The intense loss from the second world war led to a new cultural set of ideas and policies known as the “big deal.” These ideas were a retreat from typical Bolshevism, and better acknowledged the lives and anticipations of every day citizens. While the “big deal” manifested itself in several ways across society, one of the ways in which it did was in youth and alternative culture. The youths of the time were apolitical—they were not trying to prove a point against the party, rather use this time to explore cultural aspects that were forbidden by the party.
One of the most famous alternative youth movements during this time, the late 1940s and 1950s, were the Stilyagi. This group listened to American music, especially jazz, and dressed in boldly colored, Western-style clothing. One of their most interesting techniques to listen to forbidden American music was using X-rays to create records. This technique is portrayed in the contemporary Russian movie from 2008, “Stilyagi.” In this movie, the bold colors and upbeat music are shown in a way that the West does not usually associate with the Soviet Union. Although these forms of expression were forbidden by the party, the youth especially of the time still yearned for a way to express themselves. The Soviet people were not brainwashed by official government edicts, and especially after the tragedies of the second world war, many people desired a new outlet for self expression.
However, many throughout Soviet society—especially the older generation—did not approve of these types of movements. In the satirical article “Stilyaga” by D. Belyaev in 1949, the stilyaga are portrayed as a drain on society. In the article, one of the characters is looking at a new grain of rye; he describes it as “a parasite ear; it sucks moisture and everything else from nature, but doesn’t give grain… They often look very pretty, but they’re empty and barren inside.” To this observation, the other character replies that it is “a stilyaga ear” of grain (MC, p. 450-451). The second character goes on to explain the stilyaga movement in a very negative way. He explains them as not wanting to look like “normal people” and that they do not engage with reality—rather, they “flutter above life’s surface” (MC, p. 452). These descriptions show the general attitude that Soviet society had towards this group. It was not because they were going against the party, but because they chose to distinguish themselves in a way that was so counter-culture. It could be compared to counter-culture movements in the US in the 1960s and 1970s in this regard; it was not a political statement, but many others in society were still not approving and weary of it.
The stilyagi were like many other rebellious youth movements around the world. As the basic egalitarian ideals of Bolshevism were rolled back during the “great deal,” the Soviet youth were looking for way to express themselves. Although seen by many as noncontributing members of society, the stilyagi represent a side of Soviet culture that is not often portrayed in the West.
Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, edited by James von Geldern and Richard Stites
This post earned an “iconoclasts and conservatives” award from the editorial team.