Hippies in the USSR: An Interview with Juliane Fürst

IMAGINE A GROUP of Soviet hippies transplanted to California during the era of Donald Trump’s hegemony. This is precisely what Juliane Fürst, the guest curator of the Wende Museum’s 2018 exhibition, Socialist Flower Power: Soviet Hippie Culture, managed to occasion. In 2012, Fürst, then a professor of history at the University of Bristol, now head of the department “Communism and Society” at the Centre of Contemporary History in Potsdam, began collaborating with the Wende Museum in the collection of Soviet hippie archives with a view to a future exhibition. The exhibition included a panel discussion with the surviving members of the movement and a screening of Estonian director Terje Toomistu’s film, which Juliane Fürst co-produced. I met with the curator after the opening reception on June 1, the date commemorating the crushed Soviet hippie peace demonstration in 1971 organized by Iurii Burakov (also known as “Solntse” [the Sun]), an enigmatic leader who gave the movement its paradoxical name: “sistema” (the System).


SASHA RAZOR: How did you begin working on this topic?

JULIANE FÜRST: When I was asked to participate in a pan-European comparative project about 1968 in the Soviet Union, which would explore the protests that swept across major West and East European cities, I did not discover the protest culture my colleagues were expecting me to find. The Soviet political landscape was astonishingly quiet except for a few small-scale protests. But I found a reference to a hippie demonstration in 1971 and had exactly the same reaction as everyone else I have talked to about this topic: “Oh, hippies in the Soviet Union? Who would have thought?” So, I set off on a path of exploration. This academic journey has, to a certain extent, also been a personal journey. While initially believing that my interest in the movement was purely academic — and with no hippie background in my family — I realized, during many years of interviewing people, that I certainly share some things with the subjects of my study, like their quest for freedom and personal space. It became obvious to me that there is no such thing as impartiality in oral history — or indeed in history overall. The book I am writing is a bit of an experiment in writing my voice more consciously into the narrative.

Is it possible to say when exactly the hippie movement began in the Soviet Union?

It is difficult to name the exact date partly because we have a definition problem. What exactly makes a hippie a hippie? My working premise is that I take seriously anybody who comes to me and says that they were a hippie. Even though, as a historian, I see people fall into different categories, self-identification remains the most important marker. I consciously reject the question of “What is authentic?” Even in America, it is impossible to determine the origin of the hippie movement because there is a fluid connection between the beatniks and hippies. Can we, for example, pinpoint when Allen Ginsberg stopped being a beatnik and became a hippie? It is impossible. For many of my subjects, it was also a gradual process of looking for something and then coming to a point in life when they say: “My life has changed. I am a hippie.” For instance, there is the late Kolia Vasin, an early hippie from Leningrad and probably the biggest Beatles fan on earth. He claims that he was listening to a Beatles song when he had his “It” moment: he recounts that he got up, took off his shoes, and went into town barefoot. From that day on, he considered himself a hippie.

Broadly, I would say that from 1967 onward we have the first signs of hippie-ism in the Baltic States and Western Ukraine, mainly because they were better connected to Western culture via Eastern European publications and family connections. We also have the first traces in Moscow, particularly among the children of privileged families who, often because they had friends with firsthand experience and parents with the means to import jeans and records, began to dress like hippies. They even adopted the moniker of “hippie,” unaware that American hippies rejected the term and instead preferred the label “freak.” Hippies also started to appear in the Soviet press. Pravda published its first article about hippies in 1967. These articles were ambivalent about the Western phenomenon: hippies were anti-capitalist and anti–Vietnam War, which was encouraging, but they were still misguided. According to Soviet doctrine, only Marxism was to change the system they rebelled against for good. Soviet youngsters, however, read those articles as an instruction manual that told them to listen to cool music and how to dress in the hippie way. The regime initially ignored its domestic hippies or denied their existence. I found a few documents dating from 1969 describing this youth as “so-called hippies” because it was hard for the Soviet authorities to accept that there were hippies among Soviet citizens.

Tell us about your research with the KGB archives. To what degree was the KGB instrumental in allowing this movement to exist?

I worked with the KGB archives in Estonia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. The richest information came from the summaries to the Secretariat of the Ukrainian KGB. The original reports by informers are still not available or were not kept. There is no doubt that the KGB did not like hippies because they flew in the face of Soviet aesthetics and behavioral norms. But, either out of sheer ignorance or because the KGB was not sure about what to do with them, hippies ranked well below dissidents and nationalists on their agenda. Hippies only worried them when they started to assemble and travel in large numbers. This is how the system of control worked: the KGB were afraid when people moved, which meant that they could not keep an eye on them via the established channels like work or the housing authorities. Their worst fear was not knowing where these people were and what they were doing. This explains why, in the end, they allowed the movement to exist in certain spaces, which became alternative, albeit observable, worlds.

For example, there is a place called Gauja near Riga in Latvia, not far from the house of Misha Bombin — the leading Riga hippie at the time. For some reason, hippies were allowed to establish a summer camp there (something they had tried to do in other places in previous years), and several thousand hippies assembled every year from 1978 to sometime in the early 1990s — not all at the same time, but people would come and go. Clearly, this was something the KGB knew about. I interviewed Misha Bombin, and he told me that he never made a deal with the security organs. I believe him because he suffered greatly from KGB repression, and he would later end up in a psychiatric institution several times — a common Soviet way to deal with dissidents and non-conformists. There was probably an informal understanding similar to one established with regard to the Leningrad Rock Club, which, as we now know, the KGB was absolutely instrumental in setting up. This type of arrangement meant: “You can have your way of life in your own space, but we are watching you. We let you live as long as you are not making much of a ruckus.”

What about the spatial geographies of the Soviet Hippies then? Where were they allowed to exist? Where would some of your characters typically travel?

There are several layers of hippie topographies that we are dealing with. The local topographies in towns with a sizable number of hippies consisted of an intricate interface of cafes and private apartments. In Moscow, this network of spaces and people gave rise to the term “sistema” (the System) in order to describe the all-encompassing nature of the hippie world. On top of the local and more regional networks and spaces you have the larger Soviet topography made up of three rings, which defined hippie travel: a small circle formed by Moscow, Leningrad, and the Baltic states; a larger circle, which includes western Ukraine and Crimea; and, finally, the grand ring, which extends to Central Asia. 

Let’s take an example of a typical Moscow hippie. I am using Moscow as an example because it was the most sizable and most consequential of all the hippie communities. Many hippies held jobs as models at art institutes or were in other professions that would allow long summer breaks. May 1 was considered the “beginning of the season,” and it was customary to travel to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. From Tallinn, they would hitchhike around the Baltics. I already mentioned the camp near Riga, but Vilandia, Palanga, and Vilnius were also favored hippie spots. From there, many people would go down south where it was warmer, especially to Crimea because Simferopol had a sizable hippie community itself. A Muscovite group made Gurzuf in Crimea their annual summer retreat. Others would camp together with the growing number of so-called “wild tourists” — people who refused to spend their holiday in a state sanatorium and set out with private cars and tents. Those hippies who were into drugs would tailor their plans according to the poppy-growing season. Those who were interested in Eastern spirituality would venture into the Altai Mountains or even further east. Those who traveled into Central Asia would instantly become legends, since traversing the largest hippie ring was considered a marker of maturity and commitment. It was the closest you could get to a Soviet hippie trail, replacing Kathmandu with Tashkent, the Himalayas with the Pamirs. Hippies usually traveled in groups of two and would meet up with others via word of mouth. Communication channels were surprisingly successful. Somebody would usually tell you, “Oh, so-and-so is going to have a wedding, let’s go down to Crimea.” And large numbers of people would go to Crimea (in this case one of them was a KGB informer).

Hippies traveled so much that they became the best-informed people in the Soviet Union. Through their networks, they knew about events not reported in the mainstream newspapers such as strikes and riots. For example, when the Kaunas riots happened in 1972, the hippies knew what happened (many of them were directly embroiled in the riots) while the rest of the Soviet Union was completely unaware. As September 1 approached, hippies would usually return to Moscow and to their jobs — you were required by law to work in the Soviet Union; otherwise you could be tried under the so-called parasite laws. Then they would meet at their favorite cafes, one of which was Café Babylon on the Garden Boulevard Ring in Moscow, or hang out in their friends’ apartments waiting for the new season to begin at which point the Soviet hippie migration would begin again.

As a historian, how can you assess the degree of adaptation of the hippie movement to the Soviet environment? Did Soviet hippies become a native Soviet subculture or were they simply imitating Western trends? 

Yes, it is interesting to see how certain global trends and subcultures translate into another culture, especially across the Iron Curtain. Hippie values found fertile soil in Soviet youth culture because they were very close to many socialist values such as collectivity, equality, and anti-materialism. Being a hippie in the Soviet Union meant being true to many communist values while at the same time rejecting Soviet reality and norms. It was, hence, both joining a Western-inspired culture as well as adapting Soviet life to a “truer” and more honest version of itself. As time went on, Soviet hippies developed more and more markers and rituals that were specific to their Soviet circumstances. They reacted to repression and lack of information and overcame the constant threat to their existence with increased internal solidarity and a sophisticated use of what Soviet life had to offer like cheap living, good employment opportunities, jobs that had long summer breaks, et cetera.

By the time hippies entered the global stage, the ideological foundation of the Soviet Union had become very weak. Their parents, the generation of the 1930s, had responded to real threats to their country and experienced Hitler’s invasion firsthand. They still largely identified with the official rhetoric, even if they understood there needed to be some reforms. By the 1960s and 1970s, everybody knew that there was a huge gap between the official propaganda and real life; nobody expected reforms to change anything anymore. The choice was either acceptance, with as much possible gain for oneself as possible, or outright rejection. For young people, it was just very hard to sell yourself as being both “cool” and an obedient Soviet citizen at the same time. You had to choose whether to swallow the propaganda and participate in the power structures or to get as far away from it as you could. Of course, many youngsters continued to give the official appearance of Sovietness while carving out little spaces of individual freedom — and not all loyalty was fake. But some, like the small band of truly committed hippies, did totally reject Soviet normality, and they sacrificed their personal comfort for a life with individuality.

In terms of translating cultures, the contact between Soviet hippies and Western hippies yielded both imitations of and disconnects from the Western models. In visual terms, the Western example was followed very closely. For example, The People’s Book by photographer John McCleary became an inspiration in the Soviet Union and was the source for several Soviet hippie books, which featured the same cloud-shaped photographs and hand-written texts as the original. But even here a Soviet style developed in the late 1970s that, for example, mocked Soviet slogans. The most significant disconnect existed in the political sphere. The Vietnam War, so central to American hippie identity, remained, of course, a bit abstract in the Soviet Union, where the official propaganda also ran an antiwar campaign. Soviet hippies also often failed to notice the leftist agenda of their Western friends. And their Western friends failed to understand that the New Left had limited appeal to most hippies who were done with Marxism in any form. Indeed, they were done with ideology and politics. In the early 1970s, some Soviet hippies emigrated to Israel and the United States. Their reports back disappointed those back home who had dreamed of a Western hippie utopia. They basically said: “You are on your own.”

What about the antiwar movement then? How does it compare to the West?

This is indeed another disconnect with the West. They had pacifist rhetoric in their language, but, once you go deeper, you realize that these global movements are not entirely global just because they claim they are. Soviet hippies clearly did not want to serve in the Soviet army, but it was less because they thought that the Soviet army was involved in unjust wars (there was no Soviet Vietnam and, later, even Afghanistan failed to galvanize hippie opinion). More so, they did not want to commit themselves to the discipline of the Soviet army. In particular, they were worried about dedovshchina — the nasty system of hierarchical submission. But they also detested the intrusion into private life that was true for all sectors of Soviet life, but in particular in the army. They tried to escape it at all costs, including declaring themselves insane. However, this did not mean that Soviet hippies rejected all forms of militarism. When it came to World War II, many Soviet hippies were, and still are, patriots, and this includes paying tribute to the Red Army on military holidays. Soviet hippies were against war. But not against all wars. And not against all forms of violence. Many hippies I interviewed, even the pacifists, said that the army was good because “we liberated the world from fascists.” In this respect, their outlook does not differ from that of the vast majority of other Russian citizens. When it comes to Baltic and Western Ukrainian hippies, the situation is more complicated, of course. I have interviewed hippies whose families had fought with OUN, the Ukrainian guerilla forces active during and after World War II. They are proud of this legacy even though, just like the history of the Red Army, the history of OUN is also one of warfare, violence, and often brutality.

Or take the example of the famous antiwar demonstration in 1971. On the surface, it looks like an act of solidarity with and in imitation of Western hippies. The demonstration ended very tragically because everyone who showed up at the meeting point at Moscow State University was arrested, despite the fact that its organizer, Iurii Burakov, had obtained permission from the Moscow authorities. The KGB had clearly hijacked the endeavor to get a better idea of who identified with the hippies in Moscow, but it also served to discredit Burakov as a leader. He looked like a traitor of his own people. Iurii was a prolific short story writer, and in one of his stories, he provides a glimpse into why he organized the demonstration. Pacifism or antiwar sentiment hardly figure. Rather, he organized the demonstration because he wanted to show the Soviet authorities that hippies were valuable members of Soviet society, that they had ideas and were not empty commodity-fetishists. He wanted to show that hippies were on the good side together with the Soviet government. He wanted to show hippies as good Soviet citizens. Since the story was never meant for publication, and Burakov did not even let his close friends read it, there is no reason to think that his words were part of a coverup or plea for leniency. Rather, they show that Iurii was wrong about the Soviet authorities. And also that he and his friends did not necessarily share the Western hippie agenda, even if it looked that way.

But wasn’t there a great deal of commodity fetishism among Soviet hippies? Otherwise, how do you explain the high prices for black-market jeans?

It is not so simple with jeans. Jeans were an early marker of so-called “progressive” youth and were a highly coveted item among Soviet hippies. Yet, as jeans spread beyond the hippie communities, hippies had to differentiate themselves by making their own clothes and individualizing what they had available. The Moscow group, “Volosy,” led by an eminent hippie named Ofelia, custom-tailored their garments because they considered clothing to be art. Indeed, they themselves were the artifacts, expressing hippie ideology and thought through their appearance and behavior. Simply wearing Western jeans was anathema to this group. Clothing was an intricate means of communication and, of course, this communication had to be entirely unique to the specificity of the group. Such attitudes took the pressure off of finding authentic American jeans such as Levi’s and Wrangler. But, then again, it all depends. In Moscow, you had these incredible couturiers, but people from the provinces (and not only there) still thought that Western jeans were the coolest thing on earth. This is how social stratification worked even within the hippie community.

It is also worthwhile to mention that not every pair of jeans was made in the West even though it was presented as Western. For example, one hippie I spoke to was engaged in a scam of making jeans out of sailing cloth (which was widely and cheaply available in Soviet stores), putting fake brand labels on them, and selling each pair for 60 rubles on the black market — with a cost of production of around 5–7 rubles. In the late 1970s, the price of jeans dropped partly because the Soviet Union started manufacturing their own jeans. Montana jeans from West Germany started to flood the market, sparking rumors that they were actually a covert Soviet product produced by the KGB. Such was the skepticism about the government that persisted in Soviet society at this time.

What about drugs? What kind of drugs did Soviet hippies take? How did their drug economy function?

They did different drugs at different times and places. The most common way to get high was to combine prescription drugs. The Soviet Union used to sell pretty strong codeine stuff over the counter, and soon clever people found a way to mix it. For example, when Solntse (Burakov) was drafted into the army in 1969, he ended up in a military hospital near Vladivostok. It is unclear whether he hit his head on purpose or by accident. He started mixing his painkillers and figured out a combination to get high — all thanks to the military hospital! He also got dismissed from the Soviet army because “his head was not working,” and this is one of the origins of how people started dodging the army: you say you are crazy, get diagnosed with either schizophrenia or “pathology,” and voila! — you are declared unfit for the army.

Another popular drug was morphine. It was widely spread among the children of the Soviet elite. Morphine came about because many World War II veterans were prescribed it. You could buy morphine on the black market. You could sleep with the ambulance staff to get it, or you could steal it from a dying relative. By the end of the late 1960s to the early 1970s, morphine died out. It became increasingly difficult to get it because of new legislation.

The new drug that came in was a home-made opiate. It could be consumed as kuknar — a strong poppy seed tea — or as mak, which was similar but was injected not drunk. Hippies built a self-sustaining barter economy around it where nobody made profits off it. The first dealers appeared when the Soviet soldiers returned from Afghanistan. It is remarkable that nobody died from kuknar back in the 1970s and 1980s. There were no rehabilitation programs developed for the drug users. Back then, the whole psychiatric profession was caught up in a discussion about schizophrenia. Drug addiction was linked to this disorder, so the patients were treated the same.

In the 1980s, a synthetic drug called vint came out, and it killed many people. It was basically the same stuff that had been produced in Germany in the 1920s and given to the German soldiers in Blitzkrieg. Someone found a way to make it. There are conspiracy theories circulating among the hippie community that the KGB introduced this drug with a purpose to kill off some troubled youth.

One of the exhibition’s discussion participants announced that “being a Soviet hippie woman was just like being a man.” Can you comment on this statement?

Yes. On the one hand, visual androgyny (men wore their hair long, bell-bottomed jeans gave skinny boys and girls the same outline) provided a certain gender balance and indeed provocatively played with gender boundaries. Many female hippies were very instrumental in shaping the movement. But in many other respects, Soviet hippie life mirrored the patriarchy of Soviet society overall. Women were nominally equal, but men created the master narrative. That was partly so because women’s presence in the hippie scene was often more temporary than that of their male peers. Soviet hippie culture did not allow for life to continue after having children. While in the West the problem of hippies coming of age was solved with communal experimentation, this was not possible in the Soviet context. All attempts of communal life were inevitably shut down, and so the only choice that new mothers faced was to either leave their children with grandparents or to withdraw from the community. This is not to mention the numerous accounts of STDs, abortions, and infertility that affected women. I really had to work hard to elicit women’s memories. Their voices somehow got lost among the two decades’ worth of male voices commemorating the movement. As for equality, we have to take into consideration the discursive frames that we are using, and they certainly pose a challenge. Feminism is still a curse word in the former Soviet Union, where second-wave feminism did not really happen. Hence, there was always a danger that I would impose my own conception of female emancipation on my subjects. Many of them were more steeped in the idea of state-sponsored emancipation and measured equality in professional and legal terms rather than focusing on questions of private life. If my interviewees claim that hippie women were equal to hippie men, I have to give value to their words even if I see significant inequalities. Subjectivity is always a huge part of reality.

Here is a question that truly bothers me: why in the world did Soviet hippies call their subculture “the System”?

We can trace the word sistema back to the aforementioned Moscow hippie leader Solntse — Iurii Burakov. He was neither part of the extreme Soviet elite, from where many hippies hailed, nor did he come from a classical intelligentsia family. But he had the charisma to unite the nascent hippie groups of Moscow. Supposedly he said about the term sistema, “They have their system, and we will have ours.” But, you know, the word itself has a colonial connotation. It was also called Tsentrovaia Sistema (Central System) and Solnetchnaia Sistema (Solar System), which lorded over the “systems” of other less central Moscow districts. From the very center of Moscow it started to spread over the Soviet Union. It was a Moscow export imposed onto other communities. By the late 1970s, literally every hippie identified with sistema and no true hippiedom could exist outside of it. The System partly intensified in response to official threats to its way of life: that is, arrests, cutting hair by force, punitive psychiatry, et cetera. Unlike Western subcultures, Soviet hippies had to mount a higher level of organization in responding to these threats.

How did the Soviet hippie movement end, or has it at all?

People would argue either way. My take is that a combination of perestroika and Western capitalism destroyed the System in its essence. Since so much of Soviet hippie identity was about being non-Soviet and against order, a major liberalization of norms such as perestroika scratched heavily on hippie identity. Hippies did not disappear in the late 1980s. They were simply not marginal anymore. Nothing represents this better than the fact that the famous satirical journal, Krokodil, ran an issue for which they handed the reins of the editorial office to people from the System. Sociologists started to study hippies and other subcultures. Suddenly everybody talked about the System and progressive youth and so-called neformaly. The second blow was the end of the Soviet system. Its collapse left Soviet hippies without their vital counter-identification. Over the years the two systems had developed a kind of symbiosis, which allowed them to coexist. Shock therapy and the like were not kind to hippie life. Hippies became disappointed in capitalism and democracy and disillusioned about the opportunities the West had to offer. The surviving representatives are integrated to various degrees into mainstream society, but they are divided along national, ethnic, and political lines. There are even a number of Russian hippies who, for instance, support the annexation of Crimea by the Russian government, while their Baltic and Ukrainian counterparts now feel a certain weariness and hostility toward the new Russian patriots, which include some of their former friends and partners. There are now big rifts along all kinds of fault lines among the surviving members of the former Soviet hippie “system.” At the same time, social media has given it a new lifeline, and hippie talk is more active than ever.


Sasha Razor is a PhD student at the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA.