Back in the USSR: The Spirit of Beatlemania in Kazakhstan
First Published in Open Central Asia Magazine American Edition, 17/10/2017
The site of a Silk Road oasis laid waste by the Mongols, the modern history of Almaty began with the construction of a Russian piedmont fort in 1854, around which a minor provincial centre grew. Upon hearing that Trotsky had been exiled to Alma-Ata in 1928, one of his enemies quipped that ‘even if he dies there, we won’t hear of it soon.’
Married to the outside world by the arrival of the Turkestan-Siberia Railway in 1930, the advent of World War II saw Nazi-threatened factories and their workforces relocated from the Eastern Bloc. At the same time, an influx of forcibly resettled Koreans arrived from Russia’s Far-East, the population of the city increasing tenfold within thirty years.
Nowadays, despite being replaced by Astana as the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997, Almaty remains Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city, vibrant and oil-rich. In shady Panfilov Park, the Ascension Cathedral glows in shades of yellow beneath candy chequered domes and golden turrets. To the south, where Almaty rises towards the Tien Shan Mountains, a clutch of hulking monuments celebrate the nationhood which the Central Asian state has enjoyed since the fall of the Soviet Union.
At the western end of this main drag, a cable car ascends the 1,100-meter Kok-Tobe (Green Hill) above the city, a welcome respite from the sweltering summer heat where a cast bronze of the Beatles takes pride of place. Erected in 1997, it once claimed to be the only statue in the world of the ‘fab four’ together. Kissing their metallic likenesses, laughing babushkas hung from their necks. It all felt a bit incongruous until I spoke to Gabit Sagatov.
“The spirit of Beatlemania is huge in Almaty,” he told me, “so it’s natural that the first monument to the Beatles to be built in the CIS should be here.”
Gabit Sagatov grew up in Kyzylorda, a sleepy provincial capital in the Kyzyl-Kum Desert.
“Ever since I was a child, I loved singing,” he said. “I sang the songs of Kazakh artists and songs from popular Soviet movies. In 1974, I heard the Beatles for the first time. I was shocked; it changed my musical perception dramatically. Their music started a craze of young people playing the guitar. You could hear people practising in all the courtyards. Desks in the high school were inscribed with graffiti in English, things like ‘I Love Beatles.’ I tried to imitate them in my clothing, in everything. I began to grow long hair. My headmaster chastised me for it.
“In 1975, my friend and I created an English language group, singing Beatles, Rolling Stones and Slade covers. On TV and in the media at the time, there was no information about Western pop music. We listened to Voice of America and the BBC, recorded them on tape and passed them on. I painted a portrait of John Lennon and Paul McCartney and hung it in my room. My father would say to his friends as a joke, ‘this room belongs to our relative who lives in the city of Liverpool in distant England.’”
I asked Gabit how the regime had reacted to this Western phenomenon being embraced so wholeheartedly.
“We didn’t feel much pressure,” he said. “Komsomol members (the Leninist Youth Communist League) were Beatles fans themselves. Hundreds of thousands of boys and girls and later millions of people in the USSR succumbed to Beatlemania. The authorities couldn’t ignore the stupendous amount of interest. LPs with Beatles songs like ‘Octopus's garden’ and ‘Come together’ began to appear in stores, though it wasn’t written on them that they were Beatles songs. I still have those records.”
Sagatov’s brush with fame arrived in 1993, courtesy of the BBC documentary series Holidays in the Danger Zone, for which his band the Kazakh Beatles were invited to play at the renowned Cavern Club, where his heroes’ careers had begun.
“We did two gigs at the Beatle Week Festival in Liverpool. I’ve played in London and Washington,” he told me. “I have a photo of me crossing Abbey Road.”
Completed in 1907, the Zenkov Cathedral in Almaty is built of wood, right down to the nails
Statue of the "Fab Four" at Kok-Tobe, Almaty
Gabit Sagatov (Photo courtesy of the subject)