“What is this?” Reed College alumnae Sophie Mayer asked as she attempted to make a connection between a postcard with the chemical structure for Haloperidol printed on it, and the Soviet and Cold War political and cultural artifacts displayed in front of her.
Haloperidol, a common antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia, was used by the Soviet regime in punitive psychiatry. The postcard was used by Baltimore’s Smoloskyp Publishing House in support of Soviet dissenters to attract attention to their plea and to the brutality of psychiatric abuse.
Alumni get-togethers usually come in the form of networking, sporting, and fundraising events. But on September 13th, members of the DC chapter of Reed College Alumni opted for something a little different during the typical Thursday happy hour time—a guided view of the Global Resources Center (GRC) samizdat materials found at the George Washington University’s Gelman Library.
Samizdat is a Russian word meaning “I published myself”, in contrast to government publishing or officially sanctioned publishing houses. At the heart of the collection are materials created, published, and distributed through informal political, religious, and cultural circles.
The group found two archives documenting different aspects of the samizdat tradition. The first, the Peter Reddaway Samizdat Collection, held essentially political materials: letters of protest, trial transcripts, descriptions of arrest, human rights observance, and descriptions of confinement. Dr. Mark Yoffe, curator of The Peter Reddaway Soviet Samizdat and International Counterculture Archives refers to this as “classic samizdat”. Material from the second, the International Counter-Culture Archive, is a small but rare collection of the Soviet and Russian youth movement featuring “zines” (self-published magazines) and extensive holdings of historical recordings of Soviet bard and rock music. The zine and alternative press collection contains more esoteric, marginalized, and in many regards more ideologically “modern” documents: mostly the voices of youth discontent.
The two collections are different in their content but they augment and support each other, illustrating the fact that the dissident movement, which consisted of variety of voices and opinions, also produced a variety of types of documents.
According to Dr. Yoffe, samizdat branched out into different manifestations: magnitizdat for musical and spoken word. Magnitizdat derives from magnetic tape and was mostly produced on home-made LPs made from x-ray plates, on pirated LP discs, later on reel-to-reel tape, and still later on compact audio cassettes. Underground musical performances and poetry readings became the samizdat of performing art. There was artistic samizdat, created in a variety of artistic media from drawings and cartoons to photography, oil paintings, sculpture, and installations. Underground exhibits became the samizdat of curatorial art. There were also samizdat lectures, symposia, readings and recitals. Some of them were recorded on audio, and some were transcribed and distributed in printed/handwritten format.
Samizdat became an industry. Though it was often distributed for free—especially political samizdat—translated materials were usually charged for, as were musical materials and especially objects of art. In the sphere of rock music for instance there existed a significant black market where samizdat recordings of mostly (but not only) western bands were sold.
Reed Alumni were full of questions after Yoffe’s talk. Reedie Freya De Cola admitted that the lecture called into question her association of samizdat with literature. Seeing the counter culture material and the political samizdat changed her perspective, and she raised the question of how the samizdat movement fit with analogous movement happening worldwide. Paul Levy delved into questions about how Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty verified documents which came through their archive, particularly those making political claims. A DC lawyer himself, Levy was particularly interested in the works of Andrei Sakharov and the human rights materials Sakharov authored.
Recent alum James Meador impressed the crowd with his familiarity with obscure pieces in the Reddaway Collection: the Buddhologists. Meador wrote his entire senior thesis on the topic and pressed Dr. Yoffe for a more nuanced explanation of the caucophony of voices found in samizdat. Yoffe discussed at length the tensions between the groups represented in the archives. He emphasized that the samizdat method gave expression to divergent agendas and was similarly adopted across groups that disliked one another outright.
So why is the preservation and study of Samizdat important?
“The younger generation has no idea of the heroic struggle that brought them relative freedom of modern Russia,” replied Yoffe. “There is historic amnesia, so people don’t remember even the most important names. Also samizdat has created a second parallel to the “official” culture, culture for which Russia of the 20th century is known. Most major thinkers, authors, musicians, artists, politicians—came from samizdat. It assures creativity and vitality of free Russian culture. Preserving samizdat and popularizing it is necessary in explaining, saving, analyzing and preserving past.”
The evening was topped off with Georgian food and wine. While eating, the Reed Alumni mingled around a display case telling the story of two prominent dissidents—Yuly Daniel’ and Andrei Siniavsky—whose trial marked a turn in the life of samizdat. During bursts of chatter between bites, stories of Reedies’ archival processing and researching at the Moscow archive Memorial and thoughts on the recently sentenced Russian punk band Pussy Riot made its way into conversation.