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CIS: 'Summer of Love' Reached Behind Iron Curtain

  • Salome Asatiani --> French hippies in 1970 (AFP) August 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- This year marks the 40th anniversary of the "Summer of Love" -- the summer of 1967, when music, drugs, and rising student rebellion led to the heyday of the hippie counterculture in the United States.

The impact of that moment in history was felt around the world -- even behind the Iron Curtain, where the Western music and mood inspired a generation of Soviet youth.

"When I heard [American psychedelic guitarist Jimi] Hendrix had died [in September 1970], I wore a black shirt for almost 40 days," said Georgian rock musician Bachi Kitiashvili. "The four of us -- the original members of our band, Bermukha -- were rehearsing in [the southern Georgian town of] Rustavi, in a park. We all wore black."

"I had long hair and a beard," one musician recalls. "We got arrested only once, and it was because of this. Afterward they hung our photo above a big square in Tbilisi, under a banner that said 'The people who bring shame on us.'"

MORE: Songs and stories from Soviet-era bard Aleksandr Galich, in Russian, from the archives of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

'Suddenly It Became Clear'

When Kitiashvili first heard Hendrix, he says, it changed his life.

"I played classical guitar -- but then suddenly it became clear that this was not my music; that [rock] was it," Kitiashvili said.

So Kitiashvili and his friend began to perform rock -- improvisations of their favorite Western rock tunes, mixed with their own original material.

Kitiashvili is one of thousands of young people who grew up behind the Iron Curtain with only rare glimpses of the radical social changes under way in the West in the 1960s.

At that time, Soviet popular music -- or the "estrada" scene -- was saturated with dance tunes and popular songs often delivered by men in buttoned-up suits. Songs were often patriotic and sentimental, such as the popular "Where The Motherland Begins."

But many young people were not content with what was on offer. Like their counterparts in the West, they wore their hair long, grew sideburns, and favored bell-bottom jeans and miniskirts.

People living in urban areas began to define themselves as "hippies," and rock and roll became a central form of expression. By the end of the 1960s, more than 250 unofficial rock bands had formed in Moscow alone.

"The Beatles were huge [in the West], then there were also other bands --- the Rolling Stones, the Animals," said Bakhytzhan Zhumadilov, a rock musician from Kazakhstan. "Procol Harum was giving their first concerts. We were observing these processes. Even though, as they say, the Iron Curtain was there, rock music leaked through anyway."

Into The Mainstream

Indeed, by the late 1960s, the Iron Curtain was far from impenetrable. In fact, Soviet audiences had been listening to jazz and rock and roll even earlier through foreign radio stations, including Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

This, in turn, fostered an industry of smuggled records and home-produced recordings on X-ray plates. And even though the liberal cultural policies of Nikita Khruschev's thaw ended, news, music, and trends from abroad continued to flow slowly but steadily into the Soviet Union.

More people were also allowed to travel to the West, bringing back fashionable clothes, magazines, and record albums. These products were highly desired and could be sold illegally for high prices.

Sculptor Eduard Kazaryan poses next to his tribute to the Beatles in Almaty, Kazakhstan (TASS file photo)

Valery Kocharov, a prominent member of the rock-music subculture in Soviet Georgia, remembers that the acquisition of a single album could prompt large social gatherings, with people flowing to the home of the record-owner to listen to the new music.

"My father was an engineer; my mother was a doctor," Kocharov said. "I couldn't afford to pay 60-70 rubles for a record. So I had to listen to music at my rich friends' homes."

Censorship was still strong during Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's "stagnation" years. But the censors directed their efforts toward samizdat writers and dissident artists who represented a direct threat to the regime -- among them some of the "guitar poets," such as Vladimir Vysotsky or Bulat Okudzhava, who became immensely popular toward the end of the 1960s.

A Mixed Official Reaction

When it came to more subtle forms of defiance -- a preference for Western clothes and music -- the system was more relaxed.

"As for censorship, in the 1960s and 1970s our authorities -- not just the government, but all authorities -- viewed these youthful attractions with a certain amount of repulsion and discontent, but without strong hostility," says Russian cultural historian Ilya Smirnov. "The general position of, say, a factory director, institute rector, or party secretary was to let the kids jump around listening to their stupid music -- that sooner or later they'd grow up and know better."

Still, there were problems. Policymakers worried that Soviet youths were being brainwashed by their exposure to Western commercial culture. Police staged raids on rock concerts, and foreign albums were confiscated.

Kocharov says young people were even harassed for adopting hippie hair and clothing styles.

"I had long hair and a beard," he says. "We got arrested only once, and it was because of this. They took us to a police station and cut our hair a bit. Afterward they hung our photo above a big square in Tbilisi, under a banner that said 'The people who bring shame on us.'"

Such incidents, however, were relatively infrequent. This may have been because Soviet cultural authorities deliberately supported some local rock bands as a way of countering the popularity of Western rock music.

Most of these local bands -- or, as they were called back then, "vocal-instrumental ensembles" -- played a mixture of rock and pop music. They garnered considerable state support, provided they sang ideologically acceptable, lyrically sanitized versions of Western rock and roll, and had "decent" looks.

Meet The Beatles

Many local groups mimicked The Beatles in sound and style. Indeed, cultural experts agree it was The Beatles who had the biggest impact on Soviet youth. Musicians like Zhumadilov in Kazakhstan say the British band provided an ideal introduction to the world of rock music.

The cover of a Soviet-released Beatles album from the late 1960s (courtesy photo)

"Yes, of course we perceived them as rock music," he recalls. "Although when Mick Jagger and his band, the Rolling Stones, emerged, this was real rock, of course. But The Beatles was sufficiently 'rock' for us back then."

Even though he is a fan of harder rock, Kitiashvili in Georgia also admits The Beatles had a profound influence.

"Just imagine you're sitting somewhere at night, listening to the BBC or the Voice of America, and suddenly you hear 'Can't Buy Me Love,'" he says. "You can never go back to your old self after this. You just know -- this is the music you have to start making, from tomorrow onward."

The influence and popularity of Western rock music grew to the point that decades later, after the fall of the Soviet empire, Czech dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel credited the music with initiating the popular revolutions that brought down the socialist states.

In the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, a statue of American rock musician Frank Zappa was erected in 1995 as a symbol of the country's freedom.

Zhumadilov says many musicians, in seeking to play the Western music they liked, found themselves fighting for the broader cause of freedom.

"It was a certain kind of struggle," Zhumadilov says. "We wanted to stand out from the rest of the people. To show that, yes, we are musicians, we are democratic people, we want to live and play music like they do in the West. We want to listen to Western music!"

Talking 'Bout A Revolution

Not everyone mixed politics and music, however. For some, like Kocharov, it was all about the music.

"I hadn't reflected on these things in depth, like others claim they had," Kocharov says. "I just liked the music. There was no serious concept behind it."

Ilya Smirnov says the same was true for many Soviet-era "hippies." Although many supported radical political change, others were simply interested in being different -- and making a bit of mischief.

"They even coined a verb -- 'khippovat,' to 'be like a hippie,' Smirnov remembers. "For the vast majority of individuals who wore bell-bottom trousers and long hair, this meant shocking society through any means available. Writing an obscene word on a school director's office door, for example. This is what was meant by 'being a hippie.' From the mid-1970s, this phenomenon was widely practiced by ordinary youth -- students and the like."

Whatever the motives, no one disputes the fact that the importation of Western culture radically altered the collective Soviet imagination. In fact, this was true as early as the 1950s, when jazz music found its way to the other side of the Iron Curtain.

In the 1960s, young people continued to search for something new and different that would set them apart from the authorities. As Kitiashvili puts it, many felt they weren't alone in their aspirations.

"I think we can say that whatever was happening there [in the West], the same thing was taking place here [in the Soviet Union]," he says. "This cannot be a simple coincidence. What differed were obstacles people faced here and there."

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