Roentgenizdat

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Roentgenizdat
Informal practice commonly found in Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
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Map of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, where Roentgenizdat commonly takes place.
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Flag of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Entry written by James Taylor.
James Taylor is affiliated to University of Bristol.

Original Text: James Taylor, PhD Candidate

Roentgenizdat (also known as ‘music on ribs’ or ‘music on bones’) was the unofficial practice of cheaply reproducing and disseminating discarded and reprogrammed x-ray photographs as music records in the Soviet Union. The term roentgenizdat is etymologically composed of two words – roentgen (the Russian word for x-ray, named after Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, the German physicist who discovered electromagnetic radiation in wavelengths), and izdat (from Russian meaning to publish). Roentgenizdat was the first self-made mechanism for reproducing music recordings in the Soviet era, a time of prohibition of musical styles and material shortage. The practice thus became the metaphorical ersatz-bread, satisfying the post-war musical hunger of the masses.

Roentgenizdat or "Rock on bones" Gramophone records.

Roentgenizdat originated in Leningrad in 1946, in a studio situated at house no. 75 on Nevskii Prospect, named Audio Message (Zvukovoe pis’mo). Its founder, Stanislav Filon, used a redesigned German Telefunken music re-writer to replicate music recordings from the original vinyl to cheaply reinvented, imitation x-ray material. The price of one x-ray copy was between 5 to 15 roubles; however, individual orders would be more expensive [1]. The studio would typically remain open throughout the night, recording unofficial performances onto x-ray material where opaque x-ray images of skulls and ribs were still clearly visible. The process became so successful that another underground studio, named Golden Dog (Zolotaia sobaka), was established the following year. Boris Pavlinov, one of the founders of Golden Dog, recalled that the most popular recordings were of jazz music from the West and songs in the style of the tango, foxtrot and romances – all non-sanctioned styles within the Soviet Union [2]. From these underground studios, thousands of x-ray copies were being sold on the black market and, by the late 1950s, millions of these x-ray records were in circulation, becoming ‘the common currency of the Soviet-bloc’[3].

The support and agency of the stiliagi (commonly referred to as the ‘hipsters’ in western literature) was primarily responsible for the increasing demand of roentgenizdat. Part of a subculture in the Soviet Union from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the stiliagi represented a rejection of official Soviet musical styles, fashion and behaviour, and became the advocates of a new westernised model. They sported suits with striped silk shirts, multi-coloured and patterned ties, complemented with waxed quiffs and comb-over hairstyles comparable to John Travolta in the film Grease [4]. Dance also became a key mode of their expression, rejecting the ‘approved’ dances (waltz, polka and quadrille) for the frowned upon alternatives (the tango, foxtrot, boogie-woogie and jitterbug) [5]. X-ray discs would be obtained via the ‘second economy’ (underground studios or blat networks) and disseminated at the stiliagi’s main ‘hang out’ meeting points (known as Broadway or “Brod” for short) – Gorky Street (Moscow) and Nevskii Prospect (St. Petersburg), and private dance hall parties [6]. According to Juliane Fürst, the stiliagi culturally confronted the system on a ‘new, unfamiliar and non-textual’ level which left the Communist Party struggling to deal with the phenomenon [7]. These artistic and non-verbal forms of dance, westernised clothing and jazz music ‘on bones’ all played an exceptional role in the stiliagi subculture.

Soviet state and party figure Andrei Zhdanov.

A number of structural developments helped cement the position of roentgenizdat as an underground informal practice. One cause was the Soviet ban and subsequent clampdown on jazz music. In August 1946, articles denouncing jazz concerts appeared in the official Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestiia: Andrei Zhdanov (director of post-war cultural policy) voiced his concern with the dangers of ‘high culture’ and ‘foreign influence’ in art, and ruled that anything other than mass song or folk-styled socialist realist composition was ‘ideological diversion’[8]. By the end of the decade, many jazz musicians such as Eddie Rosner, Igor Piatigorskii (a jazz band leader) and A. G. Alekseev (a Moscow-based jazz musician) were either imprisoned or sent to Siberian prison camps (Gulag)[9]. The official Soviet press, through their attacks on the stiliagi, also helped reinforce the position of roentgenizdat as a subversive informal practice. The term stiliagi appeared for the first time in the Soviet satirical magazine Krokodil in 1948, and consistently satirised the movement for their supposed bad taste in fashion. On 10 March 1949, Krokodil declared that ‘the most important part of their [stiliagi] style of clothing is not to resemble normal people,’[10] and in another article by Pravda, the stiliagi were described as a mixture of ‘parasitism, hooliganism and banditism’[11]. It also became common practice to compare the stiliagi with monkeys or other wild animals, seemingly because they resembled the style of Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films[12].

Actors from the film 'Stiliagi' about youth counterculture in 1950s Moscow.

Finally, the emergence of roentgenizdat can be seen as a consequence of the growing consumerist culture forming within the post-war Soviet Union. The hegemony of American mass consumption culture was rapidly being transmitted through the Iron Curtain, which proved surprisingly porous with respect to socio-cultural trends. The production of radios, cameras and sewing machines tripled between the years 1953-63, and production of domestic appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines and vacuum cleaners increased at similar rates[13]. Cultural products such as trophy films (e.g. Stagecoach (1939), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), The Girl of My Dreams (1934), American radio (Radio Liberty, Voice of America – the jazz programme Music USA hosted by Willis Conover was first broadcast in January 1955) and American magazines (e.g. Amerika) were also available in the Soviet Union, all of which were designed to impress the Soviet consumer (Avramov 2012: 127-207). This is evident in the case of the stiliagi (many of whom self-defined as shtatniki – worshippers of American culture), who closely observed the clothes and styles of Western foreigners. This was a ‘well-known practice,’ even down to imitating the language with Americanised jargon such as trauzera (trousers), khetok (hat), and shuzina (shoes)</ref>Fürst, Juliane, Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).</ref>. Obtaining westernised music was therefore just another part of developing a westernised identity. However, the American influence is often overstated, as Hilary Pilkington argued, the new Soviet teenager was a product of the new domestic society, which was characterised by fewer working hours (the working day reduced from eight to six hours for 16-18 year olds in July 1956), increased leisure time and expanding leisure industry, higher disposable income, and the extension of adolescence through more opportunities in higher education[14]. The new teenage consumer, rebelling against the styles and modes of the previous generations, therefore sought out an original way of expressing their self-identity through consumption – a need that was in part met through roentgenizdat.

To conclude, while it was the activity of the underground recording studio networks and the stiliagi which enabled the production and circulation of x-ray discs, there were a number of structural developments which increased demand for this underground product. These included the jazz ban, satirising of the stiliagi in the official press, and the emerging Soviet consumerist culture. Nevertheless, roentgenizdat was borne out of a desire, not specifically to subvert the official institutions and censors of artistic expression, but to help obtain an individual style in the new era of Soviet consumerism. By the 1960s, just as rock music replaced jazz music and the stiliagi became ‘clichéd and outmoded’[15], roentgenizdat was replaced by a more technologically advanced phenomenon – magnitizdat, the unofficial practice of (re-)recording uncensored music or speech onto cassette tapes.

Notes

  1. Bogdanova, Katerina, ‘Boogie-Woogie ‘On Bones’ – Is It So Strange? From The Life of Audiophiles in 1940-50s’ (2009), Accessed Online: http://shkolazhizni.ru/archive/0/n-27775/ (21/02/2013).
  2. Kitaev, Aleksandr, ‘Shadow X-ray Recording’ (St.Petersburg: unpublished version, 2009).Pikington, Hilary, Russia’s Youth and its Culture: A Nation’s Constructors and Constructed (London: Routledge, 1994).
  3. Ryback, Timothy W., Rock Around the Block: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and The Soviet Union (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
  4. Dotsenko, Artem, ‘Chuvaki Na Khatakh’ in Rodina, No.7, (2005), Accessed Online: http://www.istrodina.com/rodina_articul.php3?id=1618&n=86 (24/01/2013).
  5. Troitsky, Artemy, Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (London: Faber and Faber, 1987).
  6. Fürst, Juliane, Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  7. Fürst, Juliane, Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  8. Pilkington, Hilary, Russia’s Youth and its Culture: A Nation’s Constructors and Constructed (London: Routledge, 1994).
  9. Ryback, Timothy W., Rock Around the Block: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and The Soviet Union (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
  10. Yurchak, Alexei. "Gagarin and the rave kids: transforming power, identity, and aesthetics in post-Soviet nightlife." Consuming Russia: Popular culture, sex, and society since Gorbachev (1999): 76-109.
  11. Johnson, Timothy, Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life under Stalin 1939-1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  12. Johnson, Timothy, Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life under Stalin 1939-1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  13. Reid, Susan, ‘Happy Housewarming: Moving into Khrushchev-Era Apartments’ in Balina, Marina and Dobrenko, Evgeny (eds.), Petrified Utopia: Happiness, Soviet Style (London: Anthem Press, July 2009).
  14. Pilkington, Hilary, Russia’s Youth and its Culture: A Nation’s Constructors and Constructed (London: Routledge, 1994).
  15. Johnson, Timothy, Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour, and Everyday Life under Stalin 1939-1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).