Before the West was Cool: Soviet Hipsters in the 1950s

stilyagi still.png
Still from Stilyagi (2008). The main character, Mels, is watched with confusion and disgust by his neighbors. Screenshot by me through Kanopy.

I first discovered the stilyagi of the fifties when I saw a movie on Kanopy called Hipsters (2008)Set in 1955 Moscow, the film follows a Komsomol member who falls in love with one these stilyagi. A term for nonconformist, Western-oriented youths, the word stilyagi carried a highly negative connotation in Soviet society.

Bonus: Listen to a song about hipsters (written by hipsters) while reading this post about hipsters.

These Soviet hipsters wore bright-colors that stood out among the neutral, muted tones of most Soviet clothing. They listened and danced to jazz – a genre that deviated drastically from State-approved music. Many called each other by American names, and wore American hairstyles.

This counterculture movement threatened many traditional Soviets. “Comrades’ Courts” were used to ridicule anyone who exhibited traits of stilyagi.1 The Young Communist League released issues with pictures of stilyagi, shaming those who participated in the movement. Furthermore, the Young Communists conducted raids in which they cut stilyagi‘s hair. One letter pointed out that these raids often targeted those who did not appear to be a stilyaga, and asked “is this the way to deal with stilyagi?”

Despite their stylistic rebellion, most stilyagi refrained from talking politics. They generally admired Stalin, although they were skeptical about communism eventually paying off. While this may have been due to fear of punishment by the state, it seems the stilyagi simply wished to stand out from the crowd, rather than effect change in the USSR.

the hipsters.png
The stilyagi in Hipsters (2008). Screenshot from Kanopy.

Learning about the stilyagi and watching this film made me wonder about the state of fashion in the Soviet Union. Stilyagi fashion was the antithesis of the recommended Soviet style. Common advice was to avoid extremes or extravagance. Women who wore trousers in public were looked down on until around the mid-fifties, and even after. Although textile colors were planned by the government, most color combinations without obvious national connotations were permitted.2

Bonus: For the jazz part of this post, listen to a modern song combined with Miles Davis, acclaimed jazz musician. Featuring Kermit the frog.

In addition to fashion, the stilyagi impelled me to learn more about jazz in the USSR. Jazz was strongly condemned by the government throughout the forties and early fifites. Saxophones, the instrument most representative of jazz, were banned in the late thirties, alongside dances such as the Charleston. The official stance was that jazz was bourgeois, calamitous, and completely incompatible with Soviet music – a position embodied by the article “Why jazz is not for Soviet ears.” Those Soviet citizens who enjoyed jazz had to obtain it illegally, usually through recordings done on used X-rays, a process that became known as “music on bones.”Though jazz grew more acceptable under Khrushchev’s thaw, the genre never gained much popularity in the Soviet Union.

A final thing I wondered about as I researched this topic was the prevalence of the black market in Soviet society – where the stilyagi obtained their clothes and music. Some attribute the growth of the “shadow economy” to the lessening of authoritarian control by the Soviet regime after Stalin’s death.Corruption by government officials (who were no longer being continuously purged) is cited by many as the major catalyst of the black market. This second economy primarily served to provide consumer goods that the planned economy failed to deliver. Although Kruschev attempted to curtail the black market in 1953 by developing consumer industries, it continued to grow. The phenomenon of the Soviet black market is fascinating because if the planned economy had taken care of these needs, the USSR’s official GDP may have been much higher. It would be interesting to find out how great this increase would have been.

Overall, the stilyagi are a very interesting countercultural group. Much like today’s American hipsters, they mostly came from privileged backgrounds and fought against socially-imposed conformity. They remain a lasting cultural symbol in Russian society, and inspired many of the Soviet Union’s later counterculture movements. Finally, the fact that they were allowed to exist (usually) without being imprisoned is a clear sign of the USSR’s slight liberalization after Stalin’s death.

Notes

  1. Pg. 219.
  2. Pg. 350.
  3. Pg. 27.
  4. Pg. 2.

 

Bonus: This song by Arcade Fire compares a reckless family member to Laika, the Soviet space dog who was the first animal to orbit the earth. I considered doing a post with this as the main feature, but changed my mind.

 

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This post was awarded a “red star” by the class editorial team.
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10 thoughts on “Before the West was Cool: Soviet Hipsters in the 1950s

  1. “Alexander, our older brother. Set out for a great adventure…..our mother should have just named you Laika…”
    You’ve made my day by including Arcade Fire, Stilyagi, hipsters and Soviet jazz all in the same post!!!!
    I wrote about musical homages to Laika and discuss the Arcade Fire song (briefly) here: http://www.nss.org/resources/library/spacepolicy/Remembering_the_Space_Age.pdf (my essay starts on p. 237)
    What do you make of the 2008 movie? I find it so fascinating — the Stilyagi were the rebels of their era, and also the cool, daring to be different, kids. I’m intrigued by their rehabilitation (and the way they are glamorized in the 21st century. They definitely serve as exhibit A for how rich and interesting life was in the Soviet 50s.

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    1. The Arcade Fire song was how I initially found out about Laika back in high school! They’re definitely one of my favorites, if not my all time favorite band. That’s a really cool essay – what a unique topic! I really liked the movie, it was very fun (although the female characters were a little one-dimensional).

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  2. This was so very cool, and well researched! The X-ray records always amaze me and how inventive people can be to get around censors. Did the stilyagi inspire any future counter-culture movements?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, not to mention that “music on bones” is such a fun phrase! From what I understand the stilyagi were a big source of inspiration for most Soviet counterculture movements later on, especially in the eighties.

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  3. Emma, I really enjoyed your post! I loved all the resources you included. I didn’t know that the saxophone was banned in the USSR. The stilyagi are certainly a fascinating group!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post was so informative. I loved reading about the stilyagi and how you connected them to modern day hipsters. And especially the shadow economy and how people illegally recorded Jazz music.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is interesting because its similar to the advancement of the United States society at the time. Around this time the United States was introducing the Greaser sub-culture into the United States. Elvis Presley and Hollywood society became impacting factors on the social roles in society around this time, so I wonder if this was similar in the Soviet Union. Did the Soviet hipsters play any type of role in the conflict that was taking place in the Cold War at all? This was a time where teen age culture became a market and an official characteristic that was a part of the United States.

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    1. It is interesting how these counterculture movements sprang up all around the world at this time. I’m not sure what specific figures and trends initially motivated the stilyagi – that would be interesting to research! I don’t think they played a role in the Cold War, as they were mostly apolitical, but I do think the West considered this movement a sign of discontent within the Soviet Union.

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