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Russian Counterculture and Samizdat

Words and Sounds of Dissent: from Samizdat to Rebel Rock
Words and Sounds of Dissent: from Samizdat to Rebel Rock exhibit on the 7th floor of the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library

Mark Yoffe, Curator of the International Counterculture Archive at the GW Libraries’ Global Resources Center, was recently interviewed by several news outlets regarding the Russian Counterculture movement and the GW Libraries’ Samizdat collection, including WNYC’s Soundcheck, the Voice of America Russian service, and the Washington Post.

The GW Libraries’ Samizdat collection, collected and donated by Peter Reddaway, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at GW, is the largest known privately assembled collection of samizdat in the custody of a public institution outside of Russia. Samizdat is dissident material, typically self-published, that covered a wide range of topics and was often distributed for free, spreading through a variety of channels, including informal groups of friends, underground bohemian associations, clandestine political circles, and movements that published their own samizdat magazines and journals. Soviet samizdat began in the late 1940s and extended through the late 1980s, when Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev's program of Glasnost (“openness”) made samizdat production unnecessary. Within the Soviet Union, samizdat eventually became a broad avenue of expression for those without an official voice.

Peter Reddaway was one of the first Western observers and scholars to note the critical role of samizdat in the political and social life of the Soviet Union. He and a few others collected and transferred selected samizdat originals to various outlets, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the broadcasting organization established in the late 1940s to transmit uncensored news into the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Professor Reddaway also became one of the first to contribute substantively to publishing samizdat materials in the media, magazines, and books in the West. His books include Uncensored Russia (NY: American Heritage Press, 1972), a volume of samizdat materials compiled, edited, and translated by him.

Reddaway believes that although the situations are politically different, there “are beginning to be some similarities” between how dissidents are treated in Russia now and how they were treated in the Soviet Union from the 1960s to the 1980s. He noted that the number of political prisoners is rising as a result of “speaking out publicly, openly.” “If you are a dissident,” Reddaway said, “then you are treated in increasingly similar ways,” including being fired, having to choose between prison and emigration, and being placed in a psychiatric hospital.

Samizdat: Dissent in the USSR, an exhibit highlighting the collection of Soviet-era underground publishing is available for viewing on the 7th floor of the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library. In an adjoining space, the Library also recently opened the exhibit, Words and Sounds of Dissent: from Samizdat to Rebel Rock, curated by Mark Yoffe. These exhibits are open to the public Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 10 am to 5 pm and Wednesday from 10 am to 8 pm. For more information, please visit our website.

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