‘Socialist Flower Power’ explores little-known hippie culture behind the Iron Curtain

By Sarah Davidson

This “peace ship” is among a trove of hippie artifacts on display
at The Wende

Imagining life under Soviet rule during the 1960s and ’70s probably doesn’t call to mind long-haired, peace-loving hippies walking around in peasant blouses and bell bottoms. But there were hippies in the U.S.S.R., and The Wende Museum in Culver City is exhibiting personal archives of several prominent members of this movement with “Socialist Flower Power: Soviet Hippie Culture” on view through Aug. 26.

The exhibit is part of a collaboration between the Wende Museum and the University of Bristol’s Dr. Juliane Fürst, who has devoted her career to studying dissidence and youth culture in late socialism (the time period from Stalin’s death to the beginning of Perestroika in the mid-1980s). Fürst contacted the owners of the archives, who shared photos, clothing items, drawings, video clips and more for a small but fascinating exhibit at the Wende.

Walking past the displays, it is stunning how precisely Soviet hippies recreated the aesthetic of their Western counterparts. In silvery black-and-white prints, long-haired, pale-skinned men and women puff on cigarettes, strum guitars and stage protests. Hand-written notes detail the effects and street names of LSD and marijuana, and drawings feature the psychedelic colors and swirls that immediately call to mind the Flower Power era.

But while hippie life in the U.S.S.R. might look the same as hippie life in the U.S. or Britain during the 1960s and ’70s, the starkly different political regimes of these countries made their cultures inherently different, says Joes Segal, the Wende’s chief curator.

“Acting differently or having a different lifestyle in the Soviet Union was an existential decision because you were outside society,” says Segal. Sometimes, he says, hippies were put in mental asylums — some even went willingly, so as to avoid serving in the army. “Sometimes they were more or less left alone as long as they were not politically active; sometimes people just got arrested because they were walking around with long hair.”

In all, hippies met a range of responses from society and the state, accordingly to Segal. Ironically, young people discovered hippie culture early on when official Soviet journalists were assigned to write about the Western anti-capitalist movement in a positive way. And children of the nomenklatura (a class of communist party government and industry appointees) are credited with pioneering the trend after their parents came home from their travels with records by The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the ’80s, cultural restrictions loosened, making life a little easier for members of the counterculture. Many still live the hippie life today — eight of the archives’ donors made the trip to Los Angeles to speak about the exhibit earlier this summer. Segal says they still looked like hippies, and they donated their archives to prevent the erasure of a little-known cultural moment.

“This makes the story of the Soviet Union so much more complex and interesting, to know that there were all these sub-groups,” Segal says. “It’s easy to stereotype and think that it was all oppression and lack of creativity, and that is certainly not true.”

“Socialist Flower Power: Soviet Hippie Culture” is on view through Aug. 26. at The Wende Museum, 10808 Culver Blvd., Culver City. Call (310) 216-1600 or visit wendemuseum.org.