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Reading Samizdat: an evening of talk and discussion with Josephine von Zitzewitz

Samizdat, the circulation of often hand-produced texts outside official channels, was a mass phenomenon during the later decades of the Soviet Union. The overwhelming majority of those who read samizdat were not active dissidents; moreover, literary texts remained popular throughout the samizdat years. Part talk and part discussion, the audience, will also be invited to share their experience of reading samizdat.


As an everyday reading phenomenon, samizdat is underexplored. Most of what we know stems from the writings and memoirs of a comparatively small number of people who have become the accepted historiographers of samizdat. And of course no statistical data, which in the case of a traditional literary process is provided by the book trade or library registers, is available for samizdat.

Yet the role of the reader was absolutely central for samizdat: after all, the readers were the ones who made decision to “publish”, “printed”, distributed, bound and often preserved texts for posterity.

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The relatively short historical distance and the internet make it possible to reach out to people who still remember samizdat first hand. Josephine von Zitzewitz (University of Cambridge) and Gennady Kuzovkin (“Memorial” Society, Moscow) have designed an online survey that allows anybody with any experience of samizdat to share their memories, anonymously if desired. The survey gathered 130 responses to date.  

While the data provided by this sample is small and naturally biased, it indicates tendencies, from the way people of a certain generation first encountered samizdat to texts that proved samizdat ‘hits’. We can also learn how and why ‘mere’ readers decided to become (re-)producers and distributors of unofficial literary texts. Most importantly, the survey yielded many human details and stories that would otherwise be lost.


Josephine von Zitzewitz is Lecturer in Russian at the University of Cambridge. The reader survey is part of a larger project, which will be published as a monograph, The Culture of Samizdat: Literature and Underground Networks in the Late Soviet Union, with IB Tauris. She has written numerous articles and a monograph on underground literature in the late Soviet Union.