BEAUTY AND BONE: THE FALL OF VADIM KOZIN

I recently recorded an extended interview for a US TV show called 'Mysteries at the Museum’ which will feature a piece on bone records in 2017. The producers were keen for me to confirm one of the most common myths about the Soviet x-ray records: that they were bootlegs of American jazz and rock ’n’ roll made as a dissident protest by ‘Stilyagi’.  The Stilyagi or ‘style hunters’ were a small youth culture group (the only real example of Soviet youth culture according to Art Troitsky). They were mainly Moscow and Leningrad based kids who dressed in an ersatz western style and aped American mannerisms but they were not a political group and certainly not dissidents - more hipsters than punks. 

Vadim Kozin before his arrest

Kozin on x-ray record

Kozin on x-ray record

None of the bootleggers we have met or heard about described themselves as either dissidents or Stilyagi. They seem to have regarded the latter as a bit of a joke even though they would have been eager purchasers of their bootlegs of jazz and rock ’n’ roll tunes. In fact, the majority of bone records did not contain Western music. They contained Russian music, forbidden Russian music. On first impression that doesn’t seem so romantic a story to a Western audience because it doesn’t fit our inherited cultural prejudice, but on deeper examination it is a more interesting and moving narrative.  The intention of the Stalinist censor was to completely control the cultural input of the Soviet people and by the late 1940s had outlawed a huge amount of popular music. If this was a crime, it was surely a much greater crime that an entire nation's music lovers were cut off from their own culture, their own songs, their own much-loved artists and performers than prevented from listening to music from abroad that they were barely familiar with.

In the next few posts, I will write about some of the forbidden Russian artists whose songs were cut to x-ray. Their stories are usually tragedies. Many of them were ‘emigres' whose repertoire was forbidden just because they lived in the West and declined to return to the Soviet Union. But one of the most prominent was someone who lived in Russia all his life and performed in the Kremlin for the highest members of the inner party, a singer as famous in his homeland as Frank Sinatra in the USA, a star whose records were sold in all the Soviet music stores and a man who became one of the richest private individuals in the Soviet Union: Vadim Kozin.

Kozin with his band short before his arrest

Kozin with his band short before his arrest

In the X-Ray Audio documentary ‘ROENTGENIZDAT', the singer Marc Almond describes Kozin’s life and spectacular fall from grace. Marc has been a fan of Kozin for a long time, he made a record of his songs 'Orpheus in Exile' in 2009 and recently presented a BBC radio documentary about his life.  In 1944, Kozin was arrested on charges of homosexuality and perversion.  But it is likely that the fact of his sexuality, (which had been known about since the 1920s), was just used to bring him down because he had been in conflict with a high ranking Soviet official, possibly even Beria. Or it may be that he had just become too rich, too famous, too well-loved. After all, there was only room for one star in the Soviet Union and that was Stalin.  Kozin was convicted and dragged from his luxurious, ostentatious lifestyle at the Metropole hotel in Moscow to the brutal conditions of the far eastern Siberian prison camps. As far as his adoring public were concerned he no longer existed.  His deeply loved songs and beautiful voice would have surely been sorely missed and though many people would have owned his records and could carry on listening to them after his arrest, no new ones would have been made. Any still available would have immediately been withdrawn from sale and destroyed.

Kozin’s immense popularity would ordinarily have made him a prime candidate for the bootleggers. But interestingly he does not appear anywhere near as often on x-ray records as one might expect  This is probably because news of his alleged crimes was widely believed. It perhaps still is. Recently I was talking with an old Russian, a music lover who was a bone record buyer in his youth. He had absolutely no respect for Soviet propaganda but grimaced when I brought up the subject of Kozin and referred to him with a Russian word a friend translated as ‘paedophile’ or child rapist. We know from recent experience in the West that any such association, real or false, effectively puts an artist's music beyond the pale.

Marc Almond performing Vadim Kozin and cut onto X-Ray at Rough Trade East, London 

At an X-Ray Audio event recently, we cut a new x-ray record of a performance of the Kozin song ‘Druzhba’ (Friendship) sung by Marc Almond. The x-ray used was one made of Marc himself after a serious accident he barely survived a few years ago. This, as you can imagine, added a certain poignancy to the occasion, as did his description of Kozin’s life in Siberia. The fallen idol managed to survive there because his fame and voice afforded him protection by various camp authorities who had been fans before his conviction. He even continued to perform - in the extraordinary ‘gulag revues’ organised by prison camp bosses for their own entertainment, but even after his release, he was unable - or unwilling - to return to Moscow to revisit the scenes of his former glory, He died in 1991 in Magadan at the age of 91.

Kozin in his apartment in Magadan

Marc's X-ray record with his performance of a Vadim Kozin song

Marc's X-ray record with his performance of a Vadim Kozin song

Kozin experimental flexi gramophone record c.1936

Kozin experimental flexi gramophone record c.1936

For someone once so famous, he remains fairly forgotten in Russia and is virtually unknown outside. Like many artists who were not dissidents and whose ‘crimes’ were not political he hasn't been deemed worthy of any attention in the West - until Marc released his record of Kozin songs.

It was difficult to know how to say thanks for Marc's performance at our event so I decided to give him a present of a strange record I once found on a trip to Russia. This record is evidence of the inaccuracy of another common myth about music during the Soviet era: that there was only one record company, the State controlled Melodiya.  

It was made by one of the so called ‘experimental’ independent labels. These were semi-private businesses allowed to operate under licence from the State. They made various discs with specialist recordings such as film soundtracks, spoken word narratives or certain permitted foreign repertoire. In this case, the label experimented with making coloured vinyl flexi-discs and this red transparent disc contains a special recording of a Kozin song made before his arrest. Any copies would of course have been destroyed afterwards but this one, like the old singer, survived.

Although it is not really playable now, it is rather lovely, almost like a very beautiful bone record,  a blood coloured, luminous legacy of the life of a fallen Soviet star.