Named after the Russian city, "Leningrad" follows the lives of two boys who grew up on opposite sides of the Cold War. One of them is Viktor, who had a sad childhood under Soviet rule but found fulfillment entertaining Russian children as a circus clown. The other is Billy Joel, an American kid whose childhood was marked by fear of a Soviet attack but who also found happiness as an entertainer.
The song is mostly autobiographical: Joel met Viktor when he toured the Soviet Union in 1987 and, despite being raised to be enemies, they became friends - just like their characters in the song. The pivotal moment came when the clown made Joel's little daughter, Alexa, laugh. He sings:
And so my child, and I came to this place
To meet him eye to eye and face to face
He made my daughter laugh, then we embraced
We never knew what friends we had
Until we came to Leningrad
"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."
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Leningrad went back to its original name, Saint Petersburg, in 1991.
In the lyrics, Joel tells us his upbringing in America was different than Viktor's in Russia, but he also expresses the contrast through the music. He told the Orlando Sentinel in 1989: "I put the Russian guy in major keys and the America kid in minor keys. I went for an interesting juxtaposition, because the Russian modality is usually a minor modality. So I reversed it."
Joel included another nod to his childhood by enlisting the Hicksville High School Chorus, of which he used to be a member, to sing on the track. "I needed a choral group on the symphonic section of the song," he told the Orlando Sentinal. "I didn't want highly trained operatic voices, so I called Chuck Arnold. He was my choir director and was the only teacher who encouraged me to go into music. Everyone else said, 'You've got to get a real job.' But Chuck was a beatnik teacher who said, 'You should be a musician. You got a great ear and you should keep writing songs.' So this was my way of paying him back. I really wanted him on the record."
Viktor felt such a special connection with Joel that he gave him a very personal gift. "He came to New York a few months ago," Joel recalled in the 2016 interview. "He had a twin brother, the brother died, and he gave me his brother's ashes to be with me
." Joel said it was a very emotional reunion for both himself and his daughter. Alexa also shared a snapshot of their meeting on Instagram
This wasn't released as a single in the US, but it reached #14 in Germany and #15 in the Netherlands.
This is featured on Joel's 11th studio album, Storm Front
, which also includes another chronicle of the singer's boyhood in America: "We Didn't Start The Fire