History of dissident literature under communism gets own special day

A proposal put forward by a group of five coalition MPs to make October 12 the official Day of Samizdat was approved by the government this week. Although not a state holiday, the marking of the date as a significant day in the Czech calendar brings recognition to the people who risked and suffered persecution by the Communist state between 1948 and 1989 due to their “illicit” activities.

Miroslav Svoboda is a native of Plzeň who was involved in the publishing and distribution of samizdat materials in the west Bohemian city.

“I’m not from Prague so I wasn’t in the very centre of samizdat activity. But here in Plzeň we tried to self-publish some magazines, books and so on. Every once in a while we went to Prague and brought back what they’d published there. We also distributed petitions to release friends who had been jailed.”

Samizdat | Illustrative photo: Czech National Library

Samizdat – literally meaning “self-publishing” in Russian – took place across the Eastern Bloc and was a form of dissident activity in which people reproduced and distributed written materials that had been censored or banned by the authorities. The materials were usually produced in a makeshift way, as Miroslav Svoboda describes.

“We worked on typewriters – at the beginning it was usually only around 10-13 copies. Later we got a Cyclostyle copier, so then it was possible to print larger amounts. Gradually we reached a wider and wider audience – towards the end of the 1980s people were less afraid and more willing to read the materials and then pass them on to someone else.”

Miroslav Svoboda | Photo: Dominik Mačas,  Czech Radio

Svoboda is part of a group of people who since 2017 have been promoting the idea of marking the history of samizdat in Czechia with a special day. He says the group also included people from Poland, Slovakia and other former Eastern Bloc countries who wanted to advocate for the official recognition of such a day in their countries too – and Czechia was not the first to achieve this goal.

“The Slovaks overtook us – they already approved the Day of Samizdat in 2020. I copied their justification letter a little bit and I wrote the whole proposal and tried to start promoting it among some MPs.”

Ivan Polanský,  from the exhibition on Slovak samizdat | Source: Samizdat.sk

The date of October 12 was chosen for the Day of Samizdat because of its connection with Ivan Polanský, a Slovak Christian activist and big publisher of samizdat literature, who was tried and sentenced to four years in prison.

“On 12 October [1988], a group of 92 Czech and Slovak samizdat publishers wrote an open letter to the then Communist president Gustáv Husák saying something along the lines of ‘You are convicting Polanský for publishing samizdat literature – we also publish samizdat literature, so either you lock us up too, or you let him go.’ It was a very interesting position, because they voluntarily revealed their identities, which didn’t usually happen, of course – it was normally all done in secret.”

Svoboda – whose name, incidentally, means “freedom” in Czech – says the decision came as welcome news after several years of campaigning for such a move.