Blue Jeans, Boomboxes, and Rock-n-Roll

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In my
last article on
, I wrote about proximate reasons
for the downfall of the Soviet communism. However, there were other
phenomena which, although much less dramatic, had been gnawing away
at the foundations of the Marxist-Leninist faith for decades. The
epitomes of those were blue jeans, boomboxes, and rock-n-roll.

In the 1960s,
the Soviet people were slowly introduced to the new Western counterculture
personified by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley. These
musicians offered new seductive and subversive rhythms, rhymes,
and appearances. They sported long hair and wore blue jeans.

The Soviet
authorities went ballistic. They had a tradition of being wary of
foreign influences. In the 1920s, there was a slogan: today he listens
to jazz, tomorrow he'll sell out the motherland. The 1960s' reaction
was no less strong. The long hair, hip shaking, and blue jeans were
declared to be alien and incompatible with the "moral profile
of a builder of communism." A true builder of communism had
to sport a crew cut, dance waltz or polka, and wear traditional
style, well-ironed pants.'s readers are smart and
know that the forbidden fruit is sweet. To be sure, young people
around Russia embraced the new Western "abominations."
There was a problem though. You can always grow long hair and whiskers
(unless you have strict parents or are in the army). Almost anyone
can shake hips. But… not too many of us could make our own blue
jeans, especially if there is no denim for sale.

As time went
on, blue jeans became less a statement of rebellion and more a status
symbol. The Soviet government would neither manufacture, nor import
them. But the blue jeans would still trickle into the "Evil
Empire." Some were brought in by Soviet diplomats, sailors,
or military advisers to Arab regimes such as Egypt or Syria. Some
were smuggled in by foreigners. Blue jeans gave life to "fartsovshchiki,"
a special kind of black market "profiteers." Those would
buy jeans and other stuff from foreigners in exchange for traditional
Russian wares, such as fur hats and caviar.

Blue jeans
were very expensive. They sold for anywhere from 150 to 250 rubles.
As a reference point, an average monthly salary was under 200 rubles
and you could buy regular pants for 10 to 20 rubles.

Now, you may
be thinking: OK, this is all good and well, but what's your point?
In fact, I have two. First, even the dimmest Soviet citizen could
follow this line of thinking:

  1. Blue jeans
    are expensive and prestigious; they make girls like those who
    wear them.
  2. Blue jeans
    come from the West; the best come from America (Levi's, Calvin
    Klein, Jordache, etc.).
  3. The West
    is good; America is the best
  4. Why can't
    we make blue jeans??? Forget the space stations and Russian

Second, the
blue jeans were the best counterargument against the Soviet propaganda,
much more effective than the Voice of America. Consider the following.
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, student protesters, trade
union strikes, etc. (rather than suburban soccer moms and country
clubs). All these people were angry at the capitalist system, or
life, or whatever. 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

So the blue
jeans were triumphant. In fairness, they were not blue only anymore.
They were black, brown, white, stone-washed, etc. They outlived
the Soviet communism and became the favorite attire of Russians,
Ukrainians, and other former Soviet people.

In the pantheon
of objects that brought down the Soviet communism, blue jeans have
a very special place, second to none. However, I do have my favorite
runner-up. It is the (former) champion of consumer electronics —
the radio cassette recorder, aka a boombox. Why the boombox?

First, the
cassette (and tape) recorders allowed the Soviet people to listen
to the subversive Western sounds. People-to-people copying of recordings
was the only way to listen to the underground Soviet rock bands
(at least for those of us who didn't live in Moscow or Leningrad
— the hotbeds of the Soviet rock-n-roll). Ah, the magic of copying!
The Soviet government kept a very tight lid on photocopying technology
lest the Soviet people start copying the works of the dissidents…
yet the communist party forgot that popular music is no less potent
a weapon! When I was a college student, we put our money together
and bought vinyl discs (LPs) on the black market. We then copied
them to tapes and cassettes; then we traded our LPs for new ones.
Ultimately, one disc could generate hundreds or thousands of copies.

Second, Soviet
consumer electronics were always so much behind the times! It was
a different case from the blue jeans; with the jeans, the communist
party simply could never understand what all the fuss was about.
However, the Soviet government did consider electronics to be important
consumer goods, but the centrally planned economy cannot react quickly
— it messes up the planning (the ideal centrally planned economy
is prison or the military — everybody eats the same stuff, wears
the same clothes, etc.). As it happened, the Soviet industry produced
four and eight track tape recorders in the 1970s and 1980s when
the rest of the world switched to cassette recorders. When the Soviet
industry finally started mass-producing cassette recorders in the
1980s, the rest of the world started switching to CD players. For
the Soviet people, boomboxes were another example of how glorious
the West was — all the best, sleekest, and loudest came from there
after all! One of the happiest days of my life was when my parents
finally got me a foreign boombox in 1986.

Of course,
there were other objects of desire. Since the socialist economy
can manufacture consumer goods which are either of low quality and
out of fashion or just out of fashion (it gets the quality right
occasionally), most desired objects came from abroad. Austrian and
Italian shoes, boots, and clothes, mohair scarves and sweaters from
Scotland and India, Japanese electronics — the list goes on and
on. All these things exposed the Soviet communism for the fraud
it was — bit by bit, step by step, year by year.

Finally, some
musings about the US Cuban policy (perhaps a non sequitur?).
The US government maintains strict controls on travel to Cuba as
well as other commercial activities with the communist "Freedom
Island." The ostensible rationale is that by traveling and/or
engaging in commerce with Cuba, US nationals provide Fidel Castro's
government with much needed foreign currency.

No doubt, tourists
and businessmen do provide Castro with funds just as foreign tourists
and businessmen provided funds to the erstwhile Soviet Union. However,
foreign tourists, usually unintentionally, subverted the Soviet
regime with their dollars, jeans, LPs, etc. The resulting damage
to the Soviet system far exceeded any utility from the obtained
foreign exchange. In the same way, foreign tourists and trade subvert
the Castro regime far more effectively than any government propaganda
effort ever could. Foreign exchange is nothing in comparison. The
blue jeans clad Cubans with dollars in their pockets, Miami music
booming from their mp3 players, and American soaps playing on their
DVD systems have no use for communism. Unleash the power of consumerism
and popular culture on the last Stalinist bastion in the Western
hemisphere and watch it work its magic!

20, 2006

Boukhonine [send him mail]
is a native of Ukraine. After getting an MBA from the Rochester
Institute of Technology, he worked as a CFO in Moscow for seven
years. Currently, he is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston
in management information systems.

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