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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Want to Be a Hippie? Go to School

"Friends, comrades, fellow-travelers," boomed the aging, leather-trousered professor to the tie-dyed throng of flower-students crammed into the lecture hall of Hippie University on Moscow's Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa. "Is there anyone among you who can tell me what this is?"


Dangling mesmerically from his hand was that infamous trisected circle, the emblem of peace, harmony and Y-fronts that launched an era of sexual freedom, bomb-banning and dropping out. Yet, despite the fact that the symbol was swinging gently from every neck in the room, no one seemed to have any idea what it was. An uncomfortable, stifled silence grew.


"Okay, then," continued the professor, undaunted, "How about this?" He raised his hand into the familiar two-fingered peace salute and adopted an expression of Zen-narcotic repose. Still, no reaction. "Hey, guys," he said, rather taken aback by this startling lack of hippie-learning, "It looks like we've got a long way to go."


Set up by Armenian filmmaker Artur Aristokisian four months ago, Hippie University aims to provide a focal point for alternative, undergroundculture in Moscow and is the only one of its kind in Russia, if not the entire world. Located in the former house of Mikhail Bulgakov, not far from the actual apartment where the devil took up temporary residence in "The Master and Margarita," it fills the entire dilapidated, grafittied -- "Make Love Not War," "Flower Power," -- semi-derelict loft floor.


Lectures take place twice or three times a week in a tiny room adorned with ponchos, loose-knit woolly waistcoats and the ubiquitous blotchy tie-dye patterns and draw up to 50 students for each class. These either take the form of the above instructive "How to Be a Hippie" lessons given by Professor Volodya Teplishev, one of the original Russian beatniks, or of long rambling messianic tales told by founder-member Aristokisian.


"I would like the university," said Aristokisian, "to be a gathering place for outsiders of every kind, not just hippies. Here they can feel that they belong and can get together to do something constructive. If people have nowhere else to go they can come here. Hippies are like hooligans, lost children who will slip out from between your fingers if you are not careful. This is the kind of place where they can feel at home."


But a university? Surely even the vaguest suggestion that hippies should try to emulate those stuffy, hollowed, moribund seats of mass-produced knowledge, those dead-white-male domains of academic fascism should be enough to trigger sit-ins and street demonstrations from Novosibirsk to the San Fernando Valley? "Certainly, this title is kind of shocking," said Professor Volodya. "It has overtones of conformism and regimented control. And many also thought that we were trying to aim too high, that our objectives were too lofty. But personally I like the idea."


Accusations that Russian hippies in the 1990s are simply a fashion-conscious, shallow, faddish clique of privileged kids -- who have received most of their meager hippie-education from the backs of old album covers -- are brushed aside by Professor Volodya. In general, he is optimistic about their eventual admission into the beatnik fraternity.


Which brings us back to the tricky question he asked at the beginning of his class. "It was clear to me that they didn't have real knowledge," he conceded, ruefully glancing at his class. "There is a sick, unhealthy silence about this generation. Perhaps we had more fire, a greater sense of romanticism. But it used to be the same before, in Soviet times -- this lack of knowledge, this same empty silence. Back then, obviously, it was for different reasons."