Have you ever dreamed about the hippie era in the US, regretting that you were not there? While hippies do still exist, part of the appeal I think is its magnitude: a huge number of like-minded individuals coming together, connected by their ideals and the contempt by the government. Well, in Eastern Europe many events around the fall of the USSR were just like that as you will see. While violence did occur (for example in Romania), we now look at the peaceful ways Eastern Europeans protested against the system.
July Morning is a Bulgarian tradition from the 1980s. Inspired by the Uriah Heep’s song July Morning, people in Bulgaria travel to the Black Sea coast to where they gather around fires, listen to music, drink and then watch the sunrise together on July the 1st. The exact origin of this tradition is unclear, but it started sometime in the eighties. One story says that it was how a couple of friends spent their last night before joining the army. In any case, the tradition is stronger than ever, happening at more and more places along the coast of the Black Sea. Eventually John Lawton, Uriah Heep’s singer himself attended and performed the song the tradition got its name from.
Walk or fly to Moscow for peace!
In 1962 E.P. Menon and Satish Kumar started a peace walk to achieve total nuclear disarmament. The walk, which covered more than 10,000 miles, started from Bangalore and included cities New Delhi, Islamabad, Kabul, Moscow, Paris, London, New York, Washington and Hiroshima. In Paris, they were imprisoned for protesting before the French presidential palace, and they retaliated by refusing to eat. The French authorities were afraid they would die of starvation, so they released the walkers. Another interesting episode was on their way to Moscow when they met two women outside a tea factory. After hearing what the two Indians were doing, the two women gave them four tea bags. They told Menon and Kumar to give these to the leaders of the four nuclear powers with the message: “when you think you need to press the button, stop for a minute and have a fresh cup of tea”. The two men did manage to deliver the teas and message to each of the four leaders.
25 years later, nuclear disarmament still had not happened. Perhaps wanting to save time because walking is slow, Mathias Rust, a 18-year old German man decides to fly to Moscow to make it happen. We’re talking about reaching the capital of one of the two superpowers of the era in an unidentified aircraft during a Mexican standoff of said superpowers. It took an incredible amount of luck to succeed. Taking off from Helsinki on May 28, 1987, Rust turned his aircraft toward Moscow and switched off all communications. During part of his journey he was tracked by SAMs and two interceptors but permission to take him down was not granted and soon they lost track of him. Closer to Moscow the area was frequented by inexperienced aviators, who usually failed to identify themselves and Rust was just assumed to be one of them, so he passed through the area without problems.
Rust reached Moscow around 7 PM, and flew around, trying to figure out where to land. The Kremlin was quickly dismissed: landing behind the walls he could be immediately arrested and the public may not even learn of his stunt. The Red Square seemed a good choice but he could not land due to lots of pedestrians. Eventually he landed on a bridge nearby and walked to the Red Square where he signed autographs and chatted with passers-by.
Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair (if you’re going to Prague et al.)
San Francisco by Scott McKenzie is THE hippie song. The peaceful protesters in Eastern Europe felt a kinship to the hippies. Perhaps some agreed with the hippie values, some felt hippies got the same treatment by the US public and the authorities as they did by the socialist authorities and maybe some just liked the music. In any case, San Francisco and other hippie songs were frequently played during the Prague spring (1968), as well as later during the more successful Velvet Revolution. The whole appearance of the protests mirrored scenes from the hippie movement. In Prague, the protesters (like the flower children of the 60s) were armed with flowers:
Similar protests happened in East Germany, where they were called the Monday demonstrations, because that was the day hundreds of thousands Germans gathered and protested against the system peacefully. Started from Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche, it soon spread to other major cities. On Monday evenings people gathered on city squares and marched through streets chanting things like Wir sind das Volk! (“We are the people!”).
These protests were always peaceful and while the authorities definitely had the means to crush it, the sheer number of participants deterred them. Even hardcore communist Honecker was forced the resign. Both the Velvet Revolution and the Monday demonstrations were hugely successful.
Decadent rock music and hamburgers in Soviet Russia
A vital part of the hippie movement was music and festivals. For the hippie movement it was Monterey or Woodstock. For the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was the Monsters of Rock in Moscow: a huge rock concert in the famous Tushino Airfield. That airfield was a central place for Soviet propaganda with frequent air shows from the 1930s on, but thanks to glasnost and perestroika, the touring music festival Monsters of Rock made a stop in Moscow as well on September 28, 1991 with Pantera, AC/DC, Metallica, The Black Crowes and Russian E.S.T. performing and the Soviet Army being the security.
It’s still in the top five largest concerts ever (in terms of attendance.).
There was another popular event during the previous year (1990) with at least as much Western decadence:
Yes, the Soviets are lovin’ it. It’s the opening day of the first McDonald’s in Soviet Russian on January 31, 1990. Located in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, it was the world’s largest McDonald’s then, with 28 cash registers and seating capacity of about 700. The restaurant served more than 30,000 customers on the first day, which was a new record for the company. While no longer the biggest, the Pushkin Square McDonald’s is remains the busiest restaurant of the company.
The ultimate hippie dream: The Singing Revolution and the Baltic Chain
Let us return from the consumerist values to the core hippie values. Lots of people together, singing, holding hands… It reminds me of another hippie song, War Movie by Jefferson Airplane. It is as if these people made the lyrics of the song come alive.
It all started with singing patriotic, national songs and Catholic hymns together. This happened in various places in the Baltic states, but the most important location was the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (already mentioned in our Music festivals in unusual places post). It became the place of spontaneous gathering, usually after “official” festivals, and protests by just singing. At one of these gathering, 300,000 people were present, singing songs.
Gatherings like these happened not just elsewhere in Estonia but in Latvia and Lithuania as well. The Baltic states united against Russia. For the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (which gave the Baltic states to the Soviet Union) a trilingual song was written: The Baltics Are Waking Up!
Handholding became more and more popular during singing patriotic songs at the gatherings but it culminated with a human chain across the three Baltic states, spanning over 600 kilometres and made up of about 2 million people. (See the video above)
The most dramatic scenes happened in January, 1991 when the Soviets sent tanks and special forces to each of the Baltic states. The unarmed protesters had to use their own bodies as shields. So they held each other’s hands and sang songs again while facing Gorbachev’s tanks near government, radio and TV buildings. Estonia was the luckiest: 0 casualties. In Latvia 6 dead, about a dozen wounded. Lithuania was hit the hardest. On January 13, 1991, the Soviet tank and infantry units attacked the people peacefully defending the Vilnius TV tower and the parliament. 14 protesters died, hundreds injured. Although these buildings were captured, the Lithuanians did not give up: more and more people joined the protesters and they started building barricades and other defensive positions. Seeing this fierce opposition, the Soviet forces retreated. The streets near the TV tower are named after the victims of the attack.