Soviet hippies – the flower children of the ussr

By Kerstin Zilm

In the late 1960s, the hippie movement spilled from the west to the Soviet Union. The evidence of the hippie period is widely scattered and hardly organized. The Wende Museum is now archiving boxes of photos, diaries, concert recordings and home videos.

They were long-haired, walked barefoot through the streets, wore flowers in their hair with flared jeans with colorful pieces of fabric sewn on themselves. They drank cheap wine, talked about music and danced in clubs in Moscow, Leningrad, Riga and Kiev. They were the Soviet hippies. Inspired by newspaper articles about the anti-capitalist movement in the USA, they created themselves at the end of the 1960 Years a peaceful alternative to stagnation and everyday socialist life. You called it "Sistema". Joanne Chen Cham, archivist at the Wende Museum in Los Angeles:

"Ironically, even though it was a countermovement to society, it had to get its inspiration from Soviet-sanctioned media. The basics for your Counterculture came from sources of official culture."

"Resistance symbol"

The archive of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles contains crates of more than a hundred thousand other items from the Cold War "Sistema"-Materials: records, recordings from music clubs, clothing, letters, books, photos, diaries, instructions for turning ordinary jeans into flared pants and lots of home videos. Kate Dollenmeyer, Wende museum archivist for audiovisual certificates is about to digitize the material.

Sketch of typical bell-bottoms, as was often worn at the end of the 1960s (Deutschlandradio / Kerstin Zilm)

"That is one of the groups in Saint Petersburg. They had these meetings in the forest, like festivals. Here they go to a club. Here you can see how other people look at the hippies on the street. And a man throws a frisbee. It was a coveted item: American, hard to come by, and a symbol of resistance."

Historian Juliane Fürst discovered in her research on "Sistema" the testimonies that dusted and roted in the basements and roof trusses of the Soviet flower children. In search of an archive that appreciated the value of the material, she ended up in Los Angeles. Chief curator Joe Segal explains: Wende Museum and "Sistema" are a ideal Combination:

"We were immediately interested. The goal of this museum is to show the many layers of history. That fit perfectly: a little-known story, a new perspective on Soviet history. We loved it right away."

Criticism with consequences

But there are challenges with archiving: the material is largely disorganized and comes from different sources. There are only a few employees in the museum who speak Russian well enough to translate texts and sounds and to create connections.

Photo album from the time of the hippie movement in the late 1960s (Deutschlandradio / Kerstin Zilm)

The "Sistema" was more than an imitation of the western hippies. The movement spread quickly: from children of the Moscow elite with access to the media and foreign travelers to the entire Soviet Union and to the margins of society. They moved like birds from one meeting point to another, to clubs, festivals and summer camps. While in the west hippies lost their importance, that became "Sistema" for visible criticism of the Soviet government. This had consequences: deregistration, dismissals, prison terms, admission to psychiatry and the obligation to serve in the army. Curator Joe Segal:

"Because control was tighter in the Soviet Union and punishment was so much harsher than in the West, it was a deliberate political decision to be a hippie there and they were aware of the risk."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its hippie movement also frayed. Some members moved to California. The Wende Museum hopes that they will be able to attend the opening of the Soviet hippie exhibition.


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