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Russian samizdat and photo negatives of unofficial literature in the USSR.jpg
Russian samizdat and photo negatives of unofficial literature
Russian самиздат
Romanization samizdat
Literal meaning self-publishing

Samizdat (Russian : самиздат, lit. "self-publishing") was a form of dissident activity across the Eastern Bloc in which individuals reproduced censored and underground publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader. This grassroots practice to evade official Soviet censorship was fraught with danger, as harsh punishments were meted out to people caught possessing or copying censored materials. Vladimir Bukovsky summarized it as follows: "Samizdat: I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend jail time for it myself." [1]

Russian language East Slavic language

Russian is an East Slavic language, which is official in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was the de facto language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution on 25 December 1991. Although, nowadays, nearly three decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian is used in official capacity or in public life in all the post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in Israel and Mongolia, the rise of state-specific varieties of this language tends to be strongly denied in Russia, in line with the Russian World ideology.

Soviet dissidents citizens of the Soviet Union who disagreed with the USSRs leaders

Soviet dissidents were people who disagreed with certain features in the embodiment of Soviet ideology and who were willing to speak out against them. The term dissident was used in the Soviet Union in the period following Joseph Stalin's death until the fall of communism. It was used to refer to small groups of marginalized intellectuals whose modest challenges to the Soviet regime met protection and encouragement from correspondents. Following the etymology of the term, a dissident is considered to "sit apart" from the regime. As dissenters began self-identifying as dissidents, the term came to refer to an individual whose non-conformism was perceived to be for the good of a society.

Eastern Bloc 20th-century group of socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe

The Eastern Bloc was the group of Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia and Southeast Asia under the hegemony of the Soviet Union (USSR) during the Cold War (1947–1991) in opposition to the non-Communist Western Bloc. Generally, in Western Europe the term Eastern Bloc comprised the USSR and its East European satellite-states in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon); in Asia, the Socialist bloc comprised the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Lao People's Democratic Republic and the People's Republic of Kampuchea; the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the People's Republic of China ; and in the Americas, the Communist Bloc included the Caribbean Republic of Cuba, since 1961.


Name origin and variations

Etymologically, the word samizdat derives from sam (Russian : сам, "self, by oneself") and izdat (Russian : издат, an abbreviation of издательство, izdatel'stvo, "publishing house"), and thus means "self-published". The Ukrainian language has a similar term: samvydav (самвидав), from sam, "self", and vydavnytstvo, "publishing house". [2]

Etymology study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time

Etymology is the study of the history of words. By extension, the term "the etymology " means the origin of the particular word and for place names, there is a specific term, toponymy.

Ukrainian language language member of the East Slavic subgroup of the Slavic languages

Ukrainian is an East Slavic language. It is the official state language of Ukraine and first of two principal languages of Ukrainians; it is one of the three official languages in the unrecognized state of Transnistria, the other two being Romanian and Russian. Written Ukrainian uses a variant of the Cyrillic script.

The Russian poet Nikolai Glazkov coined a version of the term as a pun in the 1940s when he typed copies of his poems and included the note Samsebyaizdat (Самсебяиздат, "Myself by Myself Publishers") on the front page. [3]

Pun figure of speech

The pun, also called paronomasia, is a form of word play that exploits multiple meanings of a term, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect. These ambiguities can arise from the intentional use of homophonic, homographic, metonymic, or figurative language. A pun differs from a malapropism in that a malapropism is an incorrect variation on a correct expression, while a pun involves expressions with multiple correct interpretations. Puns may be regarded as in-jokes or idiomatic constructions, as their usage and meaning are specific to a particular language and its culture.

Tamizdat refers to literature published abroad (там, tam, "there"), often from smuggled manuscripts. [4]


"Эрика" берёт четыре копии,
Вот и всё!
...А этого достаточно.

The "Erika" takes four copies,
That is all!
...But that is enough.

  Alexander Galich on the Erika typewriter commonly used for carbon copies in Russian samizdat production. [5]

Alexander Galich (writer) Soviet musician and writer

Alexander Arkadievich Galich was a Soviet poet, screenwriter, playwright, singer-songwriter, and dissident.

Samizdat copies of texts, such as Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita or Václav Havel's essay The Power of the Powerless were passed around among trusted friends. The techniques used to reproduce these forbidden texts varied. Several copies might be made using carbon paper, either by hand or on a typewriter; at the other end of the scale, mainframe computer printers were used during night shifts to make multiple copies, and books were at times printed on semiprofessional printing presses in much larger quantities. Before glasnost, the practice was dangerous, because copy machines, printing presses, and even typewriters in offices were under control of the organisation's First Department, i.e., the KGB: reference printouts from all of these machines were stored for subsequent identification purposes, should samizdat output be found.

Mikhail Bulgakov Russian author

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov was a Russian writer, medical doctor and playwright active in the first half of the 20th century. He is best known for his novel The Master and Margarita, published posthumously, which has been called one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.

<i>The Master and Margarita</i> novel by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita is a novel by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, written in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1940 during Stalin's regime. A censored version was published in Moscow magazine in 1966–1967, after the writer's death. The manuscript was not published as a book until 1967, and then first in Paris. A samizdat version circulated that included parts cut out by official censors, and these were incorporated in a 1969 version published in Frankfurt. The novel has since been published in several languages and editions.

Václav Havel playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and 1st President of the Czech Republic

Václav Havel was a Czech statesman, writer and former dissident, who served as the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 and then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. As a writer of Czech literature, he is known for his plays, essays, and memoirs.

Physical form

Samizdat in disguised book-binding seen in the Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius Samizdat seen in Museum of Genocide Victims Vilnius.jpg
Samizdat in disguised book-binding seen in the Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius

Samizdat distinguishes itself not only by the ideas and debates that it helped spread to a wider audience but also by its physical form. The hand-typed, often blurry and wrinkled pages with numerous typographical errors and nondescript covers helped to separate and elevate Russian samizdat from Western literature. [6] The physical form of samizdat arose from a simple lack of resources and the necessity to be inconspicuous. In time, dissidents in the USSR began to admire these qualities for their own sake, the ragged appearance of samizdat contrasting sharply with the smooth, well-produced appearance of texts passed by the censor's office for publication by the State. The form samizdat took gained precedence over the ideas it expressed, and became a potent symbol of the resourcefulness and rebellious spirit of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union. [7] In effect, the physical form of samizdat itself elevated the reading of samizdat to a prized clandestine act. [8]


Closeup of typewritten samizdat, Moscow Samizdat Pages Closeup 1.jpg
Closeup of typewritten samizdat, Moscow

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. [9] Furthermore, because of 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. [10] Although 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. [11]

The purpose and methods of samizdat may contrast with the purpose of the concept of copyright. [12]


Self-published and self-distributed literature has a long history in Russia. Samizdat is unique to the post-Stalin USSR and other countries with similar systems. Faced with the police state's powers of censorship, society turned to underground literature for self-analysis and self-expression. [13]

Samizdat books and editions

Certain works published legally by the State-controlled media were practically impossible to find in bookshops and libraries, and found their way into samizdat. The first full-length book to be distributed as samizdat was Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel Doctor Zhivago . [14] Although the literary magazine Novy Mir had published ten poems from the book in 1954, a year later, the full text was judged unsuitable for publication and entered samizdat circulation. [14] The novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had a similar fate and was widely distributed via samizdat. [14] [15]

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. A number of samizdat publications began circulating that carried unofficial poetry: the Moscow samizdat magazine Sintaksis (1959-1960) by writer Alexander Ginzburg, Vladimir Osipov's Boomerang (1960) and Phoenix (1961) produced by Yuri Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg. The editors of these magazines were regulars at impromptu public poetry readings between 1958 and 1961 on Mayakovsky Square in Moscow. The gatherings did not last long, for soon the authorities began clamping down on them. In the summer of 1961, several meeting regulars were arrested and charged with "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" (Article 70 of the RSFSR Penal Code), putting an end to most of the magazines.

Not everything published in samizdat had political overtones. In 1963, Joseph Brodsky was charged with "social parasitism" and convicted for being nothing but a poet. His poems circulated in samizdat, with only four judged as suitable for official Soviet anthologies. [16] In the mid-1960s, the Youngest Society of Geniuses, an unofficial literary group known by the acronym SMOG (Samoye Molodoye Obshchestvo Geniyev; the acronym also forms the Russian verb for I, He, One "Could") issued an almanac titled The Sphinxes (Sfinksy) and collections of prose and poetry. Some of their writings were close to the Russian avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s.

The 1965 show trial of writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky (Sinyavsky–Daniel trial), charged with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, and the subsequent increased repression, marked the demise of the Thaw and the beginning of harsher times for samizdat authors. The trial was carefully documented in a samizdat collection called The White Book (1966), compiled by Yuri Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg. Both writers were later themselves arrested, and sentenced to prison in what was known as The Trial of the Four.

In the following years some samizdat content became more politicized, and played an important role in the dissident movement in the Soviet Union.

Samizdat periodicals

Typewritten copy of the Russian human rights periodical A Chronicle of Current Events, Moscow Samizdat Chronicle of Current Events No 22 Cover and pages.jpg
Typewritten copy of the Russian human rights periodical A Chronicle of Current Events, Moscow

The earliest samizdat periodicals were short-lived and mainly literary in focus: Sintaksis (1959-1960), Boomerang (1960), and Phoenix (1961). From 1964 to 1970, communist historian Roy Medvedev regularly published The Political Journal (in Russian Политический дневник, or political diary), which contained analytical materials that later appeared in the West.

The longest-running and best-known samizdat periodical was A Chronicle of Current Events (Хроника текущих событий). [17] It was dedicated to defending human rights by providing accurate information about events in the USSR. Over 15 years, from April 1968 to December 1982, 65 issues were published, all but two appearing in English translation. [18] The anonymous editors encouraged the readers to utilize the same distribution channels in order to send feedback and local information to be published in subsequent issues.

The Chronicle was distinguished by its dry, concise style and punctilious correction of even the smallest error. Its regular rubrics were "Arrests, Searches, Interrogations", "Extra-judicial Persecution", "In Prisons and Camps", "Samizdat update", "News in brief", and "Persecution of Religion". Over time, sections were added on the "Persecution of the Crimean Tatars", "Persecution and Harassment in Ukraine", "Lithuanian Events", and so on.

The Chronicle editors maintained that, according to the 1936 Soviet Constitution, then in force, their publication was not illegal. The authorities did not accept the argument. Many people were harassed, arrested, imprisoned, or forced to leave the country for their involvement in the Chronicle's production and distribution. The periodical's typist and first editor Natalya Gorbanevskaya was arrested and put in a psychiatric hospital for taking part in the August 1968 Red Square protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1974, two of the periodical's close associates (Pyotr Yakir and Victor Krasin) were persuaded to denounce their fellow editors and the Chronicle on Soviet television. This put an end to the periodical's activities, until Sergei Kovalev, Tatyana Khodorovich and Tatyana Velikanova openly announced their readiness to resume publication. After being arrested and imprisoned, they were replaced, in turn, by 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 imprisonment, by Mark Azbel and Alexander Luntz.

The late 1980s, which were marked by an increase in informal organizations, saw a renewed wave of samizdat periodicals in the Soviet Union. Publications that were active during that time included Glasnost (edited by Sergei Grigoryants), Ekspress-khronika (Express-Chronicle, edited by Alexander Podrabinek), Svobodnoye slovo ("Free word", by the Democratic Union formed in May 1988), Levyi povorot ("Left turn", edited by Boris Kagarlitsky), Otkrytaya zona ("Open zone") of Club Perestroika, Merkurii ("Mercury", edited by Elena Zelinskaya) and Khronograph ("Chronograph", put out by a number of Moscow activists). [19]

Not all samizdat trends were liberal or clearly opposed to the Soviet regime and the literary establishment. "The 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 the world of writers or journalists," wrote Oleg Kashin in 2009. [20]

Genres of samizdat

Samizdat covered a large range of topics, mainly including literature and works focused on religion, nationality, and politics. [21] 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. [22]

Hyung-Min Joo carried out a detailed analysis of an archive of samizdat (Архив Самиздата, Arkhiv Samizdata by Radio Liberty , sponsored by the US Congress and launched in the 1960s, and reported that of its 6,607 items, 1% were literary, 17% nationalist, 20% religious, and 62% political, noting that as a rule, literary works were not collected there, so their 1% (only 73 texts) are not representative of their real share of circulation. [21]


Typewritten edition of Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, Moscow Samizdat Vasily Grossmann Everything Flows Cover.jpg
Typewritten edition of Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, Moscow
Typewritten edition of National Frontiers and International Scientific Cooperation by Zhores Medvedev. Samizdat Zhores Medvedev International Scientific Cooperation Cover.jpg
Typewritten edition of National Frontiers and International Scientific Cooperation by Zhores Medvedev.

In its early years, samizdat defined itself as a primarily literary phenomenon that included the distribution of poetry, classic unpublished Russian literature, and famous 20th century foreign literature. [23] 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. [24] Likewise, the circulation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous work about the gulag system, The Gulag Archipelago , promoted a samizdat revival during the mid-1970s. [25] 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. [26]


The majority of samizdat texts were politically focused. [21] Most of the political texts were personal statements, appeals, protests, or information on arrests and trials. [27] 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. [28]

Socialist authors compared the current state of the government to the Marxist ideals of socialism, and appealed to the state to fulfil its promises. Socialist samizdat writers hoped to give a "human face" to socialism by expressing dissatisfaction with the system of censorship. [29] Many socialists put faith in the potential for reform in the Soviet Union, especially because of the political liberalization which occurred under Dubček 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. [30] 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. 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 they focused on advancing their cause along open, public routes, rather than underground routes. [31]

In opposition to both democratic and socialist samizdat, Slavophile samizdat grouped democracy and socialism together as Western ideals that 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 Russian Orthodoxy, the Slavophile movement in samizdat alienated readers and created divisions within the opposition. [32]


Predominantly Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostalist, Catholic, and Adventist groups authored religious 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. [27]


Jewish samizdat importantly advocated for the end of repression of Jews in the USSR and expressed a desire for exodus, the ability to leave Russia for an Israeli homeland. Jewish samizdat encouraged Zionism. The exodus movement also broached broader topics of human rights and freedoms of Soviet citizens. [33] 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 Tatars and Volga Germans also created samizdat, protesting the state's refusal to allow them to return to their homelands following Stalin's death. Ukrainian samvydav opposed the assumed superiority of Russian culture over Ukrainian culture and condemned the forced assimilation of Ukrainians to the Russian language. [34] In addition to samizdat focused on Jewish, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tartar concerns, authors also advocated the causes of a great many other nationalities.

Contraband audio

Homemade "bone record" X ray record.jpg
Homemade "bone record"

Ribs, "music on the ribs", "bone records", [35] or roentgenizdat (roentgen- referring to X-ray, and -izdat implying samizdat) were homemade phonograph records, copied from forbidden recordings that were smuggled into the country. Their content was Western rock and roll, jazz, mambo, and other music, and music by banned emigres. They were sold and traded on the black market.

Each disc is a thin, flexible plastic sheet recorded with a spiral groove on one side, playable on a normal phonograph turntable at 78 RPM. They were made from an inexpensive, available material: used X-ray film. Each large rectangular sheet was trimmed into a circle and individually recorded using an improvised recording lathe. The discs and their limited sound quality resemble the mass-produced flexi disc, and may have been inspired by it.

Magnitizdat , less common, is the distribution of sound recordings on audio tape, often of underground music groups, bards, or lectures (magnit- referring to magnetic tape).

Further influence

After Bell Labs changed its UNIX license in 1979 to make dissemination of the source code illegal, the 1976 Lions book which contained the source code 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. In hacker and computer jargon, the term samizdat was used for the dissemination of needed and hard to obtain documents or information. [36]

The hacker journal PoC||GTFO calls its distribution permissions a samizdat license. [37]

Some samizdat periodicals in the Soviet Union

See also

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  1. Bukovsky 1979, p. 141.
  2. Balan 1993.
  3. Komaromi 2004, p. 598.
  4. Kind-Kovács & Labov 2013, p. 19 fn. 1.
  5. Etkind 1992, p. 597.
  6. Komaromi 2004, pp. 608–609.
  7. Komaromi 2004, p. 609.
  8. Komaromi 2004, p. 605.
  9. Stelmakh 2001, p. 147.
  10. Meerson-Aksenov & Shragin 1977, p. 22.
  11. Stelmakh 2001, p. 149.
  12. Feldbrugge 1975 , p. 23: "Another legal aspect of samizdat literature is the copyright problem. [...] It grew into an important issue when the Soviet government, in an apparent attempt to impede the publication of samizdat materials abroad, joined the Geneva Convention in 1973. [...] Well-known Soviet authors, such as Solzhenitsyn, whose works regularly appear in samizdat in the Soviet Union have never claimed that their copyright was infringed by the samizdat procedure."
  13. Alexeyeva 1987, p. 12.
  14. 1 2 3 Crump 2013, p. 105.
  15. November 1962 issue of the Novy Mir literary magazine
  16. Crump 2013, p. 107.
  17. A Chronicle of Current Events, 1968–1982 (in Russian) Archive at
  18. A Chronicle of Current Events 1968–1983 (in English). All 1968 and 1969 issues may be found in Reddaway 1972
  19. Urban, Igrunov & Mitrokhin 1997, p. 87.
  20. Kashin 2009.
  21. 1 2 3 Joo 2004, p. 572.
  22. Komaromi 2004, p. 606.
  23. Stelmakh 2001, p. 148.
  24. Meerson-Aksenov & Shragin 1977, p. 27.
  25. Joo 2004, p. 575.
  26. Meerson-Aksenov & Shragin 1977, p. 30.
  27. 1 2 Joo 2004, p. 574.
  28. Joo 2004, p. 576.
  29. Meerson-Aksenov & Shragin 1977, p. 47.
  30. Joo 2004, p. 587.
  31. Joo 2004, p. 587–588.
  32. Joo 2004, p. 588.
  33. Meerson-Aksenov, "The Jewish Question in the USSR – The Movement for Exodus," 385–86.
  34. Joo 2004, p. 573–574.
  35. NPR 2016.
  36. Raymond 1996; Jargon File 2004: "Note that samizdat is properly used only with respect to documents which contain needed information (see also hacker ethic) but which are for some reason otherwise unavailable, but not in the context of documents which are available through normal channels, for which unauthorized duplication would be unethical copyright violation."
  37. "International Journal of PoC - GTFO issues [Openwall Community Wiki]". Retrieved 2016-04-22.


Further reading

Outsiders' works

Insiders' works