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Soviet Hippies: The Grass is Greener on the Other Side

Still from “Soviet Hippies.” (Terje Toomistu)

Astmatol : a spasmolytic agent used as a powder or in cigarettes. Astmatol is made of one part henbane leaves, two parts belladonna leaves, six parts Datura leaves, one part sodium nitrate, and three parts water. It is used in cases of bronchial asthma. Smoke is inhaled from the astmatol as it burns.

– The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979)

Terje Toomistu’s Soviet Hippies is a strange trippy film. It’s full of characters coming out of a thaw, as if you were watching George Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead go backwards to where they started from and find themselves in the Amazing Mirror Maze at Mall of America® — liking what they’re seeing for the first time. But one dimension removed.

Coming out of the Cold War thaw was like that. Though the annus mirabilis is most often associated with the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution, both of which happened in November 1989, in fact, revolution was in the air throughout Central and Eastern Europe the entire length of that tumultuous year.

During the first six months in Warsaw and in Budapest, the years-long push for democratic reform had reached a tipping point. In August, Hungary and Austria held snipping ceremonies to cut through the barbed wire fencing dividing their countries and held “Pan-European Picnics” at the breach, through which thousands of East bloc citizens, escaped to the West.

In August, 2 million democracy-hungry people held hands and created a 650 kilometer long “Baltic Chain” through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In October, many thousands of Leipzigers chanted, “Wir sind das Volk.” And in December, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were brutally executed by “the people.” By the end of January 1990, just a few months after the wall “fell,” the chimes of freedom were ringing in central Moscow: the first McDonald’s opened — leading to surreally long lines for Western fast food.

In a beerhall somewhere off U-Bahn station Heinrich-Heine-Straße (formerly Neanderthal Straße) someone muttered into his liebfraumilch, “Schabowski, you dummkopf, you really fucked up this time.” It might even have been Günter himself. Or his drinking pal, Karl Brewski (formerly Brüske).

But long before this exciting thaw took place in the Cold War between East and West, some of the surest signs of returned life came first into the pallid cheeks of the Soviet Hippies that Terje Toomistu documents in her film. In a recent email exchange, Toomistu writes, “The first Soviet hippies that appeared in around 1967-1968 were usually from the families of intellectuals or those who had a powerful position, which ensured their access to foreign information and goods such as records, books, magazines.” But there were also radio stations that brought in Western music, and, in Estonia, where most of this film takes place, residents were often able to access the non-Soviet TV airwaves of Finland.

Music was key, and the first stirrings came as a result of tuning into Radio Luxembourg, where nascent hippies would listen to the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club was a revelation for waking minds), hard rock, blues and psychedelic music, such as Jimi Hendrix. When these tunes moved down from their brains into their fingertips the result, at least in the film, could sound like a unique mash-up of early Beatles experimentation, Cream, and Jimi, as if the Soviets, in their hunger, were gobbling up a Big Mac, fries, chicken nuggets and a vanilla shake at the same time.

As in America and Europe, young Soviet hippies wanted to stand out, dress differently, wear their hair longer and unkempt, and generally vibe that they dropping out and turning on. They were to be, at first, a passive counterculture. Peaceniks in the style of John and Yoko. In America, the length of your hair could establish your political leanings in an instant — crew cut (conservative) to long hair (liberal). The movie and stage play Hair established the symbolism. Easy Rider demonstrated how dangerous hair could be. In the early hippie days of Tallinn, as in New York, the older generation wasn’t always receptive to coiffal challenges to tradition. “We have to cut their hair by force,” one Estonian hairdresser tells us, “or they have to get it cut themselves.”

The individuals depicted in Soviet Hippies were hippies, not yippies. They were drop-outs in a political milieu where excessive material desire was wasted, as there were few ways, for the vast majority of people, to satisfy their wants. Toomitsu, who says she was primarily interested in an “anthropological” documentation of these alternative lifestylists, discovered, as she travelled from Estonia to Russia and back, that they had established a social network of like-minded individuals who shared homes in various cities across the USSR.

Soviet Hippies is full of characters who tell little snippets of their ‘enlightenment’ tales as the film’s narrative progresses. There’s Aksel, who talks of how hearing rock for the first time “made him vibrate.” Old Long from Moscow who recalls how “The overdrive sound started to shake our collective consciousness.” Koljsa Vasin of St. Petersburg and proprietor of Lennon’s Temple of Love, saw “something sacred” in the Beatles. Gena Zeitsev from St. Petersburg said the hippies felt “things you were prohibited to feel” by the Soviets. And Sergei Moskalev probably summed up the vibe best: “We lived in a highly regulated society. And any kind of deviance gave you a sense of ecstasy.”

Toomitsu says the Soviet hippies were all about “…remaining true to your ideals, values and practicing kindness and love towards each other – which was already a very different emotional stance from the mainstream society. Plus having a sense of participation in the western pop culture and/or spiritual quests. (The Soviet Union was an atheist state.) Not participating in [a] society that seems to be based on lies and pretentious social roles.”

The hippies called the network “sistema” or the system. The film shows them getting together to lay back, listen to some tunes, and get high. LSD was uncommon, but Astmatol, a cigarette with the wacky tobacky combination described in the Soviet Encyclopedia, made into tea, brought welcome hallucinations to numb lives, just as it did to teens in America. “The unifying feature of the movement which hasn’t lost its importance,” says ascetic Aare Loit-Babai is, lighting up, early in the film, “is the non-violent attitude.” These hippies sought “kaif,” essentially the same expansion of the senses that their young counterparts in the West sought. On a visit to Viking, “a legendary hippie in Tallinn,” Loit-Babai voices over an animation of his Astmatol high, in one of the highlights of the film.

But everything changed on June 1, 1971 in Moscow, when a “Union-wide” gathering of hippies convened outside the US Embassy under the pretext of protesting the American war in Viet Nam. Though the Soviet government had given permission to gather and protest, for reasons not fully explained in the film, authorities got spooked by the outburst of loud but non-violent behavior of the placard-bearing protesters and shove came to Pushkin Street; hippies were roughed up and arrested; many were kicked out of school, lost jobs, and at least one student leapt out a window.

Terje Toomitsu told me that this was a crucial pivot point for Soviet hippies:

There was a short period of time when the hippie movement became [politicized], and this changed the fate of the movement, pushing it deep underground, making it more radical, drug infused, and distant from any desire for political involvement. I think this is very important to understand and it largely explains the ‘escapist’ drive amongst the hippies during the 1970s.

The hippies had been given permission to demonstrate, so maybe it was the truly American audacity of free expression and the implicit middle finger to authority of happy hippiedom that Soviet officials caught wind of that irked them into action. Or maybe the put-down was CIA-agitated; another chance for Americans to show the world how the Soviets handle freedom.

Nevertheless, throughout the USSR, “socialism with a human face” inched forward toward a centrism, which was meant to be a kind of compromise with the authoritarianism. In short, a chance to purchase more Western goods, more Big Macs, and stuff made in Chinese sweatshops, like Nike shoes and iMacs. In 1989, even Berlin Wall chunks were sold as keychains in department stores. Americans now have their own centrism to worry about — two parties, one vision, and the “lesser-of-two-evils” voting is largely a case of trying to figure out which one of the two will fuck us less for the next four years. And we, too, have long lines for socialist handouts. Sigh.

The multi-award winning film continues to make the rounds of small (mostly fringe) festivals. It’s quirky, but, as Toomitsu has pointed out, it’s also an especially interesting document for those with a cultural anthropology bent. You can view Soviet Hippies at Vimeo on-demand for a few bucks. Those interested in more information on the background of the film-making, as well as aspects of Toomitsu’s academic inquiry with the project, can view her TED Talk. Here is a generous sampling of the music soundtrack featured in the film.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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