In the late 1950’s, after the death of Joseph Stalin, the USSR was in disarray, despite crackdowns and tightening of communist social standards, many saw Stalin’s death as an opportunity for rebellion and change. Among these were the Stilyagi, the Russian equivalent of America’s hippie movement. The Stilyagi dressed outlandishly, idolized the west and listened to music dubbed decadent and capitalist by the powers that be. This movement was meant to express the rebellious desires of the children of the Soviet elite, it entailed 3 main facets, worship of America and the west, dance and music that was typically frowned upon or forbidden, and outlandish clothing and styles.
The first element of Stilyagi culture was worship of America and the west. The Stilyagi attempted to breach soviet cultural norms by openly approving of and appreciating the culture of western Europe and America. An excellent example of what the common people of the USSR thought of this can be drawn from a satirical paper called “Crocodile” which wrote an article about Stylagi in 1949, as the movement was just starting, it had this to say about them :
“The stilyaga knows the fashions all over the world, but he doesn’t know Griboedov, as you’ve discovered yourself. He’s studied all the fox trots, tangos, rumbas, lindy hops in detail, but he confuses Michurin with Mendeleev, and astronomy with gastronomy. He’s memorized all the arias from Sylvia and Maritza, but doesn’t know who wrote the operas Ivan Susanin and Prince Igor.”
The contempt for one so immersed in western culture is clear, Crocodile is attempting to equate the interest in the West with stupidity, and arrogance, in line with common communist agendas of the day. At the same time it demonstrates an excellent (if critical and exaggerated) exemplification of Stilyagi culture, the young man described in the text is well versed in western fashion, history and culture but knows nothing of Russia by comparison.
The second element of Stilyagi culture is dance and music that was highly frowned upon, or in some cases illegal in the USSR. Examples include Jazz, Rock and all forms of music from the west, in the same Crocodile article, the author discusses a dance the Stilyagi man it describes does, saying this about it:
“I had long ago noticed that, whatever ordinary dance music–a waltz or krakowiak–was playing, the stilyaga and Mumochka were doing some sort of horribly complicated and absurd movements, something in between a can-can and the dance of the savages from the Land of Fire. Their ecstatic exertions had them twisting around in the very center of the circle.”
again, the contempt for the dance and music of the Stilyagi was clear, with Russian dance music and classical dances like the Waltz being held up as an example of “normal” while the Stilyagi dance is “horribly complicated” and “absurd”. The author again takes a dig at them for breaking societal norms, and in this way shows the leavings over of Stalinism, despite the declining helath and eventual death of the dictator the political elite clung to his politics becuase they were in positions of power and change might mean they would lose that power. The same reaction to the Bolshevik movement was seen in the Tsarist government before the October revolution, and was seen in America in the 60’s and 70’s.
The final pillar of the Stilyagi was outlandish clothing. The literal translation of Stilyagi actually means “Style Hunters” which is a reference to the Stilyagi’s extensive searching for black market clothes from the west, in the article from Crocodile, the author describes the Stilyagi man’s clothing:
“He looked incredibly absurd: the back of his jacket was bright orange, while the sleeves and lapels were green; I hadn’t seen such broad canary-green trousers since the days of the renowned bell-bottoms’; his boots were a clever combination of black varnish and red suede.”
Again, the contempt is palatable, the author describes him as “absurd” and makes a point of describing the brightness of his clothes. Stilyagi were obsessed with making a scene of their desire to look western, and this example is, though extreme, not far from the truth. Their dress was so extreme, that in some places roving mobs of more conservative citizens would attack them with scissors and cut their hair and clothes in an effort to discourage such behavior.
Eventually, the Stilyagi movement planted the seeds of the cultural rebellion that matured in to the full on cultural overthrow at the end of the USSR, and though they were not political rebels, they starting the ball rolling on a much bigger movement than one simply concerned with looks and music.
Sources: Stilyagi the movie