Samizdat - a brief history

Samizdat, as a linguistic entity, comes from the Russian words for “self” and “publish”. Literally, then, it means to “self-publish”. But, like most words and phrases in Russian or any other language, it has deeper meanings and deeper histories.

It is generally accepted that the term samizdat was coined by a Moscow writer late in the 1950s. To understand why and how this came about, one must understand a bit about the nature of the Soviet Union at the time. Stalin died in 1953 and with him died the worst and most repressive period of Soviet history. Under Khrushchev, somewhat greater freedoms were granted in the political, social and cultural spheres. All Soviet citizens lived under an umbrella of fear and censorship; one knew what one could and could not do, with whom one could and could not associate, and generally what would be accepted by the authorities and what would not.

Soviet writers were affected just as much and perhaps more than other professionals. They were very restricted in the types of material they could create, the topics they could discuss, and so on. Thus many writers wrote “v jashchik”, “for the drawer”, meaning that the material would never be available through traditional channels. Thus in the late 1950s this Moscow writer wrote something and “without waiting to be published (or, perhaps, in despair), bound together the typewritten sheets of his poems and wrote samsebyaizdat where the name of the publishing house normally appears in a book” (Telesin 25). It was (jokingly) modelled on the form of the names of traditional publishing houses, such as politizdat (publishing house for political materials), yurizdat (publishing house for legal materials) and so on. Samsebyaizdat means literally “publishing house for oneself”. The shorter and more well known form of the word, samizdat, was also used in the same sentence by our Moscow writer. The use of the shorter form had important implications for the history of the term and the phenomenon to which it refers because, while samsebyaizdat means “to publish myself”, samizdat means “to do the publishing oneself” - “not necessarily of my own work, but of my own free will, without begging for permission” (Telesin 25).

Although the phrase samizdat came into being in the late 1950s, samizdat as a widespread phenomenon really dates to the mid to late 1960s, after the fall of Khrushchev. “The few years of Soviet history dominated by this personage had witnessed (after the inauguration of the de-Stalinization campaign at the 20th Party Congress in 1956) the revival of some amount of cultural and scientific freedom” (Feldbrugge 1). However, once Khrushchev was removed and safely out of the political realm and his rivals were firmly entrenched in power, “they soon decided that the limits of personal expression were to be drawn much tighter, particularly where the ideological and political unity of the country was involved” (Feldbrugge 1). The return to at least some of the Stalinist norms of life created disillusionment and protest among society, particularly the various elites. The stories, poems and novels that circulated in samizdat were joined by letters, articles and documents of protest. At this stage samizdat developed from a cultural into a social phenomenon. “Samizdat, in the true sense of this word, arose when it was transformed from an incidental use of forbidden information to a form expressing social consciousness, when it began to grow into an independent area of culture that saw itself not as a corrective or a supplement to official Soviet culture but as a self-contained and singularly original sphere for the realization of society’s spiritual and intellectual life” (Meerson-Aksenov 25-26).

Although the phenomenon of publishing oneself dates much further back in Russian history (copying out materials by hand in the 1920s was called “overcoming Gutenberg” and typed or mimeographed materials were called “Underwood”, after the typewriter), “real samizdat, as a Russian phenomenon for which a new Russian word was needed, could come into existence in the U.S.S.R. only when, on the one hand, everything had been almost strangled to death by the tentacles of censorship and, on the other, there occurred a rare chance to breathe” (Telesin 25).

According to Feldbrugge (4), samizdat came to refer to much more than it had originally. It could be used as a simple name of a quasi-publishing house, or to indicate the publishing process (“a work appearing in samizdat”). As well, ‘in an even wider sense, [it could refer to] the distribution network and the mood of political discontent connected with the samizdat publishing house”. Also, it could be used to refer to the product itself (“to have samizdat in the house”) and, adjectivally, in such phrases as “samizdat typists” or “samizdat works”.

It is also important to note that samizdat referred “exclusively to the unofficial production and distribution of text-based material in typed, mimeographed, xeroxed or printed form” (Johnston 123). There were, however, other terms, based on samizdat, for referring to other material formats. Radizdat referred to “a range of broadcast materials, including books, talks and news bulletins that were copied, usually from foreign radio stations, onto tape and circulated” (Johnston 123). Magnitizdat, “derived from the Russian for ‘magnetic tape recorder’, covered music, verse, speeches and talks that were either copies from the radio or based on live recordings” (Johnston 123). As well, tamizdat, “literally ‘over-there’ publishing, referred to material of Soviet origin published abroad and then smuggled back into the Soviet Union” (Johnston 123-124). Lastly, kolizdat referred “to publication in quantity. Its usage covers both collections of samizdat material bound together into a single volume and various attempts to enlarge the scale of samizdat publishing by developing subscription-based periodicals” (Johnston 123). It should also be noted that “the visual counterpart of samizdat embrace[d] among other things non-conformist painting and sculpture and pornographic pictures as well as photographs and films” (Feldbrugge 15).

Samizdat acted as a viable means of creation and protest throughout the 1960s, 1070s and 1980s. After Gorbachev’s rise to power in the mid 1980s and the inauguration of glasnost and perestroika, the need for and interest in samizdat slowly waned. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent freedoms in culture, society and politics, samizdat was no longer an important phenomenon. However, for Soviet citizens “samizdat [had been] primarily a means of expressing oneself and of communicating with one another in a sphere outside the censor’s supervision” (Feldbrugge 4) and it strongly affected the cultural, social and political life of the Soviet Union throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. And as such it holds an important place in the history of world politics and world literature.

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