Falling down the memory hole: Reflections on the 1980s Soviet counterculture, Part 3

Alexander Mikhaylov


The ‘system’ members always proclaimed that the drugs were necessary for artistic creativity. Using drugs was also a form of political protest and an activity that distinguished the self-ordained elite from the vodka-soaked proletarian crowd.

The most common drug — cannabis — was easily obtainable through friends and acquaintances, but it was also freely shared among the ‘people.’ Drug pushing in its pure commercial sense was uncommon, at least within the ‘system’ crowd. In fact, it was easy to obtain ‘weed’ for free.

Speaking of drug dealers, the first one I encountered was a 24-year-old Jewish guy nicknamed ‘Michael the Kind’. He was a truly mysterious figure, and incidentally, he was the person who gave me my first taste of pot. I met him through a personal introduction. Supposedly, he was an excellent guitar player who enjoyed being a local celebrity while leading the life of a carefree vagrant. What traditional Jews call a ‘luftmensch’.

According to rumors, his father defected to the West a long time ago while Michael continued to live with his mother who doted on him incessantly. He neither held a job nor did he study. This despite the Soviet law that people convicted of a ‘parasitical lifestyle’ could go to prison for three years. (You were a parasite if you were unemployed more than three months.)

Michael lived as a free spirit in the comfort of his mother’s apartment, surrounded by loving relatives, admiring friends, and girlfriends. His ‘hobby’ was selling drugs to his friends and the friends’ friends, and their friends’ acquaintances. And it was clearly a hobby, not a job, because Michael would just as likely give out drugs for free as actually sell them.

Nobody knew where he obtained them, how much money he made or what his outside connections were.  People knew that he had been doing it for years, expanding his circle of influence slowly but steadily. He and his mother occupied a two-bedroom apartment situated in a large apartment house; Michael knew every young man and young girl in that house, and at one time or other he managed to introduce them all to drugs. So in a way, this building was his immediate domain.

I repeat: nobody knew how extensive his operations were. Big mystery. But his name was known far and wide in that part of Leningrad. (I should say that he was just one example of many who lived and operated in different parts of Leningrad for years. Later on, I met with several others, but I personally think Michael was the most colorful figure).

As to the ‘heavy’ drugs, the main one was called ‘Jeff’ — one of the most commonly injected drugs. It too was surrounded by mystery. No one knew for sure where and how its recipe originated. But rumors circulated around the city that some Jewish ‘genius’, an ex-chemistry specialist, discovered the precious stuff almost by chance.

This genius supposedly was not one of the ’people’. He looked like a ‘straight’ who went around the city carrying drugs in his attaché case. He stood at the beginning of a long chain of dealers and users. But no one knew how the recipe (permanganic acid, vinegar, and ephedrine) became so widely known.

As to the hash or cannabis, according to common knowledge it originated in the Eastern Soviet republics where it was considered to be a traditional recreational drug. The city was full of rumors of secret laboratories, but the entire thing was shrouded in mystery. I have even heard theories that the recipe for Jeff was imported from abroad as an act of political sabotage. Other theories stressed its strictly domestic origins. But one thing was absolutely clear — it was mainly channeled though Jewish connections and networks, and distributed by Jewish dealers to be consumed by young people — Jews and Russians alike.

The existence of the drug problem was denied by authorities for a long time: only towards the second half of the eighties did they began to turn their attention towards it. Until that time, ephedrine drops, as well as syringes and needles, could be purchased in any local pharmacy for a few pennies and without a prescription.

*   *   *   *

Although ‘the system’ never seriously confronted the ruling order, it was always ready to sabotage its laws. The popular practice of avoiding conscription is a good example. The compulsory army conscription of all 18-year-old males had never been well-liked in the USSR. But towards the mid- and late eighties it became even less so due to the infamous ‘military presence’ of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Although it was presented in the Soviet mass media as a minor event—just an insignificant and limited military engagement abroad, in reality the gruesome tales that circulated among the civilian populace were such that practically all young men approaching the age of conscription were terrified at the prospect of ending up somewhere at the Afghan frontier.

You know the old regime is collapsing when it allows loopholes so that people can avoid the negative effects its policies. Because it had lost confidence in itself, the regime came up with a way for the peculiar ‘system’ elite to avoid Afghanistan   All one had to do was to fake a psychiatric disturbance.

It took a few steps. The first one was to visit the local psychiatric clinic and to tell the shrink on duty a bogus story about your delusions or, better still, delusions and a drug problem combined. If things went smoothly, the psycho in question was placed in a psychiatric clinic for observation for about a month.

Unlike their non-Jewish counterparts, Jewish youth had clear advantages here because many of their parents were either medical professionals themselves or had connections with Jewish shrinks. As I’ve mentioned before, Jews were overrepresented in the medical and legal professions, and in particular in psychiatry and also in obstetrics (so abortions could be easily arranged and carried out in clean conditions by sober doctors and with the aid of anesthesia). Thus the Jewish networks that dominated the psychiatric profession were in an excellent position to aid their co-ethnics among ‘the system’.

In fact, as throughout the Czarist period, the Jews knew all ins and outs of draft dodging. For instance, they knew that drug usage wasn’t punishable by law, but was treated as a mental problem, thus ensuring that drug problems would become the province of psychiatry.

But faking a mental disturbance is risky without the support of the doctors.   That’s because a premeditated attempt to dodge the draft by faking illness or incompetence was punishable by imprisonment.

Also, there were gradations of the various diagnoses. Some diagnoses later became barriers to certain professions and to higher education, and some did not.

So it was critical to be able to rely on a social network. In fact, the right connections ensured leniency and humane treatment during the stay in psychiatric hospitals, whereas the lack of them could result in what felt like imprisonment in a torture chamber. I learned about it too late and the hard way.

Since I was very motivated to dodge the draft, I asked my ‘system’ friends for advice. Their answer was: ‘pretend you are a heavy drug user’. But the opinions on this point differed. Some claimed that it was enough to tell wild stories about oneself, while others went so far as to slash their wrists and sometimes their feet to pretend they were attempting suicide. Some, like one of my acquaintances, swallowed broken glass. He ended up in an emergency room and survived, but developed a chronic condition that plagued him for the rest of his life.

As became apparent later on, the effectiveness of excuses to avoid the military depended on luck, but as is often is the case, luck smiled on the deserving, the chosen ones. For some, like my Russian friend, it took three stays at a mental hospital and a nearly fatal suicide attempt to get the coveted ‘Chapter’ that stated which section of the military code of diagnoses precluded him from the military service. Strangely enough, these diagnoses did not preclude Jews in a similar situation from serving in the Israeli army later in their lives.

By that time, I was quite familiar with pot but apparently, cannabis was not a ‘heavy enough’ substance to make my case convincing. Then I was told by my friends—‘learn to perform intravenous injections.’ Apparently, this knowledge transfer could be simply arranged. In fact, it was all worked out through the famous Michael who knew the right guy who could ‘introduce me’ to the poison and how to administer it. So, one evening the guy came over to my place. He carried an inconspicuous sport bag filled with paraphernalia. He gave me an injection and taught me how to prepare Jeff and how to shoot up. After that evening and for some months later, I worked on getting a good set of ‘holes’ on my arms. Once again, the whole business was easy since you could obtain ephedrine drops in any pharmacy along with syringe and needles. So I began to do it daily. Unfortunately, after a few months I began to develop a real dependency, heading towards becoming a wreck. By the time I finally decided to ‘turn myself in’ at a local clinic, I did not have to fake anything much. I was thoroughly prepared.

Go to Part 4

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