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Banned Books Week 2020: What is Samizdat?

SamizdatWord-for-word translation fails the reader trying to grasp the word samizdat, a term in use since about 1966. Literally meaning “self-published,” самиздат originates from Russian (am, “self,” and izdatelstvo, “publishing”)  and it refers to the underground publication and circulation of articles or books with political views in stark contrast to the party line.

In countries where duplication was strictly prohibited, forbidden texts were copied on thin paper, such as onionskin, using carbon paper or a mimeograph, and distributed secretly.  Despite their poor-quality appearance, Samizdat publications had an enormous impact in the Eastern Bloc, where the population reached four hundred million by the 1980s, living in dictatorship.

Censorship was based on two concepts. First, literature has significant moral and intellectual influence on people, and as a result any pessimism or “decadence” in a book was a major cause for rejection. Second, publishing would exclude any political taboos such as criticism of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union, the single party system and, ironically, the existence of censorship.

A non-Slavic language country in the Eastern Bloc, Hungary, with its 10 million people, was lulled into a sense of relative well-being and relative cultural freedom compared to the other countries with its so-called goulash communism. The word censorship was not even used –– although it was practiced widely, based on the three Ps system (3T in Hungarian): books and manuscripts were promoted, permitted, or prohibited. Often intentionally, the final decision was not put in writing, and the reasons for rejection cannot always be traced. Banned books were hidden in closed stacks of libraries, requiring a special permission for access, validated by the local party representatives.

Hungarian samizdat materials in the 70s and 80s were mostly typed or mimeographed publications covering current political topics that would have been rejected through censorship anyway. Others were written by foreign authors with political content, or new publications of blacklisted authors, or reprints of previously published books which sold out on the first day and would never see a second edition under the censor’s watchful eye.

Animal farmAs an example, Orwell’s name was first mentioned in a report in 1963, when a collection of English essays was edited, but nothing by Orwell was published until 1989, when the Berlin wall fell and the collapse of the communist system became imminent. A samizdat translation of Animal farm by a translator with a pen name Zúz Tamás (roughly “crushed by others”) came out in 1984, barely escaping the secret police, who had already been informed and were ready to confiscate the final product –– which was the typical MO. Get the information from the snitches, keep the publishers under surveillance, wait until the project is finished, raid the location, collect the copies to burn, round up the publishers, and throw them in jail. More on Samizdat and censorship in Hungary courtesy of Zúz Tamás.

One of the most memorable banned Hungarian book is The Case Worker, the first novel of György Konrad, which was inspired by his job as a children’s social worker in a working-class district of the capital. Transforming sociological content into art, it portrays a society with striking differences to the party line about how ”happy workers are building socialism.” The 6,000 copies of its first edition were sold out in one day, and no second printing was allowed until after 1989.

The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power is another banned book that had made an enormous impact nationally and internationally, written by Konrad with his sociologist friend Iván Szelényi. Considered a primary threat by the party, the manuscript was confiscated by the secret police in 1978. Both authors were arrested and held for a week, then, as result of an international protest campaign against their arrest, were offered the chance to emigrate. Szelényi left and became a renowned sociologist, Konrad stayed and got blacklisted. His works were first published as samizdat or abroad such as by the New York-based Hungarian Press, managed by Sándor Püski.

(flash talk presented at the Banned Books Week 2020 reading, September 30, 2020 – see slides)