Samizdat in Samara


Valery Pavlukevich, who recently passed away, was a regular contributor to oDR. In his last appearance on these pages, he tells Michael Lawrence about the samizdat scene in his home city of Kuibyshev, now Samara.

Michael Lawrence Valery Pavlukevich
3 June 2015

Michael Laurence: producing and reading underground literature, known in Russian as samizdat – literally ‘self-published’ – was a cultural lifeline for the provincial intelligentsia in the Soviet period, and nowhere more than in ‘closed’ (forbidden to foreigners) cities such as Kuibyshev. How widely was samizdat available there?

Valery Pavlukevich: It was a real craze for Samarans. Everyone read it – university students, their teachers, office workers, pupils in the top classes at school, even Communist Party apparatchiks. You could find whatever you wanted: some people liked fiction, others political works. The educated public was thirsty for new books, but popular titles were difficult to find in the shops, so enterprising people found an alternative source. In the early 1970s, novels such as the French Angelique series, Robert Stillmark’s The Heir from Calcutta and other fashionable titles could be photocopied in bulk. There would be text on just one side of the page, and the paper was thick and of low quality; you couldn’t do any better with Soviet photocopiers. If there were illustrations, you photographed them off the page, printed them on photo paper and stuck them into each copy by hand. I can remember these thick tomes, 500-600 pages long. There was an enormous demand for them, so you could borrow them from acquaintances for literally just a day or two. And there were still not enough copies available – one friend of mine waited a month for James Hadley Chase’s Asphalt Jungle.

A crowd of Muscovites queue to read samizdat newspapers on a wall, January 1990.

Muscovites queue to read samizdat newspapers on a wall, January 1990. (c) RIA Novosti/Vladimir Akimov

People would use workplace photocopiers out of hours, risking arrest by the KGB.

Novels were usually printed on photocopiers in large local factories. In working hours the machines were used for duplicating technical drawings and the like, but after work people would copy books for their home library. This could be risky – most of the city’s industrial plants worked for the military, so any employee caught copying books would be immediately handed over to the KGB. In the 1970s I worked at the State Science and Technology Archive, which also had a photocopier, but it was accessible only to trusted members of staff; the management was scared someone would copy samizdat texts.

Of course, popular fiction was only one part of the samizdat system; people were in fact more interested in books about politics, and that was much more dangerous.

ML: What sort of political samizdat was available in Kuibyshev?

VP: It was the classic type of samizdat: forbidden books typed out a few copies at a time using carbon paper. Some texts were even copied by hand. You could get three copies like that, although it also depended on the quality of your carbon paper. But political samizdat was mostly duplicated on typewriters. It was dangerous to try to photocopy anything by Solzhenitsyn – a mass run of 100 copies could land you in prison.

It was dangerous to try to photocopy anything by Solzhenitsyn.

You could produce up to five copies at one go on a manual typewriter, but you needed to press the keys with a certain amount of force. So in theory it was better to use an electric typewriter, but these all had to be registered with the KGB. Dissidents would tell you that the local KGB headquarters had a card index with specimen texts from every typewriter in Kuibyshev, so that any samizdat book found could be traced back to its maker. So, pre-revolutionary typewriters were especially prized by ‘samizdaters’, as there were no print specimens from them in the KGB’s files.

Among the works circulating in locally-typed copies in the early 1970s were Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago and stories by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov, and Vladimir Voinovich, all of which gave a true picture of life in the USSR. Copying these books or just having them on your bookshelves – even Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which is now studied in schools – was very dangerous in Kuibyshev. There were always people ready to shop you to the KGB for having banned literature.

At the same time, the ban on this forbidden fruit and the possibility of getting into trouble for reading it, only made it all the more exciting and attractive. It was thrilling to know that you were secretly reading a story by Solzhenitsyn copied into an exercise book from a samizdat magazine, and that your teacher at university might be reading the same story, also in secret. But you couldn’t discuss what you read with your fellow students; lots of people were thrown out of university, the Komsomol and the Party for being caught with samizdat.

The ban on this forbidden fruit only made it more exciting and attractive.

In the early 1980s, one of the most popular publications among Kuibyshev’s cultural intelligentsia – actors, directors, artists – was the Metropol Literary Almanac. Lots of people knew that hand- and typewritten copies of this were circulating in dissident circles, but few people could get hold of them – it was a criminal offence just to read them, so they could only be lent to trusted acquaintances. Some of my friends, fans of the iconic actor, poet and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, remember reading banned poems of his in Metropol. You could usually borrow the almanac, published by the American publisher Ardis and brought into the USSR secretly, for a few days, which gave you time to copy anything that took your fancy before returning it to its owner. It was a unique illustrated literary-artistic collection with texts by such literary giants of the time as Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Rein, Genrykh Sapgir, Vladimir Vysotsky and other writers and poets united by the idea of creative freedom.  

Copies of this illicit literature were hidden in a variety of places, in case of KGB searches of people’s homes. They could be on a balcony among jars of pickled cucumbers or in a pile of spare parts in a garage. One dissident hid pages of Solzhenitsyn in his toilet in a pile of newspapers ready for recycling. Another hid samizdat in the drum of his washing machine.

In the early 1970s I met the Samara bibliophile Mikhail Avdeyev, a graduate of the Cultural University who worked as a librarian at the Aviation Institute and was an avid collector of rare books and samizdat literature. He spent all his spare time visiting informal meeting places for samizdat fans, of which there were three in the city: Pushkin Square, the back yard of the Bukinist [second hand] bookshop on Kuibyshev Street and the square beside the Yunost [Youth] department store on Leningrad Street. Samizdat was unofficially traded and exchanged there up until 1991.  

ML: How was samizdat bought and sold?

VP: It was like a something out of a spy film. A book lover might, for example, visit Bukinist and ask a particular assistant to help him find a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The assistant would then phone one of his samizdat contacts, using an accepted code: books, for example, were referred to as ‘chocolates’, just in case the KGB was listening in. So the bookseller would ask, ‘Do you have Aleksandr Isayevich’s chocolates?’ The samizdat dealer would immediately know what was meant, and would turn up at the back door of the bookshop a little later with a copy. The buyer would then pay the shop assistant-middleman, leave the shop, wander round the back and receive his purchase.

There was a code: books, for example, were referred to as ‘chocolates.’

Gradually, Samara’s bibliophiles, many of them intellectuals with a keen interest in politics and anti-Soviet views, decided to produce some samizdat themselves, and publish journals containing works by well-known authors from the Soviet Union and abroad, as well as articles by local writers with dissident views. The result was a kind of monthly magazine-digest.

ML: What sort of things were published?  

VP: The first samizdat publication in Kuibyshev was the Samara journal, which first came out in 1988, under the editorship of Anatoly Cherkasov, a local dissident. The technical side of publication – layout, printing, distribution – was in the hands of Georgy Yevdokimov, with Cherkasov also helping with design. The magazine was printed in a run of 100-200 by a small printer in Lithuania and brought to Kuibyshev clandestinely by a team of local dissidents, hidden inside the lining of travel bags. Suitcases were usually searched by the KGB, on trains coming from the Baltic republics, but for some reason, weekend bags didn’t seem to arouse suspicion.

Samara had an editorial team of six, one of them, Mikhail Avdeyev, together with Cherkasov decided on content. Editorial meetings, with discussion of the theme of the next issue, the latest writing and political developments in the USSR, usually took place at Cherkasov’s flat, which was like an informal club; and it was Cherkasov, who knew his politics, history, philosophy and economics, who had the last word. In all, 40 issues of Samara appeared between 1988 and 1990, and its most popular content included Boris Yeltsin’s memoirs and articles by local dissidents. In 1991 Anatoly Cherkasov emigrated to the USA and later died there.

In the mid 1980s Kuibyshev also had a samizdat newspaper, Kredo, and in 1989 Vladimir Surayev and other contributors to it brought out a new magazine under the same name, announcing that it would be produced collectively, with no single editor in charge. Kredo mostly contained analytical articles by local dissidents, often writing under pseudonyms, on political life in the USSR and events in Kuibyshev, and it too was printed in Lithuania. Then at the end of 1989 Samara and Kredo were amalgamated into one publication that was produced at an underground printer’s in Moscow.

In June and July 1988 a number of public rallies in Kuibyshev calling for the dismissal of the local Communist Party chief Yevgeny Muravyov provided an excellent opportunity for distributing Samara and Kredo. Some people bought 15-20 copies to resell to the protesters, and despite strong pressure on the city’s dissidents from the KGB, none of the authors and distributors of the magazines were arrested.

But by August 1991, samizdat publications had pretty much become redundant, as the emergent democratic press began to openly publish articles by previously banned writers. And the public switched its attention from clandestine literature to open opposition, as Samara burst into constant protests and rallies.          

This article is dedicated to the memory of Valery Pavlukevich.    

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