Samizdat: Reproduction of Censored Literature

Censored literature has an important history not only because of its political implications but also due to the nature of its illicit material reproduction, which can offer a lot of insight into the existence of text-objects within a society. The methods of resistance that allow that literature to be reproduced can often end up eclipsing in importance the actual content of the work. In the Soviet Union, samizdat existed as “a clandestine practice. . . of circulating manuscripts that were banned, had no chance of being published in normal channels or were politically suspect” (Lupinin 1347). This method of publication, reproduced and circulated through “typescripts, mimeograph copies, or handwritten items,” created a culture of subversion in which the challenge of dominant ideologies became associated with typographical errors and scripts of subpar quality (Lupinin 1347).

The history of the specific practice began in the 1940s with Nikolai Glazkov, who started to use the word “samsebiaizdat—that is, self-publication of one’s work—on the front page of his typewritten collections of poems” (Oushakine 194). Over the next few decades, documents were reproduced in this manner and then circulated with the expectation that those who obtained them would “retype [the literature] with multiple carbon copies for further readers” (Downing 356). Careful concealment was necessary because possession of such banned literature was grounds of arrest; there was “strictly controlled access to copy machines,” making “privately owned typewriters the most practical means for publication” (Komaromi 599). As a result of reliance on typewriters and individual reproduction, mistakes became an integral part of the process. The “samizdat medium” became associated with a “wretched” manuscript containing several “mistakes and corrections as well as blurred or pale type” (Komaromi 603). A strong cultural association was thus drawn between the material existence of the samizdat text and subversive literature, between typographical errors and the “intoxicating product” of the practice, its nature as “forbidden fruit” that imparts important knowledge one is somehow not supposed to know (Komaromi 606). Such errors became important because they marked the “difference between samizdat and official publications;” the actual message “carried on the samizdat page ceased to matter” to those who fetishized the object because the value of the text was coded on its difference as “physical form” (Komaromi 609). In some cases, according to Komaromi, even “interesting literature” would be “dismissed” because it appeared in the official press (Komaromi 609). The marking of the text-object as subversive became more important than the actuality of the subversive content.

An understanding of samizdat as almost entirely based on its nature as textual object led to several works that deliberately included typographical errors in texts as a method of revealing the importance of their textual representation. Dmitri Prigov, a prominent Russian writer and conceptual artist known for uniting divergent art forms and briefly being institutionalized for his work, undertook a project of editing Pushkin’s famous novel Eugene Onegin and in doing so added several of the common textual elements of samizdat including its “translucent, dog-eared tissue paper with abundant mistakes and type-overs” (Komaromi 610). His purpose was to expose the “elitism of the samizdat milieu” by showing the extent to which the form mattered. His intentional errors challenge the “fetishization of the text” considered so essential to the nature of samizdat while placing it within the context of canonical texts of Russian history (Komaromi 611).

The practice of samizdat is similar to the status of music considered subversive within the Soviet Union. Originally beginning with jazz and then eventually including Western rock, dissidents within the country would have to develop methods of effectively reproducing and circulating that music outside of official channels. Many Soviet youth would listen to “audiocassettes of. . . rock music, copied many times” that were “circulated widely and were known as magnitizdat” (Downing 357). This illicit circulation became important in terms of shifting the allegiance of young people against the Soviet regime because they could not see the point of authority suppressing such things as music. The term specifically refers to the practice of dissemination and describes a mode that “encompassed all unofficial recordings: poetic recitation, novels read on tape, interviews and music” (Daughtry 5). It was established by the arrival of “affordable reel-to-reel tape recorders in Soviet stores” and became associated with that specific medium of dubbed cassette tapes (Daughtry 6). The mass quality of production allowed Soviet citizens to challenge the authority of the regime through shared cultural experiences. Interestingly enough, Soviet authorities focused far more on those dissidents involved in the practice of samizdat than magnitizdat; often in raids, citizens would have their reproductions of illicit literature seized while their cassette tapes were untouched (Daughtry 8). Magnitizdat was also a far simpler process in terms of reproduction and therefore it was more difficult for authorities to isolate its publishers as compared to those of samizdat (Daughtry 8). The material nature of reproduction played a large role in the relative subversiveness of these practices. Furthermore, as Daughtry writes, “nearly all people who were actively reading samizdat were also listening to magnitizdat (Daughtry 9). The latter practice represents a larger and more popular method of subversive reproduction, with many similar traits.

The nature of samizdat is such a complicated one because it represents both the natural progression of dissidents finding new ways of communicating outside of official media and the fetishization of the text as an object encoding cultural difference. It situates itself in the intersection between subversive context and textual representation, existing as a process simultaneously enmeshed within the larger framework of Soviet dissidence and self-conscious of its existence as mere artifact. Its complications reflect the tension of creating subversive discourses in Soviet society and the need for further study of such systems.

– Sean Ryan, 20 November 2009


Works Cited

Downing, John. Radical media rebellious communication and social movements. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications, 2001. Print.

Komaromi, Ann. “The Material Existence of Soviet Samizdat.” Slavic Review 63.3 (2004): 597-618. JSTOR. Web. 5 Nov. 2009.

Lupinin, Nickolas. “Samizdat.” Encyclopedia of Russian History. 1347-348. Print.

Oushakine, Serguei A. “The Terrible Mimicry of Samizdat.” Public Culture 13.2 (2001): 191-214. Muse. Web. 5 Nov. 2009.

Daughtry, J. Martin. “Magnitizdat as Cultural Practice.” Samizdat and Underground Culture in the Soviet Bloc Countries. Web. 13 Dec. 2009.