David Frum

11.22.12

Before There Was Pussy Riot

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Photo courtesy of Anne Applebaum

Nothing is as dangerous to a regime as its youth -- particularly when it is  exposed to Western culture. Here are a few quotes from Anne Applebaum's new book, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956, that will demonstrate the lengths young people are willing to go to piss off their elders.

Not by accident, young people were the most enthusiastic of the passive resisters to High Stalinism, if 'enthusiasm' is a word which can be used in this context. They were the focus of the heaviest, most concentrated and most strictly enforced propaganda, which they heard at school and in their youth groups. They bore the brunt of the regime's various campaigns and obsessions, they were sent round to collect the subscription money, gather signatures and organize rallies. At the same time, they were less cowed by the horrors of a war which they didn't necessarily remember, and less intimidated by the prospect of prison which they had yet to experience.

They couldn't join political parties, they could protest and they couldn't speak out. If they even told jokes about their leaders they risked expulsion from school, or even arrest. And so, in the late 1940s -- just as Western teenagers were beginning to discover long hair and blue jeans -- East European teenagers living under Stalinist regimes discovered narrow trousers, shoulder pads, red socks and jazz.

In Poland, these early youth rebels were called bikiniarze, possibly after the Pacific atoll where the United States tested the first atomic bomb -- or, more likely, after the Hawaiian/Pacific/Bikini-themed ties which some of the truly hip bikiniarze managed to obtain from the care packages sent by the United Nations and other relief organizations. Those who were very lucky also got hold of makarturki, sunglasses resembling those worn by General MacArthur. In Hungary, they were called the jampecek, a word which roughly translates as 'spivs'. In Germany -- both East and West -- they were the Halbstarke, or 'half-strong'. There was a Czech version of the youth rebel -- the potapka, or duck, probably named after the ducktail hairstyle. The Romanian youth rebels were known as the malagambisti, named after a famously cool Romanian drummer, Sergiu Malagamba.

And their style? Psy Oppa could relate.

The fashions adopted by these youth rebels varied slightly from country to country as well, depending on what was actually available in flea markets and what could be made from scratch. Generally speaking, the boys favoured narrow, drainpipe trousers (in Warsaw there was a tailor who specialized in making them out of ordinary ones). The girls at first wore tight pencil skirts, though later they switched to the 'New Look' then being sold by Christian Dior and copied everywhere else: dresses with small waists and wide skirts, preferably in loud colours and patterns. Both favoured shoes with thick rubber soles -- a distant echo of the American sneaker -- which in Hungary came to be called jampi shoes.

Brightly coloured shirts were popular too, since they contrasted so starkly with the conformist uniforms of the communist youth movements, as were wide ties, often hand-painted. The idea was that shirts and ties should clash. Particularly popular was the combination of a green tie and a yellow shirt, known in Polish as 'chives on scrambled egg'. In Warsaw, the jazz critic Leopold Tyrmand popularized the wearing of striped socks as well. He did so, he once said, to demonstrate 'the right to one's own taste.'