Stilyaga

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

Late in the 1940s on the streets of Leningrad – and soon Moscow as well – appeared strange beings clad in narrow trousers, thick-soled shoes, and jackets that hung to their knees in bizarre colors – often green. Their long hair was slicked straight back with grease Resembling the once fashionable zoot suits of America, their jackets and their rest of their costumes hailed visibly from the west; and if this did not differentiate them from their compatriots, their odd jargon did, with its references to «chuvak» and «chuvakha» (guy and girl) and other such incomprehensibles. A few night spots in the big cities catered to their musical tastes, which were oriented to the west exclusively, and featured such outcast sounds as the shrill saxophone and jazz.

Whether it was the stilyaga love of all things American (they even nicknamed Leningrad’s Nevskii Prospect “Broad,” after Broadway), or their resistance to the straight and narrow, these young people caused a good deal of anxiety. Yet their rebellion was purely stylistic, and had little explicit critique of the Stalinist order – either because of the fearsome penalties, or because intellectual horizons had become obscured. This rebellion began not among the disadvantaged (families starving in the post-war years, living in primitive housing, struggling against the oppressive arm of the state), but among the privileged youth of Moscow, the children of the Soviet elite. Vasilii Aksenov, soon to became the literary voice of this generation, fell into these circles when he arrived from the provinces to enter Moscow State University. An orphan – actually the son of an imprisoned intellectual – Aksenov was stunned and then seduced by the cynical pleasures of these youths.

Stilyagi was originally an insulting nickname placed on those in the movement by those who disapproved of it. At a time of stylistic conformity, when the slightest deviation from the norm of socialist man attracted social pressure, there were many such people. The official youth newspaper Komsomol Pravda launched frequent attacks on the stilyagi, as did the satirical journal «Krokodil».With a good deal more affection and accuracy, Aksenov has called them the first dissidents; despite their lack of politics, they were role models for future émigrés, rockers and discontents. Popular reaction was sometimes hostile, sometimes bemused, sometimes admiring. When the Leningrad Carriage Works released a new streetcar in 1956 featuring comfortable seating and an attractive exterior with very bright painting, popular wags dubbed it the Stilyaga, perhaps embodying all three reactions.

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