Samizdat Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Samizdat Literature

Underground literature and political writings in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and later, until the fall of communist rule.

Russia has a rich history of literary and cultural output. However, political circumstances in the country have almost always necessitated the existence of some sort of underground, dissident movement, especially in the field of literary publication. In the Soviet Union, this dissident movement came to be referred to as the samizdat, and refers to any document or copy of a document that was published outside the chain of official Soviet state publishing houses. Samizdat literature in the Soviet Union existed most actively during the years following the fall of Premier Khrushchev in the mid-1960s, and lasted until the fall of the communist regime in the Soviet Union during the early 1990s. Following the death of Josef Stalin, Khrushchev, upon his rise to power, had initiated a period of some cultural and political freedom. However, with his removal from power in 1964, this freedom was severely curtailed, marking for many a very real return to the suppressive policies of the Stalin era. In response to the extreme censorship imposed by the Soviet government in the 1960s, Soviet dissidents resorted to a revival of an old revolutionary practice, dating to the years of czarist censorship, whereby nonconformist political and artistic statements, poetry, memoirs, documents and articles, and works of fiction were circulated underground in manuscript form. Such documents and literary works were produced in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and beyond, and these came to comprise the literature of the samizdat, or self-publishers. The term itself is an ironic reference to the word “gosizdat,” which means State Publishers (Gosudarstvennoe Izdatelstvo). Samizdat writing was obviously perceived as a threat by the authoritarian regimes under which it flourished, and proponents of the dominant regime made consistent efforts to track and shut down producers of samizdat literature.

Samizdat writing comprises a variety of publications, including articles, correspondence, poetry, fiction, drama, and various other documents. It also includes materials published in various Soviet émigré periodicals published in the West. Works of samizdat literature gained international prominence in the 1970s, and two of its best-known authors were Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Both received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and are regarded as major international authors. While the works of samizdat gained immense popularity in the West—allowing other nations and cultures a glimpse into a hitherto closed society—they also provided a means for Soviet citizens to gain access to information that would be otherwise unavailable to them. According to H. Gordon Skilling, one of the most important impetuses to the launching of samizdat literature in the modern Soviet state came after Pasternak was unable to get Doctor Zhivago (1957) published in the USSR and was forced to seek a publisher outside the country. Before then, many Russian authors, including Solzhenitsyn, had nurtured hopes that their work would have the opportunity to be published at home, without censorship. However, the political climate in the Soviet Union changed drastically following the removal of Khrushchev from office, and hopes that indigenous Russian literature could be issued without major changes by the state dissolved rapidly. Other major Soviet authors of the samizdat included Andrei Sinyavsky, Vladimir Maksimov, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Osif Mandelstam. Beginning mainly with literary texts, such as Pasternak's novel, samizdat publications expanded to include a variety of different documents, such as correspondence, appeals, declarations, and various other materials, most, if not all, political in content and intent. Many of these were published in such émigré periodicals as The Chronicle of Current Events. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, samizdat writing had established itself as the mainstream of independent thought and opinion from Soviet writers. Two major literary periodicals of samizdat were Novy Mir and Grani, both of which provided the means for most Soviet literary activity to see publication in those years. Beginning with just a few texts in 1965, samizdat documents increased to thousands of texts by the mid-1970s, a complete archive of which is maintained now at Radio Liberty, in Munich, Germany. In addition to the Soviet Union, where it originated, samizdat also became apparent as a means of communication in other communist societies, including Poland, Czechoslovakia, and China. Although each of these countries produced literature that was unique to their own political and cultural circumstances, the common element among all was the fact that samizdat provided a means for writers and intellectuals to produce and distribute uncensored materials. Major Czech writers of samizdat include writers such as Václav Havel, Josef Skvorecky, and numerous others.

In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes, writers of former samizdat literature continued to write, but their work was no longer perceived as part of an active political dissident movement. In turn, study of samizdat literature has also declined. In fact, writes Serguei Alex Oushakine in his review of post-Communist Russian literature, despite the major influence writers of political samizdat played in the struggle for the freedom of expression, in the years since, many of these theorists have little or no voice in the public discourse of Russia and other former communist countries. This is partly due to the fact that the need for this kind of discourse was erased somewhat by the openness of subsequent Russian governments. Additionally, once the atmosphere of dissidence that was so prevalent during the 1960s and 1970s was eradicated, these dissident political writers, according to Oushakine, having rooted their theoretical and literary ideologies strongly on the side of subordinate resistance, were unable to “transform their dissent into a parliamentary opposition or an institutionalized party system.” In contrast, literary production from Russia continues apace, although due to economic circumstances, many Russian writers are still forced to use Western publishing houses as the best means of disseminating their work.