World War II garnered wavering emotions from the Soviets in its aftermath. On one hand, it was one of the most brutal wars the world had ever seen, deeming it an even more victorious battle for the Eastern Front. However, while the victory of the war left many feeling hopeful for a brighter future, many were also confronted with the reality of immense loss, of loved ones, and a stable economic and political system. “The Big Deal” in the immediate post-war years of the Soviet Union demonstrates this dichotomy between the hopes for democratization and expectations of consumers with the sheer reality of the instability of the Soviet Union at the time. Bourgeois values were reinstated, however, while not explicitly permitted in doctrine, the Soviet Union experienced a stark retreat from the strict framework of Bolshevism. Western society was still condemned for its unnecessary excess and decadence, however, aspects of Western materialism still manifested into Soviet society.
For example, the Stilyagi were a small group of youths in the Soviet Union, usually children of elites or war orphans, who would dress in trendy Western clothes, such as bell-bottoms, and listen to American jazz and blues. They commonly used Western slang and were notoriously apolitical. This counterculture may serve to reveal the yearning for self-expression and materialistic pursuit that had been repressed for so long. While there was an extremely small number of Stilyagi, their flamboyant dress, music, and dance warranted much attention.
“Stilyaga” by D. Belyev (1949) echoes the satire that most Soviets held for this alternative youth culture. Belyev compares the Stilyagi to “a parasite ear. It sucks moisture and everything else from nature, but doesn’t give grain. The common-folk call it an empty head […] degenerate mutants” (Mass Culture, 450-451). The author then proceeds to ridicule the appearance of the young Stilyaga, “He sat down. But how he sat down! […] in some improbably manner turned his heels out with the clear intent of showing off his socks […] His lips, eyebrows, and thin mustache were made up, and the most fashionable lady in Paris would have envied his perm and manicure” (Mass Culture, 451). This description is no doubt an unsubtle rebuke for the materialistic indulgence of the young Stilyaga. The Stilyaga is further satirized by vilifying his intellectual depravity, “He’s studied all the fox trots, tangos, rumbas, and lindy hops in detail, but he confuses Michurin with Mendeleev, and astronomy with gastronomy” (Mass Culture, 452). While the Stilyagi viewed themselves as widely cultured in their studies of Westernization and astute indifference for politics, they were deemed by the vast majority of society as degenerates with little to offer the collective society.
However, the Stilyagi portray the underlying wants of many Soviets: free expression, materialism, and hopes of democratization. Perhaps they were condemned not because they were so different from the rest of society, but because they exhibited the very ideals that the masses were hoping for, but too hesitant to pursue.
Von Geldern, James, and Richard Stites, eds. Mass Culture in Soviet Russia: Tales, Poems, Songs, Movies, Plays, and Folklore, 1917–1953. Indiana University Press, 1995.