Soviet Samizdat. Imagining a New Society

Komaroni, Ann
Anzahl Seiten
XV, 297 S.
$ 49.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Jan Olaszek, Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warszawa

Samizdat, the sphere of uncensored literature and press that emerged in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during late socialism, has continued to attract the attention of researchers in the region and beyond. In the world of Western science, Ann Komaromi is undoubtedly the most important contemporary researcher of Soviet samizdat. Moreover, her books inspire those who deal with the history of uncensored books and journals in other communist countries, where the phenomenon was adopted under specific conditions and occasionally expanded to impressive scope, as in the case of the so-called “drugi obieg” in late communist Poland. Komaromi’s new book promises to highlight the pivotal role of uncensored publications in the emergence of new self-imaginations in late Soviet society.

Komaromi is a professor at the University of Toronto, where she directs the Centre for Comparative Literature. Her 2017 monograph, Uncensored. Samizdat Novels and the Quest for Autonomy in Soviet Dissidence, featured a novel approach toward samizdat that looked at the phenomenon from the perspective of the relationship between authors and readers. Having published widely on related topics in recent years, she returned to the subject in her new book, Soviet Samizdat. While the first monograph focused on uncensored reviews of novels, the second zooms in on samizdat journals. This choice results from the fact that, unlike books, these journals traveled between the editorial offices and the readers on a regular basis, thus engendering a certain community of authors and readers. Komaromi is interested not only in analyzing texts that had been distributed clandestinely outside censorship but in how samizdat allowed this community to create a new self-image. In line with more recent research on this phenomenon, Komaromi defines samizdat broadly and includes social practices related to the processes of creation, dissemination, and reading.

The novelty of this perspective on samizdat, which is especially evident in contrast to publications on this subject from the Cold War period or just after its end, originates in the broader changes of perspective in research on the Soviet Union in Western historiography and social sciences. The approach emphasizing the totalitarian nature of the Soviet state, which has a solid conceptual justification and yielded fundamental results, necessarily focuses our attention on the Communist Party and the security organs and suggests their omnipotence. Komaromi is much closer to the revisionist approach, which takes into account how the realities of Soviet society were co-produced by the activities of various social actors. In her conclusion, Komaromi underscores that “we need to shift from a previous view of samizdat primarily in terms of its vertical relation to the Soviet regime to focus on the horizontal axis of communication among groups of Soviet readers. By communicating or expressing things not found in official Soviet print, samizdat authors or readers created different ways of seeing themselves and their community or society” (p. 150). Samizdat is thus not primarily seen as a message to the communist authorities, but as a tool of communication addressing society.

In the four chapters of her book, Komaromi addresses different topical issues reflected in the samizdat journals under scrutiny and refers them to a set of conceptual considerations on the social functions of these uncensored texts. First, she focuses on the role of history presented by samizdat concerning the views that the community of its recipients held on itself. In the second chapter, she points out that publishing in samizdat provided the opportunity to tell the truth and proceeds to analyze this truth-telling with reference to the category of “voice.” Samizdat also, as Komaromi shows in the third chapter, proved able to create a different understanding of the concept of time than in the official world. Finally, by enabling open debates, it created new imagined spaces of sociality among its participants. When asked why people in the totalitarian USSR created, distributed, and read samizdat despite the risk, Komaromi replies that it gave them symbolic and cultural capital (p. 152).

One of the greatest strengths of Komaromi's book is that it does not focus on the samizdat created by Russian human rights defenders alone, and includes Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Armenian, Tatar, and Jewish periodicals in its analyses. It is important to recognize that Eastern Europe, or the Soviet Union for that matter, was not only Russia, and not primarily Russia, particularly in the context of Russia’s current aggression against Ukraine. Komaromi’s book palpably shows that dissidents and samizdat did not have one nationality, devoting separate subchapters to Ukrainian and Lithuanian cases. One of their basic features was that they were created in national languages, which was seen as an element of the fight against Russification. Ukrainian dissidents did not use the Russian term samizdat, calling their press “samvydav” instead.

Komaromi also clearly outlines the differences between samizdat created by human rights defenders and literary samizdat, especially poetry. In her opinion, both served to “tell the truth about oneself,” despite significant differences in language conventions and in the way of addressing the recipients. While the most famous samizdat periodical, “Chronicle of Current Events,” emphasized the pursuit of objectivity and referred to the rationality of the recipients, the magazines publishing poetry referred instead to their spiritual sensitivity. Komaromi also draws attention to gendered, religious, and subcultural samizdat. Thus, she departs from the binary division separating the “heroic” opposition samizdat from the official sphere, acknowledging the inner diversity of the former. The merits of her book include a list of samizdat periodicals in the USSR provided in the annex (although obviously not complete), where each is accompanied by a short description with the following data: years of publication, number of issues, city, language, editors, subject, and information about the respective archives.

It must be emphasized that Komaromi is not an apologist for the whole of samizdat; she analyzes the phenomenon rather than paying homage to it. Her book reminds readers, for example, of racist and antisemitic samizdat, explaining that this was nevertheless a marginal phenomenon.

Emphasizing the lasting legacies of samizdat for modern Russia, she points to the social commitment to telling the truth, the powerful tradition of responding to the challenges of reality through literary fiction, and the endeavor to address the totalitarian potential in society in order to combat it. If I were to name the major shortcoming of this otherwise excellent book, I would point to the insufficiently frequent and clear emphasis that the audience of Soviet samizdat was made up of only a small percentage of the citizens of the USSR. Perhaps Komaromi assumed this to be obvious to her readers.

Understanding the legacy of Soviet and Eastern European samizdat as a multifaceted and multinational experience remains a challenge for international researchers. Komaromi’s book is another major step in this direction.

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