Knights of the Jeans Culture

Lev Kuklin, A Writer’s Notes: Knights of the “Jeans Culture”. October 1979


Original Source: Zvezda, No. 10 (October 1979), 188-195.

It may surprise you, esteemed readers, to know that right now, at the end of the seventh decade of the 20th century, in a country where all people are equal, in some Moscow and Leningrad schools our children are divided into three classes according to the sort of pants they wear. The first, highest or “deluxe” class includes those who are lucky enough to wear genuine American, “stateside” jeans with the labels “Lee,” “Levi’s” or “Wrangler.” These jeans aren’t sold in stores, and they carry such prestige that their price on the black market has already approached 200 rubles! The second class of schoolchildren consists of those who wear blue jeans that have been manufactured under license somewhere in Malta or Finland. Their going price is lower than that of the American jeans-50 or 60 rubles. Finally, in the third and lowest class of human material are those unlucky ones who have to be content with Indian, Polish, Bulgarian or, God forbid, Soviet-made jeans. These jeans are readily available, but they afford no prestige whatsoever to their wearers. (Incidentally, I cannot understand why our garment industry cannot learn to make these notorious, fashionable pants, but that’s not my concern-here.)

This custom of according status to one’s classmates according to the jeans they wear reflects an alarming tendency. Our children mirror our way of life, our upbringing, our literature and our propaganda. In this case, their behavior is a symptom of philistinism in our present-day society.

Anton Makarenko once quite aptly defined philistinism as “prosperity without culture.” Such a lack of culture is inexcusable in our society. The October Revolution was, in part, a revolution of the spirit that liberated the great spiritual potential of our country’s peoples. In the early, difficult days following the Revolution, material goods were plainly scarce, but the spiritual goods that the young Soviet government put into circulation were astonishing. Whole peoples were drawn to libraries and museums. A new literature and art were created, and illiteracy was eliminated in Russia in record time. Today, when every normal young person has a realistic opportunity to obtain an education at any level, spiritual ignorance should be regarded as an antisocial phenomenon. Such ignorance is a threat to society wherever it occurs. And it is especially disgusting, and even frightening, when it is covered up by professional training, or even a higher-school diploma.

To illustrate my point, let me relate an example from my own experience, an example that I believe is typical. Several years ago I was appearing at a large specialized construction institute. My audience consisted of some 200 16- to 18-year-old men and women. They were well dressed: Most wore “Platforms,” many had suede jackets or coats, and all, of course, wore the obligatory jeans. On the other hand, their notions about art and literature were curious. For example, they were convinced that Arkadii Raikin was a tremendously clever talent simply by nature, and they thought that most writers were people who were long since dead. “Why write new books?” they asked. “After all, you can’t find time to read the ones there are, anyway.” They greeted me with an air of coolness and indifference, but their interest picked up when they learned that I had actually written some of the songs that were familiar to them and was acquainted with some well-known singers. So they began to ask me questions.

The most active questioners were a group of “deluxe” youngsters who were all dressed in American jeans and were led by a young man wearing a cross around his neck (also in fashion!). First he asked how much I “raked in” with my songs, and then he went on to ask whether I owned a car, what sort of apartment I had, whether I owned a dacha, a color TV set, etc. I realized that these students were, in the Western fashion, trying to size me up according to their notion of the material prosperity that should accompany success. Finally, resorting to something of a “low blow,” I nonplussed the lead questioner and lowered his prestige in the eyes of his peers when I feigned surprise that he had never heard of my West German Uher tape recorder, which, I said, “costs 1,500 to 2,000 rubles in our money.”

I am still not sure whether I won that moral duel with this representative of the “jeans culture.” And of course one encounter, even a polemical one, is not enough to defeat these young people’s consumerist philosophy. I recall that I told them that if Alexander Pushkin were alive today he would probably own a Volga, since he loved riding fast, but that not long ago in Leningrad there lived a great poet named Anna Andreevna Akhmatova who did not even own a beat-up Moskvich. And did that make her any worse than me? I left them with the admonishment that the “jeans culture” would never replace culture itself for them. I would like to think they understood the irony.

I think those young people’s attitudes reflect a failure of our upbringing. Evidently some of the members of our younger generation are being reoriented toward a kind of money-making pragmatism. While no one with any economic common sense would deny the importance of material incentives, I think that, in emphasizing the material, we sometimes lose sight of our lofty spiritual guideposts.

In the world that stands opposed to us, people quite clearly know how to work. And German machine tools, French perfumes, American cars and Japanese transistors exist as objective givens in that world. But in that world we also see a generation’s total confusion in the face of the steamroller of material progress. And it is necessary that our young people hear, from the pages of our press, the despairing outcries of those who scream: “We have everything, but nothing to live for! ”

While affirming our Soviet way of life through positive examples, it is also necessary to combat the non-Soviet way of life. Social satire, reared on the works of Kol’tsov, Bulgakov, Ilf and Petrov, and Zoshchenko, has always played a purgative role here. Among recent, militant satirical works, I can recommend three excellent books by Leningrad writers. The first is “A Place for a Monument” by D. Granin, and the other two novellas by the Strugatsky brothers, “The Martians’ Second Invasion” and “Predatory Things of the Age”. Granin’s book, a somewhat unusual excursion into science fiction by this well-known realist, analyzes a character who might be called a latter-day “philistine of the nobility,” a militant ignoramus who is in possession of power and stands blocking the development of scientific progress. “The Martians’ Second Invasion” satirizes a society of satiated prosperity that literally revolves around its own belly. And the title of the Strugatskys’ second book reflects its related idea: that things are predators.

Nowadays cinema and television, in addition to literature, have an important role to play in propaganda for our Soviet way of life. It is disturbing that in recent years our television has tended toward increasing emphasis on sports and detective programs. Moreover, it is unpardonable when, in television and cinema, genuine heroes are replaced by movie idols or howling imported or domestic television idols-with or without jeans.

Source: Current Digest of the Soviet Press. Vol. XXXII, No. 3 (October 1979), p. 14.

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