Stilyagi or “Degenerate Mutants”?

stilyagi
Young Stilyagi in American dress 

World War II garnered wavering emotions from 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 hopeful for a brighter future, many were also confronted with the reality of immense loss, of loved ones and of 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.

 

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stilyagi

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.

Image: http://touch-mag.com/science/the-russian-stilyagi–200

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2 thoughts on “Stilyagi or “Degenerate Mutants”?

  1. I think your analytical perspective is right on, and your discussion of the Belyaev piece makes a lot of sense. I know you already found Caroline’s post on the Stilyagi — and it’s great to see these perspectives complementing each other so nicely. What do you think of the “Americanization” piece of all of this? I mean, if the Soviet Union was as isolated as we often imagine, how did these young people know what “American fashion” was? And how could dressing in the style of “the enemy” not be political? I’m trying to imagine how the older generation in the US would have responded to youth whose fashion preferences included star Russian fur hats and peasant headscarves?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s definitely a funny question to consider! I’m sure the older U.S. generation would have been appalled at youths dressing in Soviet attire, especially during the xenophobic climate in America at this time. I think that with regards to them being aware about American/ Western fashion and culture, part of it may have been them knowing the fashion of other closer western countries in Europe that mimicked American dress as they were geologically and thus culturally more aware of what was going on in those places. I also think that the fact that many of these youths were the children of bourgeois elites gave them more access than the typical Soviet would have had, and also that it really only takes one young person to be exposed to a culture and then be able to tell their friends and peers about it for it to eventually proliferate.

      Like

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