Soviet Scenesters Used X-Rays to Record Their Rock and Roll - Atlas Obscura
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Soviet Scenesters Used X-Rays to Record Their Rock and Roll

X-rays, rock n’ roll, and rebellion. (Image: Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikipedia)

Everyone’s got that friend who is really into vinyl (or if you don’t, maybe you are that friend), but even the staunchest record collector seems a bit weak when compared to the Soviet “stilyagi” scene of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. These Russian hipsters made their own bootleg vinyl out of scavenged medical x-rays, creating a black market of outlawed music that would lead the way to a cultural revolution.

During the post-war 1940s and 1950s, access to Western films and music in Soviet Russia was extremely limited. Most of what made it through the Iron Curtain was illegally smuggled in from Eastern Europe. This was thanks in large part to the Zhdanov Doctrine of 1946, which stipulated a strict set of rules on what types of art and music were acceptable in the eyes of the Soviet government.

The general attitude under the doctrine was that anything from the United States was detrimental to to socialist ideals. This resulted in the persecution of a number of Russian artists who did not toe the party line, and a nearly complete lock down on foreign art and trends.

There was a special hatred for jazz music which the author of the doctrine, Andrei Zhdanov, described as having a “predilection for, and even a certain orientation toward modern, Western, bourgeois music, toward decadent music.” In response to this smothering cultural lockdown, the stilyagi were born.  

Two actors dressed as stilyagi from a 2008 movie of the same name. (Image: Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikipedia)   

The trend began to emerge in the late 1940s as a response to the dire years of World-War-II-era Soviet poverty and the general cultural blackout. Rebellious young people, stifled by communist uniformity, began to adopt loud clothing trends like thick-soled shoes, zoot suits, and the sort of skirt dresses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a production of Grease.

The ranks of this subculture were filled almost exclusively with 20-somethings. Despite the obviously political ramifications of their embrace of fun Western culture, the movement was largely apolitical in its attitude. The stilyagi were more interested in being uber-cool than smashing Khrushchev’s regime. They could be found lounging around the high streets, just making the scene.

Even if the stilyagi were not actively anti-state (especially in their early years), Khruschev’s regime tried to turn them into a joke or a symbol of Western frivolousness infesting the Russian populace. Directly translated as “style hunters,” the term “stilyagi” was coined by the Soviet establishment as a derisive name meant to shame and discredit them, although they eventually adopted the name as a symbol of pride. A more modern translation would probably not be far off from “hipster.” The stilyagi eventually adopted a slogan that was also meant to shame them: “Today he dances jazz, but tomorrow he will sell his homeland.”

For the most part, active stilyagi would get their foreign music and fashions from a black market dealer of foreign goods known as a “fartsovshchik,” but as demand for Western music, as well as Russian music that was deemed too controversial, continued to grow into the 1950s, a whole new bootleg market was created. With foreign records only trickling in here and there, and costing top rubles when they were available, some enterprising music hounds began pressing their own recordings using homemade record presses.

The biggest problem with DIY vinyl was getting the material, which, like many things at the time, was scarce. The stilyagi solution was to rummage through hospital dumpsters and scavenge discarded vinyl x-ray sheets, or even buy them from medical centers. Members of the “roentgenizdat,” as the black market record industry came to be known, would copy a record to the x-ray, cut the angular sheet into a crude disc, and burn a hole in the middle with a cigarette so that it could fit on a spindle. Voila: illegal music for cool kids! Not only was the material free and easy to work with, the bones and bodily imagery burned into the x-rays made for a badass-looking disc.

The sound quality of the discs was not the finest, and they could only fit music on one side, but to a country starved for a little rock and roll, the DIY records were a revelation. Jazz and rock from the United States were the most popular genres sold among the roentgenizdat, all played from images of rib cages and broken bones (becoming known as “music on the ribs,” and “bone records”). Possibly for its distinctly American sound, the song “Chattanooga Choo Choo” from the Sun Valley Serenade soundtrack became especially popular among the stilyagi.

A modern bone record. (Image: Alexander Nevzorov/Wikipedia)

The bone records created a thriving underground industry, with millions of the discs being produced and sold for the bargain price of around a ruble, compared to five rubles for a real black market record. But the good times couldn’t last. In 1958, creating and distributing the discs officially became illegal, and those caught participating in the industry faced terms in labor camps or prison. Khruschev’s forces broke up the largest remaining roentgenizdat ring in 1959, and the official Soviet youth league, the Komsomol, were encouraged to put together “music patrols” that kept an eye out for illegal records among their peers.

In the 1960s, Russia’s restrictions on foreign art began to loosen, allowing somewhat easier access to Western culture, which, along with the crackdown on production, led to the decline of the bone music industry, and stilyagi culture in general.

The memories and artifacts, however, live on. In 2014, The X-Ray Audio Project was founded to create a database of information on the unique records including images and recordings of many original x-ray tunes. There is even a book about the history of the records. While the stilyagi may no longer be loitering around the streets of Russia, their brand of musical rebellion is still singing.