Bone Music: Soviet X-Ray Audio 
by Stephen Coates.
Strange Attractor, 156 pp., £32, January, 978 1 913689 47 6
Show More
Show More

Adecade ago​ , the musician Stephen Coates was in St Petersburg to play a concert with his band. While he was there, some Russian friends took him to a flea market, where he found and bought a strange, unmarked disc. Back in London, he put it on: it was ‘Rock around the Clock’ by Bill Haley and His Comets. He held up the disc to the light and saw two skeletal hands. It looked like a vinyl record, but it had been etched on an X-ray. Since then, Coates has collaborated on the Bone Music project with photographer Paul Heartfield, creating a website, a documentary, a travelling exhibition (London, Cardiff, Moscow, Trieste) and two books, X-Ray Audio (2015) and now Bone Music.

Al Bowlly singing ‘You Oughta Be in Pictures’. Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’. ‘Perhaps a Tango’ by the Russian singer Vadim Kozin. These were rare sounds in the Soviet Union of the late 1940s and 1950s, when the authorities had firm – if not entirely fixed – ideas about what its citizens should be listening to. In the postwar years, a small-scale black market emerged, supplying young music fans with fragile recordings made on old X-rays stolen from hospitals. Each disc was produced individually, scratched onto the black film through which a leg, hand, skull, spine, pelvis still glowed. On the opening page of Bone Music, Coates describes them as ‘fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens layered with the music they secretly loved … skin-thin slivers of non-conformity’. The discs work a kind of optical illusion, with the convergence of the visual and the aural – the X-rayed body and the forbidden music – suggesting a life of hidden pleasures and small acts of rebellion.

The question of what the revolutionary masses should be dancing to – and whether they should be dancing at all – was never straightforward. In the years after 1917, brave attempts were made to create completely new music – songs about foreign imperialists and lazy workers, for example. But as the 1920s progressed, ordinary people carried on as before, listening to folk music, gypsy songs and jazz. The popularity of jazz especially rankled the Bolsheviks: it was too bourgeois, too American, too sexualised. In 1928, Maxim Gorky dismissed it as the ‘music of the gross’ – music for capitalists. ‘An inhuman bass voice roars English words, one is deafened by a prodigious horn reminiscent of the shriek of a maltreated camel, a drum thunders, a pestilential pipe squeals … Fat thighs sway, and thousands and tens of thousands of fat feet shuffle and stamp.’ Nonetheless, by the 1930s urbane Muscovites and Leningraders could watch Soviet jazz bands playing in hotels, and films such as Grigori Aleksandrov’s 1934 jazz musical Jolly Fellows were widely available. During the Second World War, with the Americans as allies, Soviet audiences were able to watch Hollywood films and buy foreign records.

After the war, they didn’t want to stop. As Juliane Fürst put it in Stalin’s Last Generation,*

Postwar youth danced. At any occasion and in any place, young people set up makeshift dancefloors and spent their time revolving to the tune of waltzes, foxtrots and tangos … In the destroyed city of Stalingrad, dance squares began to appear which were in use almost 24 hours a day due to the different shift patterns worked by young people. In the villages, because of the absence of men, young girls had to take over the role of harmonica players and male partners. Yet they still danced every free minute of their time. Russian pliaski were joined by Western styles … taught to the kolkhoz youth by travelling dance instructors.

The communist youth movement, the Komsomol, tried to organise more enlightening activities. In his 2007 memoir, the jazz musician Aleksei Kozlov described the deadly boredom of school dances closely supervised by teachers and youth leaders. ‘Everything was controlled: clothing and hairstyles, how we behaved, how we danced. It was a strange mix of the prison camp and Natasha Rostova’s first ball.’ The foxtrot and tango were ‘not exactly forbidden, but not recommended’. Leisure time should be ‘cultured’. In the late 1940s, as Cold War hostilities sharpened, jazz was abruptly banned. Even the Soviet musicians who had produced acceptable forms of jazz and other popular genres in the 1930s were retired, and in a few cases sent to the Gulag.

Some young men – fewer women, it seems – refused to conform. A youth subculture developed that kept alive the wartime fascination with Western, especially American, popular culture. In both Moscow and Leningrad, a section of the central avenue – Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad, Ulitsa Gorkogo in Moscow – was known as the brodvei (‘broadway’) and became the main drag for young men in distinctive clothing: bright ties, long coats, silk scarfs, a wide-brimmed hat and flared trousers, later superseded by drainpipes. Their rubber-soled boots were particularly eye-catching, as well as heavy. ‘I don’t think anyone in the West wore anything like it,’ Kozlov writes. ‘It was our own invention.’ These young stilyagi, or ‘style-hunters’, spoke their own slang and adapted the jitterbug, the lindy hop, boogie-woogie and the foxtrot, giving them subversive names: the ‘Canadian’, the ‘triple Homburg’, the ‘atom dance’.

Among Coates’s protagonists are Boris Taigin and Ruslan Bogoslovsky, who as teenagers in 1947 found that the only way to get hold of the music they loved was illicitly. At first they were just customers, but soon they became dealers. Copying the design from another bootlegger, they constructed their own recording lathe and set themselves up in business. They chose the name Golden Dog Gang – a reference to the HMV dog, Nipper – and created a logo for their discs. Over the next few years their clientele grew, and they built more lathes. But in late 1950 both men were arrested; Bogoslovsky was sentenced to three years in prison, Taigin to five (and another five in Siberia). Taigin said he had never expected to be targeted: he didn’t think the authorities had much interest in what they were doing. Stilyagi, who made up a majority of the bootleggers’ customers, seem to have felt the same: they were more concerned about social censure – tuts on the trolleybus, jostling in the street – than arrest. Yet in some cases, particularly those where money changed hands, the threat was quite real. The producers of skeleton records weren’t just sharing their love of taboo music; they were making a profit from it. Their musical tastes were culturally transgressive, but their economic activity was illegal. When Taigin and Bogoslovsky were arrested, it was the Soviet financial police who raided their homes.

An X-ray record of ‘Alesha’ by Peter Leschenko.

Stalin’s death in 1953 led to the release of many cohorts of prisoners, Taigin and Bogoslovsky among them. Their paths diverge at this point. Taigin wrote poetry in prison, and went on to become a well-known figure in Leningrad’s literary underground while also working as a tram driver. Bogoslovsky continued recording, collecting and trading music, developing new technologies and being rewarded with new convictions as a result.

Coates suggests that in ‘the more liberal Khrushchev era the risks began to diminish and dealers became bolder’. But in the Soviet context the term ‘liberal’ is always slippery. Stalin’s successors were certainly less reliant on the Gulag: they reduced jail sentences, improved conditions and offered amnesties and rehabilitation to millions of prisoners. Between 1953 and 1960, the population of Soviet penal camps and colonies dropped from almost 2.5 million to 550,000. The great influx of former prisoners into the cities came to be associated with a moral panic about criminality, part imagined, part real. One young man heard about bone music while in a prison camp in the early 1950s (he had got into a drunken fight with the police) and settled on it as a career path. On his release he sought out Bogoslovsky and worked for him until he could afford to commission his own recording lathe and set up independently. By now, bootlegging had become a more organised criminal activity, with traders at risk from armed ‘bandits’ who would ambush deals and demand the discs.

Faced with a rise in crime, Stalin’s successors didn’t retreat from the cultural front. It was under Khrushchev that anxiety about young people dancing became a recurring theme on the pages of the Soviet press. By the mid-1950s, the stilyaga and the bootlegger were regular figures in satirical magazines such as Krokodil and local newspapers like Leningrad’s Smena. Some journalists struck a panicked note, lamenting the increasing leniency of the Soviet justice system. ‘They are getting suspended sentences!’ one writer exclaimed. ‘But these record producers aren’t just engaging in illegal operations. They corrupt young people with a squeaky cacophony and spread explicit obscenities. They employ dealers of their vulgarity, dozens of slackers to promote their stuff.’ The emphasis had shifted: the corrosion of youth culture was now considered even more dangerous than their ‘illegal operations’.

The state media was also much preoccupied by the X-ray’s eerie aesthetic. In 1962, Pravda published a poem:

Musical scumbags sneak and roam
Selling records on the bone.
How about spine with a samba?
Or perhaps some pelvis for your mamba?

A propaganda film, Shadows on the Pavement (1960), featured heroic volunteers who patrol the city’s busy streets. Their adversaries are the drunks sharing a bottle of vodka in a doorway; the young girl spending her evenings in restaurants (doesn’t she want a husband and baby?); and the boys skipping school to sell bootlegged discs next to the grand shopping complex on Red Square. ‘These X-rays reveal the anatomy of their terrible souls,’ the narrator declares.

But one of the dangers of condemning the corruption of these ‘terrible souls’ was that it brought subversion to people’s attention. It was from the official Soviet media that many ordinary people first learned about the existence of stilyagi and the black market in homemade music. When the music critic Artemy Troitsky asked his parents what they had thought about the stilyagi when they were students at Moscow State University, his mother said: ‘We considered them to be nonentities. They were only interested in fashion and dancing. What about literature, philosophy and politics?’ His father hadn’t given them any thought at all: ‘I wasn’t interested in them; I never even saw them.’

The bone music era was shortlived. In the early 1960s, the Soviet government made the rash decision to mass produce reel-to-reel tape recorders. Fifty million were sold in the following decades. With music lovers now able to copy tracks quickly and cheaply, the recording lathes became obsolete and skeleton records were discarded. But for the authorities the challenge of non-conformist behaviour remained the same. In naming and shaming certain tastes and styles, they helped to produce the phenomena they feared. The more they denounced cultural dangers – first the stilyagi, then the hippies and rock groups – the more they lifted the curtain on a world of possibility.

Coates’s interest extends to contemporary countercultural stories. In a blog post last year, he described the despair of many anti-war Russian musicians and artists, but also saw ground for optimism: ‘In our speeded-up world, [transformation] can happen much more quickly, especially if those to whom it matters the most – the young – believe that it can.’ The history of rebellion is always seductive. But the history of bone music suggests that state repression didn’t always loom as large in the lives of Soviet people as we might expect. What the stilyagi were resisting was the social not the political pressure to conform. They wore heavy boots and were jeered at; they used the technical education they had received to devise new and better recording lathes; they procured and sold left-over X-ray film from their jobs in state hospitals; they remembered, and parodied, the logo of a Western record label and branded their own products. And somehow, all of them – consumers, inventors, suppliers, salesmen – connected, and competed, with one another for a range of motives: to listen to music and dance, but also to make money. And all this started in the final years of Stalin’s rule without, it seems, anyone worrying too much about whether the strong arm of Soviet law was hovering over them.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences