The Stilyagi, ‘style hunters’ or followers of fashion as we might say, were a small youth culture group (the only real Soviet youth culture group according to Art Troitsky), mainly Moscow and Leningrad based kids who dressed in an ersatz western style and aped American mannerisms. Like any youth subculture, they tried to use clothes and music as a way to identify themselves as separate to their more conventional peers and the values of the older generation. They made up a section of the audience for x-ray bootlegs but were only interested in Western Jazz and Rock and Roll.
The first reference to them as an actual group was a derisory piece in the satirical magazine Krokodil in 1949: "The most important part of their style is not to resemble normal people. And as you see, their efforts take them to absurd extremes. The stilyaga knows the fashions all over the world.. He's studied all the fox trots, tangos, rumbas, lindy hops in detail, but he confuses Michurin with Mendeleev, and astronomy with gastronomy... they flutter above life's surface, so to speak"
Over the next years, they were regularly lambasted in the press for being vacuous, vain, lazy, only interested in dancing or clothes and unappreciative of Soviet culture. There may have been some truth in those accusations - even some bootleggers who sold them x-ray records seemed to have found them a bit silly - but, as is often the way, the cartoon images that were published in the press have, to modern eyes, the opposite effect to that intended - that is, they actually make the Stilyagi look quite cool - certainly a lot cooler than the upright worthy Komsomol Soviet youths that were held up as being their moral superiors. You can't help wondering if the artists drawing the cartoons were perhaps a little bit 'Stilyagi' themselves?
In fact, the attention the press gave the Stilyagi probably rather pleased them and even the name 'Stilyagi', became a badge of honour. The had their own argot: they called Nevsky Prospekt 'Broadway'; they called each other American names like 'Bob', 'Bud' and Eddie'; they designed and made their own clothes, adapting curtains to make highly patterned ties and wide trousers; they chewed gum made of paraffin wax; they had their hair cut into elaborate ostentatious quiffed styles.
But they were rebels without a cause, more like hipsters than punks for although they are sometimes portrayed as bravely taking on the might of the Soviet establishment, they weren't really political at al. They weren't persecuted as dissidents and It wasn't an imprisonable offence being a Stilyagi, although they did sometimes suffer at the hands of the Komsomol and other disapproving citizens. There are stories of their hair being forcibly cut, skinny trousers slashed, kipper ties snipped by scissors.
But being the target of bullying and the butt of satirical cartoons didn't have that much effect - just in the way that propaganda and punishment did not stop people making x-ray records. No, what really dd for the Stilyagi was when, bowing to the inevitable, the authorities gave permission for an international youth festival to take place in the late 1950s. Lots of foreigners including many young Americans came to Moscow. The Stilyagi were shocked and embarrassed to see that the people and fashions they had been devotedly trying to follow had moved on. They realised they looked out of date and faintly ridiculous in comparison with the real thing.
Subsequently, there seems to have been a split with some of the old guard sticking with the more rock and roll style and younger people migrating towards a more Beat and then Hippie look in the 1960s. But it's apparent that in the more relaxed and consumer friendly atmosphere of Khruschev's 'Thaw' period, fashionable styles became more integrated in young people's clothing generally.
Krokodil carried on with its rather wonderful parodies. These images and later ones of stylish young people well into the early 1970s, take the moral line that stye concious youngsters were parasitic, living it up at the expense of their long suffering and hard-working parents - but then of course that was an accusation that was simultaneously being made of kids in the West.
The X-Ray Audo exhibtion at Garazh the museum of contemporary Art in Moscow in August will feature a gallery of various of the satirical cartoons of Stilyagi from Krokodil.