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In the Newsroom

September 22, 2009
In the newsroom: The Black Sea Fleet covers the Beatles

Worldfocus producer Christine Kiernan writes about the meaning behind a Russian sailor’s version of “Let It Be” currently making the rounds on YouTube.

In 1970, the year the Beatles released their hit single “Let It Be,” Sevastopol — home to the Soviet Union’s legendary Black Sea Fleet — was a closed port. The city answered to Moscow, rather than the Ukrainian administration under whose territory it was located, and in order to enter or exit, a special permit was required. Other cities on the Crimean Peninsula — like Yalta, Sochi and Artek, famed for their Black Sea beaches and resorts — drew elite apparatchiki and ordinary citizens from across the Soviet Union. State radio piped out schmaltzy pop hits by singers like the Ukrainian Volodymyr Ivasyuk, while the music of the Beatles, which the state-run record label refused to release, circulated underground.

Today, Sevastopol belongs to an independent Ukraine. Anyone who wants to can freely visit the city. The Black Sea fleet has been divided between Russia and Ukraine, and in 2017 Russia’s lease on the port will expire, forcing the fleet to leave what has been its home for more than three centuries. While new international borders and an end to state-financed vacations may have made it harder for CIS residents to visit their once favored resort spot, today Americans like me can travel to the Crimea.

In yet another sign of how times have changed, the orchestra of the Black Sea Fleet now includes “Let It Be” in its repertoire. Check out this video circulating on YouTube:

Sporting the fleet’s seafaring uniforms, the singers look like they’ve stepped out onto the small stage from an earlier era. The lead singer gesticulates and croons to mother Mary in accented English. The performance is pegged as one of the “worst cover songs ever.” That said, comments in English and Russian are surprisingly uplifting — “This is genius!,” “The heart with which he sings inspires me” — although not all are convinced: “He should have stayed in opera.”

Whatever you think of the lead singer’s tremulous bass and the dancing girls swaying and waving their hands, you can’t deny that a performance like this would have been inconceivable 39 years ago. And that, in my view, is what makes it so wonderful and poignant today.

– Christine Kiernan

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