Is there a twenty-first century samizdat?

Photo: Linda Mastalir

A recent four-day conference in Vienna devoted to the theme of samizdat and tamizdat networks in central Europe brought together scholars, journalists, and members of the former democratic opposition who participated in the samizdat networks of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the key questions explored concerned how we look at this history today. One specific element of the legacy of central European samizdat deals with how the experience may be transplanted to other regions of the world today.

Irena Grudzinska-Gross and Jirina Siklova,  photo: Linda Mastalir
"For me, samizdat was very important because it provided the possibility for people to express opinions during a time of censorship."

But what was it? How did it work and what types of materials constituted samizdat?

"It began with information (texts) that we multiplied using regular typewriters. We made multiple copies of texts that we received from people, or sometimes when we received foreign journals we wrote summaries of the contents and passed these on to other friends. I think that this was really the basis of samizdat."

Jirina Siklova was one of the Czechoslovak democratic opposition's key activists during the 1970s and 1980s. Not only did she write texts for underground samizdat circulation, but above all Jirina Siklova was the point-person for samizdat smuggling operations in and out of communist Czechoslovakia. Thousands of texts forbidden by the communist censors got out of the country via the networks established by Czechs in exile with whom Siklova collaborated. Vilem Precan in Germany and Jan Kavan in England ran the samizdat 'information highways' closest to Jirina Siklova.

Similar networks operated in and out of neighbouring Poland, though on a much larger scale. Barbara Falk, the Chair of the Department of Security and International Affairs at Canadian Forces College in Toronto, and the author of The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe (2002) has a refreshing perspective on one possible legacy of the central European samizdat experience:

"Basically the paper I wrote looks at the lessons and legacies of dissident, of samizdat and tamizdat, of the organizational efforts of the unofficial civil society organizations in central Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, and looked to see whether or not that model fits in other parts of the world? In particular, I'm looking at the Middle East. The country that I find most interesting at the moment is Iran, and I rather ironically subtitled my paper 'Why Iran could be the next Poland' because Iran is in a very interesting place right now. First of all, it has a very, very large young population. It has a population that is well-educated. It has a high degree of internet access and usage—a very, very active blogosphere, and Farsi is now the third most important blogging language in the world. And Iranian oppositional politics are at a place that I think it very similar to where Polish oppositional politics was in the early 1970s, where they were disillusioned with reform from above, they had rejected the romantic insurrectionary moment of nineteenth century Polish opposition, and they looked to a very pragmatic, non-ideological, peace meal approach: this is the approach that Adam Michnik famously called New Evolutionism.

I think that this is exactly the same stance that the Iranians are taking now. They've had their theocratic revolution, which was a very popular revolution, there was some violence involved, they had the overthrow of an authoritarian government of the Shah in 1979, they also have within the living experience of many that authoritarian experience, and in a sense what Iranians are looking for now is a rejection of both."

Barbara Falk and Gabriel Andreescu,  photo: Linda Mastalir
Regarding the technicality of the so-called unofficial sphere: some of the older activists and dissidents had some objections to you drawing a modern-day technological parallel to classic samizdat, and the use of the internet today. First of all, can you explain what your point was about modern-day communications, and why you think it's viable to call that communication samizdat?

"At the beginning of my presentation I held up a book which was an anthology of Farsi blog entries, and I said, 'this is the samizdat of the twenty-first century.' And I think it is. I don't think there will ever be samizdat ever again in terms of the small booklets, or entire books, or pamphlets or newspapers written on onion-skin paper with carbon on old, ancient rickety typewriters. I mean, for one thing, that technology doesn't exist any more. I don't even think you'll get the kind of innovative Ramka silkscreen-type independent, moveable printing presses that were developed in Poland.

I think that what you're going to get now is either virtual communication, either through the blogosphere, through chat rooms, through both inter-group and intra-group communication on the internet. Or, to permeate and penetrate the digital divide you're going to get stuff that's produced and self-published on the internet and then used after it's been printed or distributed widely in print form, and that will be the point of distribution. But I just don't see how in the twenty-first century you are ever going to go back to the old world of samizdat. And why would you? I mean, the possibilities for instant communication, for a dramatic reaction to the events of the day, the possibility for information flow from outside the country—from the émigré and exile communities, from tamizdat—back into the country. And tamizdat in a sense exists because there are all these external human rights and monitoring watch-sites: where I live in Toronto, there's an excellent one which is called Iran Watch Canada. There's a world-wide internet chat room which links Iranian exiles together—it happens every Saturday. This is the nature of the communication of opposition in the twenty-first century, and I think it's going to get more inventive, but it will be very much built in, and around, and through broadband technology."

From left: Antonin Liehm,  Eugeniusz Smolar and Jirina Siklova,  photo: Linda Mastalir
Barbara Falk's thesis generated much discussion at the 'From Samizdat to Tamizdat' meeting in Vienna. One of the main divisions came along generational lines. Several of the former democratic oppositionists from central Europe found it difficult to think about 21st century samizdat relying heavily on internet communication. Jirina Siklova belongs to this camp:

"Maybe I'm old, but I think that information is not the only thing that is important for citizens' movements, or for samizdat. I think that the personal contact which you have, the trust of knowing that you could give material to somebody, the fact that you can look into his or her eyes and speak—I think that it is very important. It is not only about the information. I can have plenty of information, but information is not friendship, not a movement, and not solidarity."

For the older generation of central European activists, personal ties were the key to making the conspiracy operations work—everything was built on trust. Thus, for these former activists the experience of the 1970s and 1980s in the communist bloc can not easily be applied to the world of twenty-first century cyberspace.