Soviet Samizdat
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Soviet Samizdat

Imagining a New Society

Ann Komaromi

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Soviet Samizdat

Imagining a New Society

Ann Komaromi

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About This Book

Soviet Samizdat traces the emergence and development of samizdat, one of the most significant and distinctive phenomena of the late Soviet era, as an uncensored system for making and sharing texts. Based on extensive research of the underground journals, bulletins, art folios and other periodicals produced in the Soviet Union from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, Ann Komaromi analyzes the role of samizdat in fostering new forms of imagined community among Soviet citizens.

Dissidence has been dismissed as an elite phenomenon or as insignificant because it had little demonstrable impact on the Soviet regime. Komaromi challenges these views and demonstrates that the kind of imagination about self and community made possible by samizdat could be a powerful social force. She explains why participants in samizdat culture so often sought to divide "political" from "cultural" samizdat. Her study provides a controversial umbrella definition for all forms of samizdat in terms of truth-telling, arguing that the act is experienced as transformative by Soviet authors and readers. This argument will challenge scholars in the field to respond to contentions that go against the grain of both anthropological and postmodern accounts.

Komaromi's combination of literary analysis, historical research, and sociological theory makes sense of the phenomenon of samizdat for readers today. Soviet Samizdat shows that samizdat was not simply a tool of opposition to a defunct regime. Instead, samizdat fostered informal communities of knowledge that foreshadowed a similar phenomenon of alternative perspectives challenging the authority of institutions around the world today.

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Samizdat and the Historical Self

After Stalin’s death the party and citizens faced pressure to confront the trauma caused by his regime and the challenges to the sense of legitimacy of Soviet society posed by his legacy. Khrushchev’s Secret Speech set off a process of reexamining the history of the Stalin era, to understand his “cult of personality” (kul′t lichnosti), and to think again about the role of individuals and their relationship to history. Signals from the top leaders set off a wave of questioning that encompassed the whole society as people in formal and informal ways reviewed the past and considered what it meant for their relationship to revolutionary history, the party, and their fellow citizens. Samizdat and various types of underground culture formed part of the mosaic of responses to the pressures of the time. Samizdat developed more significantly beginning at the end of the 1960s thanks to the increasing limits on official publication possibilities. However, uncensored production and circulation of texts in samizdat arose out of Soviet society and must be seen against the background of the broader social shifts and questioning occurring in the late Soviet period.
This book also writes the history of samizdat into an even bigger picture of the changing of what Charles Taylor described as the modern social imaginary, the context for how people understand social relations, and the legitimacy of the social order they inhabit.1 This wider perspective has an advantage over the previous tendency to see samizdat only in relation to the Soviet State in terms of either opposition or mimicry—it accommodates, even invites attention to literary and other expressions of the social imagination that are not limited to dissenting ideologies and sociopolitical texts.2 This conception of social imagination, like the public theory on which it draws, highlights the way people connect their individual sense of self to their society and to shared norms and values. What happened in official culture affected those active in samizdat. By the same token, those working in the late Soviet underground could hope that sooner or later what they said and did would influence the social imagination of the whole society. Taylor and his sources linked social imagination to communication and what has been described as publics. The introduction of extra-Gutenberg samizdat complicates (without displacing) the role of print; we need to consider in more detail what that meant in the late Soviet context.
The notion of the modern social imaginary, like Jürgen Habermas’s classic theory of the public sphere, depended on the category of the nation-state. The Soviet Union encompassed “national” categories within its universalizing ideology without eliminating the ambiguities and contradictions that contributed to the continued use of these categories within the state.3 In this way, too, samizdat expressed tendencies of the larger society within which it was set. However, samizdat also intensified the tendency to think in terms of group categories, not only national, that served as intermediary terms between Soviet citizens and the state and history.4 Samizdat periodicals illustrate these group identifications that helped people in the struggle to come to terms in new ways with history, the state and the sense of self connected to them. This chapter explores that connection and outlines the groups that played a role in the emergence of samizdat communication as an important forum for a reconstituted social imaginary.

History and the Soviet Self after Stalin

Samizdat writing is like other addresses to a public in that it requires the author to imagine an audience. In describing the characteristics of public writing, Michael Warner was not focusing on authoritarian contexts of censorship. However, he found George Orwell’s literary portrayal of such a context useful for illustrating what he had in mind. The necessity of an imagined audience becomes clear when it is absent. In the opening scene of Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the protagonist Winston, who is observed constantly by the telescreen in his apartment and bothered by nosy neighbors, thinks about beginning a diary. He feels sure his unauthorized act will provoke repression by the authorities, but there is something else that threatens to derail his efforts: “For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary?”5 Winston cannot think of anyone he knows who would be willing to read his independent writing for any purposes other than criminalizing him.
Eventually, Winston unleashes a torrent of increasingly disordered observations onto the page. He begins with an account of the previous evening’s activities: “April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him. first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise.” His writing degenerates subsequently into a hysterical scrawl: “theyll shoot me I dont care theyll shoot me in the back of the neck . . . I dont care down with big brother.” But asserting his defiance of the authorities and their use of violence is not enough. Winston continues to be preoccupied by the question of his audience: “He wondered again for whom he was writing the diary. For the future, for the past—for an age that might be imaginary.” Facing up to that question with a realistic assessment of his bleak prospects allows him to formulate an intention to write simply because the gesture restores some sense of humanity: “He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.” With the diary, Winston attempts to address himself “to the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone.”6 Winston’s dystopian context is extreme, but his decision highlights the imaginative sociality involved in writing, an act that in the modern public sense implies a sense of one’s human interlocutors and a connection across space and through time. This connection is so strong it can transcend current political circumstances and help reestablish a sense of truth, reality, and responsibility.
Orwell’s famous dystopian novel spoke to anxieties about purges and Stalinism under discussion on both sides of what Winston Churchill had called the “Iron Curtain” in a speech from March 5, 1946.7 For his part, Warner was interested in drawing out the dynamics of public writing with a vivid example. Censorship in the Soviet Union was real, and we may appreciate the difficulty Soviet authors had in imagining an audience for uncensored writing, given the state’s monopoly on publishing. Already in the 1930s Soviet writers had begun to write “for the desk drawer,” that is, not for immediate circulation and often without any foreseeable chance of publication. Such writing lacked the benefit of the shaping force of an anticipated audience, particularly when authors could not or did not think about reaching an audience. In her own uncensored notebooks, the Soviet literary scholar Lidiia Ginzburg insisted: “A writer should be published.” She lamented the case of dilettante writers who remain content to produce and keep manuscripts, avoiding the difficult trials of an actual audience and therefore not taking responsibility for their words. In that case, she wrote, all that is required is “some kind of internal effort,” and the “chicken-scratches” will be absorbed back into the writer’s consciousness, as though they had not been written at all.8 The problem as she saw it was to achieve an attitude of mature responsibility in the conditions prevailing (this passage was from notebooks written in the 1950s–1960s when samizdat began to be thinkable). Ginzburg did not speak here about the institutional barriers to getting something in print in the USSR: rather, she focused on the mentality of an author who does not assume the responsibility that addressing an audience entails. Many people observed the effects of internalizing official censorship.9 Ginzburg more subtly pointed to the dangers of the absence of any internalized social control of one’s writing in the context of an uncensored process.
After Stalin, Soviet citizens felt called on to address the issues faced by Soviet society. Mobilized by messages from the party leadership, notably those at the Twentieth Congress in 1956 and at the Twenty-Second Congress in 1961, people began to talk and write about the history and legacy of Stalinism. As suggested by the limited distribution of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, this official acknowledgment of traumatic losses caused by Stalin’s actions was partial, with party leaders attempting to keep control of the content of discussion and the bounds of participation. Messages from the top were mixed; it was not clear to what extent Soviet public memory should celebrate history, on the one hand, and confront traumatic failures, on the other. There was no ready answer to the question of whether perpetrators of violence like Stalin and his henchmen should be written out of history and forgotten—could their mistakes and achievements be remembered differently? It was unclear how regular citizens might participate in these discussions.10 Public discourse about Stalinist violence continued to be tightly controlled.11 However, as the revelations of the Twenty-Second Congress and the removal of Stalin from the Mausoleum on Red Square showed, party leaders issued a general call to citizens and writers to assist in the shared task of confronting and overcoming the worst aspects of the Stalinist past.12
The point that matters for this book is that samizdat and informal or uncensored speech was part of the expansion of public discourse also found in official speech and print in the post-Stalin era; it was not separate from that larger process. The historian Denis Kozlov, studying the reactions of readers of the official journal Novyi mir wrote that the Thaw marked “the unmaking of Soviet subjectivity. The new awareness of the centrality of mass violence in the country’s history urged people to dissociate themselves from the interests, scripts, and language of this regime, to seek new forms of self-expression and new grounds for intellectual stability rather than absorbing themselves in the old, now manifestly inadequate political language.”13 Moreover, the neat division of a supposedly liberal Thaw period under Khrushchev followed by re-Stalinization in the late 1960s as Stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev elides the uneven and contradictory manifestations of official loosening and tightening of controls in both periods. It may be that the mixed signs of encouragement and frustration throughout the Thaw facilitated the slow emergence of samizdat which then became a system in the more restrictive period after Khrushchev.14 Stephen Bittner evoked the ambiguities present in the Thaw metaphor, which contained “the meanings that Ilya Ehrenburg first saw in the metaphor—impermanence, uncertainty, instability.”15 This period of upheaval after Stalin cannot be reduced to the opposition of autonomous subjectivities unchained during the Thaw, only to be repressed once more during Stagnation. However, subjectivity was at issue: Soviet subjects questioned their roles and their relationship to others and to history more urgently as the “universe of meaning” that seemed relatively stable under Stalin was “thrown into disarray” in a time of rapid ideological change under Khrushchev.16 This exploration undertaken by Soviet citizens in official and unofficial settings concerned memory and trauma. It also involved examining anew the roles of individuals, groups, writing, and culture, relative to history and the larger society.
A striking example of such exploration is found in the case of Revol′t Pimenov, who produced an early samizdat leaflet series titled Information (Informatsiia, no. 1–6, Leningrad, 1956–57). Just as Stalin’s cult of personality was a central issue in the process of confronting the Stalinist past, a “cult-like belief in the liberation of the personality” was a central principle of the Thaw, according to Benjamin Tromly, who explored Pimenov’s exemplification of this belief.17 We can consider Pimenov to be a transitional figure on the cusp of the samizdat era, illustrating features common to the time as well as his own specific interests and motivation.
The reactions of fellow students who listened to Pimenov and occasionally collaborated with him show us how the dynamics of group formation and imagination in this period drew on the Soviet revolutionary past, even as they underwent changes during the Thaw. Pimenov’s attempts to create a conspiratorial group among the stude...

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