Samizdat Days at the Office
by Christopher Dow
Samizdat—a curious looking and sounding word to speakers of English, perhaps because it is a Russian portmanteau word derived from “sam,” meaning “self” or “by oneself,” and “izdat,” meaning “publishing house.” The term thus means “self publish” or “self-published.”
The reason this word comes from the Russians is that samizdat was “a form of dissident activity across the Eastern Bloc in which individuals reproduced censored and underground publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader. This grassroots practice to evade official Soviet censorship was fraught with danger, as harsh punishments were meted out to people caught possessing or copying censored materials. Vladimir Bukovsky summarized it as follows: ‘Samizdat: I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.’” (1)
In a sense, this same meaning of “self-published” can extend to a publication form of Western literature. The groundbreaking and tremendously influential novel, Ulysses, by James Joyce, for example, has had a tortuous history replete with unauthorized and clandestinely produced and distributed editions, often produced to fly under the radar of official scrutiny.
The first appearance of Ulysses was in the American journal, The Little Review, between 1918 and 1920. Upon the appearance of the "Nausicaä" episode, which includes a scene with characters masturbating, the magazine was prosecuted for obscenity under the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to circulate material deemed to be obscene in the United States. After a trial, the magazine was declared obscene, and the U.S. Post Office regularly burned copies throughout the 1920s. Similar obstructions came from the United Kingdom, where the novel was banned until 1936.
The first English edition had to be printed in France, using the same printer and plates used for the first edition, which had been printed in Dijon by Darantiere. Of the 2,000 copies thus published, about 500 were burned by the New York Post Office Authorities. A pirated edition in 1929 consisted of around 3,000 copies, almost all of which were destroyed by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Finally, Random House forced the issue into court, and Ulysses was deemed to be literature. The first authorized version was published in 1934, though several other variant editions followed. (2)
The legal exoneration of Ulysses opened literature to wider themes formerly labeled pornographic or otherwise inappropriate, though the porno label still sticks today for material whose primary focus is pulchritude. The upshot of the history of Ulysses is that, in the West, the term samizdat could be expanded to forms of self-published material other than underground Russian counter-propaganda. Chief among those was the “small press publication,” which proliferated from the early 1960s through the 1980s. Small press publications ran the gamut from serious literary journals to homegrown poetry magazines and chapbooks to art-based publications to fanzines. This was, of course, in the decades prior to the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, and these sorts of publications had become possible thanks, foremost, to modern and relatively inexpensive offset printing, and second, to the invention of the photocopier.
Today, there are library collections in various locations devoted to small press publications, and I have a nice collection of my own, having been fairly intensely involved in producing small press publications throughout most of the 1980s. During those years, I appeared in a number of small press and regional publications, mostly in the Houston/Austin/San Antonio region, and I also published two literary magazines: Phosphene and Dialog—Houston’s first and second independently published literary/arts magazines.
Back then self-publishing wasn’t all that easy. You had to have a knowledge of printing techniques, and you had to have the skill, equipment, and space to produce and lay out magazines, journals, and books. That meant some sort of way to set type and reproduce photos as well as owning a drafting table, a t-square, and a waxer. For me, all that was easy. I’d been working professionally in the printing trade for a number of years, and I knew how to produce various types of publications.
But after the publication was produced and printed, there was always the problem of distribution, which was nearly impossible outside of a small distribution area. After all, how could somebody in Cincinnati know about a literary magazine produced in Houston except by sheer chance? So most people who were interested in literary magazines only knew about the few that existed in their area at the time.
All that ended in the 1990s with the advent of digital publishing, which not only provided the tools for anyone to be able to produce publishable material, but also the means to distribute it worldwide, either via web-based publication or via book publishing services such as the now-prominent Amazon Direct Publishing, which allow authors to produce and sell books worldwide at virtually no cost.
But there is a lesser-known form of samizdat that also has fallen by the wayside along with small press publications, though it was a very familiar one to office workers throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This form was made possible by two cutting-edge communications technology breakthroughs: the photocopier and the fax machine, the latter of which is now almost nonexistent, replaced by email, texting, file sharing, and cloud-based storage. But during the two decades of its heyday, the fax machine was of singular importance to business and higher education, providing a means to send near-perfect copies of documents to distant locations in a matter of minutes.
But formal documents weren’t the only material sluicing through these electronic fax channels. Office workers across the United States immediately took advantage of this new, if limited, means of publishing and inundated each other with single-, or sometimes multi-page documents containing acerbic humor, political statements, and bits of sage advice among other topics.
During the 1980s, I managed to collect some examples of this form of samizdat, which now can also be defined as photocopies passed along from hand to hand or via electronic means such as fax. Often such documents became quite blurry with progressive recopying since photocopies and fax are analog technology rather than digital, and thus the images are prone to degrade through multiple generations of reproduction.
I’d always planned on doing something with my modest collection, but the truth is, I simply don’t have enough to warrant a book. But I do have enough to give the reader a sense of the kind of material that was being passed around via photocopies and fax at the time. I confess that some of this material shades into a similar phenomenon that, for a short time, embraced email. While the harsh critic might point out that such material is not truly photocopy/fax samizdat, I would argue that it is samizdat that simply adapted early on to the next phase of technology. And the fact is, these days this sort of material is only rarely found in one’s email box. Instead, it’s all over FaceBook and other social media platforms.
But if the humor of the modern digital samizdat is similar, the reproduction of the photocopied and faxed versions of those two decades adds flavor to the result and was a sort of historic, grassroots form of publishing and protest that no longer exists. I kind of miss those days when you might walk into somebody’s office or cubicle and see something new tacked or taped to their wall. Somehow, ersatz digital samizdat just doesn’t have the cache that the paper forms do.
Finally, I have to note that I have tried not to include photocopies/faxes of cartoons from newspapers and magazines, although one or two might have sneaked in. This material circulated, too, in a similar fashion, but the difference is that they were created by professionals and seem to me to lack the spontaneity and homegrown verve of jokes cracked and disseminated by average folks—even if those average folks were seriously funny and amusingly astute.
(1) "Samizdat." Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samizdat
(2) "Ulysses (novel)." Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulysses_(novel)