The most popular band on the planet was utterly forbidden behind the Iron Curtain but Lennon and McCartney's melodies infiltrated with the help of VOX rather than MI6.
Did people risk employment to smuggle "Rubber Soul" on vinyl? Did the Beatles inspire clandestine garage bands? Did the Fab Four inadvertently stir the flames of anti-totalitarianism in the youth, chipping away at their faith in the Soviet system?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
"The Beatles promoted a cultural revolution in the former Soviet Union that played a part in the demolition of communism in that part of the world," said British Cold War spy and documentarian Leslie Woodhead.
After his espionage escapades, Woodhead became a cameraman for the Granada Television station in Manchester, England. On Aug. 22, 1962, Woodhead, a dedicated modern jazz fan, was assigned to shoot an up-and-coming rock group at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.
What Woodhead recorded has passed into Beatles lore: the band's first public performance with Ringo Starr and their first recorded show at the historic Cavern Club. That night, the music was so intense and riveting that Woodhead later drove his car into a ditch, distracted — still processing what he had heard.
Within a few weeks of shooting that footage, the band's popularity spread to millions across the world in much the same way. But Woodhead argues in his new book "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin" that in one place, in particular, the Beatles fomented revolution.
Had Beatles songs penetrated the Soviet Union a few years earlier, they would have fallen on far less fertile ground. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, kids thought it was "cool to be a Communist." They romanticized the Cuban revolutionaries and even had their own superhero: Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut who beat the Americans to become the first man in space.
In this optimistic environment, First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev declared the electric guitar "an enemy of the Soviet people."
Other Kremlin leaders soon booted Khrushchev and replaced him with the hardline and dour Leonid Brezhnev, who ousted rock music and any other creative expression that was not government-approved, Woodhead explained.
At precisely this time, Beatlemania hit: electrifying, carefree, rhythmic freedom, pulsating through a Höfner violin bass, two Rickenbacker guitars and a drum kit.
Suddenly the youth's drab, gray world, characterized by dull patriotic anthems and military marches, exploded into extraordinary Technicolor.
Kids traded Lenin for Lennon but still worshipped a "Starr," just not the one accompanied by a hammer and sickle. A generation of schoolchildren, including Vladimir Putin's Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov, claims to have learned English by scribbling down Beatles lyrics in their notebooks.
The state's repressive old men — fearing John, Paul, George and Ringo's siren songs — launched an anti-Beatle campaign that mocked them as "the bugs," a bourgeoisie side effect of capitalism. The Beatles had become a gateway drug to Western values. Government vigilantes rounded up rock and roll fans to shave off their long hair.
"The Beatles were totally illegal," Woodhead said. "It made that forbidden fruit even sweeter … the kids thought, 'the Kremlin told us this is evil music but it's not true. It's lovely music! Maybe they've been lying to us about other things as well.' That had a very corrosive impact."
The British military taught Woodhead to speak Russian so he could spy on Soviet pilots and naval commanders from a former Luftwaffe base in war-torn Berlin. The atmosphere of secrecy and intrigue that characterized that period in Cold War history left an indelible mark on his consciousness.
"They selected about 5,000 men who they taught Russian," Woodhead said. "We were doing it very intensively during the seven months of training. We were reading Dostoevsky and Pushkin but it narrowed down more and more to stuff of military purpose."
This intensity fostered an obsession with the Soviet Union during Woodhead's formative years on Her Majesty's Secret Service. It extended well into his post-espionage career as a filmmaker.
After Mikhail Gorbachev took power, it became possible for Englishmen to shoot documentaries within the USSR. Woodhead jumped at the opportunity to investigate hard-edged subjects and kept meeting Beatles fans everywhere he went.
A widely held fantasy that Woodhead heard over and over was that the Beatles landed in the USSR to play an impromptu concert on the wing of their tour airplane on their way to Japan. The Soviet city would change in each telling but people sincerely believed that this undocumented performance happened.
Soon enough, though, the Soviet government followed suit and somewhat inexplicably started celebrating John Lennon's legacy after his death in 1980. Cuba, another country that once banned Beatles music, also wound up appropriating Lennon as an anti-U.S. freedom fighter. Now a bronze statue of Lennon sits on a park bench in Havana.
Both regimes' changes of heart were firmly rooted in Lennon's radical views during the '70s. He penned a protest song in support of American Communist Angela Davis — to combat racism, not capitalism. He also described "Imagine" as "virtually 'The Communist Manifesto,'" but noted that he was "not particularly a Communist" — though he did grant an interview to the Marxist newspaper The Red Mole in 1971.
"The Russians put it out that we were capitalist robots, which we were I suppose," he said to the underground paper. But Lennon's political convictions — apart from pacifism, which he advocated unequivocally — continued to evolve until the end of his life.
In the last major interview before his death, Lennon looked back on his English upbringing and claimed he was offered two political paths: a right-wing Archie Bunker or an instinctive socialist. Lennon was the latter.
"That meant I think people should get their false teeth and their health looked after, all the rest of it," Lennon said. "But apart from that, I worked for money and I wanted to be rich."
Nevertheless, Lennon's anti-Vietnam War activism prompted U.S. government officials, under President Richard Nixon, to monitor his activity. A declassified FBI file from 1972 characterized him as interested in "extreme left-wing activities" and a "sympathizer of Trotskyist communists in England."
The Trotskyist Communists, in question, were Tariq Ali, editor of the Red Mole, and other members of the International Marxist Group. Lennon even confided that his song "Power to the People" was written "in a state of being asleep and wanting to be loved by Tariq Ali and his ilk."
These political dalliances and the U.S. government's attempts to silence and deport Lennon eventually made him more palatable for Soviets.
Yet the Beatles overall impact was crystal clear for the youth who longed for liberty.
After the USSR collapsed in 1991, Woodhead continued traveling throughout the region, hearing the same message.
"The Cold War was won by the West … not by nuclear missiles, but by the Beatles," a Russian Beatlemaniac assured Woodhead.
Another man, with a particularly thick accent, compared the Beatles' arrival to the second coming of Christ, a flame of freedom.
"Bitles killed communism."
By Michael Walsh / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS