Paul McCartney at Red Square

Former Beatle Paul McCartney performs at Moscow's Red Square in 2003. (Bill Bernstein / A&E Network / September 16, 2003)

Paul McCartney appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to release 30 Greenpeace activists detained for staging a protest two months ago at an Arctic drilling platform, reminding the Kremlin leader of their friendly 2003 meeting and the Beatles' 1968 ode "Back in the USSR."

"Forty-five years ago I wrote a song about Russia for the White Album, back when it wasn't fashionable for English people to say nice things about your country," McCartney wrote in his letter to Putin, which was posted on his website.

"That song had one of my favorite Beatles lines in it: 'Been away so long I hardly knew the place, gee it's good to be back home,' " McCartney recalled. "Could you make that come true for the Greenpeace prisoners?"

The former Beatle politely conceded that the Russian judiciary and presidency are independent of each other, but wondered "if you may be able to use whatever influence you have to reunite the detainees with their families."

Twenty-eight Greenpeace activists and two journalists covering their protest Sept. 18 were arrested after sailing the ship Arctic Sunrise to an oil platform of the state-owned Gazprom energy conglomerate. They were originally accused of piracy and held in the Arctic port Murmansk. Last week they were transferred to a jail in St. Petersburg, where they now face trial on reduced charges of hooliganism.

McCartney said he was concerned by Russian portrayals of the activists "as being anti-Russian, that they were doing the bidding of Western governments, and that they threatened the safety of the people working on that Arctic oil platform."

He said "the Greenpeace I know" is an annoyance to many governments whose operations the activists see as threatening the environment. But Greenpeace members are above corruption by Western or any other governments or corporations, he said.

"Above all else, they are peaceful," McCartney assured Putin. "In my experience, nonviolence is an essential part of who they are."

McCartney addressed his letter to "Dear Vladimir" and recalled his concert at Red Square a decade ago, saying, "I still often think about Russia and the Russian people."

He ended by expressing the hope that "we can meet up again soon in Moscow" when schedules allow.

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin, where spokesman Dmitry Peskov told news agency RIA Novosti that Putin had yet to receive the letter.

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Twitter: @cjwilliamslat

carol.williams@latimes.com