Falling down the memory hole: Reflections on the 1980s Soviet counterculture, Part 1

Alexander Mikhaylov


This essay is a reflection on certain aspects of my past in connection with a counterculture of the former Soviet Union and its main architects, participants and driving force — the Jews.  I had been a disillusioned young man at the time I joined the so-called ‘system’ movement, and although my personal involvement with it was rather brief, the very association with ‘the system’ and its people — in itself quite a bizarre experience — has drastically altered the consequent course of my life.  It is still difficult for me to write about ‘the system’ (the original slang name for the Soviet counterculture was ‘the system’, or ‘sistema’; its participants or members often termed themselves ‘hippies’, ‘pacifists’ or ‘punks’, but those names were completely arbitrary. The general nickname they preferred to use was ‘a man of the system’ or, ‘sistemny’ or plural — ‘the people’/ ‘peoply’).

Although ‘the system’ was an important and visible feature of Soviet urban life, one hardly hears of it nowadays, as if this particular phenomenon had disappeared down the Orwellian memory hole without a trace. Allegedly, it had united hundreds if not thousands of young men, Jews and non-Jews alike, who shared a rebellious attitude towards the Soviet System. It promised to break stagnation by the united strength of the younger and disillusioned generation of Soviet youth who had nothing to lose, as they had not got even chains. Yet, all these silent protests and supposedly rebellious activities came to naught; they disappeared into the past, or they were deliberately erased.

Actually, now that I look back, I cannot name any clear activity or action that was expected or common for ‘the people’. They smoked grass, listened to music, dressed in a specific way, avoided productive work and military service: I am almost tempted to say that they were just slackers. But the fact that all their inaction was done in the name of the resistance to authority makes their attitude unusual for the Soviet era. To illustrate the point, I once heard that refusing to offer a bus seat to an older person could be considered a political action, not because of the example of Rose Parks, but simply because the older person could be a Soviet veteran and so did not deserve a seat. The closest Western analogy might be the beatnik movement, except that the system lacked the artistic focus of the beatniks. The only thing everyone agreed upon was that ‘Sovdep [a derogatory word for the USSR] was no good (ne v kaif)’.

What strikes me upon scrutinizing this phenomenon now, is an outrageous complex contradiction that permeated the very structure and the inner meaning of ‘the system’: it was conducted in a way that was not in the interests of the movement’s ‘foot soldiers’. For example, ‘the system’ revolved largely around drugs, but those who pushed them or tried to proselytize to outsiders (i.e., young street gang members and young people without clear political convictions — all those people certainly weren’t Jews) never attempted to make a profit out of it. It seems that for the masterminds of ‘the system’, the popularization of drugs served a different purpose. Another oddity: its core members claimed to be dissenters, almost ‘revolutionaries’, yet many, perhaps a third if not a half, were informers for the KGB.

‘The system’ was just that — an original phenomenon, sui generis. The term ‘hippie’ was seldom used by ‘the people’ and never seriously at that. Of course, ‘the people’ sometimes mentioned some obscure ‘hippie communes’ that existed only God knew where.  (Probably the only hippie commune in the Soviet Union was organized near the Altai mountains and it was tiny. The ‘people of the system’ were essentially city dwellers and self-proclaimed bohemians. They weren’t dying to till the fields or or milk goats.) There was a certain group (mostly females) who tried to imitate to some extent the fashions of the 1970s that had prevailed in the West among hippies, but they did it unconvincingly. Most of the males appeared as long-haired, rag-dressed parodies of Karl Marx or Trotsky.

As to the leaving their oppressive middle class home and family and hitch-hiking around the country or living in squalor, as hippies are supposed to do, these young men and women from mostly privileged Jewish households weren’t particularly eager to give up their convenient life styles. Besides, for the Jewish members of ‘the system’, was no “generation gap” between them and their elders. Quite on the contrary: the Jewish intelligentsia of the Soviet Union who prided themselves on a sort of silent opposition to the ‘regime’ was benevolently disposed towards their kids’ rebellious attitudes (just as long as it was aimed at the Sovdep, and not at the really important things, like their families).

Finally, it is interesting to note, that the systems’ members met with two quite different ends. Some are safe and sound: they emigrated to the US or Israel, or built themselves careers in the new Russia, made money and forgot about the whole thing.  The others ended up in prison, in mental institutions, died by their own hand, or met other violent deaths.  How did it happen that some of the former ‘people of the system’ trimmed their weird hairdos, threw away their rags, cleaned up their act, switched from drugs to whiskey and good wine, even started successful ‘businesses’ and went on with lives as if nothing had ever happened, while others were left in a ditch, with their lives, health and sanity completely destroyed? I could not find a single word from those ’others’ anywhere, whether in books, on the Internet, or anywhere else, and I do regularly search for them in several languages. They are silent now, just as if they had never had a voice.

It could be said that any underground movement has its success stories and its victims and martyrs. Yet in the case of the Soviet ‘sistema’ these groups are clearly divided along national lines, with the Jews tending to transition to a successful post-sistema life, and the rest (mostly Russians) enduring the brunt of the Soviet law enforcement and exclusion from the society. Jews were not barred from higher education and well-paid secure jobs due to their police and medical records. Nor were they kicked out of their families because of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity. They were not beaten in by the police, nor did they take their own lives or end up drinking themselves to death in a dead-end low-paying job, still believing it is immoral to support the Soviet system in a productive capacity.

It was a true double standard that ‘the system’ frequently employed (among many others), for Jewish ‘systemnys’ were always telling their non-Jewish comrades that the latters’ relatives were the real oppressors and that they had to fight them and hate them, but Jews themselves never dreamed of putting their own relatives into the same class.

In the early eighties ‘the system’ was quite visible on the streets of Leningrad and Moscow (if one knew where to look and whom to look for). There were a few spots in the city center of Leningrad. Perhaps, the most famous was a small cafe nicknamed ‘Saigon’ (officially it was called Café Moscow). For several years (until it was closed down by authorities when they started to persecute randomly arrested ‘sistemnys’ and disperse ‘unlawful’ gatherings, such as performances of street musicians), the place had stayed in sharp contrast with other commercial establishments because of the colorful ‘long haired’ and crazily dressed young public it attracted. A regular lunch place during the day, in the evening the cafe was tightly packed with this bohemian crowd, often spilling onto the pavement outside. The ‘straight’ Soviet citizens took the very existence of such characters as a personal affront, and were even more annoyed that they were occupying the heart of the city. It was customary for a random passerby to denounce ‘shameless parasites’ in a loud, angry voice. From time to time, the place was raided by police who rarely arrested anyone. Besides, during the raids, ‘the people’ tried to keep out of the law’s way by drifting lazily towards the nearest corner or simply crossing the street. When the danger was over, they returned to their former location and stood or sat there until the next disturbance.

‘The system’ always tried to keep a low profile. In a way, it operated like a Masonic society: ‘the system’ people did not flaunt their rebellious identities in front of the common crowd. In fact, once you were an ‘insider’, you could recognize a fellow member of  ‘the people’ by seemingly insignificant details of their clothing — a military surplus gas bag (called ‘torba’), a thin string bandanna around the head, patched jeans or a characteristically shabby appearance with prevailing fatigue colors. Meeting another one of ‘the people’ on the street, one discreetly flashed a sign of peace and, if it was returned, the mutual recognition had been established. Overall, the members of ‘the system’  tended to present themselves as ‘free thinkers’ and ‘libertines’ who loudly proclaimed individual freedom and ‘democracy’ but in reality the entire subculture of ‘the system’ operated as a club where membership could be obtained by ‘invitation only.’  A person demonstrated his ‘insider’ status by name dropping; he also pretended to be an artist, but most of all they tried to stress belonging to this exclusive club (or a network). A typical conversation of two ‘the system’ guys discussing anything from a new art show to a rare rock album was peppered with words such as ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘an elite’, ‘exclusive’, ‘hard to obtain’, ‘limited to the chosen few’.  Outwardly, ‘the system’ was all about equality and artistic creativity. Therefore it attracted young wanna-be poets, musicians, artists, movie makers, photographers, and singers. At a deeper level, it was all about hierarchy and status, ‘resenting the regime’, free love (with men always having their way and women meekly agreeing to satisfy men’s desires), and drugs.

Go to Part 2.

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