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Samizdat (самиздат) was the clandestine copying and distribution of government-suppressed literature or other media in Soviet-bloc countries. Copies were made a few at a time, and those who received a copy would be expected to make more copies. This was often done by handwriting or typing.

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.

Vladimir Bukovsky defined it as follows: "I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and [may] get imprisoned for it.


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 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 First Departments (KGB outposts): for all of them reference printouts were stored for identification purposes.

Terminology and related concepts

Etymologically, the word "samizdat" is made out of "sam" (сам, "self, by oneself") and "izdat" (издат, shortened издательство, izdatel'stvo, "publishing house"), thus, self published.

The term was coined as a pun by Russian poet Nikolai Glazkov in the 1940s, who typed copies of his poems indicating "Samsebyaizdat" (Самсебяиздат, "Myself by Myself Publishers") on the front page in an analogy with the names of Soviet official publishing houses, such as Politizdat (short for Politicheskoe izdatel'stvo, Политиздат ), Detizdat (Детиздат, literature for children), etc.

Magnitizdat refers to 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 (там, tam, meaning "there"), often from smuggled manuscripts.

In the history of the Polish underground press, the usual term in the later years of Communism was drugi obieg or "second circulation" (of publications), the "first circulation" implied being legal and censored publications. The term bibuła ("blotting-paper") is older, having been used even in Tsarist times.


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 socio-economic systems. Under the grip of censorship of 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" (Маяк, 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 (among them Eduard Kuznetsov) were arrested and charged with "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" (Article 70 of the RSFSR Penal Code). Editor and publisher of Moscow samizdat magazine "Синтаксис" (Syntaxis) Alexander Ginzburg was arrested in 1960.

Some legitimate publications in the state-controlled media, such as a novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1970), 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 (to become a Nobel laureate in 1987) was charged with "social parasitism" and convicted for being nothing but a poet. In the mid-1960s, an underground literary group СМОГ ("Самое Молодое Общество Гениев", Samoye Molodoye Obshchestvo Geniyev, translated as The Youngest Society of Geniuses) issued their literary almanac "Сфинксы" (Sfinksy; The Sphinxes) and collections of prose and poetry. Some of their writings were close to Russian avantgarde of the 1910s–1920s.

The infamous 1965 show trial of writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky (also charged with violating Article 70) and increased repressions marked the demise of the Thaw and harsher times for samizdat. The trial was carefully documented in The White Book by Yuri Galanskov and Alexander Ginzburg. Both writers 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.

From 1964 to 1970, historian Roy Medvedev regularly published analytical materials that later appeared in the West under the title "Политический дневник" (Politicheskiy Dnevnik; The Political Journal).

One of the longest-running and well-known samizdat publications was the information bulletin "Хроника текущих событий" (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 titled "Arrests, Searches, Interrogations", "Out of Court Repressions", "In Prisons and Camps", "News of Samizdat", "Persecution of Religion", "Persecution of Crimean Tatars", "Repressions in Ukraine", "Lithuanian Events", etc. The authors maintained that according to the Soviet Constitution, the Chronicle was not an illegal publication, but the long list of people arrested in relation to it included Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Yuri Shikhanovich, Pyotr Yakir, Victor Krasin, Sergei Kovalev, Alexander Lavut, Tatyana Velikanova, among others.

Another notable and long-running (about 20 issues in the period of 1972-1980) publication was refusenik political and literary magazine "Евреи в СССР" (Yevrei v SSSR, Jews in the USSR), founded and edited by Alexander Voronel and after his release, by Mark Azbel and Alexander Luntz.

With increased proliferation of computer technologies, it became practically impossible for the government to control the copying and distribution of samizdat.

Similar phenomena in other countries

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.

Poland has a long history of underground press.

After Bell Labs changed its UNIX license to make dissemination of the source code illegal, the Lions Book 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 Lions book was often referred to as Samizdat. See Lions' Commentary on UNIX 6th Edition, with Source Code for more information.


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