- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

MOSCOW

A musical about jazz fans who mocked communist prudishness in 1955 Moscow has become one of the most-talked-about films in Russia, with some seeing parallels to the era of Vladimir Putin.

“Stilyagi,” named after a rebellious youth movement that flourished in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and ‘60s, opened last week with a heavy promotional campaign and hopes of big box-office takings over the New Year’s holiday.

The film depicts the colorfully dressed and sexually liberated stilyagi facing off against their archfoes — members of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party, whose activists regularly raid stilyagi concerts.

With echoes of “West Side Story,” the film focuses on the unlikely romance between a Komsomol activist named Mels and a sexy stilyagi girl who shows him the wonders of American jazz, the fox trot and hairspray.

Mixed in throughout are splashy song-and-dance numbers — like the one where Mels is expelled from the Komsomol by a throng of young communists chanting a song reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s protest anthem “Another Brick in the Wall.”

Some critics have praised “Stilyagi” for weaving a serious political message into the entertaining genre of a Broadway musical.

“It is 100 percent political and 200 percent anti-Soviet,” film critic Yury Gladilshchikov wrote in the Russian edition of Newsweek.

Mr. Gladilshchikov compared the film’s Komsomol activists with pro-Kremlin youth groups of today, such as Nashi, which regularly holds rallies to denounce the opposition and praise Mr. Putin, the powerful president-turned-prime minister.

“The stilyagi’s irreconcilable enemies, the Komsomol of 1955, are associated with Nashi members, who … seek out enemies of the Motherland in places where the Party leadership suspects their presence,” he wrote.

The film’s director, Valery Todorovsky, also has spoken of its political message but stopped short of linking it to the Putin era.

“I think the question of freedom will always be the most charged issue in our country,” Mr. Todorovsky said in an interview published last month in the Izvestia newspaper.

“Stilyagi were not dissidents, not opponents of the regime; they just wanted to listen to different music and wear colored socks,” he added.

“But things considered normal in other countries need to be won here through struggle. There were times when walking around in colored socks was a heroic deed. And this is not a problem of today, but an eternal problem.”

Dmitry Yepishin, a 29-year-old who saw the film in Moscow, says he enjoyed “Stilyagi” but appreciated it mainly for its entertainment value rather than its political content.

“I liked all the Soviet motifs they showed, communal apartments and all that. It was pretty funny,” Mr. Yepishin says.

“There was some kind of idea, but I wouldn’t consider it the most important thing in this movie. You can watch the movie perfectly calmly without worrying about its meaning,” he adds.

After opening on nearly 900 screens throughout the former Soviet Union in late December, “Stilyagi” became the region’s second-highest-grossing film, according to the industry Web site Kinobusiness.com.

Despite the film’s upbeat mood, real-life stilyagi often were persecuted and even sent to prison for their love of Western pop culture, says Alexei Kozlov, a saxophone player and jazz historian who has written about the movement.

“Jazz was seen as the art form of the enemy,” Mr. Kozlov says, adding that the stilyagi counterculture “totally contradicted the Soviet system.”

Similar crackdowns took place in other countries as well, Mr. Kozlov says, citing the persecution of “swing kids” in Nazi Germany and the hostile reaction of the U.S. establishment to rock music in the 1950s.

“The American machine waged a huge fight against rock ‘n’ roll, which was very similar to our fight against the stilyagi,” he says. “American ideologists even thought communists had invented rock ‘n’ roll to destroy U.S. culture.”

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