Soviet Hippies: The Grass Is Greener on the Other Side
By John Kendall Hawkins
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 Gunter himself. Or his drinking bud, Karl Brewski (formerly Bruske).
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."
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