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A story behind Billy Joel’s ‘Leningrad’

Released in 1989 originally in Billy Joel’s album ‘Storm Front’, but later on released as a single in Europe only. The song “Leningrad” derives its title from the contemporary name of the city of St. Petersburg, Russia. The song is a postcard of Billy Joel’s time and tour there.

In 1987, Billy Joel toured the Soviet Union as tensions between the two countries decreased. The tour was a great success and was filmed for a documentary (Billy Joel: A Matter Of Trust - The Bridge to Russia) in which Joel affirms that the tour was the end of his “Cold War”. In his time there, he met someone who would come to be an important and loving friend for him and his daughter, his name was Viktor Razinov. He was Russian, a cold-war enemy, but their friendship was stronger than any national hatred between their countries. "The Cold War ended for me when I met this guy," Joel told Sirius XM in 2016. "That was it. I went to meet my enemy, and I actually met my friend." Viktor was a circus clown who made his way through enormous Russia to see all six shows of Joel’s concerts.

‘Leningrad’ contrasts the life of two kids during the Cold War. Vicktor, ‘born in the spring of ‘44’, lived in the USSR and had a sad life. Like many Soviet children, he lost his father during the Second World War, during the siege of Leningrad. When he was old enough, he enlisted in the Red Army, learning to ‘serve his state’. He ‘drank his vodka straight’ in order to fight the pain, and finally became a circus clown, bringing a bit of light and happiness into the sombre and hard life of the Russian children.

Billy Joel, ‘born in ‘49’, was a ‘Cold war kid in McCarthy times’. He lived in the United States and his childhood was marked by the fear of a Soviet attack. There was a deep hatred towards the Soviets, the dreadful Communists.

Both men had been bombarded with propaganda throughout their life, which made them see one another as enemies. Americans and Russians hated each other, they felt their differences were so big that they could not be put in the same room as it would cause disaster… Billy and Viktor realised the “differences'' they saw in each other were unsubstantial, nonexistent, and therefore could be broken easily if they wanted to. It was a division set by governments that disliked each other and could not seem to stop their thirst for power, for being the strongest.

In any case, both found fulfilment in entertaining people, Viktor as a circus clown and Billy as a singer. One day, whilst on his tour in Russia, Billy Joel and his daughter went to “this place”, as it says in the song, probably referring to a circus. They went there to meet Viktor, they must have known about this Russian clown. “He made my daughter laugh”, Billy sings, “then we embraced''. Joel’s daughter was a toddler then, around three years old, and she obviously did not see Viktor as an enemy, a cruel Russian Communist, but as a kind grown-up who was funny and made her laugh. The innocence and purity of children is many times more realistic and rational than the grudgeful and prejudiced ideas and views of the world many adults have.

At present, both men maintain their contact and are good friends. In a 2016 interview Joel looked back on when, a few months before, a reunion took place, and a very emotional one, both for him and his daughter, Alexa (also a singer, song-writer, and a “Piano Woman”), who shared a snapshot of their meeting on Instagram.Viktor went to New York and gave Joel the ashes of his twin brother; he wanted them to be with his American friend, with whom he felt a very special connection.

Alexa (middle) opening a birthday present from Viktor (right) on a post shared by Alexa on Instagram

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