Samizdat - a brief description

Vital to any discussion of samizdat and a comparison of it to the internet is a brief discussion of some of the characteristics of samizdat as material and as process, and of the reactions to it by government and society.

One important feature of samizdat was that it did not refer to one specific genre or one specific subject, but rather to “all kinds of texts which [were] produced unofficially and circulate[d] through unofficial channels” (Telesin 26). Thus Telesin (26-27) and others list numerous types of samizdat materials, including: novels, poetry, memoirs, pieces of research, parodies, open letters, minutes and records, reportage from prisons and camps, biographies, official documents, reprints, lists of cuts by the censors, and so on. The items sometimes circulated individually or in collections, and were sometimes signed, other times signed pseudonymously or anonymously.

An interesting aspect of samizdat that is difficult to research is who the readers were and what they read. According to Johnston (125), “if, as seems reasonable, the reading of samizdat material involved judgements of taste and preference as well as the constraints imposed by the difficulties and dangers associated with obtaining material, we need to know what readers were making decisions about. In the early stages of samizdat activity, when the volume of material was negligible, it is possible to speculate that readers read anything they could obtain, but the volume of material increased at such a rate in the 1970s and 1980s that judgements about what to read were increasingly being made”. This, of course, raises the question of how exactly readers knew what was available. Interestingly, “while much of this knowledge was derived from informal networks, social gatherings and organized meetings, publicity was also provided by state institutions, including official and party publications charged with limiting the influence and appeal of samizdat. What was rare … were generally known places where prospective readers could shop for samizdat” (Johnston 123-124).

Also important was the fact that the quality of materials that circulated in samizdat varied. According to Telesin (27), “the number of printed copies of a particular samizdat work [could] be correlated approximately with its ‘use value’. Obviously a work that [was] of little or no interest to anybody would not be retyped: a work that interested only a relatively few people would not be widely circulated”. As samizdat was an unofficial means of expression, there was no guarantee as to the quality of work or accuracy of information contained within the materials distributed.

Another important aspect of samizdat is the type of readership it had. Although it is often assumed that the readership of samizdat was composed largely of the urban intellectuals, Johnston (128) notes that “more broadly, it has been argued that the growing body of samizdat literature became a genuinely alternative public sphere. Under this interpretation samizdat is viewed as part of a broader culture of dissent, opposition, critique and independent initiatives”. What is most important is that the readership of samizdat was not homogeneous. “One important implication of this is that different communities of samizdat readers are likely to have read different types of samizdat material. And of equal importance is the extent to which the same material was read and interpreted differently by different readerships” (Johnston 131-132).

Another important characteristic of samizdat is that it was not “driven or even strongly informed by commercial considerations” (Johnston 121). Johnston further notes that “in the absence of a commercial rationale there was a greater diversity of exchange relationships between the constituent parts” of the samizdat networks. This could involve things such as “gifts, barters, loans, the legal and/or illegal use of resources owned by others, large amounts of ‘free’ labour as well as monetary transactions in grey and black markets” (121). The lack of a commercial component, in turn, affected the way in which decisions about what to publish were made. “Clearly there [was] a presumption that there is, will be or ought to be a demand for what is published, but the information mechanism that a commercial market at least in part provides [was] absent. One implication of this [was] that information flows were likely to be more informal, perhaps fed back through the distribution network or constituted and expressed outside the formal ‘communications network’ altogether” (Johnston 121). Samizdat, as an unofficial and non-commercial process, developed and worked quite differently than most systems.

The lack of a commercial basis to samizdat meant that authors were highly unlikely to be motivated by commercial considerations, opening up the question of “what it was that motivated authors to participate in non-commercialized exchanges and the extent to which they [had] any choice in the matter” (Johnston 121). According to Johnston, many authors voluntarily donated their work because there were no other means of publishing available. As well, it is possible that some authors were unaware that their work had been published in samizdat. Lastly, some authors chose to publish in samizdat, rejecting the possibility of more lucrative arrangements. One could argue, however, that for most authors the decision to publish was based on a belief that what they had to say was important. Telesin (29) notes that “the reason why a person [became] an author [was] simple. All authors believed that their written output had social significance. The desire for publicity - glasnost, in Russian, embracing the notions of both openness and freedom of information and expression - [was] the main motive force behind samizdat”.

An important aspect of understanding samizdat is understanding how the process worked. Feldbrugge (17-19) provides an excellent account of the stages of samizdat: authorship, production, distribution, and reading.

The samizdat process begins, of course, with an author who writes or types out the original version. This may be given or lent to others who may make copies and this is how a document starts in samizdat life. It is in regard to reproduction that a number of specific difficulties arise. The possessor of a samizdat document will often have acquired possession for a few days only; he has to hand it back to its owner, or on to a third person. It is not unusual that a document is given on loan for a short time in order to have it copied and that the borrower is obliged to return the original together with three or four carbon copies. [The quality of the copies was often very poor because of the quality of materials and supplies and of the need for speed in reproduction]. The time involved in retyping samizdat is directly related to the circulation speed, [with lengthier documents taking much more time to reproduce] and thereby taking much more time to become widely known. Samizdat is distributed by hand and rarely through the mail - a channel regarded as extremely hazardous. The entire samizdat process bears much resemblance to the situation in Europe before the invention of printing. There is no easy access to a common pool of information and indeed such a pool hardly exists at all. As a result the distribution of information is uneven and patchy. Also, the whole manner of reproduction encourages inaccuracies of various kinds. Words and sentences are changed or omitted, other things are added, works are broken up and reproduced in fragments only and “families” of versions come into being.

One very important and interesting aspect of the nature of the process of samizdat is the “weak connection or absence of connection between the source and the reader” (Feldbrugge 18). The clandestine nature of the process means that “in most cases where the reader would like to establish contact with the author, in order to support, question or criticize the latter’s position, he can only launch his reaction into the samizdat channel available to him and hope that it will somehow some day reach the addressee” (Feldbrugge 18).

The last important aspect of an understanding of samizdat is the way in which authorities reacted to it. Clearly, the authorities feared samizdat and were not inclined to treat the materials or the participants very kindly. Interestingly, however, samizdat was not explicitly illegal. Telesin (32) notes that samizdat was by no means an illegal or underground literature. “There was no ‘black list’ of banned literary works in Soviet legislation”. Indeed, authorities, much as the participants, had difficulty in even adequately defining or understanding samizdat. Telesin (26) quotes Major-general A. Malygin as saying that “there are instances when certain politically immature young people commit acts which would not seem to be illegal, but which, in their aggregate, may do great damage to our society. For instance, all kinds of manuscript works with ideologically harmful contents”. Feldbrugge (22) further notes that “samizdat [was] nowhere forbidden by Soviet law. There [was] no law against possession and use of typewriters and cameras and the distribution of carbon copies of a text”. However, he notes that the very process of using the samizdat process must have looked suspicious to the authorities. Because of the lack of clear measures of legality, the state’s reactions to it were never consistent. Meerson-Aksenov (42-43) notes that

the regime [fought] samizdat quite sternly. But this severity [was] not always the same. It wave[d] from year to year, even from season to season, from republic to republic, and from city to city. There also [was] no clear definitions of the limits of the ‘forbidden’. Local organs of search act[ed] in accordance with their own levels of information. Sometimes during searches they [left] what they considered ‘harmless’ religious samizdat but seized ‘dangerous’ Soviet editions. It is impossible to state any formulations concerning the oppression of samizdat.

Johnston (119) discusses the notions of legality and illegality in broader terms and then applies them to the process of samizdat. He discusses the notions of political and legal sanctions as they apply to illegal or semi-legal texts. He notes that it is useful, particularly when examining samizdat, to take a non-unitary view of the state.

This is important because any unitary concept of the state would presume that the range of state institutions engaged in the proscription and regulation of illicit material would operate as one, or at least with a degree of consistency. Yet it is clear that at the political, judicial and policing levels, the scope for exercising discretion is considerable. The fact that a particular text has been proscribed does not automatically mean that policing or customs activity increases, or that courts and judges make decisions that reflect, in some simple way, an agreed political agenda. Why and how discretion is exercised is important. It can stem from a political directive, bureaucratic inertia, limited resources or a degree of scepticism regarding the justice or rationality of the matter at hand on the part of those charged with enforcing political and legal directives. It may even stem from a degree of uncertainty as to whether or not texts or activities associated with their production and distribution are illegal. A further consideration is the nature of the legislation that is used to ‘censor’ and restrict the circulation of printed material and the balance between the use of legal and extra-legal methods. From the perspective of those engaged in what they understand to be illicit activity, the discretion of the state is experienced in a rather different way. As the extent to which discretion will be exercised remains in most cases unknown, one would reasonably expect activities to be organized on the assumption that sanctions and punishment remain a permanent possibility. Indeed, it is precisely this ‘threat’ and the uncertainty it creates rather than a consistent application of known political and legal directives that constitutes some of the complexity of the way in which the state rules.

The fact that Soviet law did not strictly forbid samizdat and that the state itself had a difficult time in determining what it was that constituted samizdat lends argument to Johnston’s assertions. As well, the inconsistency with which the authorities attacked the material and the participants is further evidence of Johnston’s process in practice. Most interestingly, however, is the fact that Telesin’s comments give evidence to Johnston’s assertion that the threat of punishment and the uncertainty that accompanied it were strong means of state control. He notes that “people were discouraged by the danger - real or imagined - [of samizdat]. Samizdat [was] differentiated according to degrees and shades of danger. A man develop[ed], consciously or intuitively, his own notion of the risk he [was] taking when he type[d] out, gave people to read, or [kept] at home, pieces of samizdat literature” (27). And he notes several important “samizdat complexes”, such as “fear of abroad” (fear of being connected with Western intelligence), “fear of several copies”, “fear of the first copy” (identification of the typewriter) and the “fear of the typewriter tap” (there may be a sharp-eared KGB man or an overzealous neighbour behind the wall) (28-29). All of these psychological aspects were another component of the state’s attempt to control activity.

Although the preceding brief history and discussion of some of the qualities of samizdat by no means constitute a comprehensive study of the phenomenon, they provide an adequate understanding of samizdat for the purposes of comparing it to the internet and to internet publishing, to which the following pages will be devoted.

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