«We don’t know where we are going, but we know exactly what we are running away from,» a female voice-over says over grainy coloured images of a group of dishevelled young people walking across an indistinct landscape in the opening shots of Terje Toomistu’s timely documentary Soviet Hippies.
At a time of increasing political polarisation between Russia, Europe and the West, the notion of Russians as some kind of different species, warlike, aggressive, corrupt, and separate, is popular in the media. What many with no direct experience of Russia themselves fail to understand is the extent to which dissidence – with a small ‘d’ – remains widespread in Russia to this day and that is often exemplified in youth musical and fashion sub-groups.
The idea that there were hippies in the Soviet Union may seem bizarre, but Russia is a big country, with a big soul and its tolerance for embracing different approaches to life is perhaps one of its most enduring well-kept secrets. Not every Russian today is either an Orthodox-observing church-goer or a card-carrying member of Putin-loyalist party United Russia, just as not every Soviet citizen was a Communist or collective farm member.
Toomistu delves back into the archives to unearth rare footage from the 1960s of Soviet Hippies as he embarks on a contemporary road journey from Estonia (which was then a Soviet Union, rather than European Union state) to Moscow with veterans of the Soviet Hippie movement. Although meeting the first of our modern day protagonists sat lotus pose in front of an Eastern mystical video as they prepare what look like marijuana spliffs on an old Soviet book entitle «Hippie Slang», may come across as a bit corny, we get the idea immediately that this is a look back from the perspective of those who never really left the hippie movement.
From Beatles to Russian Sci-fi
As music began to shake the foundations of the western world in the late 1960s, ripples of those vibrations began to make themselves felt behind the Iron Curtain, where youngsters – like anywhere, tempted by forbidden fruit – secretly listened to European radio stations and entered the world of western rock.
Just how evocative those sounds were and how revolutionary the message of lyrics only barely understood if at all, is related by characters now in their 70s for whom the alternative lifestyle remains important. Characters with names such as Old Long (from Moscow who remarks, «the overdrive sound started to shake our collective consciousness»), clips of archive Soviet state footage, contemporary psychedelic cartoons and previously unseen home 16 mm footage, Toomistu recreates the extraordinary years known to most conventional historians as the Brezhnev ‘stagnation’ period.
«In 1965 I became a different person,» recalls Kolja Vasin, of St. Petersburg’s Lennon’s Temple of Love. «My hair, clothes, thoughts were different. Different music, style of walking. The whole world of the Beatles opened up to me and I saw the universe, all the madness here. I felt God, saw something sacred in them.»
For viewers unacquainted with Soviet cinema – the clips of 1981 psychedelic children’s animation The Mystery Planet may come as a surprise. Whether those who animated Kir Bulychov’s children’s sci-fi series Alisa Selzneva were familiar with the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine cartoon film or not, the similar, vividly painted styles are eerily similar.
«Listening to loud music disturbed by sister and mother. I can understand them now,» another old hippie relates. «My mum thought there was something wrong with me and sent me to a psychiatric hospital.» It’s an option that some parents of Western kids at the time would have loved to had so easily available…
«Our existence alone offended the system,» another veteran of the Soviet Hippie movement says.
Viewed through the long lens of history, the Soviet newsreel treatment of the Hippie scene at the time – hectoring, patronising, deeply ‘square’ – is little different from the sort of clipped RP (received pronunciation) Pathé newsreels of the British Hippie scene of the ’60s.
Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.
«There was no sex in the Soviet Union. There were not prostitutes. And no hippies,» says Lyuba. «People lived like zombies and simply did not see what they wished not to see see.»
But of course, Soviet Hippies faced hazards greater than public revulsion: the police set dogs on them, they were jailed at every opportunity and having their long hair and beards forcibly shaved off was the least of the physical brutalities they faced.
Memories of home-made psychedelic drugs (a Soviet preparation for asthmatics could be brewed as a tea to induce an LSD-like experience) are played over innovative animated sequences, using images from contemporary notebooks and original drawings, to bring the sense of revolutionary times to life.
And the story of a famous hippie gathering in Moscow in June 1971 – to protest the American war in Vietnam – where 3,000 young people were arrested, is told. The event is marked to this day by an annual hippie gathering in the Russian capital on June 1st, something which the film records as it follows a bus-load of old hippies from Tallin for the anniversary.
«All you need is love!» the old hippies chant in unison for a group photo as other – younger – people of like mind observe how special an atmosphere is created by the gathering.
As a window into a little known or understood part of pre-perestroika Soviet history, Toomistu’s film is both entertaining and informative. And it serves as a reminder that for those who think that the story of today’s Russia is one-dimensional and all about Putin, that Russia – as Churchill famously said – is a riddle wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.