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Stiliagi Masculinity and the Re-Fashioning of the Male Body in the Soviet Union (1948–1958)

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender book series (PSRG)

Abstract

Alla Myzelev’s contribution analyzes representations of the counter-cultural Soviet Stiliagi movement and foregrounds its importance for shifts in conceptions and understandings of masculinity in the post-WW II period. The Stiliagi’s bodies emerge as contradictorily inscribed and signifying in her analyses: the majority of media representations render their bodies and style as deviant and condemn the movement for undermining Soviet masculine norms and values; yet, the Stiliagi’s self-representation conceives of their bodies as urban, fashionable, and cultured. This article shows how the movement broadened the scope of possible gender expressions, and, drawing on a broad variety of cultural material, it also illustrates that this increased flexibility did not extend to sexual plurality, as the ‘specter of homoeroticism’ that haunts this—mostly male—counter-movement is consistently sublimated in all forms of Stiliagi representations.

Keywords

  • Soviet fashion
  • Masculinity
  • Stiliagi
  • Embodiment
  • Soviet homosociality
  • Dissent

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In line with the usage of these terms in Russian, I use Stiliaga in the singular to refer to one member of the Stiliagi movement and Stiliagi to describe both the plural of Stiliaga and the movement itself.

  2. 2.

    The interviews used in this article were conducted between 2017 and 2019 as part of a research project on politics and fashion in the Soviet Union. I interviewed 35 people, predominantly men, in person and on Skype, mostly in form of discussions that followed the snowball principle: every informant had the chance to recommend someone considered suitable for my research. In relation to the Stiliagi movement, the questions discussed revolved around memories of who the Stiliagi were, how they differed from non-Stiliagi, and whether the informant was considered to be one. The interviewees recalled what they knew about Stiliagi of the earlier generation. Some were children of Stiliagi and shared memories of their fathers’ experiences and knowledge that had been passed on to them. Most interviews were conducted in Toronto with Soviet expats or online with people living in Kiev, Moscow, Ufa, St. Petersburg, Odessa, and Novosibirsk. Naturally, the interviewees’ memories are not always reliable and tainted by their later understanding of events. All interviews in this article have been translated by me.

  3. 3.

    According to my interviewees, women were part of the movement but not dominant in it. The fact that women played only secondary roles did not mean that they were considered less important or ‘secondary participants’ in the movement; rather, they seemed to have different sets of interests. It is, however, important to remember that the Stiliagi existed in a patriarchal Soviet context; thus, gender relations among them seem to have functioned within this framework.

  4. 4.

    Komsomol was the Soviet youth organization. Most young people in the Soviet Union were members, Stiliagi included. Due to their lifestyle, many Stiliagi faced expulsion from Komsomol, which had serious consequences for them, such as a lower chance of finding employment, an exclusion from the communist party, and a potential expulsion from post-secondary studies.

  5. 5.

    The film was released in the Soviet Union as late as 1961, although music from the film was available in larger urban centers as early as 1945. Other films included the MGM Tarzan series produced by Sol Lesser, the German trophy film The Woman of My Dreams (1944), and the US-American films His Butler’s Sister (1943), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), and Waterloo Bridge (1940). For more information, see, for example, White (2015, 66–69).

  6. 6.

    The historical situation was different. The musician and Stiliaga Alexei Kozlov, for example, recalls that during the post-war years, Moscow was full of mutilated bodies of soldiers; they could not work due to PTSD and/or injuries they suffered from and often became alcoholics (1998, 52–53). As Martina Kübler’s article in this collection shows, even the wounded veteran’s body was idealized and represented in morally superior terms in cultural productions.

  7. 7.

    An example is the word zhlob which means ‘square’ or ‘redneck’ in English. The word has Polish origins and acquired its meaning in Odessa criminal circles in the early twentieth century. The Stiliagi popularized it by using it in relation to people of the working classes (Smirnov 2003).

  8. 8.

    In general, there was no official Soviet position towards jazz, blues, swing, and rock’n’ roll. Glenn Miller and other jazz musicians the Stiliagi admired were intermittently allowed and forbidden at different times and in different locales. For further information on music and entertainment during the Soviet Union of the 1950s and 1960s, see Tsipursky (2016).

  9. 9.

    See, for instance, Bartlett (2010, 2013), Fürst (2012), and Vainshtein (2018).

  10. 10.

    The deliberate lack of interest in fashion was connected to the communist ideology that proliferated after the Bolshevik revolution. In addition, economic and social distinction also played a role. Interest in fashion was considered a bourgeois endeavor and condemned as a form of disloyalty to socialist doctrines.

  11. 11.

    I see the figure of Stalin as a veteran of the October Revolution (1917) and the Russian Civil War (1918).

  12. 12.

    The title “Almost According to Brehm: Parrot” (my translation) refers to Alfred Edmund Brehm (1829–1884), a German zoologist who wrote Brehm’s Life of Animals, a work that became highly popular in Russia.

  13. 13.

    The clothes the Stiliagi wore were either altered or newly tailored clothes. In addition, their eclectic style comprised items they found on illegal clothing markets in different Russian cities; some were occasionally available in stores. See, for instance, Edele (2002), Bartlett (2010), and Vainshtein (2018) for further research on this topic.

  14. 14.

    Unemployment was a punishable crime in the Soviet Union. Between 1952 and 1954, around 150,000 people were arrested for unemployment and 1339 found guilty (Łoś 1988).

  15. 15.

    Dvorinskii, Zhora. Interview by Alla Myzelev. Personal Interview. Toronto, December 2018.

  16. 16.

    Rappoport, Evgenii. Interview by Alla Myzelev. Personal Interview. San Diego, July 2012.

  17. 17.

    See, for instance, Guk (1997), Bek (2004), Mamedova (2005), and Skorikov (2015).

  18. 18.

    Ganetz, Yuli. Interview by Alla Myzelev. Personal Interview. Toronto, November 2017.

  19. 19.

    Lindu is one of the dance styles popular among the Stiliagi. It is similar to swing.

  20. 20.

    Berukshtis, Igor. Radio Interview on Four Past Stiliagi. 2001. https://stiliagi.svoboda.org/a/1966933.html. This interview was featured on the Internet radio channel Svoboda. I last accessed it in December 2019, yet when I tried to follow the link in the course of working on this article, it appeared broken. My email inquiries about restoring the website were not answered. I find the fact that only this part disappeared from the extensive Svoboda website curious. It raises the question in what respect the ‘specter of homoeroticism’ haunts Soviet memories until today.

  21. 21.

    I would like to thank Silvia Gerlsbeck for noting this point.

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Myzelev, A. (2022). Stiliagi Masculinity and the Re-Fashioning of the Male Body in the Soviet Union (1948–1958). In: Dexl, C., Gerlsbeck, S. (eds) The Male Body in Representation. Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88604-2_7

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