Samizdat – the production and circulation of texts outside the official channels – was a distinctive phenomenon of late Soviet culture. Samizdat provided an alternative repertoire of reading materials: literary and other texts written by nonconformist intellectuals, contemporary texts that had been censored, rare pre-revolutionary texts, and Western texts in translation. The ‘dissident’ intellectuals and ‘underground’ writers who shaped the climate of the late Soviet era worked within the parameters of Soviet culture, emulating the official cult of the written word; yet they undermined these parameters by writing and reading the wrong texts.
Title page of the samizdat journal ‘Chasy’ [‘The Clock’], 1979. Hand-bound typescript.
The dissenters were not just prolific writers, but first and foremost voracious readers. Much has been published about the texts they wrote, but comparatively little research has been devoted to the texts they read, and on how these texts shaped their worldview, political opinion, religious vision and literary aesthetics.
In our quest to find out what dissenters were reading, why they were reading what they were reading, and how their reading was reflected in their own texts, we depend on the samizdat journals themselves as primary sources. Samizdat journals are an endangered species: the journals are highly perishable, with minuscule print-runs of barely legible editions on friable high-acid paper. To date, the remaining exemplars are scattered throughout Russian and foreign archives, and this presents considerable difficulties to researchers who need to access a full set. Preserving these unique sources is thus our second priority.
Links and Sources
Memorial owns one of the largest archival collections of samizdat and is committed to widening access to its holdings. As part of this project, sections of the citation index that was compiled during the preparation of an online scholarly edition of the Chronicle of Current Events and contains more than 21,000 entries will be made accessible online.
We collaborate with the University of Toronto, Canada, host of
the first major English-language database with information on samizdat periodicals, compiled by Ann Komaromi. Our project will help make a full-text version of the journal 37 available to researchers.
February 2014 Update
So far, the Index includes more than 700 entries. This figure is constantly changing, but the main achievement is that all these records are accessible online. One can observe its creation in real time!
The entries are ordered according to a series of divisions. The first level of division includes a few main clusters: Dramaturgy, Poetry, Prose, and Folklore. Following this, the second level of division includes 20 genres: Ballades, Fables, Hymns, Dramas, Comedies, Libretti, Novellas, Parodies, Songs, Stories (povesty), Epic Poems (poemy), Plays, Short Stories (rasskazy), Novels, Fairy Tales, Poems (stikhotvoreniya), Scripts/ Screenplays, Tragedies, Tragicomedies, Elegies.
Lists tend to have an enticing effect on researchers, and the Works of Literature Index will undoubtedly function as a novel guide for historians, philologists, and Slavic-studies specialists alike. For those in the liberal arts fields, it paints a landscape of the literature being consumed by late-Soviet society. One can see how the authors and editors of the Chronicle of Current Events viewed various works of literature (some being mentioned only in passing, and others being treated to extensive commentary or analysis.)
One should recall that, in the words of Memorial’s Director of Research Aleksandr Daniel, the Chronicle functioned as a main source for non-conformist dialogue in the USSR.
In viewing the Literature Index entries as a whole, one notes that there are a few areas that bear highlighting, with a certain genres standing out as being more significant within the Chronicle. The genres of literature represented are rich and varied, with a few interesting anomalies that deserve separate commentary (to be continued in a later update.)
As far as numbers are concerned: According to initial statistics, poetry is by far the most broadly-represented genre. More than 500 records mention poetry (enough for a solid anthology!). It is astonishing to think of how powerful a position poetry occupied (and who knows, may continue to occupy?) in the everyday functioning of independent social movements.
The prose forms (which so far have barely reached the 200 mark as far as mentions go) still have the chance to catch up. One genre has proved to be particularly significant: Short Stories. The publication of short story records began not long ago and by our calculations there are at least 70 such mentions (for comparison, in the Novels division there are 66 records and in Stories—78.)
The tug-of-war for pride of place between prose and poetry provides for interesting entertainment and will continue to take place with the formation of the Index. Many noted masters are taking part in it: Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Gumylev, Pasternak, Vysotskii, Kym, Galych, Solzhenitsyn, Kharms, Shalamov, Dombrovskii, Voinovich (a few of which manage to fight for both teams)…
Now there is a real-time internet airing of this historic philological match. And you can do more than just watch it; we invite you to dive into the literary adventure with us!