During the Cold War, American denim grew to have incredible economic and aesthetic power beyond the Iron Curtain, where jeans became a piece of the American propaganda apparatus. Rather than trying to emulate the traditional dress and haircuts of their parents, Soviet youths wanted to look like the movie icons and rock stars of the West – and they were willing to pay top ruble, so to speak, to do so.
The problem was, denim wasn’t easy to come by. Though never outright banned, there were no direct channels to buy Western goods in the Soviet Union, and the resulting captive market created a lucrative bootleg exchange. The most coveted items were blue jeans, corduroys and leather jackets brought in by diplomats, tourists, sailors and military advisors and resold at high arbitrage prices.
Lingo developed around denim and black market Western commodities. Even the word dzhins itself was a direct cognate of “jeans.” The Czechs called them Texas skis, or “Texan Trousers.” Those who bought and resold foreign goods were fartsovschiki, and the barter of choice was fur hats and caviar for brand-name denim. Law enforcement officials used the unofficial term “jeans crimes” for violations related to the acquisition of denim.
So why not make high-quality Soviet denim to compete with the American brands? For one, making jeans would be a response to consumer demand, rather than Party supply, and was thus an insupportably Capitalist undertaking. And where Westerners saw a simple problem – the desire for jeans could be easily satisfied with the product itself – Soviets saw a symptom of a much deeper decay of values[…] The simple fact that young people were so obsessed with any product contradicted Party ideology. Members of the older generation lamented the substitution of material goods for spiritual ones. Jeans culture was a type of philistinism, and slogans like “prosperity without culture” and “predatory consumerism” entered into anti-jeans rhetoric.
Read more about the illicit denim trade here.