Part I: Pain and Harmony
Monday, January 19th, 1959. Yekaterinburg, Soviet Union. Sergei Kozlov is nearing the end of his shift in the Uralmash heavy equipment factory, a sprawling facility where nearly 15,000 laborers spend their days, building excavators, drilling rigs, and presses. Though the air outside is a bone-chilling 18 degrees, you wouldn’t know it on the factory floor. It’s hot. Intensely hot. And every bit as loud as you would imagine a heavy equipment factory would be. Bangs, clangs, and drones are all Kozlov hears—he communicates with coworkers via hand signals and lip reading.
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Kozlov is 8-hours into his shift, and he’s tired. He’s behind on his quota—again. The propaganda posters hanging above the factory floor drill a sense of guilt into his consciousness for missing yet another goal. He pushes through the fatigue, maneuvering the heavy steel equipment through his workspace quickly in an effort to catch-up.
Lift, pull, slide, drill.
Lift, pull, slide, drill.
Lift, pull, slide, drill.
Lift, pull, SMACK.
He loses his grip on a particularly cumbersome hunk of metal and it comes crashing down onto his right foot, just below the ankle. His thick work boots are no match for the weighty steel, and he falls to the floor howling in pain. His colleagues rush to his aid and help him up, but Kozlov can’t put any weight on his foot without searing pain shooting through his body. It’s bad.
A trip to the local hospital for x-rays confirms what the pain already made known—he’s fractured his navicular and cuboid bones. Heavy bandages and crutches will keep him out of commission for weeks.
Sunday. January 24th, 1960. Leningrad, Soviet Union. A young man approaches a shadowy figure in a bulky coat, standing in a dimly lit alley. He leans towards the man and mumbles something into his ear. He nods his head and reaches up his sleeve, producing a flimsy, translucent disk and hands it to the young man, who trades him a bottle of vodka, slips the disk into his own coat, and walks away without looking back.
He heads straight for his apartment, just a few blocks away. Bounding up the stairs, he quickly reaches his door and unlocks the deadbolt, closing it gently behind him. He walks across the cramped room to the shelf where his modest phonograph sits, and opens his coat. Carefully, he pulls out the translucent disk and holds it up to the light, inspecting the image the surface—it’s an x-ray of a foot with a broken navicular and cuboid bone.
The young man lays the x-ray on the turntable of his phonograph, starts it up, moves the arm to the edge, and sits back to listen as the sound of Little Richard fills the room.
Part II: Censorship
During the 1950s and 60s in the Soviet Union, censorship of art and music was widespread and strictly enforced. Jazz, rock and roll, tango, and any music by musicians who had spoken out against the ruling party were outlawed. Being caught with recordings of banned music could mean years in a forced labor camp.
Soviet audiophiles had to get creative. In the pre-cassette tape era, creating bootleg records was no easy task, complicated further by restrictions on the materials needed to press a vinyl record. They needed a different material—one that was easy to get a hold of, easy to conceal, and provided some level of plausible deniability.
They found it in x-ray radiographs.
X-ray film is a fairly resilient material—it’s flexible, water-resistant, and tough. You could cut a record onto it, though the fidelity left a lot to be desired (compared to vinyl). But for the motivated rebel, it’ll get the job done.
Radiographs were easy enough to come by—hospitals produced hundreds of them every month, but they had to empty them from storage and destroy them after a year, due to their high flammability. Enterprising smugglers needed only to befriend a few people at the local hospital and they would have a steady supply of x-ray radiographs, ready for cutting music onto the surface.
With a Telefunken record lathe from Soviet-friendly East Germany, smugglers and bootleggers could cut their own records onto the x-ray film, trim it into a circle with a pair of scissors, and burn a hole in the center with a cigarette for the spindle, and have a playable record in no time. As they were thin and flexible, smugglers could conceal a great number of “ribs” in their sleeves or against their chest, and take them down to the underground flea market or street corner to distribute to those looking for music the government had deemed inappropriate for the masses.
Behind this bone record blackmarket was the stilyagi, who can best be described as the Soviet Union’s hipster class. Defined by their flashy style and love for Western jazz culture, the stilyagi drove demand for smuggled rib records.
This was, as you can imagine, not popular with the ruling party. Using their formidable propaganda arm, the Communist government began distributing posters and films attempting to discredit the stilyagi and paint them as laggards who made more work for their comrades with their lazy attitudes. One poster showed a young woman in stilyagi dress mouthing off to her parents while hula hooping as they worked hard on doing the laundry.
Young, lazy, rude to their parents—good thing we don’t classify young people that way anymore, right?
Scorn of their peers was the least of the stilyagi’s worries: getting caught with musical contraband would mean 3 years in a sweat and grime-infested Gulag. But even that couldn’t stop the market from thriving. One bootlegger by the name of Ruslan Bugaslovsky did at least three different stints in a Serbian labor camp, and each time he returned right back to his work, starting over from scratch. He created his own record cutting machines based on the professional models, and even found a way to start cutting records onto real vinyl by melting the existing tracks on state-approved albums and recutting them. He even started his own record label—Golden Dog records—and made a name for himself as the best of the bootleggers.
Tracing the exact history and lineage of the bone records is an exercise in futility—it was an underground market, by its very nature it had no central leader or distributor. All we’re left with today are a few fossils and the memories of those who once loved them; an academic and artistic mystery that has captured the attention of collectors the world over.
Part III: Alluring Mysteries
Dr. Patty Poulter is the Dean of the College of the Arts at Kennesaw State University outside of Atlanta, Georgia. She’s a musician and researcher, and someone who has long been fascinated by Cold War culture. Needless to say, when she heard about bone records while listening to a podcast, she found a new obsession.
“(When I hold a radiograph), I just think about how people have risked time in a Gulag in order to hear this music,” says Dr. Poulter. “And somehow it survived all the way to get to my hands, on my turntable, in Atlanta, Georgia.”
Dr. Poulter found herself falling down the “rabbit hole” of research, digging through Russian websites for information about where the records came from and how to obtain her own. Her journey led her through Russian blogs and video sites, and finally to some bone records available for sale. Her first acquisition: a tango performed by Pyotr Leshchenko.
“They’re just so outlaw,” says Dr. Poulter. “It’s more than just defiance. It represents the creativity and ingenuity that scarcity creates.”
Part IV: Stories
The bone records seem to have a similarly strong draw on everyone who comes across them, precisely because of the kind of power-of-the-human-spirit feeling they evoke. But there’s something deeply personal about them as well—they’re tied to highly memorable experiences that we all can relate to.
Ask around your office for broken bone stories and you’ll undoubtedly hear some doozies: childhood clumsiness, drunken recklessness, bad luck, or admirable bravery. Getting an x-ray is an experience that sticks with you; broken bones are proof of a life fully-lived.
Ask that same group of peers about the first album they ever bought, and you’ll get equally enthusiastic answers. I personally have very specific memories of driving with my brother to buy a new CD and listening to it with him in his busted down SUV on our way home, with the windows down because the A/C didn’t work for shit.
Soviet bone records—aside from all the political baggage they bring with them—combine those two very powerful, very memorable life moments. It’s a simple piece of plastic that carries the weight of multiple incredible stories on its surface. Whose broken bone is this? How did it happen? What music is on here? Why did the Communists ban it? Who made this bootleg record and who bought it? Why did they risk so much just for a scratchy recording of a song they love?
“It’s mysterious and wonderful, defiant and artistic, it’s the dedication and fearlessness—all of those things together,” says Dr. Poulter. “When I hold (the records), I’m just in awe. I smile everytime. They’re a symbol of a chain of people who held onto something because this music meant something to them.”
Interested in learning more? Check out Dr. Poulter’s recent lecture on Soviet bone records and the stilyagi.