By: Kai Teo
Photos and video: César Ortiz
Event: Exhibition – Soviet Hippies: The Psychedelic Underground of 1970s Estonia
Venue: Moderna Museet, Gasverksgatan 22, Malmö
Curators: KIWA & Terje Toomistu
Date: Sunday, 13th October ‘13
Our rating: 4 out of 5
Most modern day hippies are acid munching, yoga practicing, psytrance listening half-bums who sort of hold day jobs at H&M. Threaten any of them with a switchblade and they wouldn’t even think twice about snipping off their incense-soaked dreadlocks.
But to be hippies under the 70s Soviet regime took a lot more balls.
And their powerful philosophy was once again brought back to life in Malmö’s Modern Museum, through a captivating exhibition curated by KIWA and Terje Toomistu, that documented their persecution, their journeys, their music and their quest towards spiritual enlightenment under the Iron Curtain.
One of the museum’s curators, Andreas Nilsson, specially took time off on a Sunday to talk to us about the struggles of the Soviet hippies and the immense beauty that emerged from their psychedelic underground.
“Just practicing yoga was forbidden,” said Andreas as he pointed at a hand-copied yoga instructional book amongst the exhibits. He continued, “This was all copied single handedly, in a single day.”
Owning a printed copy of the book was almost impossible, which was why they resorted to handwritten copies just to spread their workout routine. Talk about dedication my friends. We’re all guilty of the lack of it. These days, anything that we can’t find on Google doesn’t exist, let alone referring to a printed reference.
But what could’ve spurred such a strong passion for their beliefs? It was much safer to go for like, swimming or gymnastics, and sport a conventional Soviet haircut, whatever that was.
It wasn’t LSD.
It was the power of freedom. That sweet ideal that everyone could have had the right to be themselves, practice their crafts, and play their own music. And when that right was suppressed by the government and the culture it had created, this fiery zeal burned even more ferociously as a definitive act of defiance.
The Flower Power revolution in the 60s took some time before it finally reared its bud in Estonia, given the strict sanctions and harsh laws. It finally snuck through the underground and blossomed there in the 70s, and amongst the relics of peace that were on display, we saw bootlegged records of Led Zeppelin, handwritten scores of The Beatles and the infamous Russian spliff.
While the naked flower children in the States were cutting their hair and putting on their power suits, the revolution was just becoming bigger in the Soviet, even though it was still a very underground movement.
Psychedelic drugs didn’t arrive till much later. But these hippies didn’t need much to trip out. “It was a trip even just wearing the clothes I want,” said one of the flower veterans who appeared in the documentary that was playing at the exhibition.
“The most powerful idea about this exhibition is their relentless drive to keep their culture alive,” remarked Andreas.
He explained that these free spirits, in order to express themselves, resorted to writing and illustrating children’s books with psychedelic art and trippy stories, among other things, just because kiddy fiction was less regulated in the regime. They probably had their own version of Alice in Commieland and Stalin and the Chocolate Factory.
We flipped through reproduced copies of official government letters condemning the “long-haired males” and calling them “a threat to our values”. We asked about the book on Schizophrenia and were told that it was used as a guide to feign mental illness in order to skip the compulsory military service.
Every picture told a harsh story of bravery, each relic was a testament to the struggle for freedom, and each person in the photographs stared straight at us, as if to convey their mixed feelings of intense fear and blissful hope.
And all this time, mesmerising tunes from Estonian psychedelic rock bands playing at rare local festivals filled the atmosphere with a hint of rebellion and tripping balls. It was like Jefferson Airplane flying in weird Soviet airspace, with anti-air gunfire made out of furious drumbeats and radio signals composed using riffs.
But like all trips, the Flower Power that they had risked their lives for slowly fizzled out into a quiet whimper. Dreadlocks gave way to neat, corporate-looking hairstyles. Musical keys were traded for car keys. Mantras changed from “Om” to “More”.
Peace and love don’t pay your rent. Even yoga instructors today have to charge some fees. Harem pants and bindis are now merely accessories. These days, anyone who posts inspirational quotes from the Dalai Lama or Osho can call him or herself a hippie.
The exhibition, which was first held on a larger scale in the Estonian National Museum in Tartu, Estonia, really did showed us that being a hippie meant a lot more than going to forest raves.