“A Stilyaga Ear”

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A group of Stilyagi in the 1950s (https://www.x-rayaudio.com/x-rayaudioblog/)

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.

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Examples of the x-ray records the stilyagi used (https://harngsays.com/2015/01/13/music-to-my-bones/)

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.

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More stilyagi! (I just think they’re super cool) (https://www.rbth.com/politics_and_society/2017/06/30/soviet-counterculture-rebellious-youngsters-opposed-communism-792765

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.

Sources:

https://www.x-rayaudio.com/x-rayaudioblog/

https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/rq4k85/soviet-x-ray-audio

https://harngsays.com/2015/01/13/music-to-my-bones/

https://www.rbth.com/politics_and_society/2017/06/30/soviet-counterculture-rebellious-youngsters-opposed-communism-792765

Mass Culture in Soviet Russia, edited by James von Geldern and Richard Stites

http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/stilyaga/stilyaga-texts/krokodil-on-stilyaga/

http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1954-2/stilyaga/

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4 thoughts on ““A Stilyaga Ear”

  1. This is a great post! I blogged about the stilyagi last semester, so this is a topic I find really interesting. I think it’s really cool that this movement paralleled the counterculture movement in the U.S. – it kind of shows that the two countries were not as different as they liked to think. Even though, as you pointed out, neither movement was specifically political, I think the U.S. counterculture movement was more political (e.g. with the Vietnam War) than the stilyagi were. I wonder, if the government had been less oppressive in the Soviet Union, if the stilyagi would have been more politically active.

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    1. yep, I agree that the US counterculture movement was very political, which adds an interesting contrast to the two movements. While it seems that the stilyagi were not that concerned with politics, that may be because they felt they couldn’t cross that line.

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  2. I love the way you combine different sources on the Stilyagi into your analysis! You’ve given me a whole new perspective on “the parasite ear.” (I read a lot of blogposts about Khrushchev and corn, so this is a welcome change!) The stilyagi continue to resonate with me because they suggest how subversive nonconformism can be — even when it’s pointedly “apolitical.” I agree they are analogous to the Beatniks and other less overtly political elements of hte counter culture in the US.
    And I LOVE that photo of the dancing stilyagi — agree they are super cool!

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