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Opening the Samizdat Time Capsule

The year 2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of Central and Eastern European countries escaping the socio-political and cultural monopoly created by Marxism-Leninism, as shown by the underground publications of the era.

by Peter Gross 30 November 2018

Although we hail 1989 as the fall of the communist party-states of Central and Eastern Europe, the states' monopoly on media and communications was broken much earlier, thanks to underground or samizdat newspapers, journals, books, music tapes, and movies. As alternatives to controlled communication, news, and information, these samizdat media played a key role of dissent and resistance, which punctured the illusions and delusions created and imposed by the communist authorities.  


In 1988 – the prelude to the anno mirabilis of 1989 – the number and impact of samizdat media increased. This nourished a parallel society that was “engaged in critical public debates,” as Juergen Habermas defined the public sphere in Western democracies.


In Czechoslovakia, for example, one of the oldest and most influential newspapers, Lidove noviny, founded in 1893 and closed down by the communists in 1952, was re-launched in samizdat form in January 1988, and was one of many that over time provided encouragement to democratic-minded people and groups. Jiri Dienstbier, Ladislav Hejdanek, and Jiri Ruml were the dissidents behind the comeback, offering so much more than the humorously passive resistance of their fictitious compatriot, the “good soldier Svejk.” Ruml was the newspaper’s editor.


In Poland, hundreds of underground book and newspaper publishers existed during the communist era. One weekly, Tygodnik Mazowsze, edited by Anna Bikont, was the largest samizdat publication, with an average circulation of 60,000-80,000.


In 1988, Adam Michnik – who wrote for a number of underground publications and became a member of Solidarity's Citizens’ Committee – was tasked by Lech Walesa to establish a national newspaper. Together with Andrzej Wajda, Aleksander Paszynski, and Zbigniew Bujak, Michnik launched Gazeta Wyborcza in May 1989, serving as the editor in chief.  


In Hungary, where samizdat activity had become increasingly extensive after 1972, the parliament passed a so-called “democracy package” in 1988, when Prime Minister Karoly Grosz replaced Janos Kadar as general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party. In the country that gave us “goulash communism,” this legislation included notions antithetical to communism’s traditional catechism: freedom of association, assembly, and press (and they were even observed in a qualified, limited way). 


By 1988, the Hungarian quarterly Beszelo, launched in 1976, was the largest-circulation underground newspaper, yet it was just one of hundreds of samizdat publications existing in what its one-time editor Miklos Haraszti called “the velvet prison.” Haraszti’s book of that title, published in the United States in 1987, also appeared in samizdat (A Censura Esztetikaja) in 1986, after first coming out in France in 1983 as L’Artiste d’Etat.


Across Central and Eastern Europe, samizdat publications – both short and long-lived, and mostly printed in small batches and formats – were the very public retort to the censorship imposed by the authorities and the self-censorship adopted by most journalists. They also gave Western media an insight into the news, citizens’ sentiments, and dissidents and their struggles.


Most significantly, samizdat media were devoid of the corrupt lexicon of an ideology that insistently created “a world of appearances … a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality,” as Vaclav Havel wrote in The Power of the Powerless.


In stark contrast to the three countries mentioned above, Albania and Bulgaria had no underground press. Nor did Yugoslavia, the enfant terrible of the communist bloc, although some samizdat books did appear, such as the 1986 publication of Ljubomir Tadic’s Is nationalism our destiny? and Other Debates and Controversies About the Nation, Socialism and Federation.


The regrettable lack of samizdat media in Romania (Radu Filipescu’s leaflets stuffed into people’s mailboxes in Bucharest in 1983 don't really count as such) almost ended in 1988 with the attempted publication of Romania by four journalists from the communist newspaper Romania libera – Petre Mihai Bacanu, Anton Uncu, Mihai Creanga, and Alexandru Chivoiu – together with Stefan Niculescu-Maier. In their unpublished first issue, they criticized communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, his regime, and press censorship, and demanded a free press and democracy. Arrested, imprisoned, and some sent to the provinces, they were freed on 22 December 1989, by the revolutionaries who overthrew the Ceausescu regime.


Arrest and imprisonment were unexceptional consequences for threatening the communist stranglehold over mass communication. In the words of Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, samizdat meant: “I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend jail time for it myself."  


Such dangers did not stop Stasi-tormented East Germany from having 25 underground publications, one of the most noteworthy being the Streiflichter. Samizdat activity in the country augmented the dissident voices established by exiles, who carried out their fight for freedom mostly from West Germany.


Let’s not forget the Soviet Union, where samizdat activity was relatively extensive. Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost in 1988 loosened controls on speech and on the Soviet press, signaling to other communist states that freedom of speech and the press might just be possible, which was a message that emboldened both samizdat creators and dissident movements.


These echoes from the samizdat archives are a timely reminder to present-day authoritarians of all ideological stripes that courageous men and women will always find ways to overcome linguistic distortions and communications monopolies, and make “living in truth” possible.

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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