Back to the USSR: Bringing American jeans to Moscow, 2012

21 Apr

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I am heading to Moscow in ten days for the first time in many years. I am staying with a distant relative who has a spare room, the apartment question still being among Moscow’s most cursed. One expects to do favors for relatives when one stays with them, but the specific request I received this time, baffled me: I was asked to bring a potato peeler and two pairs of jeans.

Foreigners (and, after sixteen years in the US, I am clearly seen as one of them in this particular instance) bringing jeans to Russia – that’s the kind of stuff that comes  straight out of some kind of a mothballed Cold War joke. The appearance of American jeans in the USSR – or, at least, their appearance in the Soviet cultural imagination – could be traced back to the  American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, a display of American consumer goods as part of “cultural diplomacy” that served as a setting for the famous kitchen debates between the US Vice President Richard Nixon and the Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. Jeans were part of the display that summer and, as Levi Strauss & Co. notes on the company’s blog, “Although jeans were frowned upon by Soviet officials as symbols of decadence and western imperialism, the products on display had to be replaced almost daily. Why? As explained then by the international press service R&F Features, ‘Eager Soviet visitors handled – and occasionally helped themselves to – display samples of the all-American denim pants.’” 

It’s not unusual for American travelers who visited the Soviet Union during the years of the Cold War to remember being approached by Russians on the street and offering money in exchange for the pair of jeans that said American traveler would have been wearing that day. My own childhood memory is imprinted by something of the kind: my grandfather returning from his first trip to the US around 1987, American clothes and other assorted items in tow. There certainly was a pair of jeans there. It was a pair of used jeans – something sent by my grandfather’s long-lost and then-rediscovered third-generation American relatives. It must have been the same wisdom inherited from other travelers and the American version of the Soviet-love-affair-with-Levi’s story that they must have been following in deciding what to send to the people of Russia they’ve never met. I remember finding a one-dollar bill in the pair of jeans intended for me. I was only six or seven years old then, but I certainly recall being over the moon about the new jeans – probably as much if not more over the moon than the 24 year old Soviet teacher named Larissa who penned (in funny English) the letter to Levi’s I am including here.

Letter from a grateful Soviet consumer of Levi's jeans, August 1991.

The Moscow relative with whom I am staying this spring would have been in his mid-teens  when jeans were first sighted in the American pavilion in  Russia – so, who knows, maybe he was one of those people wonderstruck by denim in 1959. I suppose the initial cultural shock left by the primal encounter with Levi’s might have proved stronger than the last twenty years of unchecked capitalism in Russia, with everything from Gap to Uniqlo in abundance in Moscow (more about Uniqlo another time). I shouldn’t be the one lecturing this relative on the sometimes-positive aspects of globalization, which allow travelers to forgo the need of paying for extra luggage in order to bring an authentic American pair of jeans to the country that has long been selling those same jeans in situ. As one Israeli friend remarked, he’s come to “always associate these requests with a marked use of double-plural” – jeans (the word, a peculiar double plural in both Russian and Hebrew) is something that our relatives expect of us, Americans. I should be charitable. Or, as another friend aptly noted, pointing to another element of the same Cold War consumerist dream, I should bring my relative some chewing gum, too – I’ll see what he does then.

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