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Exploring the USSR’s underground obsession with Levi’s 501s

In a world still divided by the Iron Curtain, humble blue jeans became coveted symbols of freedom, via Western capitalism

“When you can make jeans better than Levi’s, that will be the time to start talking about national pride,” wrote one young, disgruntled reader of Pravda (the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) in 1984, as reported in The New York Times.

Before “post-Soviet cool” gave rise to images of street-cast models in front of Brutalist tower blocks and a never-ending litany of op-eds, interviews and love-letters dedicated to Soviet-bloc designers, it was the east that looked to the west for sartorial inspiration. Things, it would seem, are very different today, but back in the midst of both a Cold and cultural war, fashion took on an added level of social and political significance beyond the Iron Curtain. The epitome of this was jeans – good old fashioned indigo blue denim would go on to become a fashion statement in more ways than one. But just how did something so ubiquitous as a pair of Levi’s 501s –an item that was far from remarkable or highly coveted in the West – grow to become symbolic of Soviet dissent?

THE CULTURAL POWER OF DENIM

In the same year that saw the embittered, Levi’s-fiending commenter vent his frustration at a lack of denim availability to Pravda, Bruce Springsteen released Born In The USA. The cover, shot by Annie Lebovitz, featured Springsteen’s ass in all its American glory, clad in a pair of Levi’s 501s, the pockets slightly worn – these were jeans that had been worn by a red-blooded, all-American male. It was the ass of free-market capitalism. A gluteus maximus of pure, farm-raised American muscle. Arguably the most propagandist, patriotic ass photo ever conceived – the subtle red-tab offset against the blue denim, in turn offset against the red and white striped flag background. The image alone was more of a threat to Soviet values than any barbed US presidential speech or Latin American proxy war. Two years on, French philosopher and friend of Che Guevara, Régis Debray declared “There is more power in rock music and blue jeans than in the entire Red Army.”

The power of denim, however, pre-dated 1984, stemming way back to the late 50s. Many have pointed to the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students hosted in Moscow as the starting point for the Soviet infatuation with jeans that would take hold over the coming years and decades. As 37,000 western students descended on the Russian capital, young Muscovites were exposed to a greater degree of western culture than ever before: music, fashion and even currency became a source of deep fixation for many. The event saw a number of young Soviet entrepreneurs buying currency from their foreign counterparts to illicitly sell on for profit, the ripples of which could still be felt years later. 

With the 60s came the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley all sporting long hair and blue denim. The glimpses of this aesthetic that had managed to penetrate the Soviet Bloc were consumed with fervour and mimicked where possible. Naturally, such acts were viewed as subversive by the Soviet ruling elite – these hippies flew in the face of “The Moral Code of the Builder of Communism.” Rock ‘n’ roll and Levi’s? It would merely be the beginning of other such displays of unfettered capitalism, crowned the country’s leadership from their plush holiday homes. “Until now, official Soviet doctrine has held that Western jeans, being figure-hugging, are a symbol of Western decadence, and thus to be avoided in the same way as pornography,” wrote Austrian journalist Hella Pick in 1979 (although it should be remembered that her’s was likely a Western, rather than a strictly neutral, point of view).

SMUGGLERS AND BOOTLEGGERS

The question of culture, and its perceived ability to erode Soviet unity, was something that the USSR’s leaders grappled with continually in the decades that followed the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students. While the Politburo was adept at crushing political dissent, it was a much harder task trying to stamp out the cultural influences of the West. So enamoured were the youth of the Soviet Union with Western fashion – particularly in East Berlin, where there was access to Western radio and television from beyond the wall – that a culture of bootlegging and black-market trading arose. “We tried to sew them, from tarpaulin or from bed sheets or from fabric that wasn’t jeans fabric,” remembers Ann Katrin Hendel in Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest. Hendel made her own western-style clothing and sold them from her car boot in East Berlin. “We also tried to dye them but it was very difficult to get your hands on dye… they were so popular that people snatched them from our hands.”

Despite the popularity of Hendel’s DIY designs and the increasing number of Soviet counterfeit jeans on the market, Soviets were still desperate for the real deal. A trick was developed in order to distinguish between real denim and bootlegger fakes, in which a wet match was drawn across the fabric – if the match turned blue, you had found a pair of real Levi’s.

“A 1972 Life Magazine article reported that some American students had been funding their travels in the Soviet Union simply by selling off pairs of old Levi’s”

Such was the scarcity of genuine Levi’s and the risks involved for bringing them into the country, coupled with the widespread demand for that famous red tab, that sellers could command a small fortune for a single pair. Consumers were reportedly willing to pay up to 200 roubles a pair (the equivalent of one month’s wages), with a 1972 Life Magazine article reported that some American students had been funding their travels in the Soviet Union simply by selling off pairs of old Levi’s. The informal term “jean crimes” was soon developed by law enforcement to describe crimes related to the buying and selling of jeans – which despite its rather innocuous name, included reported stabbings and attacks.

Yet, for those unable to obtain the real thing – part of the charm was that real jeans would fade and patina with wear and washing over time – the only option was to boil their Soviet-made denim, resulting in a fading not entirely dissimilar to a well-worn pair of genuine jeans. This phenomena of boiled denim was referenced by Gosha Rubchinskiy in his AW15 collection, with a number of models sporting “boiled” jeans that carried a unique, marbled effect.

JEANS BECAME A POLITICAL STATEMENT

The seemingly simple solution was for the Soviet Union to begin producing their own jeans, despite it being an awkward admission of bowing to consumer demand. Yet, as a 1979 Guardian article reported: “After years of hesitation and reflection, the Soviet leadership has decided to yield to popular demand, and to authorise production of one of the most classless garments devised by capitalism – blue jeans. America's three leading jeans manufacturers, Levi Strauss, Bluebell, which makes Wranglers, and the VF Corporation which sells under the Lee label, have been invited to tender to help the Russians to manufacture jeans.” The deal, however, fell through the following year, due to escalated tensions that stemmed from the US team boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics – an act of protest in response to the Soviet-Afghan war.

There was not one singular factor which could be attributed to the fall of the Soviet Union 1991. Indeed, there are probably hundreds: widespread dissatisfaction, a weak economy fuelled by overspending in a Cold War fuelled arms race, political dissent that threatened to spill over into revolution, and the sheer impracticality of ruling over such vast swathes of land and diverse ethnic groups with an iron fist, to name a few. But the importance of the cultural war that was waged, inadvertently undermining so many prized Soviet values, cannot be discounted. One Russian writer, Sergei Boukhonine, recalled the poignancy of witnessing newsreels of inner-city African Americans in their blue jeans: “When the Soviet TV showed the West and especially the United States, it didn't so much lie as did not tell the whole truth. The Soviet TV showed poor people in urban ghettos… The Soviet people were supposed to watch and become more confident about the superiority of the socialist system. However, there was a small but crucial problem… you guessed it — blue jeans! All poor urban folks and union marchers wore the coveted blue jeans!!! Even the homeless people in the West wore them. So, the wheels of Soviet minds turned, these people couldn't be all that poor and miserable if they all wore the pants which we couldn't afford!”

Four years on from Régis Debray’s proclamation on the power of jeans and rock ‘n’ roll music, with ever-mounting pressures on the Soviet leadership, heightened by protests attended by tens of thousands, the Berlin Wall fell. The popularity of jeans continued throughout the 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. As Russian fashion journalist Anastasiia Fedorova remembers, “All the kids wanted to have proper blue Levi's. Part of the appeal of was that brands were new altogether and their magic felt fresh. Also, blue jeans were part of the great American dream, a slice of a distant promised land, which added to their appeal.” For many, jeans were an expression of rebellion, but for the vast majority of Soviet and Post-Soviet youths, they were merely a way of looking cool in the same manner as their peers in other countries around the world. The historical legacy of the popularity of jeans is multifaceted: denim was symbolic of the idea that, rightly or wrongly, the great nation of the USA had the society and economic system that should be aspired to. It was that old trick of capitalism – the idea that what you buy can set you free. 

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