Looking for the New Samizdat
It’s a Russian word, samizdat. Sam = “self, by oneself” and izdat is from, izdatel’stvo, = “publishing house”, so roughly samizdat means “self-published.”
Writings prohibited by the all seeing eye of the Soviet state were clandestinely passed around often at great risk to the copyists and readers. Those taking on the task of reproduction worked without reward in a laborious fashion. They typed whole books out with perhaps a sheet of carbon paper for duplications. Sometimes whole manuscripts were copied by hand! There were no copy machines in the 1950’s, no faxes, no one was cutting and pasting. It was done for one reason alone: Someone else has to read this! The truth has to be told. This forbidden poetry (poetry was highly suspect) must be seen. This novel is worth reading. That’s how Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was read. That’s how Bulgakov and Brodsky found an audience. That’s how foreign works were smuggled into the country. Eventually slightly more sophisticated methods were used: surreptitious printing machinery, copy machines and even computers were used for duplication by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
There is another interesting category of samizdat: magnitizdat, things copied onto magnetic tape, which would include lectures, poetry and above all music. And actually this proved to be a bit of an Achilles heel to the vast Soviet state. The Communists cracked down hard on any means of paper reproduction with stiff penalties. But since every citizen could own a reel-to-reel tape recorder much was passed around this way; especially all of that rock music being churned out by the decadent West. And Russians could be ingenious about how they smuggled in their music. Eugene Hutz, of Gogol Bordello, talks of “music on the bones”, recordings transferred from magnitizdat to plastic x-ray plates with holes punched in the center to play on record players. The legendary Vladimir Vysotsky’s gravel soaked voice was disseminated mostly by cassette. Although he is considered the greatest Russian singer/songwriter of the late communist era he was never allowed by the Melodiya machine to make a full-length album in his lifetime. Yet when he died in Moscow in 1980 his funeral was a major event. People left the Moscow Olympics to attend his funeral. An older Russian man in New York City once told me of the tens of thousands of people who lined the streets such to get a view of his coffin. Not bad for a man who had to wait until the Gorbachev years to get an album released in the U.S.S.R. A similar even more haunting tale surrounds folk punk singer Yanka Dyagileva, who died tragically at the age of 23 in the 1991, the last second of the old Soviet Union, leaving behind a small, poorly recorded body of work that puts to shame much of the music spit out by the world music industry since then. (I’m going to devote much more time to Yanka in the near future.)
It sounds a bit like the Punk idea of Do-It-Yourself. And while there are several crucial similarities I would point out some very serious differences. Samizdat functioned as a means to hear forbidden truth. The government was actively involved in squashing the literature involved and at times the music.
The work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a good case in point. After an accidental breach of the Stalinist wall during Khrushchev’s all too brief thaw, that allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in 1961, the book was quickly allowed to go out of print. It then was strictly a samizdat production as were the rest of his novels. So fearful were the Soviets of Solzhenitsyn that anyone merely possessing a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, his massive literary expose of the gulag system, was guilty of a grave offense. Only Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize saved him from another lengthy nightmare in the camps, but not from being booted out of the country. As Walker Percy once remarked, modern Western writers would kill to have their literature taken that seriously.
The D.I.Y. aesthetic of Punk and the Alternative culture of the late 80’s and early 90’s never produced anything so perceptive or piercing. The D.I.Y. scenesters were desperate to have their obsessions and fixations cause some kind of upheaval. But, no matter the provocation, the rants and raves of the alternative world did not cause the commercial and political authorities to tremble. They either ignored them or co-opted them. Interestingly many of the current crops of cutting edge television series are now being written by screenwriters who spent much of the early 90’s pickled in the alternative scene. In the late 80’s early 90’s zines and alternative comics flourished.For a little while there was a modicum of inquisitive life through these channels. Yet what seemed transgressive then now seems commercial. The crude little cut and paste zine featuring badly photocopied photos of rock bands or serial killers has now turn into a stale looking website. The countercultural dream has largely dissipated and isn’t coming back.
And yet it seems that in this postmillennial culture, so addicted to the virtual, some kind of samizdat is required. It is quite clear by now, however, that the old countercultural line running from the Beats through Techno Raves, including pretty much every anti-mainstream trend since the 60’s, has truly failed. But that doesn’t mean that that no counterculture can now exist. It just means that the moribund ingredients that caused the failure of those movements need to be placed in the sociological coroner’s office and dissected to note the pathological elements.
Certain features stand out immediately and certainly should be examined in much more detail later. Top of list is the entire emphasis on intuition and instinct; usually most cheaply stated in the idea to follow your heart, be yourself, follow your dreams. The number of songs and movies containing these sentiments and their kin are legion, innumerable. This road leads straight into the maw of the commercial establishment. This is an underlying tendency that dooms every anti-authoritarian movement to end up as the consumer software to the hardware of mainstream culture. This first occurred to me when I visited a Sex Pistols exhibit in a small New York City museum about 1990 or later the Gap ads featuring Jack Kerouac or the way any death metal song can be used as background music for promos advertising Monday Night Football.
If there is to be a new samizdat that goes against the current in a truly anadromous fashion it can’t be anti-intellectual. Brains have to start working again. Real dialogue has to be reengaged. In order to interrogate the coming society it won’t do to make a big loud angry noise. Noise is the nature of the beast. But it will certainly be essential to understand the chaotic sounds of our recent past. It will also be much more imperative to study history; learn a foreign language; to recognize how propaganda works; to use the aspects of past cultures and countercultures that can be applied in a wise manner. (Wisdom; now there’s a word you don’t here in popular culture much anymore.)
We can understand then what a samizdat for our spewing dervish of an age might be if we go back to the samizdat of that antique Iron Curtain. There are lessons there. Might I suggest thumbing through a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to the chapter called The Ascent and starting there?
“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…a small unuprooted corner of evil.”