Bone Music

In 1950s Soviet Russia, citizens craved Western popular music—everything from jazz to rock & roll. But smuggling vinyl was dangerous, and acquiring the scarce material to make copies of those records that did make it into the country was expensive.

An ingenuous solution to this problem began to emerge in the form of “bone music.”

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Bone music via Paul Heartfield

Under the severe censorship of the U.S.S.R., private household kitchens became cultural hot spots places to gather for the free expression and exchange of ideas. Such “dissident kitchens” became unofficial lecture halls, nightclubs, art galleries, bars, and dating services.

Politics were debated, forbidden music played, and underground art and literature was circulated.

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St. Louie Blues via Igor White

Copying music was arduous and risky, so people made their own collections of illicit information and creative works, passing around to trusted friends and family.

Samizdat is, I think, the precursor of Internet,” suggests Russian writer and broadcaster Alexander Genis. “You put everything on it, like Facebook. And it wasn’t easy to get typewriters because all typewriters must be registered by the KGB. That’s how people got caught and sentenced to jail.”

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Image via Jozsef Hajdu

Musical records posed a particularly complex challenge, largely due to the need for vinyl. Some were printed on special coated paper, but these only lasted for a few plays.

Ruslan Bogoslowski changed the game when he encoded music onto exposed X-Rays from medical archives and hospital trash bins. Bogoslowski would eventually spend five years imprisoned in Siberia for this innovation.

King of Rock
King of Rock via Ksenia Vytuleva

The records themselves were low-tech affairs, cut from their rectilinear forms into rough circles with scissors, then burned out in the center with a cigarette so they could be seated on turntables. Covert salesmen would sell them on the street, the “bone music” hidden within their trench coats.

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Image via Jozsef Hajdu

As the KGB caught onto the practice, they cracked down ruthlessly on bone music pirates, and even flooded the market with fakes in hopes of reducing demand.

Eventually, reel-to-reel tapes obviated the need for bone music. But even today there are fans and collectors of these precious vinyl prints, even though today the music can be exchanged more openly in free markets.

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Credits

Production

Kitchen Sisters Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson—with help from Brandi Howell, Andrew Roth and Nathan Dalton—spoke with Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita Khrushchev; Gregory “Grisha” Freidin, Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literature from Stanford; Alexander Genis, Russian writer and broadcaster; Xenia Vytuleva, visiting professor at Columbia University in the department of History and Theory of Architecture; Anya Von Bremzen, author of a the memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. A version of this story originally ran on NPR as part of the Kitchen Sisters’s “Hidden Kitchens” series.

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