Know Your Counter-Culture Youth Movements History

At Passover Seder a friend of my mother’s brought me a DVD of the movie Stilyagi (“Стиляги.”)

The movie is about a counter-culture youth movement that took place in mid-1950’s USSR. These kids would listen to jazz, dress in outlandish western fashion, with zoot suit jackets and skinny pants, style their hair into pompadours, call each other by American names like “Bob” and “Mel,” and in general behave in a flamboyant style that flew in the face of the Soviet norms. While it might be kind of bizarre for Americans to think of Boogie Woogie or the Happy Days wardrobe as “anti-establishment,” on the other side of the Iron Curtain, during the height of the Cold War, adopting Western culture was not only a shocking, subversive form of rebellion, it was totally illegal.

From Charles Paul Freund’s essay, “In Praise of Vulgarity:

The Stilyagi constitute one of the most remarkable movements in the rich history of oppositional subcultures. What they had turned themselves into were walking cultural protests against Stalinism in one of its most paranoid periods. All that Stalin had melted into air, the stilyagi made flesh.

In the years after World War II, Stalin attempted to extirpate every aspect of American culture from Soviet life. Jazz, which had been played publicly in the USSR as recently as the war years, was now officially regarded as decadent capitalist filth; to even speak of jazz during this period was a criminal act. The same was true of anything American: It was all capitalist decadence, and it was all dangerous and usually illegal. In reaction, the stilyagi did not merely embrace American culture in secret; they actually appropriated American characters, as they understood them, and took them into public. Indeed, they borrowed American cultural geography (“Broadway”) and laid it over Stalin’s [Gorki Prospekt].

Their protest was not a matter of distributing banned poetry texts; it was a public act, complete with role names, costumes, and even a peculiar behavior that was intended to call attention to itself.

It wasn’t only the authorities with whom the stilyagi had to contend; it was everyone. Being a stilyaga was truly isolating, and the public reaction was brutal. Their fellow Moscovites taunted them on the sidewalks and on the streetcars, loudly criticizing their appearance, hurling insults at them, sometimes attacking them. Obviously, the Communist press took notice of them, terming them subversive and linking them to criminal elements. Inevitably, the police also went after them.

In his book “Refusenik: Trapped in the Soviet Union” Mark Azbel writes, “With the tacit approval of the authorities, roaming gangs armed with scissors attacked the stilyagi on the streets,” slashing their moddish clothes and long hair.

The term Stilyagi itself comes from the word “Style.” It roughly translates to “style hunters,” which makes sense considering that creating their outfits, which were completely removed from the sartorial norm, required having to hunt all over the black market. Ironically, the American title for the film is “Hipsters,” whose 21st century incarnation Adbusters credited with finally achieving “The Dead End of Western Civilization.”

In the finale of Stilyagi, the movie breaks from the 1950’s, and offers a little love letter of sorts to all youth culture. Enjoy:


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