Samizdat [sah-miz-daht] (Russian for ‘self-published’) 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 text, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel ‘The Master and Margarita’ or Václav Havel’s writing ‘The Power of the Powerless,’ were passed among friends. The techniques to reproduce the forbidden literature and periodicals 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 semi-professional 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 KGB.

The term was coined as a pun by Russian poet Nikolai Glazkov in the 1940s. Magnitizdat is the passing on of taped sound recordings (magnit- referring to magnetic tape), often of underground music groups, bards, or lectures. Tamizdat refers to literature published abroad, often from smuggled manuscripts.

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 center 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: ‘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 were arrested and charged with ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.’

Some legitimate publications in the state-controlled media, such as a novel ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 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.

Not everything published in samizdat had political overtones. In 1963, Joseph Brodsky (who become a Nobel laureate in 1987) was charged with ‘social parasitism’ and convicted for being nothing but a poet.

In 1965, writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky were arrested on similar grounds. The trial was carefully documented in ‘The White Book’ by Yuri Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg. Both of whom 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.

One of the longest-running and well-known samizdat publications was the information bulletin ‘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,’ ‘Prisons and Camps,’ ‘Persecution of Religion,’ etc.

In Iran, 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.

After Bell Labs changed its UNIX license to make dissemination of the source code illegal, the printed version had to be withdrawn, but the technical data it contained was of such enormous value that illegal copies of it circulated for years. The act of copying the book was often referred to as Samizdat.

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