Peace, love and freedom. The magic formula of the hippy philosophy of the seventies behind the Iron Curtain, up on its pillars sprouting between the fissures of the suffocating Soviet surveillance.
SOVIET HIPPIES of the young Estonian director, Terje Toomistu, presented at the last Trieste Film Festival recounts the little known story of the hippy movement in the Soviet Union in the post-beat generation years, when the Beatles were singing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Brezhnev was again imposing the ‘normalization’ of the system after the deviation of Nikita Khrushchev’s more liberal policies.
SOVIET HIPPIES is a collage of psychedelic sequences, interviews, material from private records which are both rare and precious. There are no official records nor traces of Soviet hippies, whose existence was actually denied for a long time. The music, as well as their stories, draws us in, increasingly arousing our curiosity and amazing us with the rainbow-colored and pacifist world of the Communist hippies. Even more surprisingly, we discover that this movement in the Soviet Union lasted longer than anywhere else, right up to the early nineties.
Inspired by their Western cousins, the Soviet flower children had long hair, listened to psychedelic rock, used hallucinogenic drugs and were especially anti-establishment. It was another thing beyond the Curtain, where even meditation and yoga were considered a deviance by the regime’s orthodoxy – “ideologically dangerous” according to KGB reports.
In the East, just as in the West, hippy music was a form of political protest. However, in a regime where no exceptions to the rule were permitted, its following, with their physical and social anarchy against the imposition of the single-minded Communist thinking, took on a much more political meaning compared to their American and European counterparts who embodied a passive resistance to middle-class values.
SOVIET HIPPIES begins with different images set on a beach and with young people walking behind a crucifix. An icon of peace – all in all, Jesus Christ was probably the first hippy in history. And religion, in a country where atheism was the belief of the state, it had a revolutionary flavor. The hippies of the past today plod along the same beach. Grey beards, sunken eyes, deeply intense. Every year, for more than forty years, they meet up in Moscow, in Tsaritsyno Park, to commemorate the tragic repression of 1st June 1971.
The hippy cultural revolution began in the Baltic area, mainly in Estonia, the vanguard of the London psychedelic and progressive rock of ‘made in the USSR’ (the first psychedelic rock band in the Soviet Union, Keldriline Heli was founded in Tallinn), then spread to other main cities in Russia thanks to the Network. Of course, not the web, but a human chain, the “Solar System”, as its creator, Yuriy Burakov (called Sunny), had called it. A capillary organization armed with block notes on which the telephone numbers of other hippies in other cities were written and passed on.
“In ’69 we discovered hitch-hiking and that there were hippies everywhere, in Riga, Leningrad, Vilnius, Sevastopol, Tartus, in all the biggest cities in the USSR. The KGB was not able to understand how we were communicating with each other. They couldn’t control us in a system that was evolving so quickly.” (Alik Woody)
In the early seventies, the System had become an actual cultural movement inspired by the music coming from the West, and reserved only for those who could access it without risking too much, or the younger children of the Communist ‘upper classes’, of the nomenclatura. A ‘class’ movement in a country whose founding myth laid in the class struggle.
“No one spoke English, we had absolutely no idea what we were singing about […] they were music vibrations for us”. (Aksel)
The records in Estonia were smuggled in and reproduced with reel-to-reel recorders. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were their heroes, the Hare Krishna their spiritual guide, marijuana a breath of fresh air under the oppressive cloud of the grey Soviet reality, acid (home-made by mixing their medications) a viaticum for the body and mind.
Aare Loit Babai, the main narrator in the documentary, tells of ending up in a psychiatric clinic because of a track from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His mother thought he had gone crazy because he listened to it continuously. The Liverpool band cost him insulin induced coma therapy and cerebral shock.
Inevitably, ending up under the eye of Big Brother, spied upon, recorded, unearthed, beaten, arbitrarily imprisoned, the Soviet hippies were systematically forced to cut their hair.
“The only fact that we existed was an affront to the system, we were an alien being to their society that needed to be got rid of. A young man with a beard and long hair was a suspect […], to leave your home was like going off to war, any opportunity to arrest us was good, there was violence, rapes”. (Fanya)
On 28 May 1971, the System organized a peaceful demonstration against the Vietnam War in the Town Hall Square of Tallinn.
“It was Sunny’s idea, he had asked permission from the authorities and they had granted it. The regime liked the idea of a demonstration against American militarism in Vietnam.” (Aare)
In Moscow alone there were 1,000 hippies and the demonstration there had planned to stage its sit-in in front of the American Embassy. However, the long-haired youth from Estonia with their colored flags and rings of peace were never to arrive as plain clothes KGB agents (dressed as hippies!) infiltrated the Estonian demonstrators, tricking the main figures by offering to accompany them to the embassy by bus. It was probably only at that moment that they realized the trap they had fallen into.
The KGB had orchestrated everything to cut the hippy movement off from its vanguard and, thus, deprive it of its political meaning. More than 3,000 young people were arrested, half of them recruited and sent off to the border areas of China – torture for a pacifist. Others remained in prison or in many cases sent to psychiatric asylums.
“I’m not sure if it was an operation of the KGB or the militia, but it radically changed the movement. The regime had achieved its objective and it became dangerous to be a hippy. We knew now, for certain, that they would no longer tolerate us […], the movement collapsed, becoming more underground, more political. Sunny slid into alcoholism”. (Aare Loit Babai)
“The KGB controlled and recorded everything, mountains and mountains of reports […], in fact, it destroyed the System”. (Senia Skorpion)
At the end of the seventies, many hippies survived by emigrating. Some fled, others organized false marriages with foreigners to be able to leave – “I paid a few thousand dollars to a Colombian woman to marry me”, one of them recounts.
The peace and love movement in Eastern Europe ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Soviet hippies, differently to the Western ones, had fought against the cultural conformism imposed by the Soviet Empire. Its implosion had, in part, removed the reasons for the movement’s existence, and the ending of the easier mobility within the Soviet sphere, with the birth of the new states, made spreading the hippy word and thinking more difficult.
The 1st June – Hippy Day. They arrive in Tsaritsyno Park from all over, and they are not only the older hippy generation full of nostalgia. There are also many young people who, in the hippy gathering in memory of the brutal repression of 1971, find a place. There are all the old hippies from Tallinn. The survivors – Aare, Senia, Fanya, Aksel.
“[…] we were more political during the Soviet period”, comments a woman who has come to the gathering for 40 years, “now, we have Putin and I don’t understand how it has been possible as we were against war.” Surprisingly, there are also those there who support Putin.
The park closes, the gathering breaks up, the hippies are accompanied to the exit under the watchful eyes of the police. A lot has changed since the seventies in what had been the ‘Soviet space’, but Peace and Love continue throughout all eras of history.