Acta Samizdatica - Digital Resources

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Published in Russian in Acta Samizdatica (Moscow) No. 3 (2016).


Digital Resources for Samizdat: The Database “Soviet Samizdat Periodicals” and the Electronic Archive “Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat”

  • Ann Komaromi, University of Toronto, December 2015


Digital publications offer an opportunity to revisit samizdat and dissidence. In principle, digital publications make materials more readily available to audiences: in this they resemble samizdat. Like samizdat, digital projects typically require a lot of time and resources to produce. Digital projects typically take years to conceive and execute. However, like samizdat, digital publications may be ephemeral – without support from more traditional print publishing and established institutions, these non-traditional publications may not be able to reach a broad audience or they may disappear or fall into disuse over time. The history of samizdat has shown that although the samizdat form of the text possessed particular significance, it raised questions about how to fix and preserve such a text. Similar questions about the “materiality of digital culture” and what it takes to preserve digital objects over time constitute important problems for librarians and archivists today.[1] Partnership with an institution prepared to support digital projects over the long term is essential. However, the digital resource should remain “alive,” i.e., it should be continuously curated by interested parties and it must regularly reassert its position in a reasonable niche within the ecology of resource within a given field.

            The similarities between digital publications and samizdat help motivate the use of digital projects to look back at samizdat and dissidence. However, the separation in time between the two means we see these topics through the lens of digital media in a new way. The aim of the Database of Soviet Samizdat Periodicals,[2] launched in fall 2011 at the University of Toronto Libraries, was to assemble as much information as possible about the diverse types of samizdat found in the Soviet Union during the era of classic samizdat (1956-86). We focused on the most “mature” form of samizdat – periodicals – in order to set bounds on the task and to highlight the formation of alternative samizdat publics. Building on the data about samizdat collected at the Memorial Society (Moscow) in partnership with the Open Society Archive[3], we collected data from approximately thirty repositories located in Europe, Israel, North America and Russia.[4] Information on Soviet samizdat periodicals was collated from existing bibliographies and reference works, from the issues of the Chronicle of Current Events (Moscow, samizdat, No. 1-65, 1968-82), from Summa (Leningrad, samizdat, No. 1-8, 1979-82), and by means of an exhaustive review of the émigré press and Western editions.[5] We found that on the territory of the USSR, from 1956-1986, there were about 300 samizdat periodicals. Just over 10% of these were editions oriented to civil society, that is, concerned with social issues generally and aimed in principle at all Soviet citizens. The bulletin Chronicle of Current Events is the best known of these. Almost 25% of the total editions recorded were literary samizdat (and more than a quarter of this group was associated with “Second culture” in Leningrad). While this number is high, it includes editions made for small circulation.[6] The results of E. N. Savenko’s careful research of Siberian samizdat editions[7] inflated this number somewhat – Savenko’s data suggests that literary editions were far more numerous in provincial cities than socio-political editions. More than 30% of the editions were aimed at national publics – with a few titles for Armenians, Belorussians, Crimean Tatars, Estonians, one for Germans, a few for Georgians, and several for Russians and Ukrainians. We found larger numbers for Jewish and Lithuanian audiences. In those cases, the support of alternative infrastructures – support from Jewish communities abroad and the Lithuanian Catholic Church – made a difference. There were a number of other religious editions, primarily for Baptist and associated Protestant groups, plus a couple for an ecumenical Christian audience. We found several editions aimed at Socialists and the Workers’ Movement. There were a couple of feminist editions, and a handful of editions for prisoners and their supporters. Over 10% of the editions found were devoted to music – bard’s music, jazz and, especially in the early to mid-1980s, rock.[8] A relatively substantial set of samizdat periodicals devoted to art (fourteen titles) was also recorded.

            These samizdat periodical editions – journals, almanacs, bulletins, documents in a series, folios, and collections – reflected existing publics and also helped project and form those publics. Rights activists were interested in recording most types of independent activity. However, it was not the case that all of these editions aimed for a broad civic audience. The Soviet samizdat public was not unified as one. Rather, there were many public groups, including those who sought to assert their alternative autonomy. For example, the editors of 37 (No. 1-21, 1976-81) objected to being described in the foreign press as part of the “underground.” They disputed the characterization of themselves as a Leningrad opposition group analogous to Moscow dissidents, whose main problem consisted in political leadership: “We have nothing to hide. We do not think it possible to approach problems of culture with any outside criteria whatsoever: this culture, young as it is, does not wish to be dressed up in the habitual garb of political rebellion – today’s culture needs to make sense of itself on the basis of its own spiritual project.”[9] Thus, although we find overlap among the interests and readership of various groups, no single group, including the rights activists (although they had the best access to international channels), could pretend to speak for all samizdat publics. Audiences and goals varied. We must also qualify the common distinction between Leningrad, home of literary samizdat, and Moscow, seat of social activism: literary samizdat was not confined to Leningrad, nor did Leningrad lack social activism.[10] Finally, it does not seem generally true that, as Andrei Amalrik put it, a “Cultural opposition” led necessarily to a “Political opposition.”[11]

            These insights motivated the presentation of two distinct illustrated timelines in the Electronic archive, “Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat,”[12] launched in fall 2015.  One timeline traces the trajectory of the Rights Activists, and one shows the development of the Jewish National Movement in the Soviet Union. To illustrate the two timelines, we used photographic materials from the archive and research programs of the Memorial Society in Moscow; from the Peter Reddaway Photograph Collection at Harvard University; from the Yuli Kosharovsky Collection in Jerusalem; and from the Association “Remember and Save,” in Haifa, Israel. The presentation of events is selective. That way they provide a short overview that allows new generations to recognize names and faces and begin to think about the forces that impacted their activity. Rights Activism evolved from an initial concern over the free circulation of literary works toward a distinctive legalist activism that appealed to the international framework for Human Rights. The Jewish National movement developed differently: from an open struggle for emigration toward an increasingly strong emphasis on the education and culture of Soviet Jews.  

            We did dozens of interviews for samizdat research and in parallel with it. A few of these are already available in the electronic archive, and they demonstrate the diversity of modes of activism, as well as various ideas about the function of samizdat. Poet Oleg Okhapkin, one of the editors of the journal Obshchina (Community) (No. 2, 1978) claimed that in the work of the religious and philosophical seminar on which the journal was based, there was something in principal “new.” After the repression of the Chronicle of Current Events and the rights movement the religious-philosophical seminars took on themselves a new function: “they began to work on what would replace the ideology of the country, that is, some kind of constructive thought in the religious sphere.”[13] For his part, Mykola Riabchuk, who worked on the literary journal Skrynia (The Chest) (No. 1, 1971) from Lviv, described it as an edition that captured the informal meetings and discussions in which he, Hryhorii Chubai, and others were participating. Although the journal was halted by the authorities before the second issue, Skrynia helped make Riabchuk and fellow participants well known among the young generation of Ukrainian literati. About samizdat more generally, Riabchuk said: “it was very important to sense that you were not the only one, that there were others who thought like you and that there was a community. And it was very important to feel that there was a certain non-conformism, that it was not just a Lviv phenomenon, but that there was a parallel life, so to say. I am talking here about the mass effect, right? That one is not isolated, one is not completely a black sheep. Well, maybe we were black sheep, but there was a big flock of us, a huge population of black sheep.” Lev Mnukhin, similarly, produced the collections entitled Vse o Tsvetaevoi (All About Tsvetaeva) (No. 1-22, 1978-84) in order to preserve discussions from the Tsvetaeva seminars. Although the seminars took place in official venues, Mnukhin did not trust official institutions to preserve and make available the materials: “In the foreword […] I wrote that [… the collection issues] were meant to preserve the actual fact of the meetings and materials. More than that, in the future they could be destined for State collections, even though, of course, at that time I did not believe in State collections. Like many others, I was not permitted into the archive, and it was very problematic to get into the special collections. So the idea of the State collections was oriented to some kind of far-off future.” Samizdat helped build community in the present and preserve culture for the future.

            The collections of historical documents entitled Pamiat’ (Memory) (No. 1-5, 1976-81) also were designed to collect what government repositories could not be relied upon to keep and make available. Arseny Roginsky outlined the focus for the Pamiat’ group as they collected materials preserved by ordinary citizens: “The groups in internal exile, groups not incarcerated – all of this was the history of opposition; because even religious-philosophical groups are opposition, and socialist groups or anarchist groups are opposition, and any other type is, too… Of course, the central thing was not the word ‘opposition,’ but the word ‘independence.’ How did the independent Russian public take shape, how did it die, how did it not yield positions or how did it yield them – this began to interest us more than all else. At least, so it seems to me now. Generally speaking, two ideas turned out to be at the centre. The first was the memory of the terror, of the Gulag, and the second, was the broad Russian public.”

                The Electronic Archive complements the function of samizdat by preserving and making available some of the voices of a post-Stalin independent public. In the interview with Aba Taratuta, for example, we find out little-known facts about unofficial Jewish life in Leningrad. Taratuta detailed some aspects of samizdat production there: “Apart from textbooks we also copied books about Israel from the [Israeli Russian-language] series “The Library of Aliya.” These books were brought by foreign tourists and there was great demand for them. [14] Sometimes they were brought by foreign tourists and there was a great demand. Gradually we developed a large archive of photographic negatives [based on the books]. It was dangerous to keep them in an apartment in the city where they could come any day for a search. My friend Serezha Rotfeld (he now lives in Jerusalem) agreed to hide our photo library at his dacha and whenever we needed it he would bring film into the city.” Documentary filmmaker Laura Bialis furnished this interview and others scheduled to be made available in the Electronic archive soon[15]  – the digital format makes possible a much fuller publication of the activists’ accounts than can be accommodated in a film or other genres. Digital publication stands between writings and audio pictures, helping to capture and fix both for scholarly scrutiny.

            The most outstanding feature of the Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat is the electronic editions of a set of samizdat journals. Here again, it is worth reflecting on the shift in time from the samizdat period to today. If historically the priority went to republishing “actionable information” from bulletins, today we chose those literary and artistic journals that were not republished, because they were not deemed urgent and/or because of their long format and use of visual materials. Collaboration with the Research Centre for Eastern Europe at Bremen University made it possible to mount full issues of the following titles (although full sets are rare): Arkhiv (Archive) (No. 1-2, 1976), Budushchel’’ (Futureling) (No. 1, 1970), Bumerang (Boomerang) (No. 1, 1960), Vestnik TEII (The Herald of TEII) (No. 1, 1984), Dialog (Dialogue) (No. 2, 1980), Zhurnal mod (Fashion Journal) (No. 1, 1972-74), Iskusstvo kommuny (Art of the Commune) (No. 20-33, 1962-63), Listok (Leaflet) (No. 1-12, 1978-79), Literaturnyi al’manakh (Literary Almanac) (No. 1, 1961), LOB (Forehead) (No. 1-5, 1972), Metki (Signs) (No. 1-12, 1975-80), NLO (UFO) (No. 1, 1982), Nomer (Number) (No. [various], 1969, 1971-72), Obvodnyi kanal (Obvodny Canal) (No. 1-10, 1981-86), Optima (No. 1-3, 1960-61), Severnaia pochta (The Northern Mail) (No. 1-8, 1979-81), Sintaksis (Syntax) (No. 1, 1959), Sirena (The Siren) (No. 1-2, 1962), Tridtsat’ sem’ (Thirty-Seven) (No. 1-12, 14-21, 1976-81), Transponans (Transponans) (No. 1-14, 16-36, 1979-87) and Epsilon Salon (Epsilon Salon) (No. 3, 12, 1986). We have been able to provide full-text transcriptions for the literary, religious and philosophical journal Tridtsat’ sem’, and for issues of the neo-futurist journal by Sergei Sigei and Ry Nikonova, Transponans. Technical means for capturing text did not work on these typescript documents, and the necessity of retyping the issues by hand made this a particularly time-consuming feature to realize. A partnership with the project directed by Josephine von Zitzewitz at Oxford University brought support for some of the transcription and editing of over 3,500 pages of Tridtsat’ sem’. Ilja Kukuj has been collaborating on the editing and formatting of transcripts of the thousands of highly idiosyncratic pages of Transponans, and he has begun a scholarly commentary to the edition, which is available now for Transponans, No. 1.[16] These two cases point the way towards the possibility of enriching the digital publications of these journals. 

            If the printed book has appeared for most of the modern era to be a self-sufficient medium, embodying the values of dissemination, standardization (identical copies), and fixity (long-term preservation), virtues that support the modern understanding of truth and veracity,[17] then one could not say the same about the “extra-Gutenberg” medium of samizdat, nor could one say this about digital publications. In these cases, reliability, like sustainability, has to be created. The Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat features an editorial board made up of scholars in relevant fields: Gerald Janecek (University of Kentucky); Benjamin Nathans (University of Pennsylvania); Peter Reddaway (George Washington University); Allan Reid (University of New Brunswick); Arseny Roginsky (International Memorial Society); Yaacov Ro’i (Tel Aviv University); Stephanie Sandler (Harvard University); Susanne Schattenberg (Bremen University); and Cécile Vaissié (Université Rennes 2). In addition to providing expert editorial control for the presentation of materials in the Electronic Archive, such a board can help increase awareness of the resource.

            Execution of a digital project like the Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat depends on a sufficiently restrained selection of themes and materials: the research and presentation of some materials of classic Soviet samizdat and associated dissident movements here highlights the diversity of public groups in the late Soviet Union and the values and goals of alternative publishing in this context. The many related topics and materials not covered in this project leave room for further collaborations and other complementary projects. Among these, in terms of digital resources, the Andrei Belyi Center[18] and the project “Reading Habits and Dissent” at Oxford University[19] seem particularly relevant to the study of Soviet samizdat.


[1] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, et al. discussed the significance of the material forms of digital writing and texts, in “Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use,” p. 21, report of a project at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), University of Maryland, dated September 15, 2010.  .

[2] Ann Komaromi, Soviet Samizdat Periodicals, .

[3] See the Catalogue of Samizdat, , on the site of the Memorial Society. The Catalogue was prepared on the basis of two reference guides to the samizdat collection of Radio Liberty, which is now at the Open Society Archive, Budapest.

[6] To count as “samizdat,” an edition must become public, that is, it must be circulated outside of the group of personal acquaintance to strangers.

[7] Savenko, E. N., Na puti k svobode slova. Ocherki istorii samizdata Sibiri (On the Way to Free Speech. Essays on the History of Samizdat in Siberia), Novosibirsk: GPNTB SO RAN, 2008.

[8] A crucial source was A. Kushnir, Zolotoe podpol’e. Polnaia illiustrirovannaia entsiklopediia rok-samizdata. 1967-1994. Istoriia. Antologiia. Bibliografiia (The Golden Underground. Full Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock Samizdat. 1967-1994. History. Anthology. Bibliography). Nizhnii Novgorod: Dekom, 1994.

[9] Response of the editors of 37 regarding an article in the Herald News, 37, No. 5, May 1976.

[10] See, for example, Viacheslav Dolinin on the SMOT Bulletin, “Leningradskii periodicheskii samizdat serediny 1950-80-kh godov,” Samizdat, ed. V. Dolinin, B. Ivanov, SPb: НИЦ Мемориал, 1993, 15.

[11] Andrei Amalrik, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 7–9.

[12] Ann Komaromi, “Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat,” .

[13] Interviews are presented as an authorized transcript of the original conversation and an English translation of at least excerpts. Find all interviews discussed at: .

[14] The Library of Aliya (Biblioteka Aliia) was an Israeli publishing series created in 1972 to put out books on Jewish topics in Russian. The series produced more than 250 books on the creation of the state of Israel, Jewish history, philosophy and religion which were smuggled into the Soviet Union in the 1970s-1980s.

[15] These interviews come from Bialis’ film Refusenik (2007).

[16] See “Журнал теории и практики "Транспонанс": Комментированное электронное издание / Под ред. И. Кукуя. - A Work in Progress,” .

[17] As defined in the influential study by Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Communication and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

[18] The Andrei Belyi Center ( hosts a samizdat archive with issues of Chasy (The Clock), further issues of Archive, and others.

[19] Josephine von Zitzewitz and Gennady Kuzovkin, “Reading Habits and Dissent during the Period of Stagnation in the Soviet Union, 1960s-1980s”, See the searchable edition of the Chronicle of Current Events at