J. Fürst: Flowers Through Concrete

Flowers Through Concrete. Explorations in Soviet Hippieland

Fürst, Juliane
Anzahl Seiten
475 S.
$ 115.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Alexandra Oberländer, Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung, Berlin

This book is more than a history of Soviet hippies. In Flowers Through the Concrete Julianne Fürst has provided us with nothing less than an alternative history of the late Soviet Union. This in itself is a tremendous achievement. In the first half of the book, readers are invited into this page-turning alternative history with a sweeping overview, or “short course” as Fürst calls it, beginning in the 1960s but with a primary focus on the 1970s. In the equally gripping second part Fürst turns our attention to more detailed characteristics of hippie life, drawing on theoretical perspectives from the histories of emotions, materiality, gender and the body. Methodologically, Fürst contributes to a growing (albeit reluctantly) body of scholarship based on oral history and thus broadens our understanding of late socialism by bringing to light unknown and sometimes intimate details. These are crucial for grasping the Soviet everyday. Fürst excels at reflecting on her own position among “her” sources. She critically attends to her own oral history method, examining how her relationality to her interlocutors presupposed certain readings of these “sources” – living interviewees – and their readings of her in return. The history of the Soviet hippies is above all an oral history, Fürst emphasizes. To a lesser degree it is also a history of things (jeans, hair, bags) and even less of texts in the traditional historiographic sense. Nevertheless, a rich selection of more or less “traditional” texts are woven into the book, be it novels, poems or memoirs written by hippies themselves, or other lucky finds such as KGB surveillance files. Over the past decade, Fürst has worked to unearth a bounty of incredibly varied material and mold it into a wonderfully engaging and extremely well-written book.

Fürst’s main argument is twofold. First, Soviet hippies were more than simply a copy of Western hippies. They were Soviet hippies. They displayed several uniquely Soviet habits and practices that were a product of the society they lived in. Oftentimes, what made these hippies peculiar was the absence of stuff, of things – things considered to be paradigmatic for Western hippies, such as LSD for instance, which was virtually absent from the USSR. Here, Fürst makes explicit mention of the so-called “shortage economy” (but rest assured: Soviet hippies managed to obtain their fair share of hallucinogenic drugs). The second strand of her argument revolves around the intricate relationship Soviet hippies shared with mainstream society. What these Soviet hippies were and what they meant (both to themselves and for the rest of society) was inextricably linked to the very society they despised. The Soviet shape of a hippie was nothing other than a product of Soviet society, a society that could not help but somehow adapt to the hippies’ existence. This extended beyond blue jeans, long hair and music: as Fürst describes, hippies lost their “external position vis-à-vis the Soviet world and became part and parcel of the complexities of late Soviet socialism itself” (p. 26). Fürst’s book thus builds upon ongoing debates around the notion of living vne (“living outside”) – a reference to the USSR’s “last generation”.1 This perspective allows for a lot more plurality than is usually conceded. Fürst reveals a constantly moving and adapting mainstream society and thus adds heft to the view of late Soviet society as anything but stagnant.

Fürst’s “short course” on Soviet hippie history from the late 1960s to the early 1980s acquaints readers with new terms and individuals, all of which will hopefully become household knowledge – if only for students of Soviet history. We learn about the sistema, the network of hippies from the Baltics to Central Asia who, thanks to their extensive travels (hitch-hiking, camping) along the trassa, knew everyday Soviet conditions extremely well – probably even better than a majority of people working in the higher echelons of Soviet society. We meet Solntse (“Sun”), the charismatic and tragic hero of the first hippie generation whose legacy to this day divides the hippie community. We discover that you could get almost anything (yes, drugs, too) on the Strit (a section of Gorki Street in central Moscow) provided you had the right look, and we realize that there was not only sex but even free love in the Soviet Union. Some characters we get to know very closely: the fate of a certain Ofelia alone makes the book worth reading.

What stands out in the first part of the book is the impact of an almost forgotten demonstration that took place in Moscow on 1 June 1971, organized by none other than Solntse. This demonstration – which, in harmony with the global hippie vibe, was against the Vietnam War – became a turning point for the Soviet hippie movement as well as for Solntse’s individual life story. Solntse managed to gain official permission from the Moscow city council. After all, Soviet official policy opposed imperialist war in general and the US-war in Vietnam in particular. Nevertheless, when several hundred demonstrators unfurled banners emblazoned with slogans that Soviet readers could encounter on a daily basis in their newspaper, such as “Yankees, Go Home!”, police and KGB operatives closed in and began arresting people. Solntse, however, had already been arrested a few hours earlier. His absence on that day led many participants to believe that he was an informer who had orchestrated the entire event on behalf of the KGB. While this crackdown turned Solntse into something like pariah, the effect for the hippie movement itself was a transition from a fashionable youth subculture to a community on the verge of being criminalized and sent for psychiatric treatment. Being a hippie in the USSR now became a conscious decision to drop out of “mainstream society to a much larger extent than before” (p. 106).

Throughout the book, Fürst succeeds in finding a delicate balance between statements that simultaneously evoke contradiction and concession. As a rule, she opts for revealing the many shades and potential interpretations of these statements, rather than offering clear-cut conclusions. This caution is a strength in her writing, matched by her constant reflection about her own position and the care she takes in laying out the dearth and disparity of her sources. In one of the most impressive and at the same time provocative chapters we follow some of the hippies through their experience of a type of involuntary psychological treatment that in the 1970s was considered all over the world to be a blatantly violent one. In the psikhushka, hippies not only met other hippies but also came into contact with dissidents.2 Fürst contends, however, that the impact of these encounters on dissidents was decidedly different compared to their impact on hippies. Of course, the purpose of the psikhushka was to break inmates with drugs, medication, electric shocks and all kinds of other detrimental “treatments”. Yet in Fürst’s reading, these experiences were also an integral part of the hippie biography: for hippies, “madness” meant freedom. Insanity was like a free pass, a weapon of the weak to distance themselves from mainstream society. The hippies’ embrace of madness was incomprehensible for the Soviet state. It was precisely their alleged irrationality that rendered hippies truly un-Soviet in the state’s eyes, much more so than dissidents. While many suffered and some never recovered from their experiences in the psikhushka, Fürst observes, “ultimately every diagnosis confirmed their power to rattle the state” (p. 376).

This chapter on madness is not the only one that advances discussions among peer scholars about concepts of mimicry (Oushakine), Speaking Bolshevik (Kotkin) and performativity (Yurchak). Fürst addresses the pressing questions these and other scholars raise time and again in order to make sense of how people actually navigated late Soviet society and the extent to which individuals managed to venture beyond its narrow confines. Fürst’s book points to a sort of hierarchy in which Soviet hippies succeeded in undermining the Soviet value system much more than the dissidents with their talk of civil rights.3 Fürst navigates numerous juxtapositions by placing hippies on a continuum between being “Soviet” and “counter” at the same time. Sometimes it seemed as though what made the hippies most “Soviet” were the material conditions through which they expressed themselves, while the “counter” part was their “ideology” (chapter 5). “While firmly believing that they were ‘the other’,” she notes, “Soviet hippies became more and more late socialism itself – part of a fragmented, highly complex, multi-normative society” (p. 437).

This book is not suited to anyone looking for easy answers. Instead, it will take you on a journey. It is a genuine flower-power book, a book in which late Soviet socialism is colorful, contradictory, surprising, plural, liberating and repressive at the same time. Just like its heroes, the Soviet hippies.

1 Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It was No More. The Last Soviet Generation, Princeton, New Jersey 2005.
2 On using false diagnoses against dissidents, see Rebecca Reich, State of Madness. Psychiatry, Literature, and Dissent After Stalin, Cambridge 2018.
3 Serguei Oushakine, “The Terrifying Mimicry of Samizdat”, in: Public Culture 13, 2 (2001), pp. 191–214; Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain. Stalinism as Civilization, Berkeley 1995; Benjamin Nathans, The Dictatorship of Reason. Alksandr Vol’pin and the Idea of Rights under “Developed Socialism”, in: Slavic Review 66,4 (2007), pp. 630–663.

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