About the Database of Soviet Samizdat Periodicals

“[A]ny samizdat edition is a bibliographical rarity” - Alexander Suetnov, first bibliographer of Samizdat

The difficulty of cataloguing samizdat becomes apparent already in the attempts of Radio Liberty to describe and publicize samizdat documents beginning in the late 1960s. As a central clearing house of information about samizdat, Radio Liberty in Munich had received thousands of documents by the early 1970s. For their archival collection Arkhiv Samizdata and their reprint series, Materials of Samizdat (Materialy samizdata) and  Collection of Samizdat Documents (Sobranie dokumentov samizdata), the Radio’s samizdat research division authenticated and commented texts with a socio-political, economic or historical theme. They excluded other types of content and items that would not be published elsewhere. For this reason, the collection cannot be considered comprehensive.

For the editions Radio Liberty did process for its collection and publications, often authors’ or editors’ names were not known. Sometimes the location or date of production was not clear. Occasionally Radio Liberty received incomplete copies of editions, or only second-hand information about texts or translated summaries of editions in non-Slavic languages such as Georgian or Armenian. Samizdat periodical editions practically never achieved regular periodicity, and the full extent of issues and dates of a given periodical edition would in nearly all cases be impossible to establish. 

Russian bibliographers like Suetnov and Vladimir Erl’ described editions they saw in the Soviet Union, and similar problems arose. Outstanding about Suetnov’s bibliography is the breadth of editions covered – Suetnov catalogued books and periodical editions of socio-political, literary, artistic, and musical character (Suetnov was involved in the rock subculture). He did not distinguish between classic Samizdat and alternative press of the Perestroika period in that early bibliography. Subsequent work by Elena Strukova and the team working on Samizdat and Informal Political Press (Samizdat i neformal’naia politicheskaia pressa) helped establish the important distinction between the two.

The present Database of Soviet Samizdat Periodicals developed on the basis of initiatives by the Moscow Memorial Society and the Open Society Archive at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Memorial and OSA together produced a Catalog of Samizdat (Katalog samizdata) that drew on Radio Liberty’s archive of samizdat, which currently resides at OSA. Also at OSA, the International Samizdat [Research] Association (IS[R]A) and Samizdat Texts Corpora project pioneered the idea of a new network of research and information sharing between institutions. In partnership with that project, an initial database structure was developed to accommodate information about archived copies of samizdat. The present Database of Soviet Samizdat Periodicals combines information from the Radio Liberty archive and over 30 other collections with data culled from an exhaustive survey of Russian émigré press, Western press, existing catalogs and bibliographies, memoirs and interviews with former Soviet dissidents, samizdat authors, editors, and their Western supporters. Outstanding newer bibliographical resources include the survey of Leningrad samizdat (Samizdat Leningrada, 2002), and the 3-volume anthology of samizdat (Antologiia samizdata, 2005). Data from all sources has been scrutinized and compared with other sources to ensure maximum possible authenticity and accuracy. Sources for individual pieces of data have been indicated. At the time of launch, the Database covers 300 titles for the period 1956-1986.

The encyclopedia of rock samizdat by Alexander Kushnir (Zolotoe podpol’e, 1994) illustrates well the idea that knowledge about samizdat – like samizdat texts themselves – remains ephemeral until it is captured and published. Beyond a relatively stable core of established information information about uncensored editions derived from bibliographies and archives, the edges of knowledge about samizdat remain fuzzy. New or more complete information needs to be driven by fan enthusiasm and community interests as well as further scholarly research. The importance of particular public interest can be seen, for example, in the case of information about Belarusian samizdat periodical editions. Those editions came as a surprise. Journalists and historians in Minsk carefully documented information about a tradition of free local press formerly unknown to the international community of historians and researchers.

The present Database of Soviet Samizdat Periodicals, 1956-1986, represents at the time of launch an exhaustive search of major publicly available sources known to the international community of researchers. There are sure to be lacunae. In particular, Russian government archives pose a problem, because many of the relevant collections remain unavailable or difficult to access. Moreover, samizdat documents are dispersed among the extensive network of case files compiled by Soviet authorities. We can expect further information from those sources, and from currently unavailable personal collections. The book by E.N. Savenko on Siberian samizdat illustrates well the possibilities that remain for documenting specific subsets of samizdat combining regional governmental archives and personal interviews.

It is hoped that the present Database and Electronic Archive of Soviet Samizdat Periodicals will help prompt former dissidents to share information and materials and that it will help inspire further projects to research and publicize the various types of samizdat and dissidence. A new catalog of periodicals of Soviet samizdat and alternative press combining the information from this Database with data collected by Moscow Memorial is planned for the near future.

- Ann Komaromi, University of Toronto, 2011