When one pictures cultural rebels in the United States these days, we often think of artistic hipsters who steer away from mainstream standards in music, art, and media. In the 1960s, one might think of these people as the famed “Greasers,” or the outlandish flapper girls of the 1920s. For Soviet Russia in the 1940s, the “Stilyaga” were considered the originators of a new cultural wave that veered away from the cookie-cutter conformity of socialism.
“Stilyaga” was the intentionally insulting nickname gi
ven to this group of people by those who opposed their forwardness. In many major Russian cities, the stilyaga could be seen sporting narrow trousers, thick-soled shoes, and jackets that hung to their knees in bizarre colors. For more great images of these youth, click HERE! I was quite surprised when I learned that the majority of these trendsetters originated as the children of the wealthier Soviet elite. While they did not have any political rebellion in mind, they did center their tastes around Western culture. They often hung out in nightlife establishments that catered to their musical interests, specifically jazz and the sounds of the saxophone.
The communist ideology left little room for individualism, but many Russian youths found ways to incorporate western style into their own Soviet lives. For example, chewing gum was considered to be a very western practice. If gum wasn’t available, paraffin wax acted as a suitable replacement. Stilyaga often made their own clothes, even their own instruments, when materials weren’t readily available. While this group never promoted illegal activity, authorities launched a campaign against them by casting them as “enemies of society.” I cannot imagine growing up in a society where the freedom of individual expression is not valued like it is in America today. That being said, I greatly admire the stilyaga and their passion for stretching the norms of Soviet society in the 1940s.
Image 1: Vsevolod Ssorin, Stilyaga on a Stroll with Two Girls (1951), Photodome 1999.
Image 2: B. Prorokov, Papa’s Triumph (1954)