Back In the USSR: The album Paul McCartney gifted to Russia

Jon O'Brien

BY Jon O'Brien

9th Jan 2024 Music

3 min read

Back In the USSR: The album Paul McCartney gifted to Russia
Also known as The Russian Album, Paul McCartney's Choba B CCCP record helped to bridge the gap between east and west long before the USSR's fall
The Beatles’ affiliation with the Soviet Union was turbulent to say the least. While their music had been a valuable commodity among British and American youth during the Swinging Sixties, the slightly less impressed Soviet press officially declared the Fab Four as the “belch of Western culture.”
Yet, though the White Album’s “Back in the USSR” was intended as a satire on American idealism, it was interpreted by parts of the West as an advert for communism
Although regularly denied the opportunity to perform there, Paul McCartney maintained an affinity with the region. In 1988, inspired by new leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s pledge of openness and transparency, the Liverpudlian decided to offer a peace gesture in rock n' roll form: a covers album that would be released in the Soviet Union only. 

The making of Choba B CCCP

The idea for Choba B CCCP, the Russian translation of “Back in the USSR”, came about essentially by accident.
Following the underwhelming response to 1986’s experimental Press to Play and the scrapping of an entire album produced by Phil Ramone, McCartney appeared to have lost his musical mojo.
But thanks to nostalgic jam sessions with the likes of Elvis Costello, Trevor Horn and Johnny Marr, the star quickly rediscovered it. Soon after, he hit the studio to lay down 22 of his early rock n' roll favourites.
"Many of the chosen tracks were already part of Beatles folklore"
Many of the chosen tracks were already part of Beatles folklore. Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” for example, was the song McCartney impressed John Lennon with during their first meeting, ultimately leading to an offer to join The Quarrymen.
Little Richard’s “Kansas City” was a staple of the Scousers’ setlist during their Hamburg years and was later recorded on their fourth LP Beatles for Sale.
And Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” and Elvis Presley’s “Just Because” had previously been covered by Lennon on his similarly-themed 1975 solo swan song Rock ‘n’ Roll

Paul McCartney's Soviet sensation

Unlike his former bandmate’s tribute, however, McCartney’s wasn’t intended for global consumption (although the songwriter did initially plan an unorthodox UK release designed to resemble a smuggling operation).
After receiving several vinyl copies boasting Russian-language covers as a present from his manager, Macca hit upon the brainwave of regifting it to the Soviet public. 
The bassist subsequently agreed a deal with Melodiya, a state-owned record label, which would see 400,000 copies of the album hit the shelves, but only in the Red Empire.
It was a warmly accepted gesture. The 11-track edition’s first run was an instant sell out. Likewise, the expanded edition, which added Bobby Mitchell & The Toppers’ “I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Someday” and George Gershwin standard “Summertime” to the track list, which arrived three months later. 

The Russian Album goes west

Of course, the appetite for all things Beatles is so insatiable that copies quickly found their way onto the international black market.
Those who paid £500 to get their hands on one would undoubtedly have felt aggrieved when Choba B СССР later got an official worldwide release in the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, charting in the UK at No.63 and at No.109 on the other side of the Atlantic (eight tracks also showed up as B-sides during the late Eighties).  
These might not have been the lofty positions that the former Wings frontman was used to. But as he explained on his official website, the number one spot wasn’t the goal: “I knew it wouldn’t be a big chart-topping thing, but I knew it would be a collectible. People would be like, ‘Have you heard about this?!’ Word of mouth, you know.”

Return to Red Square

This wasn’t the end of McCartney’s Russian connections, though. In 2003, he finally got the opportunity to play in the country, a historical event captured for posterity on the Grammy-nominated live DVD Paul McCartney in Red Square two years later.
“It was a mystical land then,” he wrote in memoir The Lyrics about his long-awaited trip. “It's nice to see the reality. I always suspected that people had big hearts. Now I know that's true.”
Nor was it Macca’s last covers album. He also doffed his cap to the rock n' roll classics he grew up with on 1999’s Run Devil Run, allowing fans to finally hear his take on “No Other Baby,” The Vipers song that had been left off СНОВА B СССР.
"It was a mystical land then"
And then in 2011, the Grammy-winning Kisses on the Bottom saw McCartney put his own spin on Great American Songbook classics such as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” 
But it’s the self-described “crazy little Russian release” that remains McCartney’s most intriguing and, judging by 1989’s commercial return to write Flowers in the Dirt, most rejuvenating trip down memory lane. 
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...