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Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland

Photo: Hippies at their summer camp in Vitrupe, Latvia, 1978 (Photo courtesy Archive G Zaitsev, The Wende Museum, Los Angeles)

Ilia Rogatchevski speaks with historian Juliane Fürst about her new history of Soviet hippies and the counterculture of the former USSR.

Juliane Fürst is a historian specialising in Soviet subcultures. She is head of the Communism and Society department at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History in Potsdam. Fürst’s interest in Soviet countercultures can be traced back to her first book, Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth And The Emergence Of Mature Socialism (2010), which explored anti-Stalinist youth organisations, as well as subcultures like the stilyagi, that emerged after the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War.

For over ten years, Fürst has been researching Soviet hippies and conducted over 130 interviews with former members of the movement. Inspired by the music, fashion and lifestyle of their Western counterparts, the hippies of the USSR challenged the norms of their socialist environment and, despite state repression, survived as an underground community until the early 1990s. The project also spawned a film Soviet Hippies (Terje Toomistu, 2017), on which Fürst served as a historical consultant, and an exhibition at the Wende Museum in Los Angeles/Culver City in California called Socialist Flower Power: Soviet Hippie Culture in the summer of 2018. Her latest monograph Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland is the first comprehensive study of the phenomenon in the Soviet Union. It is published by Oxford University Press.

Ilia Rogatchevski: What drew you into researching Soviet hippies?

Juliane Fürst: I’m interested in what makes people do radical things. Of course, radicalism is relative. You are radical depending on how harsh your restrictions are. In a more liberal society you have to go to greater lengths to be radical than in a society where you are very restricted, where it’s enough to grow your hair long and dress in a particular way.

In the West, the hippy phenomenon largely died out by the early 1970s, but in the Soviet Union hippies survived until the collapse of the USSR. Why do you think the subculture was so resilient there?

That resilience, even in the face of persecution and difficult life circumstances, is really the merit of the so-called sistema, which was a loose network of hippies. It’s down to the fact that people like Iura Burakov aka Solntse, in Moscow, and later hippy authorities such as Gena Zaitsev, in Leningrad, Sergei Moskalev, in Moscow, and Misha Bombin, in Riga, grasped what needed to happen to make this movement more resilient against dispersion, repression and just petering out. They did that by maintaining an elaborate contact system through address books, travelling, summer camps, writing their own history, creating rituals. They really started to challenge the state monopoly of memory and culture. They basically made sure that their own people knew they were not alone. They survived because they created a community.

Freedom was a key part of hippiedom. How did Soviet hippies define freedom?

In the Soviet Union freedom meant first and foremost freedom from state interferenceIn the West, freedom was very much connected to anti-materialism. There was a rejection of the materialism of the postwar generation, who had fled into domesticity. In the Soviet Union, it was rarely economic privilege the youngsters railed against. Of course, there were economic differences in Soviet families, but these differences were usually the result of political or social privilege, which was bestowed on you by the state rather than economic prowess. The rebellion actually happened against this privilege, because it had to be paid for by loyalty.

It’s striking that a lot of youngsters who came from very privileged households decided to make that rejection. Some of them suffered, some assimilated back into the world of Soviet privilege. Some of them broke, because the repercussions could be quite severe, especially if drugs were involved. Almost all male hippies spent time in psychiatry, partly voluntarily, because they wanted to get out of the army service, partly enforced, because they were deemed not fit for normal society.

That experience of incarceration, imprisonment, forced medication created an even larger desire for individual freedom. If one looks at the manifestos that are written around the concept of freedom, especially by the Soviet hippy Iura Diversant from Moscow, they are often centred around the freedom from physical interference. This, of course, refers to arrests, having your hair cut [by force], but also to the experience of being stripped of your physical rights in psychiatric institutions.

How important a role did ideology play in Soviet hippy culture?

It would be wrong to understand the hippies as an ideological phenomenon. Only part of their self-identification went via ideology. I have one chapter on ideology and it is followed by a chapter on kaif [Russian: high, buzz, pleasure] and, in many ways, the feel was more important for the hippies as a self-identifier. They felt being hippies, they did not think being hippies. But then, of course, the two are not entirely separate from each other.

There were ideas floating around to which they subscribed. The interesting thing is that it was perfectly possible to subscribe to contradictory ideas. Soviet hippies liked an American idea, which was, however, anti-American. Hippies in America defined themselves as being against the Vietnam War, against materialism and, to a certain extent, against America as an imperial power. But [Soviet hippies] actually quite liked the West. They thought that American music was cool. They thought that American hippies were cool. So what did they do with this anti-American element? They kind of just ignored it.

Most of your research stems from first-hand interviews with former hippies. Could you trust the validity of their statements?

That’s the big question. How much can we trust oral history? I can only say that after ten years of interviewing more than 130 people, my impression is that most people want to say the truth as they remember it. You then have to work with their subjective views rather than against them.

Did you speak with any former KGB agents to balance out the story?

It turns out that KGB agents are much harder to find than hippies. The written sources about hippies by the state are mostly uninteresting, even the ones from the KGB, which I could access in the Ukraine [through the Ukrainian SBU Archive]. They repeat the same tropes over and over again.

In the end, I decided that I was more interested in what the hippies thought about the state, in the self-organisation and creation of culture that happened in this community. The KGB work is the most interesting when we come to the 80s and we get this phenomenon of the curator; where the KGB starts to get a more serious engagement with the music scene, because the music scene was the bridge between the more radical hippy movement and a much larger part of youth. They started to pluck people out of that cultural midst and say: “OK, we don’t want you to betray or give away information, we want you to give us an estimation about the scene. You tell us whom we should tolerate and whom we should not.” Gena Zaitsev became one of the organisers of the Leningrad Rock Club. Or there is Sergei Zharikov who went on record (in a different interview, not with myself) saying that he was one of those curators and largely responsible for the punk music scene in Siberia, which was very radical.

The role of hippy-as-curator that you mention seems to be a direct result of ‘the concert that didn’t happen’ in Leningrad. Can you talk about that and the path to the semi-legalisation of rock in the USSR?

I don’t know why, but someone in the Leningrad film industry got this idea that they needed to make a film, which would be a cooperation between East and West and feature a large concert scene where Soviet youngsters would dance to Soviet and Western music. They put an announcement into Leningradskaya Pravda, the Leningrad daily newspaper, saying that on 4 July 1978 this concert would happen on Palace Square – right in the revolutionary heart of Leningrad, where the Bolsheviks had stormed the Winter Palace – and would feature The Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Santana, Alla Pugacheva and a couple of other acts. A little snippet of the newspaper was sent around the whole country along the hippy information highway. In the meantime, the film was cancelled, but nobody announced it to the public.

On the day, thousands of people assembled waiting for the concert. People waited for about two hours patiently. The square started to fill and they started to chant: “Where’s our music? We want Santana! We want Alla Pugacheva!” The sheer amount of people demonstrated to the authorities that hippies were not an isolated group in society. There were a lot of hippies on the square, but there were a lot of people who just liked rock music. It really transcended all sectors of society. People got very impatient and then the chants started getting more political until they reached: “Down with the Soviet Union! We want our rock music!” People went down Nevsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare in Leningrad, and it came to violent encounters with the police.

The actual riots got crushed within a few hours, but it left quite a shock. For the first time in the Soviet heartlands, the authorities saw how music can mobilise young people and how it was capable of creating such strong emotions, which very quickly could turn against the system. That’s definitely an impetus as to why they started to act. Two most famous examples are the Leningrad Rock Club and the Moscow Rock Laboratory where bands were allowed to play outside the official canon, but under clandestine KGB supervision. That provided a valve. The club was perceived as a space for youth by youth and [the curators] were very good at keeping the KGB presence in the background (they were hiding as trade union representatives).

As you mention, music is an integral part of hippy self-identification and Western bands, particularly The Beatles, played an important role in defining the Soviet hippy lifestyle and fashion sense. In the book you suggest that hippiedom paved the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Not quite, but I would certainly agree that it was one of the factors that facilitated the disappearance of the Soviet system. That The Beatles brought down the Kremlin is of course the Leslie Woodhead theory, which he advances in a BBC documentary [How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin, 2010] and subsequent book. The Beatles appeared at the same time as technological innovations such as the magnetophone, which allowed people to record, and increased traffic of goods between East and West. The most important previous influence of Western music had been jazz, but jazz was difficult music, especially as it moved away from swing.

Over the last 30 years of Soviet rule people had been very successful in building up an alternative sphere in which the regime was only necessary as a boogeyman. The really interesting question is hence not why the Soviet Union collapsed – there are many factors starting from economics to party politics and personalities like Gorbachev. What’s really interesting is how in January 1992 people woke up without the Soviet Union and just went on and did their thing. The reason for this was that there were already many structures in place, so when the Soviet superstructure imploded initially not much was felt to have changed. Subcultures served like lighthouses in this kind of society. The hippies might have been small in numbers, but their ideas, their fashion, their music was just a concentration of things that spread in less radical form to the entirety of Soviet youth.

Flowers Through Concrete: Explorations In Soviet Hippieland by Juliane Fürst is published by Oxford University Press. Subscribers to The Wire can read Ilia Rogatchevski’s review of Kirill Serebrennikov’s Soviet rock film Leto (Summer) in The Wire 417 via our online archive.

Originally published by Wire, March 2021.

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