Arguably the most significant and impactful event of the Brezhnev era was the legalization of the production of blue jeans (jk). Though many universities and workplaces had previously forbidden the wearing of jeans, the USSR embraced the denim craze, commissioning the companies Levi Strauss, Wrangler, and Lee to manufacture jeans in the Soviet Union in 1979.
This promising deal fell through following the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics, but the USSR’s insatiable desire for denim survived. The Soviet government had begun to manufacture its own competitors to Western brands, however the flood of cheap, Soviet-made denim only made American jeans more desirable to young people. The quality of a young person’s jeans became a symbol of wealth and culture. Most jeans-wearers would have to boil their Soviet jeans in order to imitate the faded color of American jeans. With real American jeans costing as much as a month’s salary, only the rich and well traveled (diplomats, pilots, sailors,etc.) could afford authentic “stateside” jeans.
Denim jeans became the most sought-after commodity on the Soviet black market, and they even increased violent crime. The term “jeans crimes” was coined by law enforcement officials to describe crimes committed in the pursuit of denim, which included even violent attacks and stabbings.
Although blue jeans seem insignificant, they represented all of the problems faced by the USSR throughout the era of stagnation. The authorities struggled to produce sufficient quality jeans, which is representative of the Soviet belief that Western products are more well-made. Their inability to supply an adequate quantity of jeans and the increase of “jeans crimes” was indicative of their wider inability to adequately supply products and nix the black market. Lastly, the youth’s demand for material goods for their fashionability represented a growing dissolutionment of the Soviet system by younger generations. How could the Soviet system be superior if it cannot even compete with the West in the denim race?
The Soviet obsession with American blue jeans were a sign of things to come. They exposed some of the weaknesses of the Soviet systems and the flaws with the government’s representations of the West. The significance of blue jeans are best described by this quote by Russian writer Sergei Boukhonine:
The Soviet TV showed poor people in urban ghettos [in the US]… 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!