Magnitizdat (USSR)

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Magnitizdat
Location: USSR
USSR map.png
Author: James Tayler
Affiliation: University of Bristol

Original text: James Taylor, University of Bristol

Magnitizdat was the unofficial practice of (re-)recording uncensored music or speech onto cassette tapes, which were then redistributed throughout the Soviet Union. The term Magnitizdat is etymologically composed of two words – magnit (derived from Russian magnitifon [tape-recorder]) and izdat (meaning ‘to publish’) and was exploited in the early 1960s onwards to record avtorskaia pesnia (poetic songs by Bards) and later, rock music. Alongside the growing consumerist culture and technological developments within the Soviet Union, Magnitizdat became the natural replacement of Roentgenizdat – the adequately cheap x-ray disks and temporary solution to unofficial post-war music recording. As Kolya Vasin suggests - ‘Enterprising young guys ran around the streets of our town with show boxes filled with recordings ‘on the bones,’ but their time would not last long […] the era of tape recorders began.’ [1]

Homemade tape-recording unit "Voice" (MAG-59M), which belonged to M. B. Krizhanovsky, a Soviet engineer known for his underground recordings.

The first tape recorders (the EL’fa-6, the Dnepr-3 and the Spais) slowly emerged into the market by the late 1950s, but ‘their production was limited.’[2] Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was steadily increasing the production of tape recorders throughout the 1960s; 128,000 cassette recorders were in circulation by 1960, which had risen to 4.7 million by 1985.[3] While an estimated fifty million Soviet citizens bought these Soviet-made tape recorders, many thousands of Japanese recorders were equally smuggled into the Soviet Union by Soviet sailors and were either sold in second hand shops or passed on through informal networks.[4] However, with the sudden increase of tape recorder sales and the influx of foreign tourists, these products were soon being exploited to re-record and multiply unofficial Western music records or songs by Soviet bards (singer-songwriters such as Aleksandr Galich, Bulat Okudzhava, Vladimir Vyisotskii, and others who used poetry and music to express political commentary), which allowed artists and other amateur enthusiasts to become more accessible to a larger audience. Their music, which was initially restricted to small numbers gathering in private apartments, was now being circulated via underground networks to an increasing number of listeners. As Timothy Ryback states:

A vast underground culture developed around Magnitizdat. Tapes were collected, recorded, and passed on. Although sound quality dissipated with each re-taping, the recordings evoked what one observer called the ‘romance of the forbidden.’ Through the hiss of surface noise, one heard not only the voice of the singer but also the presence of the audience: chairs scraping across the floor, a bottle knocking against glasses, muted laughter or quiet applause, the rattle of a tram on the street below […] From these underground recordings, legends emerged, faceless legends, recognisable only by their voices, their music, and their lyrics.[5]
Bulat Okudzhava performing at Palace of the Republic, Berlin, Germany, 1976.

Regarding the reproduction of imported western music, experts point out financial advantages of the re-recording practices. Vinyl recordings were extremely expensive and the further one went away from Moscow, the more expensive the discs became to consumers. Indeed, a vinyl in the Urals could cost around 200 roubles, which can be contextualised to an engineer’s monthly wage of 120 to 150 roubles a month (Aksenov 2012[6]). In this respect, tape recordings often appeared to fill a gap in the market for affordable and accessible music. The Russian journalist Andrei Logutkov indicated that he bought a tape recording of a Beatles’ track (Sgt. Pepper) in the Russian city of Orlov, from a friend for just 60 kopecks (Ibid.). In the same way, music critic Artemy Troitsky wrote that a ‘tape recording of an LP cost three roubles, while the album itself would fetch 20 or 30 roubles’ (Troitsky 1987: 25[7]). It is clear that the economic advantage to cassette re-recording was that popular music could be distributed to a wider and less-affluent audience, something which perhaps resonated with a socialist mentality to sharing and subverting private property rights.

As with the earlier possession of roentgenizdat music, magnetic tape recorders conferred ‘significant symbolic capital upon its owner’ (Daughtry 2006: 25[8]) and strengthened the demand for them. The economy of shortage alongside the weakened ideological constraints on imported music (as well as other western goods) ensured that, by the start of the 1980s, magnitizdat was being exploited for recording rock music on a mass scale. It has been argued that this phenomenon caused a decline in attendance figures at official concerts and the reduction of album sales, which eventually helped provoke Goskontsert (the state concert organisation) to promote the unofficial Soviet rock group Mashina vremeni (Time Machine) to ‘professional status’ (Easton 1989: 52-53[9]). Nevertheless, rock fans could surpass the official system through use of informal suppliers (known as the fatsovshchiki), who were well known in closed circles for providing unofficial tape records and westernised clothing (e.g. blue jeans). Hanging around Western-tourist holiday hotels and popular tourist destinations, the fatsovshchiki would barter with tourists for marketable goods, which could then be passed on and sold through informal networks.

Magnitizdat was similarly highly evasive. The Soviet press attacked the cassette tape recordings for, as quoted in the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossia on 9 June 1968, ‘spreading faster than a flu virus,’ (Ryback 1990: 46[10]). Buying, selling or owning unofficial music tapes still carried up to a three year prison sentence (Sargent 2015[11]). The Soviet militia (police) attempted to wage war against the fatsovshchiki, but their attempts were futile as countless numbers continued to 'ply the trade’ (Ryback 1990: 109-110[12]). One Soviet musicologist, Vladimir Frumkin, on 20 March 1974 attempted to fly from Leningrad to the United States with a selection of cassette tape recordings of his bard-friend Bulat Okudzhava. The tapes were ‘verified’ by Soviet customs officials and then handed back to him, but upon arriving in the United States Frumkin discovered that his magnetic-tape recordings had been all ‘demagnetised’ (Daughtry 2006: 2[13]). Although these recordings had been erased, they were probably not fully checked; it was often the case that avtorskaia pesnia could be secreted amongst ‘other less provocative songs’ (Sargent 2015[14]). Despite such efforts of containment by the authorities, thousands of recordings were already in unofficial circulation, locked into personal and private distribution networks.

Magnitizdat was neither an exclusively urban phenomenon nor a practice specific practice to Russia, but had parallels across central Eastern Europe. For example, in Hungary, the artist György Galántai, who had bought a Sony tape recorder through his relatives in Vienna, began experimenting with ‘mail art’ (sending cassette tapes through the postal system) in the early 1980s. These tapes, described as ‘cassette-radio, radio work’ and entitled ‘Radio Artpool’, contained a mixture of ‘interviews, music, ambient recordings […] improvisations, sound art, found sounds [and] spoken words’ (Trevor Hagen with Tia Denora 2012: 452-53[15]). In Czechoslovakia, which also had a shortage of Western LPs, the magnitizdat labels S.C.T.V (samizdat cassette tapes [and] videos, founded by Petr Cibulka) and Fist Records (founded by Mikoláš Chadima) were both initiated as small-scale projects in their owners’ respective home apartments. In 1976, Cibulka was credited with producing the first tapes of the numerous imprisoned bands of the Czech Underground (ibid: 453). The Prague rock group Plastic People of Universe (PPU) was an example of this underground culture: often performing privately in friends’ houses, or sometimes at ‘second culture’ music festivals such as in Postupice (1974) and Bojanovice (1976), their music would be recorded and distributed via these magnitizdat tape recordings (Brian A. Horne 2013: 186-187[16]). While taping and re-recording would be carried out by both Cibulk and Chadima, magnitizdat tapes would then be traded and exchanged through friends and acquaintances, but also through samizdat magazines such as Vokno and other such underground literature.

As a phenomenon, Magnitizdat shares many qualities with Roentgenizdat, primarily as both practices helped surpass the state-authorised music distribution channels. The core difference was that while Roentgenizdat was a cheap imitation of vinyl disks in short supply, Magnitizdat used authentically produced magnetic tapes which eventually made x-ray disks technologically redundant (cassette tapes had a longer duration and better audio quality). These authentically produced tapes and tape recorders were also permitted in every household, compared to the strictly illegal paper copying devices of Samizdat, and therefore came with less risk of being arrested. The ‘Frumkin’ case, for example, indeed highlights the ‘difference in the regime’s attitudes towards magnitizdat and samizdat’.[17] The fact that Frumkin had considered it a worthwhile attempt to emigrate with several ‘magnitizdat’ tapes – something unthinkable with the forbidden works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – is testament to the ambiguity of policy around cassette tapes. Nevertheless, just like Roentgenizdat became the medium for unofficial jazz music, Magnitizdat became the medium for unofficial avtorskaia pesnia and later rock music, helping return artistic choice and freedom to the masses by breaking the Soviet government’s monopoly on information.

Notes

  1. Igor Buser, Mark Linnik and Dmitry Zaitsev, Soviet Rock: 25 years in the underground + 5 years of freedom (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1990) [Account by Kolya Vasin], p. 31
  2. Timothy Ryback, Rock Around the Block: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and The Soviet Union, p.44
  3. Alexei Yurchak, ‘Gagarin and the Rave Kids’ in Barker (ed.), Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society Since Gorbachev, pp. 82-83
  4. Alexei Yurchak, ‘Gagarin and the Rave Kids’ in Barker (ed.), Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society Since Gorbachev, pp. 82-83
  5. Ryback, Rock Around the Block, p. 45
  6. Aksenov, Pavel, Beatles for Sale: The Vinyl Underground in the USSR (Moscow: BBC Russian Service, 5th October 2012), Accessed Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19827438 (14/08/2015).
  7. Troitsky, Aretemy. 1987. Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia. London: Faber and Faber.
  8. Daughtry, Martin J. 2006. Magnitizdat as Cultural Practice prepared for the University of Pennsylvania conference – ‘Samizdat and Underground Culture in the Soviet Bloc Countries’ (7 April).
  9. Easton, Paul. 1989. ‘The Rock Music Community’ in Soviet Youth Culture, ed. by J. Riordan. London: Macmillan Press: 45-83.
  10. Ryback, Timothy W. 1990. Rock around the Block: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  11. Sargent, Hale, Refrains of Dissent, Accessed Online: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/stalin/d1.html (14/08/2015).
  12. Ryback, Timothy W. 1990. Rock around the Block: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  13. Daughtry, Martin J. 2006. Magnitizdat as Cultural Practice prepared for the University of Pennsylvania conference – ‘Samizdat and Underground Culture in the Soviet Bloc Countries’ (7 April).
  14. Sargent, Hale, Refrains of Dissent, Accessed Online: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/stalin/d1.html (14/08/2015).
  15. Hagen, Trevor with Denora, Tia. 2012. ‘From Listening to Distribution: Nonofficial Music Practices in Hungary and Czechoslovakia from the 1960s to the 1980s’ in Trevor Punch and Karin Bijsterveld (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 440-458.
  16. Horne, Brian A. 2013. ‘The Bars of Magnitizdat: An Aesthetic Political History of Russian Underground Recordings’ in Samizdat, Tamizdat, and Beyond, eds. by Friederike Kind-Kovacs and Jessie Labov. New York: Berghahn; 175-189.
  17. Daughtry, Magnitizdat as Cultural Practice, p. 3