In October 1987, Russia was still The Evil Empire to most Americans, in spite of Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the country through Perestroika.
As a 20-year-old, my mental picture of the country had been formed by too many spy novels and Cold War movies.
A group of us studying in Notre Dame’s London program took a field trip to Russia. When we arrived in Moscow, all of us checked the backs of the pictures in our hotel rooms and looked under our beds for bugs or listening devices. We were only half-kidding. On a postcard to my parents, I wrote: “The USSR seems like America in the 1950s & on downers, outfitted by K-Mart. A whole country badly in need of a coat of paint.”
At the impressive yet somehow overbearing Red Square, someone noted how odd it was to realize that more than one U.S. nuclear weapon was aimed at us. Still, Russia was beautiful.
We took an overnight train to Leningrad (as it was called then), arriving in the middle of a beautiful, clear day, although most of us were too hung over from drinking vodka during the train ride to enjoy it. We met out translator, a cute girl named Laura. She went everywhere with us. We all suspected she had really been sent to spy on us, important liberal arts students from America that we were.
Our hotels generally served dinner in large cafeteria-like rooms. The dining areas were converted to night clubs as soon as the last plate was cleared. One night, several of us were sitting around with Laura, picking at our dinner rolls and drinking the strong beer, when the night-club conversion began. A four-piece band started setting up in front of us. Three of the band members appeared to be in their 50s, but the hot-shot guitarist was probably in his early 20s. They were dressed in matching dark blue shirts and gray pants. They sported really bad haircuts.
I went up to speak to them. Over the language barrier, we talked about music. When I told them I played guitar (poorly), they handed me the hot-shot guitarist’s guitar. I m sure he cringed as I bashed out some basic chords on the instrument he had been painstakingly tuning. When I mentioned the Beatles, they all nodded and smiled. We had discovered common ground. I asked them to play some Beatles songs, and I thought they assured me that they did not know any.
As the night club began to fill up, the band started to play. Their act featured lounge music, halting and by-the-numbers. They played a song about Rio de Janiero (with badly pronounced English lyrics) that sounded a little like Las Vegas. The dance floor set up in front of them was empty.
After the band played four or five songs, our group started to leave. The band members beckoned to me from the makeshift stage. When I walked up to them, the lead singer (and best English speaker) said, “Beatles. Sing Beatles. You know ‘Yesterday’?”
I was a little confused. Yes, I knew “Yesterday,” but why were they asking me to sing with them?
Before I had time to think about it, I was handed a microphone. “Hello, Leningrad!” I said, and the band started the familiar strains of Paul McCartney’s classic ballad. So I sang. The dance floor began to fill up with older Russian couples, swaying to the song. Laura and my friends laughed and toasted me from our table.
After extending the song for an extra couple of verses, it was over. I was disappointed and exhilarated and relieved all at the same time.