A Slice of the Soviet Music Underground
For almost as long as rock and roll has been played in the West, it has been heard in Russia. Soviet youth received its first large infusion of Western styles and sounds during the Seventh International Festival of Youth and Students, which took place in Moscow in 1957: “Thousands of real live young foreigners flooded into virginal Moscow. Among them were Jazz musicians, beatnik poets, modern artists . . . even the political activists from abroad were fashionably dressed and knew how to dance to Rock and Roll.” In one fell swoop this single festival completely altered the youth scene in the capital and greatly facilitated the invasion of rock music into the country as a whole. Signs of black-market traffic in rock recordings appeared immediately thereafter.
While imported original recordings were traded and peddled, music appeared more often on a unique format known as rentgenizdat, or “ribs,” that was borrowed from the jazz scene. Equipment needed to fashion a facsimile of an LP could easily be found, but the requisite vinyl could not, so the grooves were cut into used x-ray plates. These plates, cheaply acquired from obliging hospital staff, could be made to accommodate a couple of songs, typically just one on either side, and played on a regular turntable at 78 rpm.
The festival of 1957 also contributed to the appearance of a new youth subcultural form on the streets of Moscow and Leningrad. Small circles of urban youth took to wearing sneakers and-whenever possible-blue jeans, and dancing to American rock and roll and the music of the “British invasion,” which they referred to as Bit or Big bit. They called themselves bitniks.
Mocking the Hipsters
Photographs via Spiegel