This is the fifth article in a series on youth subcultures. Also read the installments on Zazous, Chonga, Yankii, and Straight Edge.

In Soviet Russia after World War II, one Benny Goodman record could get you sent to the gulag. Soviet authorities were keen to keep what they saw as the corrupting influence of the decadent West out of the socialist utopia they were trying to build. But that didn't stop some daring young people from making and trading illicit recordings.

The war had exposed much of the Red Army to the fashions and mores of life beyond the USSR. Particularly after the war, there was a robust black market for everything from stockings to sturgeon, and a rich underground tradition of reproducing and sharing samizdat, banned literature that was sometimes copied by hand and clandestinely passed between friends.

If you wanted to hear American jazz or boogie woogie or rock 'n roll, you had to find a guy who was selling "bones," records made on developed X-ray film taken from hospitals. That's the way Soviet rockers known as the stilyagi learned songs like "Rock Around the Clock" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

"Bones" were records made from recycled hospital x-ray film.

"It was a bit like dealing or buying drugs, actually. These records were bought and sold on street corners, in dark alleyways, in the park," said Stephen Coates, author of X-Ray Audio: The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone.

As elsewhere, as always, music and fashion were the central pillars of youth rebellion in the Soviet Union. And to amplify their statement, the stilyagi — the word can be translated variously as rockers, dandies, hipsters, beatniks, zoot-suiters, or style-hunters — wore their hair high and their clothes loud. The girls' bountiful, colorful dresses were derivative of '50s sock-hop style, though some wore clingy pencil skirts, and the boys sported pompadours, skinny slacks, and bright ties. Many wore dark glasses and, in a proto-punk move, some adorned their clothes with big safety pins. In short, "their style was this insanely misappropriated, misunderstood idea of how people were dressing and behaving in New York," says Russian writer Michael Idov.

According to a 1956 New York Times article entitled "Leningrad Curbs Zealots of Jazz," "One of the major characteristics of stilyagi is the impression they seek to give that they can deal with any situation, that nothing would surprise them" — in other words, cool. On the whole, the stilyagi were apolitical, and in the USSR near the height of the Cold War, that was actually quite a politically loaded stance.

Costumes from the Russian period film 'Stilyagi' on display in St. Petersburg in 2016. (Alexander Demianchuk/Getty)

They were forbidden from gathering in many public places, so they'd get together "at their homes or in their factory club rooms and dance" in "a wild manner," according to the Times. The article also mentions that some stilyagi would position themselves in the lobbies of Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) hotels, hoping to spot international visitors.

Though they were infrequently prosecuted as criminals, stilyagi faced the wrath of members of the Komsomol, the Young Communist League, who organized "vigilance patrols" to deal with them, and the ostracism and derision of the culture at large. One Soviet writer in 1954 called rock 'n roll the "music of lunatics and paralytics" which originated in "North American bars and dance halls under the intoxication of liquor and narcotics in a collapsing, decaying, capitalist world." The satirical magazine Krokodil published cartoons mocking stilyagi, like one featuring a stilyaga (the singular) sitting on a stool at a cocktail bar. The caption reads, "At 2am, the doorman says: Excuse me, your mother phoned. She's worried about whether you did your homework."

But it wasn't all funny. The campaign to stomp out the "hooliganism" of the stilyagi was real. For those who were caught distributing music "on bones" and charged with profiteering, the punishment was severe, often including a few years of hard labor in Siberia.

After Stalin's death in 1953 — and Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in his "Secret Speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 — the USSR experienced a period known as "the Thaw." International trade regulations were loosened, foreign media and entertainment flowed in more freely, and Soviet cultural production flowered.

After Moscow played host to the Sixth Annual World Festival of Youth and Students, an international music festival in 1957, everything changed. The festival, which brought together 34,000 young people from 130 countries, is often seen as a cultural turning point. Soviet youth finally saw it all — American, European, Asian, and even African fashion, style, song, and dance — with their own eyes. Stilyagi culture spread like wildfire. The festival even spawned a mini baby boom, as Russian girls had taken up with international lovers for a couple weeks.

Though American representations of life "behind the Iron Curtain" often portray it as unremittingly grey and uniform, there were in fact plenty of acts of rebellion, large and small, and subcultures that were ebullient, or disaffected, or both. Though the stilyagi movement declined through the 1960s, its legacy was felt for decades.

In 2008, director Valery Todorovsky released the movie Stilyagi (called Hipsters in English), a love letter to the young bohemians and hedonists. The film follows a member of the Communist Youth League, who goes with his comrades to bust up a stilyagi party. Instead, his mind is blown by the revelry, and he ends up switching sides. The film ends with a triumphant musical number, its pompadoured hero singing his way through the streets of Moscow along with all the punks, hippies, and street kids that the stilyagi would go on to spawn. It's a sweet homage to the profound impact the "apolitical" movement had on the way young Soviets saw themselves, and the possible lives they could lead.