MOSCOW — Photographer Boris Antonov doesn’t remember exactly how he found out that former Beatle John Lennon had been shot to death in New York on December 8, 1980.
It definitely wasn’t from the Soviet media, he recalled. In his personal archive, Antonov still has a tiny clipping from a back page of the Soviet daily Trud that announced the news in three terse sentences on December 10.
But word of Lennon’s killing “spread rather quickly” among his friends, Antonov told RFE/RL.
“It was a shock, of course,” Antonov, who at the time was a student at the Moscow Communications Institute, said. “Because the Beatles seemed to be eternal. They had been there our whole lives.”
Antonov stressed that he was an ordinary Soviet kid from the outlying Moscow neighborhood of Kuntsevo.
“No one in my circle had dissident views or any doubts about socialism,” he said. “Downtown was where the kids lived whose fathers were in cinema or were diplomats or professors. The so-called Golden Youth who had blue jeans and the latest Deep Purple album.”
Antonov did, however, play bass in a neighborhood band. He remembers hearing the Beatles’ 1965 song Girl when he was in the seventh grade on a Soviet compilation album called Musical Kaleidoscope No. 8.
And there were rare glimpses of the English rockers even on Soviet television.
“There was a television show called America In The Viewfinder that began with a clip from Can’t Buy Me Love,” Antonov remembered. “The show was about how hard life was for American workers. But we didn’t care about that. The main thing for us was those 20 seconds of the Beatles.”
One time, he said, he was in a record store when the clerk decided to show off to his friends by playing the 1969 hit Come Together.
“That was a shock,” he said, recalling how Lennon’s vocals stood out compared to the Soviet pop stars that dominated the airwaves at the time. “We were surrounded by [Iosif] Kobzon, Aida Vedishcheva, Valentina Tolkkunova….”
In the late 1970s, and especially as the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games approached, the atmosphere became more relaxed. In 1977, the Soviet record label Melodia released Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine.
On December 20, 1980, Antonov saw a small notice on a bulletin board at the Moscow Communications Institute. It invited “all admirers and fans of the music of the Beatles” to come “tomorrow” to the Lenin Hills overlook near the main building of Moscow State University (MGU) at 11 a.m. for a gathering of “those who want to honor the memory of John Lennon.”
Across the bottom of the announcement, someone had written: “Those who are afraid of repressions please don’t come.”
“It was evening, and I was putting on my coat to leave,” Antonov told RFE/RL. “That’s when I saw it. I wanted to take it because it was such a nice thing. I argued a little with myself — maybe I should let more people find out about it. But it was already late, and the institute was about to close. I thought I wouldn’t harm freedom or Lennon’s memory, so I carefully took it down and hid it away.”
Antonov said he worried a bit about the possibility of trouble if he participated in the memorial, but that “just made it more interesting, with a little risk and fear.”
“Of course, we weren’t worried that they would beat us or arrest us, but we knew that there could be trouble,” he added, including the possibility of being expelled from the institute.
That evening, a friend was celebrating his birthday with a listening of the Pink Floyd album The Wall. Antonov told them about the Lennon gathering, but none of them wanted to go.
“They were simply afraid,” he said.
Already a budding photographer, Antonov loaded a fresh roll of film in his camera the next morning and headed to the Lenin Hills overlook, a prominent platform with a panoramic view over the Soviet capital. As it turned out, Antonov took almost all of the surviving photographs of the event.
When he arrived at about 11:30, there were “200-300 people gathered near the famous granite barrier.” Two people were holding a banner reading “To The Blessed Memory Of John Lennon.” Another young man, apparently a student, had a sign around his neck with the word “Imagine” and the third verse of Lennon’s iconic song of that title written on it.
In a memoir written for the website Beatles.ru, Antonov said he saw a young man take off his hat and give a moving, heartfelt tribute to Lennon in a voice breaking with sorrow.
“He spoke of Lennon as a great musician and as a fighter for social justice,” Antonov wrote. “For the rights of blacks, for peace. He concluded with the words, ‘Together with Lennon forever!'”
Others stepped up and concluded their speeches with similar slogans that had Soviet echoes: “Lennon hasn’t died!” or “Lennon forever!”
“One young man shouted, ‘Give peace a chance!’ and threw up a peace sign,” Antonov wrote.
Antonov said he doesn’t recall any particular anti-Soviet sentiment at the event. He said a single police officer stood nearby and watched. One or two photographers from the international press snapped photos. An article later appeared in London’s The Daily Telegraph.
Nonetheless, participants began being detained as the demonstration was breaking up and people were heading to the nearest metro station.
“The police and, according to rumors, government collaborators from MGU, began to push the loudest participants around and shove them toward a bus,” Antonov wrote in his memoir. “People couldn’t believe their eyes. No one had any experience of anything like that. One guy asked a police officer to explain what was happening and began citing various rights and freedoms from the constitution…. The crowd started getting angry. You could hear people shouting some bold things at the police and particularly at the security officers in plain clothes who had until that moment been standing around pretending to be [Lennon] fans and who were now ushering activists into the bus.”
Antonov said the crowd linked arms and continued walking toward the metro. As they passed the bus with the detainees, Antonov said he shouted, “Guys, we are with you!”
For Antonov, the breaking point came when a police officer tried to detain the young man who had earlier been quoting the constitution.
“‘We won’t give him up!'” Antonov recalled saying. At that point, the police grabbed him too. Antonov said he instinctively resisted, kicking out with his legs after both his arms were restrained.
“But, of course, it was pointless,” he said. “They kicked me into the bus.”
“We somehow felt that right was on our side,” Antonov recalled. “We knew that we were innocent and that our cause was just.”
The crowd was even angrier, he said, because most of those who were detaining them were MGU student collaborators and informers.
The detainees were taken to various police stations for questioning. Antonov said none of the officers was rude to him. One of them even said that he liked the Beatles himself.
Antonov said he later heard that some of the detainees had various problems, including being disciplined at their institutes.
“But none of the people I knew personally had any such problems,” he told RFE/RL.
A year later, in December 1981, Soviet Lennon fans tried to organize another, similar event on the first anniversary of the tragedy. But this time the Soviet authorities were prepared.
Antonov and a couple of friends tried to approach the Lenin Hills overlook.
“We were grabbed when we were still 300 or 400 meters from the viewing point,” he recalled. “The police came up to us and said, ‘Boys, where are you going?’ ‘Just taking a walk,’ we answered. ‘Well, take a walk with us then.'”
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Valentin Baryshnkov.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.