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Risk time in the gulag by reading about Soviet-era underground media

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Samizdat

What it’s about: One way the U.S.S.R. tried to keep its citizens in line was by tightly controlling media, from a state-run monopoly on newspapers and television, to banning most Western pop culture. In response to this, rebellious Russians practiced samizdat, a word for producing underground media—usually by hand—and distributing them despite the risk of jail time or worse.


Strangest fact: Soviets made bootleg records of Western music on used X-ray film. The X-ray material could be grooved by a (usually homemade) recording lathe, and were similar to a flexi-disc. As such, they were called “bone records,” or “ribs.” The discs were expensive, hard to come by, and wore out quickly. Nonetheless, there was a thriving black market.


Biggest controversy: While most samizdat was political, even the most apolitical material could get you in trouble. In 1963, 23-year-old Joseph Brodsky had his writings confiscated, was put in a mental institution, and sentenced to five years of hard labor for the crime of “social parasitism.” In plain English, he was arrested for being a poet, which in the eyes of Soviet officials, meant he had abandoned his “constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland.” Brodsky became a cause célèbre, and his sentence was commuted after an appeal from prominent writers, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Thing we were happiest to learn: While most samizdat writing was political, the movement owes its existence to literature. One of the first samizdat publications was Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, which Soviet authorities refused to publish, “due to its focus on individual characters rather than the welfare of the state.” The book was published through underground channels, which not only led to it eventually being recognized as a classic work of literature, it also highlighted the arbitrary nature of the U.S.S.R.’s censorship apparatus, and left Soviet readers feeling justified in seeking out contraband reading material.

A Chronicle Of Current Events’ front cover

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Although there were long-running samizdat periodicals, publishing them was a constant danger. A Chronicle Of Current Events ran for 14 years and 65 issues, despite staffers being harassed, imprisoned, or exiled by the authorities. The magazine attempted to chronicle Soviet human-rights violations, and argued that, according to the Soviet Constitution, the magazine’s existence was not illegal. (Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin disagreed.) The political and literary magazine Jews In The U.S.S.R. also published regularly and ran from 1972 to 1980, although its original editor was imprisoned and two others took over the publication.


Also noteworthy: Samizdat had a religious component as well. As the U.S.S.R. officially had no religion but the state, samizdat publishing was the only method to distribute scripture. Numerous Christian denominations passed out underground religious texts, as did Jews and Buddhists. Strangely, there was no known Islamic samizdat, despite the U.S.S.R. having a significant Muslim population. For Jews in particular, samizdat was important: Besides providing a venue for religious discussion, political samizdat was able to advocate against repression of Jews by the state, and fostered an argument over whether Jews should attempt to flee to Israel or elsewhere, or remain and fight for their rights.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Other countries with repressive regimes have had their own equivalent to samizdat. But in the United States, which touts freedom of speech, there have only been a few cases of distributing illegal publications. One is former Wiki Wormhole subject Tijuana Bibles, and another ties into a former Wormhole, Bell Labs. One of Bell’s many inventions was the UNIX operating system, the computer language that is essentially the foundation of modern computing, as it forms the underlying code for the internet itself. But while early editions of the Lions Book (the complete source code for UNIX with commentary, named for its author, John Lions), were publicly available, the seventh edition was tightly protected, and sharing the code was illegal. That the programming community widely disseminated the book anyway is considered an American variant on samizdat.


Further down the Wormhole: Since baseball season is upon us, we’ll be aiming the Wormhole back toward the national pastime. We’ll start with one famous purveyor of samizdat, Czech philosopher and political dissident Václav Havel. Havel would eventually be the first president of the Czech Republic, and his busy post-presidency included an artist residence at Columbia University. New York City’s contribution to the Ivy League boasts many famous alumni, including Lou Gehrig, whose streak of 2,130 consecutive games played was a record considered to be unbreakable, until Cal Ripken Jr. did just that in 1995. We’ll look at other records that are expected to stand the test of time next week.

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