I am a historian of the Soviet Union, a country that does not exist any more. I study the history of Soviet hippies, a phenomenon that also belongs in the past. During the Perestroika period in the 1980s, political and economic reforms led to greater freedoms of the press, speech and assembly. Irredentist national feeling swelled in the Soviet republics, including Ukraine, ultimately leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Putin’s war in Ukraine is also a war on this history: he is determined to reverse the entire Perestroika project, reestablishing the primacy and ideology of the Russian state.
At the heart of the crisis in Russia, both then and now, is a profound generational conflict. An older elite, with values rooted in the past, has been pitched against a younger demographic keen to advance a different national identity. Putin’s regime will not be toppled by the young, just as the Soviet Union did not collapse because of Beatlemania. But young Russians are already hollowing out the very ground on which he stands.
The Soviet Union’s ideological project was in trouble long before it broke apart in 1991. Perestroika could only happen because people were fed up with the inefficiency, corruption, pomposity, empty slogans and leadership of a gerontocracy. No one exemplified this tension better than Soviet hippies – young people who unashamedly loved western music, western clothing and western ideas. Hippies ran their own summer camps, created their own information channels and hitchhiked up and down the country. Their existence was itself an act of rebellion. For Soviet hippies, Perestroika meant the little corner of freedom they had carved out in their private lives grew to encompass the entire Soviet Union.
I am often asked these days what my hippy friends and correspondents make of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Implicit is an expectation that they must be horrified and among the most fervent of protesters. The reality is more complicated, just as the reality of Soviet hippies was in the 70s and 80s. Hippies loved and still love peace. But loving peace is different from opposing war, just as loving western music is different from opposing the Soviet Union. Soviet hippies adopted the peace sign as their symbol. But Soviet hippies, unlike their American counterparts, were not born from an anti-war movement. They were pacifists without a war. And when the Soviet Union waged war in Afghanistan in 1979, their reaction was muted.
Politics was dirty. War not always so. Had the Soviet Union not defeated fascism in 1945 and liberated the people of Europe? Were Soviet soldiers not heroes rather than aggressors? It is no coincidence that Putin, who is a contemporary of the Soviet hippies and even grew up in the same housing complex as some of his leaders, constantly invokes Nazis in his speeches. He, too, is a child of the Brezhnev-era cult of the “great fatherland war”, as the second world war is called in Russia. The victory of fascism is at the heart of his identity as a Russian. The opponents of Russia are “Nazis” by virtue of their opposition alone.
Soviet hippies were ambivalent about pacifism. They preferred to talk about music and life and spiritualism. Their silence helped gloss over their differences: it helped Russian hippies ignore the fact that the anti-Soviet feelings of their Lithuanian and Latvian counterparts were different to those of their Moscow friends. While the former were rooted in a desire for political independence, the latter expressed disdain for the Soviet system, but not a critique of its imperial nature.
Youth movements played a role in bringing down the Soviet system. But they played this role at the rearguard, not on the frontlines. They were masters at creating parallel universes without directly confronting the political order. This skill made them excellent survivors but bad revolutionaries. It allowed them to accommodate a wide variety of opinions but prevented them from adopting a unified political position. The former Soviet hippy community is now home to views from across the spectrum, ranging from opposition to the war to full support.
Most of them engage in the same escapism that characterized their existence 40 years earlier. They have migrated from Facebook, which has been banned in Russia but can be accessed with a VPN, to platforms such as VKontakte and Telegram almost without complaint. They worry more about how Russians are treated abroad than about their hippy peers in Ukraine. After Putin’s rally on 18 March, something else crept in: Soviet-style stiob. Stiob denotes the fun people make of pompous rulers through imitation. In the late Soviet Union, stiob was one of the main ways of communicating. Russia’s former Soviet hippies did not initially mock Putin until the rally, where his jacket was mocked relentlessly; as were the rally’s “international” guests, all of whom hailed from Russia.
This detached, apolitical stance became the hallmark of an entire generation. After 1991, it ultimately translated into apathy. But new generations of Russian youth have grown up since the 1970s and 1980s. During the first decade of the 2000s, young people flocked to Putin, the Orthodox Church and regime-conformist youth organizations such as Nashi in an attempt to find an alternative to the dominance of western commercial culture. Since 2011, young people have made up the backbone of protest movements that follow the strategies of Soviet dissent, relying on performances and happenings (most famous among them Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin prayer), art, music and media creations, and the carving out of personal pockets of freedom.
Right now, the state’s repressive pressure is so high that mass demonstrations have virtually ceased to take place. In official opinion polls, about half of under-30s in Russia are opposed to the war, with many others avoiding the question. The escapism of the late Soviet period has translated into an exodus of many young Russian intellectuals to the west and neighboring countries.
Some young Russians are busy carving out alternative practices, alternative heroes, alternative channels of information, alternative topics of conversation, ways of seeing the world and relating to the west. Young feminist women have emerged as one of the driving forces of organized resistance. Young IT workers are building up new businesses in former Soviet republics. Young journalists are writing out of Riga, Tallinn and Berlin. When Putin’s regime eventually does end, a small alternative Russian world will already exist. And then historians will write about the kernels of change that were first detected at the height of Putin’s rule.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism