Soviet Hippies

Michael Gerber
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In our recent conversation regarding Revolver and Pepper the historical setting of The Beatles in general and those albums in particular have come up a lot. How much should historical context matter when judging an artistic work? Should it matter at all? Does something as squishy as historical importance trump more concrete metrics like sales or popularity, or even more nuanced ones like influence within important groups like fellow musicians?

Back in the USSR, Beatles bootlegs were incised on x-rays, creating a secret Soviet flexi-disc.

With that stuff swirling about, this evening I ran across a documentary called Soviet Hippies, about the counterculture which sprang up in the Soviet Bloc after 1966 and persisted until the end of the Cold War. This reminded me that what we in our privilege often see as purely cultural preference was then—and is still now—a powerful political choice.

It can be difficult for us in the West to perceive this in a sort of “what is water?” kind of way, but The Beatles are a language. And this semiotic function is growing stronger, as time passes and their original contexts fall away. The same can be said of “the Sixties” in general, but this particular quartet of Liverpudlians represent freedom, creativity, personal expression, and love. It’s expressed most powerfully in their music, of course, but Beatle photos and interviews and haircuts and clothes also stand in for these values. It’s because of this semiotic power that they were banned in the Soviet Union—for much longer, amazingly, than other groups like the Stones—and why, according to some Russians (including some historians) the Fabs were essential in ending the Cold War. “Beatlemania washed away the foundations of Soviet society,” says one in the 2013 book How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin. The fall of the USSR was, in the words of an old doctor of mine, “multifactorial,” but we can be sure that John, Paul, George and Ringo were the best ambassadors the West ever had. (Better by far than all the jazz and abstract art the CIA was pushing in the 50s.)

Soviet Hippies isn’t online or streamable (unless someone smarter than me can find it); but here’s an extended interview with the filmmaker, Terje Toomistu. As you listen to her, keep in mind: the reaction of both Western and Soviet systems towards the counterculture was different only in degree. Here it was Operation CHAOS, over there, the KGB. The degree made all the difference, as it often does, but if you ever doubt that The Beatles were political, just remember: the threat of the Fabs was one of the very few issues that both the CIA and KGB agreed upon. We can rest easy knowing that John, Paul, George and Ringo will always be arrayed opposite history’s Meanies, whatever color those Meanies might be wearing.

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  1. Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

    Fascinating stuff, and totally reinforces the point you’ve made before that the Beatles’ ‘freedom, creativity, personal expression, and love’ represented true revolution and subversion in a way the Stones’ profanity and violence couldn’t. The Stones seemed more daring because their darkness and wildness threatened bourgeois order, but – as you’ve said – cast the net a little wider than 20th century bourgeois values and you see that violence, murder and general ugliness are what our species has gotten up to since before we were even a species. You can’t get more conservative than that.
    The Beatles, on the other hand, advocated the way preached by a handful of saints and mystics over the millennia, and…well, as Chesterton famously said, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried’.

    • Oh I like that very much. And I think that it’s interesting that — in the case of John and George at least — they came to an approximation of the Christian ideal via Eastern practices.
      The underpinnings of 20th Century bourgeois values are violence, duality and materialism. The Stones are a fine rock band, but they could never point a way out of the trap because — to quote Albert Einstein (or maybe Bill W.): “the consciousness that got us here will not get us out.”

  2. Avatar Andrew Roblin wrote:

    Michael, I just discovered that you also do The American Bystander. I’ve gotta say, My hat’s off to you for fine, stimulating, funny writing. Thank you!
    But I must disagree about John “coming to an approximation of the Christian ideal.”
    C’mon…You’re talking about a guy who pissed in Jayne Mansfield’s drink, then told her about it.
    A guy consumed with materialism.
    A guy who delighted in screwing former friends. A guy who denied the existence of friendship.
    A serial abuser of women.
    A guy who abandoned his eldest child–and then excluded him in his will. A guy who verbally abused his children. A guy who exposed them to drugs. A guy with a remarkable lack of empathy.
    As sad as it it, I think we need to sit down with our 11-year-old selves, and tell us the truth:
    Our childhood hero made some enjoyable music, but he was–mostly–an awful person.
    Leaving an 11-year-old alone with someone like that amounts to child endangerment.

    • Andrew, thank you — I’m glad you like Bystander!
      My phone here doesn’t tell me what post you’re commenting on, so I don’t know the context of my comment there; generally I tend to overstate the negative on ol’ John, because I’ve read all the sins you enumerate there.
      In addition to all those things, John also created The Beatles, and wrote many of their songs; he was given an absurd amount of money, fame and power at an age where most people can’t even wake up on time and used it, generally speaking, for good. He also came out strongly against war at a time when doing so put himself and his fortune in peril. He also steadfastly discouraged worship, though many wanted to do just that. John Lennon’s faults were many and grievous and not to be discounted; but of the handful of people in his position in history, I can think of no one who took that position more seriously, and was more determined to use it for, well, Christian ideals like love and peace. Did Chaplin do better? No; and his personal life was similarly awful.
      Finally — and this is a bugbear of mine — we must remember that John Lennon was a young man. It’s not fair to expect a life’s full portion of wisdom in just half a life. His flaws are young man’s flaws; and even if we think that some of what he said in interviews was self-serving bullshit, a lot of the stuff that I read there as an 11-year-Old still forms the basis of my morality today, and it serves me well.
      John Lennon wasn’t as lucky as Jesus (If there ever was such a person); we know all too well exactly what he said, and did. But judging the guy against his peers, and against people put in his very strange position, I think he did a damn fine job. Look at Donald Trump; you don’t think John Lennon couldn’’ve Fed his ego in those same ways? John Lennon could’ve easily become some kind of weird Rajneesh type guru, or a secular version of a televangelist huckster. He could’ve promulgated a million unwholesome messages for his pleasure or profit. But he didn’t; in fact it’s striking how determined he was to work out moral/ethical questions in public, with every word being recorded. Who in his position did that before him? And how many have since — from Marlon Brando to Bono.
      He was a messed up dude with too much money, not enough friends, and probably a serious addiction(s). Yet out of that came a life that inspires people to be better, simply because Lennon endlessly focused on moral and ethical questions. That, plus the miracle of the music, really counts for a lot. To me at least.
      Like I say, I don’t know where and in what context I was saying that; but I do think there’s a kernel of truth and an important note to take here. John Lennon could’ve been a monster on an historical scale, because of what we gave him. But he wasn’t. And he seemed to genuinely want to use his unique power for “good” as a Christian person might define that. And he was quite successful in doing that, which is why he was so mourned in 1980, and is still talked about today. A deeply flawed man, a selfish man, a violent man, a short-sighted and sometimes petty man, given great temptations…aware of his own flaws yet still fighting for “peace and love” as he saw it? What is that BUT the Christian ideal?

      • Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

        ‘a short-sighted and sometimes petty man’ – aw Mike, is there any need to bring his eyesight into this?


  3. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    As sad as it it, I think we need to sit down with our 11-year-old selves, and tell us the truth: Our childhood hero made some enjoyable music, but he was–mostly–an awful person.

    Things I’m glad I never did:

    • Sublet to Keith Moon

    • Hire Bill Wyman as a babysitter

    • Introduce George Harrison to my wife

    • Loan John Lennon my car

  4. Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

    Actually laughed out loud, Sam.

  5. Avatar Andrew wrote:

    This is a great place! What a fine level of discussion and writing. Thank you all, including Hologram Sam, Justin and Michael. I’m very glad to be here.

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