they had stopped over in Moscow on their way to India, and police had surrounded Sheremetevo airport to keep people away. This was completely untrue, of course. Another story, even more fanciful, told how the Beatles had once gotten stuck at Sheremetevo airport and had been whisked away to give a secret performance to the Politburo in the Kremlin.

Ticket to Ride

Much later in life Sergei was able to travel to the UK and one of the first places he visited was, naturally, Liverpool. He wanted to see for himself the city where the Beatles came of age, the Cavern Club where they performed, and the houses where they grew up. The trip brought home to him how legends and adulation from afar had led to an idealization of the four young men and their lifestyles in the West where ‘all the roads were paved with gold.’ Sergei describes the shock he felt when he saw for himself the poor conditions in which they had lived - cramped terraced houses with few rooms, very basic heating and no indoor toilet. The housing Sergei saw in Liverpool reminded him of the very modest homes of his grandparents in far-away Gomel at the end of the 1950s (where his grandmother was a teacher and his grandfather an accountant). Growing up in St. Petersburg and listening on shortwave radio to the Beatles, Sergei could never have believed his heroes from the West had grown up in such poverty.

Sergei remarks that British life in the post-war 1950s, where levels of wealth were much lower than today (a driving factor for the Beatles’ ambitions, no doubt), is a fascinating backdrop to the musical and cultural phenomenon that was the Beatles. The economic hardship, rationing and the post-war housing crisis speak to the many similarities that existed between lives lived by ordinary people in the West and in the Soviet Union, despite ideological and geopolitical differences. At the same time Sergei was struck by the impact of the class structure, which was a peculiarly British feature. As he found out more about the Fab Four, he came to realize that while all of them came from relatively modest backgrounds, there were significant differences between their families. For example, John Lennon’s aunt thought John shouldn’t associate with lower class boys such as Paul, George or Ringo.

Run For Your Life

Sergei is also struck by the changes that have taken place in the UK since the 1950s and early 1960s, especially in terms of human rights. In those years homosexuality was still criminalized and the death penalty still in force. Indeed, social attitudes were also probably generally much closer to how they are in Russia nowadays. Gender discrimination and sexism were ubiquitous, and this can be seen in some of the Beatles lyrics. Sergei muses that the lyrics of Run For Your Life sound at odds with the Beatles message of love and freedom: ‘Well I'd rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man.’ At the same time, Sergei points out that there was also a great deal of opposition in Britain at that time, especially among the older generation, to the Beatles, their music, life-styles and ideals. Sergei says that when the long-haired Beatles were awarded the MBE, a number of British military officers returned their own medals in protest.


Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, despite the imposed conformity, a great deal was changing in the Soviet Union. From the ‘60s onwards, home-grown rock bands were forming and developing ‘underground.’ In St. Petersburg, for example, groups started out playing in people’s apartments. If the quality of the earliest Soviet bands was not good, over time they got better. This was how Boris Grebenshchikov, Viktor Tsoi, Yury Shevchuk, Andrei Makarevich, all began their careers. And before long there were bands like Akvarium, Kino, DDT and Mashina Vremeni that enjoyed strong fan bases. Whenever one of them produced a new song or album, it was a big event, with everyone talking about it.

In Soviet times, attitudes towards rock music became a litmus test for political views. A love of rock music was associated with a longing for freedom and admiration of the West, while hatred of the West was usually associated with a dislike of rock music. Many of the musicians who came to prominence in the Soviet era have been strong supporters of human rights, such as Grebenshchikov, Shevchuk and Makarevich. Grebenshchikov, Sergei says, has been an especially strong supporter of Amnesty International. Yet generalizations can also be misleading. Sergei points to the fact that, paradoxically, some people who loved the Beatles and rock music in the 1960s and 1970s turned out to be illiberal in politics and hostile to human rights. He cites the example of Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and close associate of Vladimir Putin who has served as head of the presidential administration and minister of defence, who makes a point of saying how much he loves Western rock music, and the Beatles in particular (and in a recent interview going out of his way to praise Pink Floyd). Yet Ivanov has been one of the leading advocates of repression of human rights in Russia and of an anti-Western foreign policy.

Hello, Goodbye

Sergei says that the peak of a wider collaboration between Amnesty and Russian rock musicians was probably in about 2005. Since then he says, on the one hand, as the economic situation improved, making money became the first priority for many musicians. On the other hand, the domestic human rights situation deteriorated, in particular after 2011, and there has been an increasing repression of freedom, and a growing polarisation in society. It has become increasingly risky for musicians to take a position on issues, not least human rights. Politics has become something of a minefield for a performer’s career. The events of 2014 - the annexation of Crimea and conflict in Ukraine – have seen a further deterioration in the domestic political situation. Sergei says this has had a strong and divisive impact on the music scene, splitting the music community, along with the rest of society. Sergei says many of Amnesty’s former supporters are now either more cautious in expressing their support, or have taken the view – propounded by the current government – that patriotism and national self-interest (as defined by the government) are more important than human rights. Many self-styled patriots, Sergei remarks, consider patriotism nowadays to be synonymous with hatred of things Western. It is a view, Sergei says with a sigh, that he ‘can’t understand.'

True, the polarization has to some degree brought a new wave of supporters to Amnesty. For example, Sergei says the prosecution and imprisonment of Pussy Riot brought many new supporters to Amnesty in Russia. And of course, one of the people who spoke out most strongly in support of Pussy Riot was none other than ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.


As 2016 draws towards a close, a year that saw the 26th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon, the world, and perhaps Russia in particular, is as far away as ever from the ideals expressed in Imagine. In these circumstances are the aspirations for human rights embodied in the work Sergei does at Amnesty International impractical and unrealizable? Sergei says no, it is not a utopian vision, either in Russia or in the world as a whole. He sees Amnesty's work as a very practical project to improve human lives, based on recognition of the need for justice and solidarity. As Lennon sang:

You may say I'm a dreamer 
But I'm not the only one 
I hope someday you'll join us 
And the world will live as one.