Flashback Friday: Hash In The USSR

Getting high in Russia in the 1970s.
Flashback Friday: Hash In The USSR
High Times

Stefan Charney’s feature from the Fall, 1974 issue of High Times.

It was the C.I.A. that sent me to Russia. Not that I’d planned it that way. But after studying Russian language and culture for three years at the University of Miami, my yearning to visit the great Slavic motherland was impractical for one idiotic reason: no money. So I took a job in the school library’s Slavic Collection.

The only irony was that this magnanimously endowed library of rare Russian books and obscene journals, which would have been priceless to me during my studies, was something I never knew existed. The only people who seemed to know it was there were these very straight and hard-boiled guys, no flies on them, who’d come in on quiet days (while I’d be smoking grass among the stacks and reading Crocodil, the Russian humor magazine) and request the latest issue of, say Soviet Navy Monthly, or a Kremlin report on Chilean youth groups. A few weeks later I’d read in the newspapers about the sudden unrest among Chilean youth. My boss, a jovial Pole, confirmed that many of our visitors were indeed C.I.A., and he implied that the Slavic collection was C.I.A. property. Anyway, I worked there until I saved enough money to go to Russia.

Soon I was airborne with the other members of the commercial charter tour that would take us to Moscow for three weeks and Leningrad same. The entire prospect loomed before me seductive, enigmatic, enticing, but I hated the thought of going six weeks without getting high, and said as much to “Texas Jeannie,” a buxom Southern belle who’d taken the tour a year before.

“Don’t worry,” she drawled. “Them Ruskies got some of the best danged shit east of the Pecos, or west of it, depending how y’all see it.” Although I was slightly puzzled by her avowal of Russian high times, my fears were further allayed by an incident in Poland, where we stopped over to change planes and visit beloved Chopin’s birthplace. “Y’all oughta see what’s growing in the back yard,” said Jeannie. At first I took this to be an invitation of a perversely lubricious nature, but I caught on when we went in back of the great composer’s birthplace and found a patch of marijuana growing up stout and firm. From this moment forth my understanding of detente went through cartwheels or reconsideration.

On our second night in Moscow, I wandered the streets, and returned from sightseeing to find a note from Jeannie on my hotel door. When I got to her room, I found her and five other tourists sitting around on the floor, their heads obscured by a cloud of familiar-smelling smoke. At Jeannie’s welcome bidding, I fell to my knees and was handed a pipeful of dark green flakes of kaif, which smells like hashish but tasted like grass. It had come from the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia—just like Stalin— and it was just as powerful.

Jeannie had traded one of her many pair of blue jeans to a Russian head for the kaif we were smoking. She explained that the hunger of Russian youth for things American, like jeans, rock and jazz albums, psychedelic posters, and what have you, is so great that they’ll barter samovars, balalaikas, perhaps military secrets, and of course kaif in the most promiscuous fashion to get their hands on the trappings of decadent Amerikan youth culture. The realization that my old Moby Grape albums were the equivalent of cigarettes and stockings in a Saigon black market brought home to me the ineffable karmic value of never throwing away anything, no matter how faddy or ephemeral it may seem to jaded American hippies.

During my last week in Moscow, I was with some of my new Russian friends looking for a place to party. This is a great problem in Russia because of the acute housing shortage, which forces the Russians to live in rather close quarters. I was reminded of the familiar high school scene back home, where large parts of our youth are spent scouting locations to make out in.

Russians find it odd that Americans all have their own apartments, cars, food, cigarettes, orgasms: in the Soviet Union, these things are collectivized. Old and young must share their living rooms, their likes and dislikes, their cutlery and crockery, their vodka and ideologies, which are “monolithic” only in their mutual antagonism.

In short, the chances of our finding an orgy site seemed slim, when my friend Volodya struck up a conversation with a little man sporting a black goatee and heavy horn-rim glasses thick as stove lids. He turned out to be a sort of Russian bohemian, and in minutes had invited us to his apartment in a tottering old housing project. He told us we could use his little two-room “flet,” even his bed, while he socialized with us and shared our wine and kaif.

As it turned out, he fancied himself a painter and his apartment was crowded with awful day-glo canvasses of dogs pissing into space, lampposts shooting darts at children, and a picture of a man spreading his arsecheeks to reveal a peep at the infinite cosmos through his hole. Our host was one of those genuine Mad Russians you hear about. Twelve of us packed boisterously into the tiny place, puffing pipes of kaif and taking turns balling on the bed; the little man got wilder and wilder, drinking more than half of our wine. We played some of my rock albums—Hendrix and Pink Floyd—on his record player. I asked him if he had any examples of Russian rock music, and he replied, “You want to see example of Russian rock, da?” “Da,” I said. He went to a shelf and took down a paper-jacketed album. He placed the record on the turntable, we listened for no more than a few seconds, and then he heaved the record out the window. “That’s Russian music,” he said.

“I knew Nicholas before he was a superstar,” he raved, reminiscing about his family. “My mother-in-law —boy, is she fat! I took her to the Mayday parade and a C.I.A. Man offered to buy my missile secrets…. No, really, she’s very talented. She’s being sent to America on the cultural exchange program. In exchange, we’re getting Texas, Brooklyn, and Raquel Welch!” He began to roar out his life story, which became more and more horrible. Finally he dropped his trousers to show a long ugly scar left by Stalin’s torturers.

At one point, I was bedding a young Muscovite honey when the Mad Russian ran in, brandishing a small scimitar. My friends dragged him away, and soon we left him sleeping on the floor, his snores and nightmarish outcries mingling with the laughter, sobs, arguments, and songs that poured into the common courtyard from every apartment. Somehow, the whole episode seemed to epitomize Moscow.

Leningrad is closer to the West than Moscow in more ways than one. During the centuries of Tsarist rule, the city reflected the Romanovs’ imitation of Western European culture. Even now that tradition persists. Walking down the Nevsky Prospect for the first time, I actually felt at ease among the younger, long-haired, more stylishly attired communists, some of whom were actually promenading in tie-dyed shirts.

The kids are hip and kaif is plentiful. With three young Komsomoltsy (members of the Lenin Youth Organization) I dropped in one evening to a local disco called the “Molotok” to hear the top local rock band. Their music, consisting of loud fancy guitar chords, lots of showy drum licks, and almost funky bass line, was surprisingly together, and reminiscent of the high school bands that played in garages back home. On an impulse, I asked the drummer if I could sit in for one number. “Konyeshno!” he cried, smiling.

The leader then announced that an American rock and roller was going to play, and that brought down the house. I could barely hear myself through their applause and shouts. For the next several days I was followed around by several “groupskies” who believed I was a big rock star, and I did nothing to disillusion them.

Soon I met my first Russian dope dealer. His name was Misha, and he was as freaky as any Russian could hope to be. He was tall, swarthy, and bearded. He lived in his black market Levis and cowboy jacket. A signpainter by profession, he spent his time with foreign tourists and sold them dope, and had, in fact, served five years in a concentration camp for this activity. In a bastardized argot of hip Russian and Leningrad street slang, he invited us to his apartment to smoke some gashgish.

Gashgish is the people’s hash, imported from the Uzbekistan, a central Asian Soviet Republic near Afghanistan. He shared his apartment with a comely Lenin youth named Natasha. Our first time there, Misha emptied a papirosa (cigarette), and mixed the bitter Russian tobacco with some hash from a small leather pouch, then poured the mixture adroitly into the cigarette. I found it a bit harsh, but what the hell.

Later I gave Misha an American pipe and some screens and he was so impressed (and stoned) that he vowed never to smoke hash in cigarettes again, but Natasha swore, in her revisionist way, to go on smoking good Soviet papirosas. She did, however, take to “shotgunning” her reefers quite hungrily.

Misha’s scene was pretty loose, so one day I asked him what the neighbors thought.

“They think I am crazy,” he said. “And do you know, they are right? Every time they see me coming, the old one-leg and the ugly witch, they run into their rooms and slam the doors.” I regaled him with a few Florida redneck tales.

The last time I saw Misha, we got higher than Yuri Gagarin. Dostoeyevsky, that dark Russian, who once said, “consciousness is a disease,” would have been proud of us. Our minds met in cosmic détente, and Misha and I became increasingly mystic. A very Russian thing to be. I told him of my long-time dream of getting stoned with a genuine Russian. He told me about his dream of getting stoned with a real American.

“Est bog!” he cried excitedly, “there is a god !”

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