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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Brezhnev’s 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.
The underground subculture connected people from different social backgrounds, the writer Vladimir Wiedemann says. It included hippies, dissidents, mystics, religious activists and human-rights campaigners. Some embraced spiritualism, others yoga and veganism. All rejected the Soviet regime and thus played a role in its eventual demise.
Wiedemann was exposed to rock’n’roll culture via Finnish TV and Radio Luxembourg, which he could pick up from his home in Estonia. “The iron curtain wasn’t that strong,” he says. Now based in London, Wiedemann wrote a book on hippies, Forbidden Union, which is currently running as a play, How Estonian Hippies Brought Down the Soviet Union!, on the Moscow stage…
The film features interviews with Wiedemann and other survivors from the “hairy underground”, as Toomistu puts it. Most are men, still espousing hippy ideas and with beards and hair still flowing but grey. There are fewer Soviet female hippies, Toomistu says; many left the scene to have children. The movement’s charismatic leaders are largely dead, often from drink and drugs.
These were widely available under Marxism. Forbidden from travelling physically beyond the eastern bloc, Soviet hippies instead became “psychonauts”, Toomistu says. They consumed weed from central Asia and the Caucasus, opium and poppy tea. Some drank Sopals, a Soviet cleaning detergent containing ether.
Toomistu grew up in post-Soviet Estonia. She was interested in the hippy scene as a teenager, and was a fan of Jim Morrison. She spent half a year in Russia as a student, and wrote a thesis about memory culture. The idea for the film came together after her own road trip in South America, she says. She is currently completing an anthropology PhD. There is little archive material on communist-era hippies, whom the Soviet press ignored, Toomistu says, erasing them from history. She retrieved a box of video footage of festivals and gatherings from a hippy who had to leave Russia in a hurry. In 2017, several of her subjects went to a hippy reunion held every year at Moscow’s Tsaritsyno Park, to mark the 1971 demo busted by the KGB.
The reunion is poignant. Russia’s war in Ukraine and its 2014 annexation of Crimea divided opinion. Some hippies support Vladimir Putin and his idea of a great spiritual Russia. Others take a more traditional pacifist view that all war is bad. The film ends with Putin’s police breaking up the party. It is a metaphor for state-hippy relations, now and then.
Soviet Hippies is being screened by Dash Café at Rich Mix, London, on 23 October.