The Soviet Hippies
A look at counterculture behind the Iron Curtain.
- Interview by
- Loren Balhorn
Although veteran leftists may wince at the notion, hippie culture remains associated with political protest in the popular imagination. During the height of student radicalization in the 1960s, the music, clothing, and visual aesthetic associated with the hippie movement permeated the protest culture of the New Left. This image continues to animate right-wing caricatures of the Left even today.
While this particular type of cultural rebellion was most prominent in the Fordist societies of the capitalist West, it found its way across the Atlantic and took on a unique form in Leonid Brezhnev’s stuffy and increasingly stagnant Soviet Union. There, thousands of disaffected young citizens banded together in an underground network of self-identified hippies calling themselves Sistema, or “the system.” The largely forgotten movement’s story serves as the focus of a recent documentary titled Soviet Hippies, capturing a unique slice of Cold War culture in which diffuse, anti-authoritarian sentiment resonated with young people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Jacobin contributing editor Loren Balhorn recently spoke with the film’s director, Terje Toomistu.
Your film documents the life and times of a network of hippies, primarily concentrated in the Baltic States but spread throughout the USSR, called Sistema. Where did the name come from and why did it become the nickname for this group of long-haired, rebellious Soviet kids?
According to hippie lore, it began around a charismatic hippie guy living in Moscow in the late 1960s named Sontse, which translates into “sunny.” He was referred to by other hippies as “the sun,” while the crowd around him gradually came to be called the “solar system.” Sistema probably originates from there. Nevertheless, Sistema at this point did not yet function as what it would later become: a self-organized and self-sustaining network of people sharing certain values and ideals, traveling across the country and meeting up in people’s apartments and large group camping trips.
When did this network emerge?
The actual network emerged a few years later, in the early 1970s. The movement began among some individuals in the major cities of the Soviet Union who had access to Western music. After a while, they began to wonder whether there were people like them in other parts of the country, and soon linked up with long-haired people in the other large cities. This is when Sistema began to develop as a culture, with hippies traveling around the USSR and “couch surfing,” if you will, at other long-haired peoples’ houses. Sistema people compiled notebooks with the phone numbers of other hippies located in different cities, allowing them to get in touch with like-minded people in Kaunas, Tallinn, and other places during their summer travels.
What about the politics of the hippie movement? It seemed to me like they were in many ways rebelling against the same kind of conservative attitudes and social norms as in the Western context, albeit under a different socioeconomic system and political institutions. Whereas many young American rebels in the 1960s idealized, for example, Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China, a lot of the subjects in your film seem to lionize anything and everything American. Yet, as your film admits, most of the early hippies were actually children of the Soviet elite. What were the issues and factors pushing this estrangement from Soviet society?
There were definitely some similar aspects between the East and West, but also some differences. In the USSR, pacifism was not purely political — it also had implications on the everyday, mundane level. Soviet society at that time was deeply authoritarian and highly militaristic. Most of the hippies rejected these attitudes and tried to model their daily lives around values like “peace” and “love.”
That said, the hippie scene began where people had access to Western music and journals, and that of course could only happen among the elite — the only people in the Soviet Union who had access to Western goods. High-ranking officials — Communist Party members, KGB agents, etc. — could get permission to travel to Western countries, often bringing back all kinds of exotic foreign presents for their kids. The children of the elite also had more money to buy bootleg LPs, which were quite expensive. Oftentimes people formed clubs of four or five music fans who would pool their funds to buy a record, and then take turns making reel-to-reel tape copies.
So in that sense it certainly contained an aspect of social dissent, but it was also a status thing. If you had a good record collection, you had many friends. And so at least in the beginning, the hippies were often the children of powerful Soviet families. Ideologically speaking, there was certainly this idealization of the West as the “free world,” and to a lesser degree, an idealization of the free market.
So there was a kind of a pro-free market coloring to the whole thing?
Yes, because they associated the market with good music and good jeans. It wasn’t that they were in favor of capitalism per se, they just had an idealized notion of freedom of consumption. This was more or less true of the broader Soviet population: consumption was the repressed, and consequently, idealized. People wanted to wear jeans as an expression of that desire for freedom. It’s difficult to judge them for that in retrospect — in a society where consumer goods are difficult to acquire, it’s understandable how consumption could take on such a meaning.
One thing that doesn’t come up in your movie at all is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Did the war in Afghanistan have any effect on the hippie movement? Did it grow, was there any relation to anti-war sentiment?
Well, Afghanistan doesn’t play a role in my film because the documentary concentrates on the emergence of the hippie movement, which really became a visible social entity in 1971 when the hippies gathered to protest the Vietnam War in Moscow. This occasion was chosen because it aligned with both the foreign policy stance of the Soviet government, as well as the pacifism prevalent among the hippie community. It was also a major event for the hippie movement, mostly because they were all arrested and had their names taken down by the police, suddenly making it very dangerous to be a hippie in the USSR.
In this way, the authorities killed the political element of the movement — it became much more underground, more inward-looking, and perhaps more spiritual, but also more drug- and alcohol-related. The social and political aspects receded. When I ask old hippies if they were political, they usually say that they saw politics as stagnant. They felt there was no way they could change anything in Soviet society, and that they would just end up in jail if they tried. In some ways, I think their inward-looking rejection of politics was in itself a form of protest.
Were there any connections between the hippie movement or Sistema and the Leningrad intelligentsia or the dissident Soviet avant-garde, or were those separate milieus?
There were connections, certainly. In Estonia, for example — which was a comparatively free society compared to most of the USSR — people working in music and the arts, literature, etc., were always kind of “in between” these official and unofficial spheres, doing their own free, radical art while still trying to stay on good terms with the authorities. Many people also dabbled in hippie culture when they were young before going on to become more established and accepted “official” Soviet artists. I deliberately focused on Sistema, this more radical crowd of hippies who really “dropped out” of Soviet society and traveled around the country as free spirits, but there were certainly overlaps with artists and the intelligentsia.
What about gender? It isn’t much of a focus in the film, but several interview subjects make some passing comments that suggest the community’s gender politics were not particularly progressive. Was there a feminist element to these milieus?
Soviet hippies didn’t have a sexual revolution comparable to what we think of with Western hippies — communes, free love, and what not. Soviet hippies fell in love, traveled around as couples, moved on from one partner to the next, etc., but there wasn’t that element of “free love.” There was of course lots of sex going on, but mostly in the form of affairs conducted among travelers during their journeys around the Soviet Union. Fairly conventional in that sense, but nevertheless a lot more liberal than the rest of Soviet society!
I asked several hippie women if they considered themselves feminists, but they generally said it didn’t relate to their lives (with some exceptions, of course). I did, however, hear a story about a woman named Ophelia who led a group of hippies in Moscow and was very into psychedelics. She had several boyfriends at the same time and practiced a conscious form of “free love.” There were powerful women in the scene, but in general “boys were boys and girls were girls,” so to speak. You have to remember that some women were socialized into the scene by falling in love with hippie men in the first place.
In many Eastern Bloc countries, there was a certain overlap between pro-democracy politics and resurgent nationalism. Did a similar dynamic emerge in the Soviet hippie community? At least one Ukrainian hippie in the documentary discusses “hating Russia,” for example.
Yes and no. Some hippies certainly indulged in nationalism, particularly in the Baltics where people still regarded the Soviet era as an occupation and thus grew up with a nationalist tinge from the beginning. Nevertheless, Sistema was multicultural and multinational, with Russian often serving as the common language. The hippies who had delved deeper into spirituality didn’t really relate to the rising nationalism of the 1980s, although some of the protagonists in the film, especially the Ukrainians, mixed hippie culture with nationalism quite a bit.
As you probably saw in the film, developments are mixed. Some post-Soviet hippies have remained firmly committed to pacifism, and tried to organize protests against the war in Eastern Ukraine, for example. The annual hippie gathering in Moscow, which is where the documentary’s closing scene was filmed, commemorates the 1971 anti-war protest that brought the Soviet hippie scene into the public eye. Here, many of the people we talked to seemed to feel a certain continuity between the pacifism of that era and now.
There is one particularly entertaining scene in the film where two older hippies describe cultivating their own opium and marijuana to a group of wide-eyed young people. Was the concept of using these plants as recreational drugs imported from the West, or were they drawing on local traditions?
Those drugs were already there. It wasn’t like Soviet hippies suddenly thought “oh, hippies in the West smoke weed? How can we find some weed?” There were marijuana fields in some parts of Russia, Central Asia, and Ukraine, often for industrial hemp production. Old hippies tell stories of hippie women running naked through the marijuana fields, collecting the cannabis pollen in their sweat and making hash out of that.
I was also surprised at the quantities they were moving the drug in. The smallest unit of measure for marijuana was a matchbox, followed by a tea cup, and beyond that often an entire basket. Eventually the authorities realized that something was going on with the weed, but were more upset about the business aspect than the drug use itself.
Authorities were more riled by Soviet citizens engaging in “speculation” than getting high — I suspect many officials couldn’t even grasp the concept. There are lots of stories about police raiding hippies’ houses searching for forbidden literature, but completely ignoring the pile of marijuana on the kitchen table. Many of the old hippies told me they would smoke joints at the Café Moscow in downtown Tallinn because no one recognized the smell or knew what it was. To consume opium, they often made poppy tea. The problem here, however, was that it was difficult to measure how much opium went into the tea, and people sometimes died from an overdose.
One thing I notice about Soviet-era rock music in general is the highly eclectic mix of styles, combining influences and genres from across the Western pop-rock canon with their own creations in ways that are often pretty surprising to listeners used to American or British music scenes. To what extent were these musicians able to promote their work through official, state-sanctioned channels? Some of the period music videos shown in the documentary appear to have fairly high production values. Were they performing on television or radio, or entirely underground?
They were largely underground. Those that managed to record their music professionally often described it as a “miracle.” The Estonian band Suuk, for example, somehow managed to record their album in 1976 in a single day in a state-owned “radio bus.” This was certainly the case in Estonia, where people enjoyed relatively wider freedoms than in the rest of the USSR, which is also why the Estonian scene was more vibrant than elsewhere. Still, these bands were basically never published or promoted by Melodia, the state-owned record label. A few exceptions occurred, but they were very rare and obscure. It’s particularly difficult to find high-quality recordings of underground Russian music from that period. Because of the limited access to recording equipment, these bands had to improvise and be very creative in how they produced their music, which also gave it a very unique and specific sound.
Your film features a clip of a Soviet newsreel denouncing hippies for stealing wiring from telephone booths to work on their guitars, but doesn’t go into further detail. This seemed to be a common official complaint against hippies in the USSR. What was going on there?
That’s because a lot of people in the Soviet Union made their own guitars, while the most widely available instruments in the USSR were manufactured in former Czechoslovakia. Soviet hippie kids in the late 1960s used the electromagnetic coils from the phone receivers as electric guitar pickup devices, which would basically transform an acoustic guitar into an electric guitar when placed under the guitar strings. As the pickup devices were not readily available through official channels, the kids improvised their own by destroying phone booths.
A lot of the people featured in the film describe being sent to psychiatric wards by their parents or other authority figures as a retaliation for their involvement in the hippie scene. Was that a common occurrence?
One of the hippies in the film describes being sent to a psych ward by his mother because his enthusiastic response to a bootleg copy of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band made her think he had gone insane. This case illustrates the power of social norms more generally in Soviet society at the time, where not only the authorities but also large parts of the population enforced a very stale, conformist culture. Beyond police harassment, hippies also faced moral policing from everyday citizens, who referred to hippies derisively as “long-haired ones,” reported them to the authorities, or harassed them in the streets.
That’s why hippies who were viewed as leaders or considered to be too visible for the state’s comfort were often sent to psychiatric hospitals rather than normal prisons. One major fear for hippies was being sent to hospitals for skin and sexually transmitted diseases, which were particularly strict. Often authorities would either identify or simply invent the presence of lice on arrested hippies, and use that as an excuse to force them to cut their hair. Psychologically, this was very difficult for many, as long hair was regarded as “the flag of freedom,” a major symbol of nonconformity in the USSR at the time.
An interesting aspect of this psychiatric hospital dynamic, however, was that many hippies and other dissidents would voluntarily commit themselves to a psychiatric ward for a couple of weeks in order to avoid mandatory military service. Here they would often run into other artists, musicians, and generally “bohemian” people looking to get out of the army as well. Gradually, hospital staff figured out that this was a strategy for conscientious objectors, and would give them a diagnosis and send them on their way. It’s important to note that although many hippies had terrible and traumatizing experiences in psychiatric hospitals, it also had this positive social aspect for some.
Looking back, how do the Soviet hippies you interviewed reflect on their experiences thirty or forty years later? Are they generally proud of what they did? Do they miss it?
I’ve been working on this project for over six years now — we organized a museum exhibition a few years ago and the film was shown in Estonian cinemas for several months. It has made a remarkable contribution to revitalizing old hippie friendships and connections, and has brought the movement back to life in some ways — or at least the memories. Many of the surviving Soviet hippies hope that the film and the experience it documents will help to inspire today’s youth — after all, even if the sociopolitical system in the states of the former USSR has changed a lot since the 1970s, the struggle against militarism and social conformity largely remains the same.