Samizdat (USSR)

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Samizdat
Location: USSR
USSR map.png
Author: Jillian Forsyth
Affiliation: Dalhousie University, Canada

Original text by Jillian Forsyth

Samizdat is a specific textual culture that existed in the Soviet Union from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s. Through the production and circulation of texts outside of official institutional frameworks, the practice of samizdat challenged dominant values and positions and created a space for alternative cultural production and communication(Komaromi 2015: 133[1].) The word samizdat can be translated as ‘self-publication.’ Etymologically, the word comes from the Russian sam (сам), meaning ‘self, or by oneself’ and -izdat (-издат), an abbreviation of the word izdatel'stvo (издательство) which means ‘publishing house.’ Well-known dissident Vladimir Bukovsky summarized the samizdat process as follows: “I write myself, edit myself, censor myself, publish myself, distribute myself, go to jail for it myself” (Bukovsky 1979: 141[2]).


Samizdat emerged out of the space of relative cultural liberalization created by the Thaw. A growing aversion to tired ideology and a desire to reassert literary autonomy led to resistance within the cultural field (Komaromi 2015: 38[3]). This quest for greater cultural autonomy is key to the emergence of samizdat. The samizdat of the late 1950s primarily consisted of the unofficial circulation of banned, suppressed, and otherwise un-publishable literature and literary journals. Access to such literature in samizdat allowed authors and readers to critically explore language and conceptions of self and society.Examples include the works of Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, and Tsvetayeva and poetry journals such as Feniks and Sintaksis (Alexeyeva 1990: 98[4]). In the second half of the 1960s, samizdat activity intensified and became inextricably linked with dissidence. After the 1965-66 trial of writers Andrei Siniavskii and Yuli Daniel’ and the repressions that followed, samizdat not only functioned as means of artistic and literary expression, but also played a crucial role in dissident communication and activism. Various groups and individuals, representing such interests as human rights, religious freedoms, and national self-determination, produced and circulated petitions, appeals, periodicals, open letters, and trial transcripts in samizdat. While those involved in the production and dissemination of samizdat material faced severe repressions from the state (incarceration, exile, and confinement to psychiatric wards), samizdat activity endured until the advent of glasnost and perestroika.


”Cover page of the Chronicle of Current Events № 11 (December 31,1969).” Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Chronicle_of_the_Current_Events.jpg

The most common way to produce samizdat was by typewriter (though handwritten, mimeograph, and later Photostat copies of samizdat texts were also in circulation). Samizdat authors would usually type their texts using four or five carbons and then distribute the copies to people they knew. If a recipient found value or was interested in the text, he or she would copy it and pass it along to others in a similar manner (Alexeyeva 1985: 12[5]). These informal text-sharing networks were essential to the production and dissemination of samizdat. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, such groups were mostly comprised of Moscow and Leningrad intelligentsia, however, as these networks grew and samizdat activity increased, samizdat texts could be found across the Soviet Union. In the words of veteran dissident Ludmilla Alexeyeva, samizdat spread across the country like ‘mushroom spores,’ connecting people through unofficial networks (Ibid, 284).


The status of samizdat texts was reinforced by the practice of tamizdat, which was the smuggling of texts to the West for publication. Once published, the texts would often be smuggled back into Soviet Union and circulated in samizdat, as was the case with Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (Lovell 2000; 112). Indeed, the development of samizdat was in many ways supported by audiences abroad and Western publishing opportunities (Komaromi 2015: 133[6]). Some groups, such as human rights defenders and Jewish refuseniks, relied on tamizdat to help garner international support for their cause and bring political pressure to bear on Soviet leaders. Another practice closely connected to samizdat was magnitizdat (see this volume), which involved the production and circulation of audiotapes. The tapes were often amateur recordings of live performances of cult musicians such as Alexander Galich, Bulat Okudzhava,’ and Vladimir Vysotskii (Steiner 2008: 622[7]).


One bulletin that particularly demonstrates the scope and significance of samizdat is the Chronicle of Current Events (Chronicle) . The Chronicle was published in samizdat from 1968 to 1983 and its editors and contributors were human rights activists who were involved in the founding of several major human rights organisations. The Chronicle’s mission was to provide regular and accurate information about human rights violations in the Soviet Union and report on the activity of human rights groups. The Chronicle played a coordinating role within the entire Soviet human rights movement. Samizdat bulletins such as Ukrainian Herald, Exodus, The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church and the Herald of the Evangelical Christian Baptists can be seen as direct offshoots of the Chronicle. Chronicle editors encouraged readers who wanted to contribute information about rights violations and abuses to pass the information along to the person from whom they received a copy, a process that would be repeated until the information reached the editors. This system of information transfer exemplifies the trust-based networks and chains of reproduction and transmission that typified samizdat. Additionally, as the Chronicle grew, its geographical dissemination widened. In the beginning, the Chronicle primarily reported on issues in Moscow, Leningrad, and the Ukraine. However, later issues would include increasingly more information about the provinces and national republics. Not only does this reveal the multidirectional character of information exchange, but it also demonstrates samizdat’s capacity to connect geographically isolated segments of society.


The unofficial circulation of texts that began in the late 1950s served as a forum for the development of alternative culture and transformed relations among Soviet citizens. Artistic, literary and socio-political samizdatmade otherwise inaccessible texts available and made discussion of experiences repressed from official culture possible. In addition, samizdat created significant informal social links; samizdat networks connected citizens across the Soviet Union, as well as across international borders.



Notes

  1. Komaromi, Ann. 2015. Uncensored: Samizdat Novels and the Quest for Autonomy in Soviet Dissidence. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
  2. Bukovsky, Vladimir. 1979. To build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter. New York: Viking Press.
  3. Komaromi, Ann. 2015. Uncensored: Samizdat Novels and the Quest for Autonomy in Soviet Dissidence. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
  4. Alekeyeva, Ludmilla. 1990. The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era. Boston: Little, Brown.
  5. Alekeyeva, Ludmilla. 1985. Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.
  6. Komaromi, Ann. 2015. Uncensored: Samizdat Novels and the Quest for Autonomy in Soviet Dissidence. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
  7. Steiner, Peter. 2008. ‘Introduction: On Samizdat, Tamizdat, Magnitizdat, and Other Strange Words That Are Difficult to Pronounce,’ Poetics Today, 29(4): 613-628.