Lenin meets Lennon. Flower power, Soviet-style. Russian hippies, small in number, espouse peace, freedom, and love
IT'S 3 in the afternoon. I ring the doorbell several times, long and loud. After several minutes, a still-half-asleep girl, hair askew, opens the door. ``Hold on a minute, let us get dressed,'' she says. ``Solmi works nights, you know.''
Solmi - a sobriquet taken from two notes of the musical scale - is one of Moscow's better-known hippies, or in his own words, ``something of an artist, partly a poet, and an entirely tiny bit musician.''
The walls of his grimy one-room apartment are covered floor to ceiling with his work - colorful Peter Max-esque canvases and collages depicting scenes from other worlds. Works in progress are strewn about the floor. Most amusing is a collage made from the singed pages of his internal passport, a document all Soviet citizens over 16 years old must carry. This creation isn't a political statement, Solmi insists.
``I live in Terra Concordia, the land of harmony - that's my country,'' he declares. ``Everything you see is my country. It's here and it's there, in the astral. I live there. I'm president of Terra Concordia, therefore I don't need a Soviet passport. Well, of course, I need it as long as I am here - you have to resign yourself to conditions.''
By all appearances, this isn't the hallucination of a drug addict. (``I tried all sorts of `euphoria,' then I got a warning from Above....'') In fact, aside from the long hair, the beaded ``love forever'' bracelet (de rigueur for hippies), and the peace symbol plastered on one lens of his sunglasses, the 23-year-old Solmi doesn't look much different from any other Soviet youth. Nor do his apartment mates - Oleg and girlfriend Pelican, the waiflike creature who answered the door.
But they are all part of ``the System,'' the movement of Soviet hippies (in Russian, pronounced HEE-pee) that began 20 years ago in the name of flower power.
It is a small movement - by reported KGB (secret police) estimates, 70,000 people nationwide - and one hardly associated with the kind of mass concerts and antiwar protests that epitomized American hippiedom. The watchwords are familiar: peace, love, and freedom - in the Soviet context, freedom of expression and the freedom to live and travel where one chooses. Hitchhiking is the preferred mode of transportation. Hanging out is a favorite pastime.
Though Solmi insists that hippiness isn't even a movement - ``it's a condition of the soul'' - the System maintains a distinct identity in the small but visible world of the Soviet counterculture. At any rock concert, hippies are sure to turn up. They frequently gather in apartments for their own, unofficial concerts and art exhibits. Hippie poetry, which Solmi is collecting for an almanac, actively circulates in the hippie underground network. Richard Bach's ``Illusions'' and Jack Kerouac's ``On the Road'' are must reading.
Hippie calling cards crop up around Moscow from time to time - the words ``Street of Love,'' for example, painted over an official street sign. In the late '60s, a hippie called ``Red Pants'' literally made his name by hanging a giant pair of red Levi Strauss jeans from the ``Moscow'' sign on one of the main arteries into the city. An accompanying warning, ``Filming in progress! Administration of Mosfilm,'' left the pants undisturbed for a full month.
Asked to explain the hippie philosophy, Solmi strikes an authoritative pose on his paint-box-turned-stool and holds forth:
``To struggle for peace. It is this kind of struggle: If you don't want war, there won't be war, as John Lennon said.''
Concretely, that means refusing military service, which earns most male hippies a stamp of ``psychologically unstable'' in their military documents. This represents a compromise between hippies and the government: Hippies agree to be labeled crazy and the Army avoids the annoyance of dealing with dissenters. Further, the government can dismiss hippies as abnormal, and, if it wishes, put them away in mental hospitals. Some hippies have reportedly met that fate.
``If an initiative [for peace] is allowed, it is tied into the Komsomol [the Soviet Youth League]. I am bitter, because in fact I love my homeland very much,'' Solmi says. ``Now perestroika has begun, and I want to believe that it won't drown in blood, that it will continue, and after a while we will feel democracy, that it will be possible to solve many problems, including the truth of freedom.''
In fact, Moscow's hippies have benefited from the easing of cultural restrictions under perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev's effort to restructure the Soviet system. In July, the relaxed government attitude toward art paved the way for the first official hippie art exhibit. A second exhibit is in the works, though complications threaten it. In August, the government sanctioned for the first time a conference of unofficial groups, the System included.
Still, official suspicion remains. As with any Soviets who live outside the system, hippies are a thorn in the government's side, a phenomenon to be kept in check or at least out of sight. Militiamen reportedly continue to detain and beat hippies.
One of the biggest hippie-police clashes of recent times took place on Sept. 6, 1986. Word had spread that Soviet television was going to film the hippies hanging out on Arbat Street. Hippie artists decided to exhibit their works to show, Solmi says, ``that we're not mongrels, drug addicts, and prostitutes.'' Hippies turned out in force, 700 of them, with flowers, balloons, children. The paddy wagons were waiting, and when all was done, 300 hippies had been rounded up, many questioned and beaten. The art was confiscated, to be retrieved later with great effort.
Official unhappiness with hippies is backed by a sizable, and growing, conservative strain that resents their unorthodoxy. Young conservative toughs have flexed their muscles on hippies and other fringe groups. Hippies also engender resentment in more sympathetic circles. At small informal concerts, where performers meet their expenses by passing the hat, whispers of ``beggar'' can be heard when hippies have no money to offer.
As with other social phenomena, glasnost (openness) has brought the first press coverage of the System - most of it a ``dirty lampoon,'' Solmi says. The only major reportage to date appeared in September in the Moscow Komsomol paper under the headline ``Barren flowers: imitation hippies - there aren't that many, but they exist.''
``Can the System be legalized? I don't think so,'' the writer commented. ``The hippies are a movement whose world view differs from ours, whose essence is antisocial and regressive.''
The writer treated Solmi with relative kindness, describing him as not a bad sort who fell into the wrong crowd. Other hippies are just parasites who produce nothing - artistic or otherwise - for the social good.
Legally, Solmi is also a ``parasite,'' the term for someone who doesn't hold an official job. When Solmi left for Pskov three years ago to start a commune, he lost his Moscow residency and therefore the right to work in Moscow. When he returned, his Army colonel stepfather would not renew his residency. Recently his biological father - another ``homo-military,'' in Solmi-speak - set the police on his trail.
What money do Solmi and his mates live on?
``I have no idea,'' he says. ``For 3 years I've lived on who knows what. And not because I don't want to work. I work every day. I don't sell my paintings; I give them away.''
Later it comes out that Solmi's mother pays the rent.
Suppertime rolls around, and the gallons of tea already consumed no longer satisfy. The visitors reluctantly accept an offer of food, and Pelican settles on a pillow in the corner to peel potatoes. When dinner is finally served on a suitcase in the middle of the room, Solmi's nonhippie sister Lena suddenly appears with a sizzling skillet of meat. Where did all this food come from?
``My mother and Solmi's mother help out with the groceries,'' Pelican admits, to a disapproving glance from Solmi.
Not all Soviet hippies survive this way. Some do sell their paintings and handicrafts. Some work as street cleaners or watchmen. Many are students.
And, of course, the System takes care of its own. When Oleg, the only hippie in Dnepropetrovsk, arrived in Moscow a few months ago to start a band, Solmi took him in. Solmi seems to relish his role as a friend of the downtrodden and dispenser of great truths.
``Soviet bureaucracy is the most gigantic bureaucracy in the world!'' he declares. ``The world needs love!''
Would you rather there were no government at all? he is asked. Oleg, the disciple, chimes in: ``We want our government to take the form that was planned from the beginning. Read the works of Lenin. His decisions would have led to a system deserving respect and attention.''
For Solmi, the litmus test of perestroika is his campaign to establish an official Street of Love.
``We have Electricity Lane and Ball Bearing Street. It's getting terrifying. Where are we heading? To Godless Lane and Communism Cul-de-sac?
``I really want to build a Street of Love, where repression is impossible. That would be a step toward democracy.''