It was a subculture shaped by communism, inspired by the west and watched by the KGB. A new documentary charts the movements charismatic leaders, conflicts and future
In 1968, Aksel Lampmann was a teenager growing up in Soviet Estonia. That summer, he went to an international camp, where he met students from Czechoslovakia and began listening to the Beatles. He didnt understand the lyrics (No one spoke English back then), but loved the sound. We had no clue what they were singing about. What a strange vibration!
He learned guitar and grew his hair. By 1969, Lampmann had become a full-blown Soviet hippy. The iron curtain made a road trip to the US impossible, so he hitchhiked from his home in the Baltics to Crimea. Our lives were more colourful, more alive, he says. Other people didnt have the same encounters or emotions.
Lampmann is one of the stars of Soviet Hippies, a film by the Estonian writer and director Terje Toomistu about a lost period in Soviet history. The documentary explores a subculture that was inspired by the west yet distinctly homegrown existing in a society shaped by communism and watched over by the KGB.
In the west, nobody was arrested simply for having long hair or wearing strange clothes, Toomistu explains. The USSR, by contrast, wanted complete control of its citizens lives: how people worked, dressed, or even danced. Anyone who rejected the Homo sovieticus model could be in big trouble, including having their hair forcibly cut.
The Soviet hippy movement emerged in Moscow and Leningrad around 1966 and 1967, in the early years of Leonid Brezhnevs rule. The first red hippies were the sons or daughters of the privileged Soviet nomenklatura well-behaved kids from elite families. They had access to music from the capitalist world and to jeans. By the early 70s, the movement had grown sufficiently big and unruly to alarm the authorities though it probably only ever numbered a few thousand, Toomistu says. The secret police began tailing the long-haired to school. In June 1971, the hippies were given permission to demonstrate against the Vietnam war outside the US embassy in Moscow.
This was a trap. The KGB rounded up and arrested demonstrators, with the goal of wiping out hippy culture. Some demonstrators were sent to psychiatric facilities and injected with insulin; others dispatched to the army and camps near the Chinese border. The film re-creates this grim clampdown and uses surveillance photos found in KGB archives in Lithuania.
According to Lampmann, harassment by the police and KGB was common. One of my close friends ended up in prison, he says. Hippies were persecuted under criminal rather than political law. They could find themselves sharing a cell with gangsters and murderers. To avoid arrest, Lampmann always kept his documents in perfect order.
By the late 70s, the hippies had developed a counterculture, with Russian slang and a music scene. There was what Toomistu calls analogue Facebook notebooks listing names and numbers of contacts across the USSR, used by travellers seeking somewhere to crash for the night. This network is gloriously animated in the film, which features psychedelic drawings and cartoons.