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Before the Blogosphere there was Samizdat

Posted by Helen Monday, November 08, 2004

The best thing about the week-end that has gone by was the annual realization that November 7, the anniversary of Lenin’s coup d’état in Petrograd is no longer celebrated in the fine military style it used to be and the evil empire that it inaugurated is no longer with us.

That realization is tempered by the knowledge that there still are evil communist states around, China being the most notable, though how long it can stay communist remains questionable, then Cuba and North Korea. Belarus under the egregious Alexander Lukashenka seems to be slipping back into totalitarian mode, Russia is hovering on the brink, but Ukraine may well escape and various other countries have. Even in Russia, the worst that is likely to happen will be Putin consolidating an old-fashioned pre-1905 tsarist-type autocracy. This is not satisfactory and ten years ago one hoped for greater things. But it is better than what the Russians had for seventy-odd years. And many European countries have escaped completely (no thanks to their western neighbours, though.)

It is important to remember how long and difficult the fight to bring down communism was, how many victims there were (apart from the many millions of victims whose only crime was that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, born in the wrong family, were too intelligent to submit or, simply, wanted to lead an ordinary life according to their principles without interference from a poisonous ideology).

In May I was privileged to lead a discussion with Professor Dennis O’Keeffe at the Centre for Research inot Post-Communist Economies on the subject of Samizdat. The word means self-publishing in Russian and in the sixties, seventies and eighties it became the symbol of the growing resistance to communism in theory and practice in the Soviet Union and countries of Eastern Europe.

The talks and the discussion have now been published by CRCE. It is an instructive tale and one that needs to be remembered by people who think that they are oppressed at present as well as by those who despair of ever achieving anything about our own problem: the European Union, its un-democratic and anti-liberal ideology and managerial form of governance.

Samizdat consisted of different strands. The most obvious difference was between that produced in Eastern Europe, where, Prague spring and its crushing, the Solidarnosç movement and its crusing notwithstanding, life grandually became easier than in the Soviet Union. By the mid-eighties people were travelling abroad, they could meet foreigners in their own countries, banned literature was circulated widely if clandestinely and unofficial lectures and tutorials were held in people’s flats.

That is not to say there was no danger. Even in East European countries people were arrested and imprisoned and the memory of harsher repressions was ever-present.

In the Soviet Union the people who disseminated banned literature, translations, political writings were persecuted and imprisoned. They were a tiny minority and their somewhat inward looking attitude – inevitable in the circumstances – limited their appeal before and after the fall of the regime.

There was also a division between samizdat that was for home consumption, that is writing that people inside those countries wanted to read but could not except illegally and clandestinely and the samizdat, whose purpose was to acquaint the West with what was going on.

Sometimes the two became one. Information went to the West and was then broadcast back to the Soviet Union and its colonies. Many Russians, Ukrainians, Balts, Georgians and others found out about their own country by listening with great difficulty and in great danger to the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe.

Not only we do not live in the same danger, but our technology is much harder to control. Samizdat texts were typed on typewriters in about ten copies, then handed out to people who proceeded to re-type it all in ten copies or so again. The bottom copies, as those who remember the old typing with copy paper and flimsies will recall, were barely legible. The typewriters were old and noisy. Handing material on was fraught with difficulties. Photocopiers and small printers were illegal. Possession of one meant an arrest.

Listening to western radio was illegal and in the Soviet Union all the western stations were jammed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Yet people went to great lengths both physically and mentally to acquire information, to position themselves in the one place where they could hear the crackling sound of some BBC announcer reading the news of what was really happening in the world and their own country. Some, as I can testify, having worked in the BBC East European Section, even wrote letters in response to programmes.

It is difficult to overestimate the courage of these people who spoke up in the name of truth and freedom. And it is difficult to overestimate the contribution of some western writers, journalists, translators, commentators, ordinary tourists who helped to disseminate the literature both in the West and in the Communist countries.

Compared to that we have an easy time. I sit here in my own house, in front of my computer, writing this in comfort. I am certain that our readers will also be safe and comfortable when they read this or any other posting. Nor will things become too difficult for them if they decide to pass some of the information on or respond with comments. For this we must be grateful.

We must also be grateful that we have the technology to communicate efficiently across many miles. The internet is a great weapon against oppression. The Iraqi websites and weblogs are flourishing. In China there are thousands of inernet shops and, even though the authorities close some or all of them down periodically, they cannot control information as they could fifty years ago.

Therefore, we must take advantage of what we have. On this blog we have written before of the way political discourse has changed in the last few years, pointing to the developments in the United States where the mainstream media and the networks have found themselves outmanoeuvred by the sharpshooters: bloggers, websites, radio commentators. (One thinks of the Finnish skiers in their light but warm ski suits quite literally running rings round the much larger, better equipped but heavy and unwieldy Soviet army in 1940.)

This development is slowly, too slowly, reaching these shores as well. One of the biggest and most effective blogs is called Samizdata, in honour of the intellectual freedom fighters in the old Soviet empire. (At least, I hope that is why it is called that and not because its editors think they run the same dangers.)

We, on this blog, are proud of being part of that great political revolution, as we have said before. Properly used, this weapon will help us win the war, though it will take a long time. And we honour those who went before us, went in great danger and hardship, the authors, editors, translators and disseminators of samizdat.