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Samizdat (Russian: самизда́т, IPA: [səmɨzˈdat]) was a key form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc in which individuals reproduced censored publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader. This grassroots practice to evade officially imposed censorship was fraught with danger as harsh punishments were meted out to people caught possessing or copying censored materials.
Essentially, the samizdat copies of texts were passed among friends, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita or Václav Havel's essay The Power of the Powerless. Techniques used to reproduce these forbidden texts varied, from making several copies of the content using carbon paper, either by hand or on a typewriter, to printing on mainframe printers during night shifts, to printing the books on semiprofessional printing presses in larger quantities. Before glasnost, the practice was dangerous, because copy machines, printing presses, and even typewriters in offices were under control of the First Departments (KGB outposts): reference printouts for all of them were stored for identification purposes.
Samizdat distinguishes itself not only by the ideas and debates which it helped spread to a wider audience, but also by its physical form. The hand-typed, often blurry and wrinkled pages which possessed numerous typos and nondescript covers helped to separate and elevate Russian samizdat from Western literature. Though the physical form of samizdat grew out of the simple lack of resources and necessity of inconspicuousness, dissidents in the USSR began to fetishize samizdat for the sharp contrast between samizdat’s ragged appearance and the appearance of texts published by the state. The form of samizdat itself took precedence over the ideas expressed in it, and came to symbolize the resourcefulness and rebellious spirit of citizens of the Soviet Union. In effect, the physical form of samizdat itself elevated the reading of samizdat to a prized clandestine act.
Samizdat originated from the dissident movement of the Russian intelligentsia, and most samizdat directed itself to a readership of Russian elites. While circulation of samizdat was relatively low, at around 200,000 readers on average, many of these readers possessed positions of cultural power and authority. Furthermore, due to the presence of "dual consciousness" in the Soviet Union, the simultaneous censorship of information and necessity of absorbing information to know how to censor it, many government officials became readers of samizdat. Though the general public at times came into contact with samizdat, most of the public lacked access to the few, expensive samizdat texts in circulation, and expressed discontent with the highly censored reading material made available by the state.
Etymologically, the word samizdat is made out of sam (Russian: сам, "self, by oneself") and izdat (Russian: издат, abbr. издательство, izdatel’stvo, "publishing house"), thus "self-published." The Ukrainian term is samvýdav (самвидав), from sam, "self", and vydannya, "publication."
The term was coined as a pun by Russian poet Nikolai Glazkov in the 1940s, who typed copies of his poems indicating Samsebyaizdat (Самсебяиздат, "Myself by Myself Publishers") on the front page.
Roentgenizdat were underground samizdat recordings on x-ray film: phonograph records made of a thin, flexible sheet with a spiral stylus groove, designed to be playable on a normal phonograph turntable. The name roentgenizdat comes from the combination of Roentgen ray (another word for X-ray) and izdat.
Tamizdat refers to literature published abroad (там, tam, "there"), often from smuggled manuscripts.
In the history of the Polish underground press, the usual term in the later years of Communism was drugi obieg or "second circulation" (of publications), with the implied first circulation being legal and censored publications. The term bibuła ("blotting paper") is older, having been used even during the partitions of Poland.
Self-published and self-distributed literature has a long history, but samizdat is a unique phenomenon in the post-Stalin USSR and other countries with similar systems of tyranny. Under the grip of censorship of the police state, these societies used underground literature for self-analysis and self-expression.
At the outset of the Khrushchev Thaw in the mid-1950s USSR, poetry became very popular and writings of a wide variety of known, prohibited, repressed, as well as young and unknown poets circulated among Soviet intelligentsia.
On June 29, 1958, a monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky was opened in the centre of Moscow. The official ceremony ended with impromptu public poetry readings. The Moscovites liked the atmosphere of relatively free speech so much that the readings became regular and came to be known as "Mayak" (Russian: Маяк, the lighthouse), with students being a majority of participants. However, it did not last long as the authorities began clamping down on the meetings. In the summer of 1961, several meeting regulars (among them Eduard Kuznetsov) were arrested and charged with "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" (Article 70 of the RSFSR Penal Code). Editor and publisher of Moscow samizdat magazine "Синтаксис" (Syntaxis) Alexander Ginzburg was arrested in 1960.
Some legitimate publications in the state-controlled media, such as a novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1970), first published in literary magazine Novy Mir in November 1962, were practically impossible to find in (and later taken out from) circulation and made their way into samizdat. Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and Cancer Ward followed, after 1968 publication abroad.
Not everything published in samizdat had political overtones. In 1963, Joseph Brodsky (to become a Nobel laureate in 1987) was charged with "social parasitism" and convicted for being nothing but a poet. In the mid-1960s, an underground literary group СМОГ ("Самое Молодое Общество Гениев", Samoye Molodoye Obshchestvo Geniyev, translated as The Youngest Society of Geniuses; the acronym forms the Russian word for "[One] Could") issued their literary almanac "Сфинксы" (Sfinksy; The Sphinxes) and collections of prose and poetry. Some of their writings were close to Russian avantgarde of the 1910s–1920s.
The 1965 show trial of writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky (Sinyavsky–Daniel trial, also charged with violating Article 70) and increased repressions marked the demise of the Thaw and harsher times for samizdat authors. The trial was carefully documented in The White Book by Yuri Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg. Both writers were later arrested and sentenced to prison in what was known as The Trial of the Four. Some of the samizdat content became more politicized and played an important role in the dissident movement in the Soviet Union.
From 1964 to 1970, historian Roy Medvedev regularly published analytical materials that later appeared in the West under the title "Политический дневник" (Politicheskiy Dnevnik; The Political Journal).
One of the longest-running and well-known samizdat publications was the information bulletin "Хроника текущих событий" (Khronika Tekushchikh Sobitiy; Chronicle of Current Events), dedicated to the defense of human rights in the USSR. For 15 years from 1968 to 1983, a total of 63 issues were published. The anonymous authors encouraged the readers to utilize the same distribution channels in order to send feedback and local information to be published in the subsequent issues. The Chronicle was known for its dry concise style; its regular rubrics were "Arrests, Searches, Interrogations", "Out of Court Repressions", "In Prisons and Camps", "News of Samizdat", "Persecution of Religion", "Persecution of Crimean Tatars", "Repressions in Ukraine", "Lithuanian Events", and so on. The authors maintained that according to the Soviet Constitution, the Chronicle was not an illegal publication, but the long list of people arrested in relation to it included Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Yuri Shikhanovich, Pyotr Yakir, Victor Krasin, Sergei Kovalev, Alexander Lavut, Tatyana Velikanova, among others.
Another notable and long-running (about 20 issues in the period of 1972–1980) publication was the refusenik political and literary magazine "Евреи в СССР" (Yevrei v SSSR, Jews in the USSR), founded and edited by Alexander Voronel and after his release, by Mark Azbel and Alexander Luntz.
In June 2009 issue of the Russian Life magazine Oleg Kashin describes an antisemitic trend in samizdat of late 1970s: "Russian party... was a very strange element of the political landscape of Leonid Brezhnev's era – feeling themselves practically dissidents, members of the Russian party with rare exceptions took quite prestigious official positions in writers or journalists medium."
Samizdat covered a large range of topics, mainly including literature and works focused on religion, nationality and politics. The state censored a variety of materials such as detective novels, adventure stories and science fiction in addition to dissident texts, resulting in the underground publication of samizdat covering a wide range of topics. Though most samizdat authors directed their works towards the intelligentsia, samizdat included lowbrow genres in addition to scholarly works.
In its early years, samizdat defined itself as a primarily literary phenomenon which included the distribution of poetry, classic unpublished Russian literature, and famous 20th century foreign literature. Literature played a key role in the existence of the samizdat phenomenon. For instance, the USSR’s refusal to publish Boris Pasternak’s epic novel, Doctor Zhivago, due to its focus on individual characters rather than the welfare of the state, led to the novel’s subsequent underground publication. The fact that Doctor Zhivago contained no overt messages of dissidence highlighted the clumsiness of the state’s censorship process, which caused a shift of readership away from state-published material. Likewise, the circulation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous work detailing the horrors of the gulag system, Gulag Archipelago, promoted a samizdat revival during the mid-1970s. However, because samizdat by definition placed itself in opposition to the state, samizdat works became increasingly focused on the state’s violation of human rights, before shifting towards politics. An analysis of the largest archive of samizdat, Arkhiv Samizdata, reveals that literary samizdat composed merely 1% of the total body of samizdat.
The majority of samizdat texts were politically focused. Most of the political texts were personal statements, appeals, protests, or information on arrests and trials. Other political samizdat included analyses of various crises within the USSR and suggested alternatives to the government’s handling of events. No unified political thought existed within samizdat; rather, authors debated from a variety of perspectives. Samizdat written from socialist, democratic and Slavophile perspectives dominated the debates.
Socialist authors compared the current state of the government to the Marxist ideals of socialism, and appealed to the state to fulfill its promises. Socialist samizdat writers hoped to give a "human face" to socialism by expressing dissatisfaction with the system of censorship. Many socialists put faith in the potential for reform in the Soviet Union, especially because of the political liberalization which occurred under Dubcek in Czechoslovakia. However, the Soviet Union invasion of a liberalizing Czechoslovakia in the events of "Prague Spring" crushed hopes for reform and stymied the power of the socialist viewpoint. Because the state proved itself unwilling to reform, samizdat began to focus on alternative political systems. Within samizdat, several works focused on the possibility of a democratic political system. Democratic samizdat possessed a revolutionary nature because of its claim that a fundamental shift in political structure was necessary to reform the state, unlike socialists who hoped to work within the same basic political framework to achieve change. Surprisingly, despite the revolutionary nature of the democratic samizdat authors, most democrats advocated moderate strategies for change. Most democrats believed in an evolutionary approach to achieving democracy in the USSR, and focused on advancing their cause along open, public routes, rather than underground routes.
In opposition to both democratic and socialist samizdat, Slavophile samizdat grouped democracy and socialism together as Western ideals which were unsuited to the Eastern European mentality. Slavophile samizdat brought a nationalistic Russian perspective to the political debate and espoused the importance of cultural diversity and the uniqueness of Slavic cultures. Samizdat written from the Slavophile perspective attempted to unite the USSR under a vision of a shared glorious history of Russian autocracy and Orthodoxy. Consequently, the fact that the USSR encompassed a diverse range of nationalities and lacked a singular Russian history hindered the Slavophile movement. By espousing frequently racist and anti-Semitic views of Russian superiority through either purity of blood or the strength of the Russian Orthodoxy, the Slavophile movement in samizdat alienated readers and created divisions within the opposition.
Samizdat about religion composed about 20% of the total materials in the Arkhiv Samizdata. Predominantly Baptist, Orthodox, Pentecostalist, Catholic and Adventist groups authored samizdat texts. Though a diversity of religious samizdat circulated, including three Buddhist texts, no known Islamic samizdat texts exist. The lack of Islamic samizdat appears incongruous with the large percentage of Muslims who resided in the USSR.
About 17% of the texts in Arkhiv Samizdata center on issues of nationality. Jewish samizdat importantly advocated for the cease in repression of Jews in the USSR, and expressed a desire for exodus, the ability to leave Russia for an Israeli homeland. The exodus movement also broached broader topics of human rights and freedoms of Soviet citizens. However, a divide existed within Jewish samizdat between authors who advocated exodus and those who argued that Jews should remain in the USSR to fight for their rights. Crimean Tartars and Volga Germans also wrote samizdat protesting the state’s refusal to allow them to return to their homelands following Stalin’s death. Ukrainian samizdat opposed the assumed superiority of Russian culture over Ukrainian culture and condemned the forced assimilation of Ukrainians to the Russian language. In addition to samizdat focused on Jewish, Ukrainian and Crimean Tartar concerns, authors also advocated the causes of a great many other nationalities.
After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled by the Shah of Iran in 1964, his sermons were smuggled into Iran on cassette tapes and widely copied, increasing his popularity and leading, in part, to the Iranian Revolution. After the Iranian Revolution led to the establishment of an Islamic state, the situation reversed. Works like Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988) appeared inside the Religious Republic in illegal Samizdat editions.
A tradition of publishing handwritten material existed in the German military during both the First and Second World War.
China also has a history of underground handwritten manuscripts of books officially banned by the authorities, although not all banned books were of a political nature: books such as the erotic novel Jin Ping Mei were also banned to "protect public morals."
After Bell Labs changed its UNIX license to make dissemination of the source code illegal, the Lions Book had to be withdrawn, but illegal copies of it circulated for years. The act of copying the Lions book was often referred to as Samizdat. See Lions' Commentary on UNIX 6th Edition, with Source Code for more information.