The soldiers returning from the war brought back discs, movies, clothes. The Russians who for decades had lived in isolation, suddenly confronted with the colorful and exciting life in the West, and they loved it. However, with the beginning of the Cold War the “American” way of life became undesirable again, and those who, in spite of formal and unofficial prohibitions listened to “bad” music, danced “bad” dances and dressed “inappropriately”, had to reckon with harsh retaliation.
Nevertheless, there were some courageous (?), crazy (?), or simply adventurous young people, who, in spite of all prohibition, wanted to follow the American way of life. Of course, the “American” way of life had a special meaning in Moscow of the 50s. An incredible subculture emerged, and the stilyagi appeared after Moscow also in Leningrad, and, in fact, almost every major city. From the late forties to as late as the sixties, they enjoyed life in small or large companies. At first it does not sound so risky, but it all happened in the worst period of Stalin’s terror, and in the territory of the Soviet Union, which was notorious of its not-so-wide supply of goods.
Since they could not go abroad, and had no fresh visual material, they conceived America from what they had from the war stock. They transformed the clothes brought home by the soldiers, and watched again and again the few American films they had access to. The key film – primarily because of its music – was Sun Valley Serenade (1941). This suggested them which clothes to wear, this was, for example, the source of the deer sweatshirts fetishism. The train illustrating the song Chattanooga Choo Choo gained a magic-symbolic significance: this let them fly from the pedestrian Soviet reality to the super-America of the imagination. And, of course, everyone listened to jazz. Since proper records were almost completely unavailable, they resorted to a procedure, which was also known to the young people in Hungary of the fifties (at least I have seen a scene like this in the film Nap utcai fiúk, “Boys of Sun Street”): they copied the music on used X-ray discs. This is why they called such discs jazz on bones (джаз на костях) or the skeleton of Granny. This morbid story was summarized just a couple of months ago by Stephen Coates’ richly illustrated X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone.
The introductory song of the short documentary is no jazz, but the famous Odessan gangster’s song Murka, about which we wrote in an earlier post
They developed a peculiar slang, whose basic words were mixed English-Russian terms. They called each other chuvak, which is a mosaic word for “one worshiping Amerikan high culture” (Человек Уважающий Высокую Американскую Культуру). At night they walked down the main street they called Broadway, that is, Moscow’s Gorky Street, went up to someone’s apartment, that is, “hata”, and there they danced in their own style. They developed three types of boogie-woogie: “atomic”, “Canadian” and “triple Hamburger” – it’s a pity I don’t know what they were like, only that Hamburger was the slow one.
There is no subculture without dealers catering for it, and so also in Moscow appeared the fartsovshchiks, who could provide for this special demand. They had good contacts, language skills, and an ability to see through police traps. They traded in ties (colorful silyotki), fashionable headgears, clothing, shoes, records, musical instruments. By the end of the sixties, the stilyagi were replaced by the hippies and other subcultures. However, the fartsovshchiki remained, just changed profile. In the Soviet shortage economy it was not difficult to sell products imported from the West, as anyone on scholarship, on job, or on a simple travel in the Soviet Union could experience it.
Interviews with former stilyagi and fartsovshchiki
Apart from parties and secret purchases, the stilyagi were mostly preoccupied with the war against the komsomolki specialized in confronting them. Even the term stilyaga was coined by a state-sponsored humorist, a certain Belyaev in the March 1949 issue of the satyric weekly Krokodil, from where it then spread. He, of course, talks in a quite negative sense about this funny figure, who is ridiculous, scruffy, ignorant of the basic rules of social life, and thus it is no wonder that the young Soviet people just laughs at him. As to the stilyagi, they called themselves statniki, belonging to the (United) States. Then, as usual, the term which had started its career as a mocking word, became the accepted name of the subculture, which was understood by everyone. The self-conscious female komsomolka, for example, could cast in the stilyaga’s teeth: Я не лягу под стилягу! (in a free translation: I don’t go to bed with a teddy boy!)
This whole story could have lost in oblivion, had not been there Aleksey Kozlov, who in his autobiography of 2001 wrote about how he had become a saxophonist, how he founded his legendary jazz-rock band Arsenal, and how it all was linked to the story of the Moscow stilyagi. Then in 2008 partly based on Kozlov’s stories, and partly on his own imagination, Valery Todorovsky directed a film titled Stilyagi (Hipsters in the English release). All the details of the film are based on true events, but, due to a basic fraud, the whole cannot be considered an authentic document: the musical world of the film is taken from the golden era of Russian rock in the 80s. Well, it might be non-authentic, but this makes it really enjoyable, and this started the still longing stilyaga/teddy boy frenzy in Russia.
On 29 November we start the film club of río Wang with the film Stilyagi. In the club, Vadim Kemény presents every month a great Russian film from the production of the past few years, which is virtually unknown in the West. More details and registration on our Facebook site.