The Estonian director Terje Toomistu, who recently completed a documentary about the hippie movement in the Soviet Union, writes about the drug culture behind the Iron Curtain.
Throughout history, people have searched for ways to induce altered states of consciousness and thus to expand their perception of the world and its meaning. The Soviet Union might have appeared like a strict universe – anything but a place for sensuous tripping – but there, just like all over the world, there were seekers who couldn’t have been less concerned by the restrictions and commands of their time.
In this sense, the Western hippies were not so very different from their mirror image on this side of the Iron Curtain – they were tripping in the West, and people were tripping in the East, too. It’s just that “sex, drugs & rock’n’roll” acquired a much more existential dimension in the Soviet countries. A hippie slang expression can perhaps roughly illustrate it: “Life on a High”.
While making a documentary about the hippie culture in the Soviet times, I haven’t been able to overlook the politics of ecstasy and its related practices and folklore. The following text summarises everything I can remember from the narcotic aspect of my research in the course of the film-making saga. But attention, attention – do not try this at home!
The Soviet Union dictated in very narrow terms to the public about what ways of being and feeling were allowed, and which were forbidden, to be met with reprimands or even punishment. The purpose of its propaganda was to shape a specific“homo sovieticus”, who would build the pillars of communism and march soberly towards the far-off, opalescent socialist utopia. Johnny B. Isotamm, a poet who emerged from the Tartu scene of the end of the 1960s, has said, “You were not reprimanded by far at all if you walked down the street in cotton pants or felt boots. These were the clothes of an honest working man. But if you showed up in flowery pants, you were almost a criminal.”
The norm was clear and rigid. Long hair,samizdat (a system in the Soviet Union by which government-suppressed literature was clandestinely printed and distributed)with religious content or strange bodily practices were a clear warning sign.
The air was strongly vibrating from the exciting wave of rock music that had absorbed in the Soviet Union through the Iron Curtain and by the knowledge that young people in the Free World were tripping in the enchantment of make-love-not-war. Soundscapes of guitar effects created a feeling of ecstasy, which the power puppeteers of course treated as a sign of wildness and undesirable influence from the decadent West.
The desire to experience something more than the empty promise given by Soviet power was not necessarily connected to the consumption of certain substances. The young people who were inspired by the knowledge of the global hippie movement and enjoyed good tunes had a radically different air about them. They believed more, they loved more and their life was in the hands of a loose concept – “high”. Their life was formed by a longing for freedom and a joy in adventures, and was guided by spiritual practices. For sure, it was quite a colourful crowd of people, but if there was something that connected them, it was the fact they simply felt more.