Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Back When Blue Jeans Were the Rage

One of the most astute observers of life in Moscow is Alexander Kabakov, the author who, at the height of glasnost, famously portended the anti-utopia that 1990s Moscow has become. In his late 1980s short story "Nevozvrashchenets" or "The Defector," Kabakov depicted a Moscow of coups and corruptions, shooting in the streets and pervasive gloom.


No one back then knew how close Kabakov would come to the truth; when his story began to be borne out -- as in the August 1991 coup -- the writer was upheld as a visionary.


Now Kabakov, also a deputy editor at Moscow News and a wry social critic, has taken up a new theme: fashion. Rather than look into the future, though (a frightening thought, actually, given the moda one often sees on the streets these days), this time he takes us back to the Soviet past.


In an article in the weekly newspaper Vek, Kabakov hilariously reminds us of those desperate days in the 1970s when the greatest dream was not to command a fleet of Mercedes, an island in the Mediterranean or a kottedzh in the country, but simply to own a pair of American blue jeans.


"Of all the objects of mythology of the late Soviet era, dzhinsy probably rank in the top ten together with... I don't even know what," Kabakov writes. "With Sputnik? With a foreign passport? With a Zhiguli? With a Grundig or Sony stereo?"


Jeans, he continues, were the "dream of the average intellectual, reality for the dacha-vacationing bureaucrat, the dream of the young hippie wannabe, the daily pride of the successful black marketeer."


Jeans in the 1970s were what an Armani suit or a BMW is today: a symbol of success, and, most importantly, a signal of confident intimacy with the sophisticated Western world.


After all, even in the 1970s, one could buy Russian jeans, which were often called tekhasy (a tribute to the origins of blue jeans in the American West) for a whopping 10 rubles. But no one wanted them. They wanted Levis or, if they could not get those, then Wranglers or Lee, which went on the black market for around 35 rubles.


Every Russian has his or her story of saving for months to buy a pair of blue jeans, and of the glorious day of final purchase. Jeans were such a symbol of the imperialist West that Soviet customs officials declared them contraband; if you dared to come to this country with more than three pairs in your suitcase, Lord help you.


The proud new owner of a pair of jeans would make sure he or she was seen everywhere in them: work, the dacha, the metro. The main thing was to look casual and offhand, as if you had five more pairs at home.


This all seems funny today, of course, when every other Muscovite on the street is in a pair of jeans -- and often the designer kind that your average Westerner cannot afford. But the 1970s hunt for jeans in its own way says a lot about the world of fashion among today's Muscovite status seekers.


How would a blue-jeaned Kabakov back then have envisioned the future of Moscow's beau monde? Would he have described the biznesmeny in their Botany 500 suits? Would his characters dress in Versace and Yves St. Laurent (while the average Muscovite, meanwhile, could not afford a new shirt)? Probably. And he would have put them against a background of chaotic, melancholy gloom. Sound about right?