To put the Soviet human rights movement in context, it is important to note that Soviet dissidents never started a mass organization, as did their Polish counterparts, and they cannot receive full credit for bringing down the Soviet regime: the arms race, the war in Afghanistan, and the economic disaster wrought by Soviet central planning must receive equal credit. Nor did they ever manage more than a handful of public demonstrations. One of the most famous–staged on August 25, 1968, to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia–involved only seven people. At noon, the seven gathered in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, and unrolled Czech flags and banners marked with slogans: “Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia,” “Hands off Czechoslovakia, for your freedom and ours.” Within minutes, a whistle blew and plainclothes KGB rushed at the demonstrators, whom they seem to have been expecting, shouting, “They’re all Jews!” and “Beat the anti-Sovietists!” They tore down the banners, beat up the demonstrators, and took all but one–she was with her three-month-old son–straight to prison.
But small though they were, these efforts caused a great deal of trouble for the Soviet leadership, particularly given its continued commitment to spreading world revolution and its consequent, obsessive concern about the USSR’s international image. In Stalin’s era, repression on a massive scale could be kept secret even from a visiting American Vice President [the hopelessly naive Henry Wallace]. In the 1960s and 1970s, news of a single arrest could travel around the world overnight.
In part, this was thanks to improvements in mass communication, the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and television. In part, it was also because Soviet citizens found new ways to transmit news as well. For 1966 also marked another milestone: the birth of the term samizdat. An acronym which deliberately echoed the term Gosizdat, or “State Publishing House,” samizdat literally means “self-publishing house,” and figuratively refers to the underground press. The concept was not new. In Russia, samizdat was nearly as old as the written word. Pushkin himself had privately distributed manuscripts of his more politically charged poetry in the 1820s. Even in Stalin’s time, the circulation of stories and poems among friends was not entirely unknown.
But after 1966, samizdat grew into a national pastime. The Thaw [after the death of Stalin] had given many Soviet citizens a taste for a freer sort of literature, and at first samizdat was a largely literary phenomenon. Very quickly, samizdat came to have a more political character. A KGB report which circulated among Central Committee members in January 1971 analyzed the changes over the previous five years, noting that it had discovered
more than 400 studies and articles on economic, political, and philosophical questions, which criticize from various angles the historical experience of socialist construction in the Soviet Union, revise the internal and external politics of the Communist Party, and advance various programs of opposition activity.
The report concluded that the KGB would have to work on the “neutralization and denunciation of the anti-Soviet tendencies presented in samizdat.” But it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle, and samizdat continued to expand, taking many forms: typed poems, passed from “friend to friend and retyped at every opportunity; handwritten newslettersand bulletins; transcripts of Voice of America broadcasts; and, much later, books and journals professionally produced on underground typesetting machines, more often than not located in communist Poland. Poetry, and poem-songs composed by Russian bards–Alexander Galich, Bulat Okudzhava, Vladimir Vysotsky–also spread quickly through the use of what was then a new form of technology, the cassette tape recorder.
Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, one of the most important themes of samizdat was the history of Stalinism–including the history of the Gulag. Samizdat networks continued to print and distribute copies of the works of Solzhenitsyn, which were by now banned in the USSR. Varlam Shalamov’s poems and stories also began circulating in the underground, as did Evgeniya Ginzburg’s memoirs. Both writers began to attract large groups of admirers. Ginzburg became the center of a circle of Gulag survivors and literary figures in Moscow.
The other important theme of samizdat was the persecution of the dissidents. Indeed, it was thanks to samizdat–and particularly to its distribution abroad–that the human rights advocates would gain, in the 1970s, a far wider international forum. In particular, the dissidents learned to use samizdat not only to underline the inconsistencies between the USSR’s legal system and the KGB’s methods, but also to point out, loudly and frequently, the gap between the human rights treaties that the USSR had signed, and actual Soviet practice. Their preferred texts were the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and the Helsinki Final Act. The former was signed by the USSR in 1948 and contained, among other things, a clause known as Article 19:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 534-536