The Hippie Way of Spirituality or What а Piece of Soviet Hippie Samizdat Can or Cannot Tell us about Hippie Spiritual Beliefs
Author: Juliane Fürst
In 2017, I took receipt of a strange delivery from Moscow. A friend and colleague of mine met me in Los Angeles, where I was working with the Wende Museum in preparation for an exhibition about Soviet hippies. He carried with him a suitcase full of stuff, which, when I unpacked it in the garden of my Airbnb, inhaling at the same time the strange, smoky smells emanating from it, revealed itself as one of the most significant Soviet hippie archives I had encountered during my many years of research on this topic. It belonged to Azazello, born Anatoly Viktorovich Kalabin (1956–2016), hippie legendaire in Moscow, writer of hundreds of poems, painter of surreal and fantastic miniatures, author of dozens of hippie notebooks, long-time partner of the even more legendary Ofelia, devoted drug user, and free spirit. I knew all of these things about Azazello, but leafing through his hastily assembled papers the whole complexity of his creative and destructive existence spilled out of the pages in front of me. It was as if a piece of the deepest Moscow underground had mysteriously been transplanted to California, including its olfactory components.
There is much more that can be said about Azazello, his time, his oeuvre and his inspiration behind his interests. But attention shall be paid here to the one item in his collection that was not authored by him or Ofelia. The notebook, which in our archive came to be labelled as AZ3, stuck out immediately, because of its graphical writing and composed structure. It is labelled Past’ Sansary – In the Grips of Samsara. It contains chants, Buddhist vocabulary, esoteric and oriental symbols and what looks like lengthy quotes. All of this is written in an address book ordered by Cyrillic letters and labelled (19)79–80 with an arrow pointing downwards.
Azazello recounted when handing over his archive that he received this booklet from his acquaintance Sasha Zmei – Sasha, the Snake. We do not know much about Sasha Zmei, except that he was a hippie in the circle around Azazello and Ofelia, that he came from Southern Moscow and that he, like most of his acquaintances, was into drugs and women (this information came from one of his short-term girlfriends). He died sometime in the 1990s, – “something connected with Vint”, the synthetic heroine floating around Moscow at the time. His short-time fling does not even remember his last name or the year of his death. Everyone else who might have been able to provide information is dead (or lost to the Orthodox Church). His former neighbor was fellow hippie Roman Osipov, who mostly spoke in rhymes in his last years of life. Ofelia died of an overdose of Vint in 1991. Shortly before our research group started to look at his archives in earnest, Azazello was fatally injured in a car accident. Even when alive, he was not easy to get information from, though his memory was excellent. He was just rarely in a state capable of sharing it.
From the transcript of the handover conversation it is clear that the booklet did not mean much to Azazello. Neither did Zmei. “He bored me”, was his verdict, adding with characteristically sly humor that he used to tease Ofelia with suggestions that she should feel Zmei’s spiritual communication with her (“Zmei talks to you, don’t you feel it?”). Possibly Zmei, like many other hippies, was in awe and in love with Ofelia and she, rather than Azazello, might have been the intended recipient of the booklet. Azazello’s remark also suggests that Zmei believed in the power of atmospheric vibes – again nothing unusual among the hippie crowd, even though Zmei seems to have been a bit more vocal about ‘invisible waves’ than others. The rest has to be inference. Sasha’s nickname Zmei might very well indicate a particular interest in Eastern religion, in which the serpent was a prominent and semi-divine creature. The popular Indian board game “Snakes and Ladders” was known as Zmei i Lestnitsy in the Soviet Union and those in the know knew that it was a Hindu/Buddhist morality tale about the ups and downs of life. The most tangible thing that remained of Zmei, however, is the notebook in our hands. It is likely that he was the main scribe behind the roughly 130 pages. However, he clearly is not the author of many, if any, of the words contained in it. Rather than a text revealing his mind on spiritual matters, the notebook is representative of a practice – hand-copied samizdat – and interesting as a curated item of briccolage rather than direct expression of his subjectivity and/or spirituality.
What strikes one first leafing through the notebook is the great amount of work that went into it. Rather than Azazello’s own notebooks, which are full of private doodles, this notebook is clearly designed to be consulted by others. In its careful detailing and graphic design, it is reminiscent of the work of medieval monks, faithfully transcribing the Bible to save and spread the word of God. And indeed, just as monks created both an internal community bond through shared practice, and an external community of readers, the practice of transcription was central to Soviet hippie and bohemian underground identity, constructing different layers of belonging and partaking. Much of samizdat was copied or typed by hand in the wider dissident circle, often in nightly marathon sessions. The process was as important as the result – indeed, possibly more important, since the process designated an insider, while the reader only inhabited an outer realm of shared secrecy. Hippies were not ardent producers of literary or political samizdat, but they did transcribe with gusto, as did large sways of Soviet youth in general. The foci of their activities were usually English song texts – something we find much of in Azazello’s own notebooks, but also in the archives of other hippies.
The fact that many Soviet hippies barely knew enough English to understand the words they took down raises the interesting question of why people engaged in such labor. Clearly, one possible reason was a better understanding of the messages conveyed in a foreign tongue but transmitted in the global language of music. Yet one possible reason was precisely that the impenetrable quality of the text bestowed a sense of globality and internationalism. In other words, texts were copied not despite their incomprehensibility, but rather because of their exotic opaqueness. The same might be true of Zmei and the texts on Eastern religion which he copied and collated. We do not know how much Zmei understood of the words he copied from one, or more likely, several books. Again, his friends do not suggest a deep engagement with the matter: “he was into this stuff the same way we were all into it”. It is very probable that the Hindu, Buddhist and Zoroastrian wisdom he put down on paper sounded good to him in the very literal sense of the word. Official morality came couched in the stilted and convoluted language of Marxism-Leninism. The vocabulary employed by Eastern religions sounded wonderfully different – as did English rock songs. And like the Anglophone counterculture, Eastern religions provided a few key words that transported the writer and reader immediately into a different universe – a universe where familiar concepts carried mysterious names such as Samsara and Karma, and which was populated by powerful forces, truly above Soviet dialectics.
Such a reading of Zmei’s notebook as a journey into the “other” is supported by the rather eclectic nature of its references. While the title suggests a Buddhist text referring to the wheel of Samsara, the never-ending circle of life and death, other references on the opening page mention Zoroastrianism (“religion of good”), God (“God is veracity and good”) and the Sanskrit for Fire (Agni), which is the fire that gives light and warmth. There are drawings of a star, a Hindu sun symbol (the reverse swastika) and a graphical rendering of the chant Om. This hodgepodge is framed by a (very) precise date (unusual in hippie culture) and several Moscow phone numbers, one of which might relate to the inscription: “Ia – Gebr. (I am a Zoroastrian).” It is likely that the phone numbers related to the people creating the booklet. Indeed, the pages show three distinctive styles of writing: one carefully painting capital letters, one in a flowing cursive, and one rendering letters in two dimensions. The inscriptions are both mystifying and explanatory. While the Hindu symbols are carefully labelled, the first quote on the left leaves many questions open: “He only liked those deeds in the Samsara, the neglect of which were akin to suicide.” (Emu ugodny lish’ te deiania v Samsare, prenebrezhenie kotorymi samoubiistvu podobno.) This mixture of definition and diffusion was in style with much of hippie thought, which elevated lack of precision to a credo in its own right. Hippies did not want to be defined. They did not want to have a program. They did not want to be dissidents, whom they regarded as the mirror image of official culture.
While hence on a first glance the notebook reads like a copy of a print book on Eastern religion circulating in the underground, a closer look reveals a number of hippie additions or renderings of spirituality in the “hippie style”.
First of all, the wild mixture of sources continues throughout the booklet. On a later page in addition to linking Karma with vegetarianism and a deliberation on the relationship between solidarity, brotherhood and equality, the philosopher Kant makes an appearance with a quote on beauty consisting of unattached pleasure not of excited lust. The meta comment by one of the scribes is: “This is not from me, this is Kant, this devil fish and Quasimodo from Königsberg.” The opposite page has musings on God and monasteries. On other pages Reformation, Renaissance and Catholicism appear to the reader. The fact that this booklet of spiritual guidance is designed to respond to hippie questions rather than present a coherent school of thought is also demonstrated by pre-occupations with certain concepts central to hippie lifestyle such as pleasure (sometimes referred to in the hippie slang word kaif), beauty and goodness. And sex.
An enlightening page discussing istina (truth) and the relationship between cause and effect. The serious proclamations of “truth is neutral” or “truth destroys all illusions” is somehow compromised by the first example of how cause becomes effect: “I want to fuck” becomes “make fuck” – with the majority of these words written in English and Latin letters. The crassness of the statement raises the question whether we are encountering a case of stiob – the wry and cynical humor so characteristic of late socialism. The following line seems equally out of place but more appropriate: “I want goodness – I pray.” Between these two poles – the desire for goodness and the desire for sex – was indeed most of hippie ideology. And most of the hippie conundrum. While hippies had chosen a different path to mainstream Soviet society, they had not shed all of Soviet socialization. They felt the acute need to justify their existence. There was always this nagging doubt among them that somehow their lives did not amount to much. That they had too much pleasure. Too much frivolous enjoyment. “Kaif cannot be a measure of goodness”, reads hence one of the inscriptions, which was probably also part of the meta-commentary by one of the scribes rather than a citation. But what then was making a person good?
The answer to this question is the booklet itself. Writing, reading, memorizing, disseminating wisdom about goodness was a first step towards it. And possibly also perceived as a redemption to the excessive amounts of kaif. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that the content is a hodgepodge of spiritual instruction. And it is not surprising that the “I” makes periodic appearances in the text. Ironically, while being attracted to teachings and religions downplaying the “I” in favor of a larger, more abstract understanding of the cosmos, hippie culture also promoted a good dose of narcissism. This was true in East and West. Spirituality was sought in reference to one’s own well-being. The notebook was hence not only written as a guidance to a better understanding of a higher sphere of existence, but it was a tool for self-definition and carrier of carefully constructed identity.
The great abundance of multiple forms of spiritual wisdom contrasts with one noticeable absence: the spiritual impact of drugs. Azazello’s whole circle, including Ofelia and Zmei, were active users of various psychoactive substances inducing an altered state of consciousness. Azazello’s own notebooks are full of references to opium and weed. It is also clear that for Azazello the experience of otherworldliness was primarily one that came during narcotic inebriation. Even the fairy tales he composed together with his friend Kestner and which were thinly disguised moral allegories are clearly linked to the land of “purple haze” of which already Jimi Hendrix sang. In Zmei’s notebook there is the occasional reference to kaif, which in those circles was usually referring to drug highs, but there is no obvious attempt to integrate the question of drugs into the quest for a more/deeper spiritual life according to Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian and Orthodox-Christian teachings. Indeed, as mentioned, it almost seems as if the spiritual enlightenment of the booklet was meant to be an antidote to the allure of drugs. An attempt to create a guideline of how to be a good person as a hippie – with, or despite, drugs. Maybe it is for this thought that the notebook survived Zmei by many years. Azazello kept it throughout the chaotic last years of his life, even though he himself was clearly less taken by its content than many other hippies. It was a token of a path not taken. Not by Zmei, not by Ofelia and not by Azazello.
 The work on the Azazello archive is an AHRC-funded project involving scholars and translators Emily Lygo, Polly McMichael, Irina Gordeeva, Irina Kosals, Anna Fishzon, Jonathan Waterlow, and myself.
Cite this article as: Juliane Fürst, “The Hippie Way of Spirituality or What A Piece of Soviet Hippie Samizdat Can or Cannot Tell us about Hippie Spiritual Beliefs”, in New Age in Russia, 18/05/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4570