Echoed by Timothy Leary at the Human Be-In gathering in 1968, the phrase ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ defined the counter-culture movement in the United States. Emblematic of their subversive nature, hippies became known for their anti-government, pro-freedom, and free-thinking stance. While Western hippies were attempting to ‘drop out’ of traditional capitalist society through experimentation with recreational drugs and other substances, hippies in the Soviet East were similarly attempting to ‘drop out’. Yet, the ‘dropping out’ of the Soviet Union is of another kind, one which radically attempts to reject Soviet political, economic, and social life all together.
Much work has been dedicated to the hippie movement in the United States and the extent of their countercultural impact. However, the Soviet Union has been largely left to the side-lines, until recently. Through new oral history research and newly opened KGB archives, historians have been able to uncover and retell the strange lives of hippies in the Soviet Union. As such, there has been obvious comparison drawn between Western and Eastern hippies. However, the focus of this article will be one of distinction and separation from the West. Soviet hippies can be considered as radically different from their Western counterparts, not in aesthetic and ideological qualities, but in their ability to subvert the rigid structures of their society. By examining the extent of subversion produced by the Soviet hippies, this article aims to underline the cultural impact of the movement and the often-untold lives of those who participated.
While Soviet hippies were indeed subversive and acted as dissidents to the Soviet Union, it should be clarified that their subversion was one of elimination, not reformation. They did not have hopes of reconstructing the Soviet Union like other countercultural groups of the period, as they saw any engagement with the system a complete validation of it. Soviet hippie identity is strongly linked to the political battle for individual freedom and agency in the Soviet context, even if it is difficult to see the hippie movement bounded by a political stance. Interestingly, while they aimed to live outside of late socialism, they also remained a factor that shaped its peculiar fabric. As such, their subversion is one of duality – their existence was both shaped by and against the Soviet Union.
The Soviet hippie does not have a specific ‘beginning’; it did not start from a single person or one place. The vibrant communities and individuals which defined the Soviet hippie movement could be found in Moscow and Leningrad, in Rovno and Lvov, Riga and Tallinn, and even in such remote locations as Irkutsk. In the early years of the movement, a few scattered individuals who had heard about the hippie culture in the West began to let their hair grow, wear different clothes, and listen to the Beatles. In particular, the explosive Beatles provided the soundtrack for the Soviet hippie’s quest for freedom. While the 1969 ‘Summer of Love’ was the climax of the hippie movement in the West, for the Soviet hippies it was only the beginning. While the Western hippie culture fragmented and declined in the 1970s, the hippie movement in the East existed until the very fall of the Soviet Union. That being said, their story is one of a long standing and deterministic battle for freedom of expression and freedom from dictatorship. Yet the very fact that with the decline of the Soviet Union came the end of the hippie movement points towards a new reality; one of symbiosis and reliance on the system for existence. For most people, becoming a hippie was a result of a slow and gradual process of alienation from the Soviet mainstream, and a new drift towards a community which saw the world through a non-Soviet lens. Their search for subversion was a deeper questioning of all Soviet life had to offer; being a hippie was about individual identity just as much as providing a genuine alternative reality to Soviet society:
‘The main thing was the non-acceptance of Soviet life, which could be expressed in different ways. If you dress differently, it means you are one of ours. If you curse Soviet power, you are one of ours. If you smoke dope, you are one of us. If you search for God, you are one of us. If you try to think independently, in your own way, then you are one of us even more.’
To look like a hippie, one often took inspiration from the West. Long hair, bell-bottom jeans, facial hair, and colourful tops were the aesthetic indicators of a hippie, both in the East and the West. However, living under a socialist reality meant that much of what defined a hippie in the West was prohibited or extremely hard to come by in the East: a pair of jeans could cost the equivalent of a month’s salary, the new Beatles albums reached the Soviet Union weeks after its London release, and the possibility of punishment was extremely real for hippie individuals who decided to experiment with differentiation in any way. It was more difficult to become a hippie in the Soviet Union. One had to disobey their parents, ignore societal norms, and dress differently. One’s parents could lose their social status and employment and be placed under police surveillance. Moreover, a hippie had to suffer both verbal and physical attacks in public:
‘Going out was like going to war. Every day – going to war.’
As such, their clothing held extremely high subversive symbolic value. Gena Zaitsev, a prominent Moscow hippie, recalls his own lived experience:
‘All that made us feel different from the rest of the Soviet crowd, that we somehow differ, understanding and feel things other than what was permitted in the Soviet Union: things you were prohibited to feel.’
Only by wearing certain clothing, the Soviet hippies were able to move around and exist outside of the norms of established society. While there are similarities with the West in this regard, the Eastern hippie held a distinctly different position in society. Only by wearing something different, they were completely ostracised from society and labelled as dissidents. It is in this way that their subversive abilities were distinct. Their clothing not only marked them as different and the ‘other’, such as in the US, but they were able to silently voice a demand for freedom of expression and individual autonomy. There is a subtle political undertone of their clothing as they did not simply wish to surrender to the Soviet form of tradition and social structure but eliminate said structure all together.
Hippie ideology in the Soviet Union was marked by the essence of kaif: it signifies ecstatic pleasure. The search for kaif was facilitated by mind altering substances, and the desire to reach kaif flew in the face of the model of life which Soviet ideology promoted. Their pursuit for a purpose in life that goes beyond benefitting the construction of a socialist society marks them as distinctly subversive.
Hippies quickly established a network of support for the community at large which they named the sistema – the system. Sistema can be loosely defined as the system through which hippies communicated, connected, and travelled amongst themselves. Whenever they found themselves in a location which was unfamiliar to them, they would have at least one person to contact and stay with. The hippie Sistema mirrored and challenged the other system – the official system of the Soviet Union which was also referred to as the sistema. The very fact that the hippies decided the name their network of contacts the Sistema highlights their inscription to, as well as their exclusion from, Soviet life.
The Soviet hippies were in fact engaged in active protest of the government. Not only were their existence and presence criticised, but their active political participation was supressed harshly. Their attempt to ‘drop out’ of the confines of socialist political engagement resulted in the governments’ increased policing of their communities. On the 1 June 1971, Moscow hippies gathered at their regular meeting spot to protest the Vietnam War. The authorities used this chance to assemble and arrest around 600 people. On the 15 May 1972, a man named Kalantas set himself on fire in Kaunas, screaming ‘freedom for Lithuania!’. Kalantas had long hair and although he was not part of the organised band of Kaunas hippies, he had chosen their favourite meeting spot for the site of his immolation. As a result of this incident, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) began to police and arrest the hippie community in the area. When the KGB ordered Kalantas’s funeral to be scheduled ahead by two hours, demonstrators took to the streets. This soon turned into a violent riot which lasted several days. An account provided by an anonymous partaker exemplifies the degree to which these riots took on an unprecedented violent turn:
‘There was a real intense rush, a surge. And then the military divisions came storming in. I heard a whizzing, popping sound…bullets…ricocheting. It was interesting to be right in the middle. And they gave me and automatic rifle to hold.’
The increasing tensions between the hippies and the Soviet Union signifies their very real and radical break with the socialist way of politics. However, while the direct political action undertaken by the hippies should not be understated, it was not their main form of subverting the Soviet Union or ‘dropping out’ of socialism. They believed that their engagement and action with the government itself was not the way freedoms were to be achieved. Instead, they turned inward, isolating themselves from socialist society and creating a ‘new’ way of life.
While the Soviet hippies were ultimately subversive and did attempt to ‘drop out’ of the Soviet lifestyle, they did so in their own distinct way. While they were not as dissident as other groups, their way of life and their existence itself posed a threat and challenge for the authorities:
‘Our existence alone was a protest against the system. We were a foreign element. They wanted to get rid of us.’
Written by Boryana Ivanova
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