Wiener Slawistischer Almanach Band 86/2021

Tamizdat: Publishing Russian Literature Across Borders

by Yasha Klots (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 368 Pages
Series: Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, Volume 86


The book is devoted to «contraband» literature from the USSR that was first published abroad over the Soviet period. The volume explores tamizdat as a literary practice and political institution from a variety of perspectives and situates it in the context of its domestic counterparts: gosizdat and samizdat. The Contributions to the volume range from first-hand accounts, archival explorations, and close readings of the texts vis-à-vis the histories of their first publications and reception abroad, to theoretical articles on tamizdat as «textual embodiment» and transgression. The volume lets world history speak through Russian literary manuscripts on their way from the drawer to publication abroad, and «repatriation» back to Russia in a printed form.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Tamizdat as a Practice and Institution (Introduction) (Yasha Klots (Hunter Col ege, CUNY))
  • Part I: Articles
  • Tamizdat: The Spatial Turn, Textual Embodiment, My Personal Stories (Olga Matich (UC Berkeley))
  • Siege Dialogues during the Cold War: Harrison E. Salisbury’s 900 Days and Its Sources (Polina Barskova (UC Berkeley))
  • Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna Is Going Under and Abroad (Yasha Klots (Hunter Col ege, CUNY))
  • Tamizdat as Masquerade: The Case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Four Gulags (Alexander Jacobson (Princeton University))
  • Publishing Dissident Soviet Literature in Italy: The Case of Jaca Book (1966–1986) (Giuseppina Larocca (University of Florence))
  • Between Samizdat and Tamizdat: The Case of the Almanac Fioretti (Ilja Kukuj (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich))
  • A Monument to Russian Modernism: The Ardis Vision of Contemporary Russian Literature (Mark Lipovetsky (Columbia University))
  • Part II: Literary Investigation
  • Pasternak and Costello: What We Know and What We (Still) Don’t (Paolo Mancosu (UC Berkeley))
  • Part III: First-Hand Accounts
  • Cultural Scholarly Exchange in the Soviet Union in 1963 and How the KGB Tried to Terrorize American Scholars and Suppress Truths (a memoir) (Lewis S. Feuer)
  • Double Diaries and Layered Memories: Moscow, 1963 (a memoir) (Robin Feuer Miller (Brandeis University))
  • Index on Censorship and the Publication of Tamizdat in the 1970s (Michael Scammell (Columbia University))
  • Political and Human Rights Tamizdat (Pavel Litvinov)
  • How Censorship Leads to Tamizdat: Ardis Publishers (El endea Proffer Teasley (Ardis Publishers))
  • Index of names
  • Series Index

←8 | 9→

Yasha Klots

Tamizdat as a Practice and Institution (Introduction)

This volume originated in the international conference and book exhibition “Tamizdat: Publishing Russian Literature in the Cold War,” which took place at Hunter College of the City University of New York on December 10–11, 2018.1 Like the conference, it seeks to define tamizdat as a literary practice and political institution that served as a foil to state-sanctioned publishing (gosizdat), on the one hand, and underground (re)production and circulation of manuscripts (samizdat), on the other. The volume challenges the traditional view of late Soviet culture as a dichotomy between the official and non-official spheres, in which samizdat and tamizdat have been represented as virtually inseparable, the latter often portrayed as a mere extension, if not a metonymy, of the former. Tamizdat: Publishing Russian Literature Across Borders explores tamizdat beyond its ostensibly innocuous etymology. It demonstrates, from a variety of perspectives, that tamizdat was as emblematic of Russian literature after Stalin as its more familiar and better researched domestic counterparts, samizdat and gosizdat, allowing us to look at late Soviet culture as a transnationally dynamic, three-dimensional model.

* * *

Comprising manuscripts rejected, censored or never submitted for publication at home but smuggled through various channels out of the country and published elsewhere with or without their authors’ knowledge or consent ←9 | 10→(often for the purpose of being sent back as ideologically subversive material), tamizdat contributed to the formation of the twentieth-century Russian literary canon: suffice it to say that the majority of contemporary Russian classics, with few exceptions, first appeared abroad long before they could see the light of day in Russia after perestroika. Tamizdat mediated the relationships of authors in Soviet Russia with the local literary establishment, on the one hand, and the nonconformist underground, on the other, while the very prospect of having their works published abroad, let alone the consequences of such a transgression, affected these authors’ choices and ideological positions in regard to both fields.

Historically and terminologically, tamizdat is younger than samizdat, a neologism that goes back to Nikolai Glazkov’s self-manufactured books of poetry from as early as the 1940s.2 But while the term samizdat suggests that a hand-written or manually typed text circulates locally without official sanction among a relatively narrow circle of initiated readers, who continue to reproduce and disseminate it further, tamizdat presumes that a text is published – with all the official attributes of a printed edition – extraterritorially, after it crosses the border of its country of origin. A tamizdat text thus enters a foreign literary jurisdiction, where it assumes a new life (at least until it makes it back home in printed form). Narrowly defined, tamizdat stands for texts that have crossed the same border twice: on the way out as a manuscript, and on the way back in as a publication. The vicissitudes of these texts’ travels across national borders varied, as did the constellation of actors involved.

Depending on the individual circumstances of each text, its roundtrip journey abroad and back home, from manuscript to a print edition, involved the author, whose name may or may not have been listed on the cover and title pages, and whether or not the publication was authorized; the courier(s) ←10 | 11→who smuggled the manuscript abroad, whether manually or via diplomatic pouch, with or without the help of the author’s local friends or foreign diplomats with mail privileges; the editor(s) who received the manuscript once it had crossed the border and prepared it for publication in their own or someone else’s press or periodical; the critics, including Russian émigrés, western Slavists, scholars and journalists, and the readers abroad who happened to be the first audience of the text in question; another courier, often an exchange scholar, a graduate student, a diplomat, or a journalist, who smuggled the printed edition back to the Soviet Union via embassy channels or otherwise, with or without a fee for the author; and finally, the reader back home, who may or may not have been already familiar with the publication through samizdat (or even from an earlier publication in gosizdat).

Tamizdat thus combined elements of both the official and unofficial fields of late Soviet culture insofar as it attached a legal status to a manuscript that had been deemed illegal or refused official circulation at home. Although the etymology of tamizdat may appear quite innocent, simply referring to a place of publication that lies elsewhere in relation to where the work was created, the political function of tamizdat was fully realized only when the text reunited with its author and readers back home, thus completing the cycle. It is this dimension of tamizdat that makes it a true barometer of the political climate during the Cold War. Depending on the author’s standing with the authorities, the ideological profile and repertoire of the publisher and its sources of funding, the international atmosphere in general and the relationships between the two countries in particular, tamizdat could incriminate the author of a runaway manuscript to an even greater extent than had the same manuscript not been leaked abroad and remained confined to the domestic field of samizdat. Operating from opposite sides of the border, samizdat and tamizdat amplified one another and, at end of the day, were bound to fuse into an ever more potent alternative for nonconformist Russian literature to find its way to the reader, albeit in a roundabout way.

Tamizdat’s distinctive feature, however, remains geographical rather than political, since the very climate of the Cold War blurred the line between the “political” and “artistic” almost irreparably. Likewise, drawing a line between the official and underground literary fields, including samizdat and tamizdat, on the basis of aesthetic merit or “quality” hardly appears ←11 | 12→productive today, much as it might have been tempting decades earlier, when Dimitry Pospielovsky, the author of one of the earliest articles on tamizdat, claimed that “samizdat and tamizdat includes the greatest writers and poets – both living and dead – of the Soviet era, while the bulk of the contemporary gosizdat output is grey mediocrity at best” (Pospielovsky 1978: 44–45).3 Such a politically driven approach, understandable at the time, is clearly short-sighted if only because the same authors could publish in both gosizdat and tamizdat, the former rarely precluding the latter, but not vice versa. Tamizdat was never limited to samizdat manuscripts alone, which were of course its main fuel: it often reprinted works that had passed Soviet censorship and appeared in gosizdat, as was the case, most notably, with Solzhenitsyn’s Odin’ den’ Ivana Denisovicha (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), Vladimir Dudintsev’s Ne khlebom edinym (Not by Bread Alone), Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master i Margarita (The Master and Margarita), to name but a few.4

Although for the readers in Russia the author’s physical whereabouts were hardly a definitive factor (what mattered was that the edition itself came from abroad), geography sets tamizdat apart from émigré literature, which was both written and published abroad, within a single geopolitical field. This terminological problem persisted, however, long after tamizdat became a reality. For example, Gleb Struve defined tamizdat as “émigré books by non-émigré writers” (Struve 1971: viii; emphasis in the original) as late as 1971, highlighting the Russian emigration’s role in channeling contraband manuscripts from the Soviet Union but avoiding the term already widespread among “non-émigré” authors in Russia. Pospielovsky’s broad definition of tamizdat in the late 1970s, on the other hand, includes works “written by Russian ←12 | 13→émigrés” (Pospielovsky 1978: 44). Although the vast majority of Russian émigré publishers and critics were poets and prose writers in their own right, their roles in publishing authors from behind the Iron Curtain should, it appears, be regarded as separate from their original contributions to Russian literature as writers and poets. Nabokov’s fiction, along these lines, may have been as forbidden a fruit in Soviet Russia as Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, but the reason the latter is tamizdat and the former is not has less to do with the subject matter of the two writers’ works (deceptively apolitical in Nabokov’s case, and more poignant in Pasternak’s) than with their geographical whereabouts vis-à-vis their publishers and readers.5

Although historically and etymologically related, samizdat and tamizdat were, in a sense, the mirror opposites of each other. Apart from the obvious differences in their techniques for reproducing and circulating texts (handmade vs. industrially published; distributed illegally to a limited underground audience vs. readily available “aboveground” in bookshops and libraries), what seems to set them apart is their respective readerships. True, both samizdat and tamizdat “offered authors two legitimate routes to audiences” (Kind-Kovács 2014: 9), yet the audiences themselves, especially during the formative years of tamizdat, sometimes appeared geographically and culturally perhaps as divided as authors in Russia and their publishers, critics and readers abroad. A telling example is Akhmatova’s Requiem, whose epigraph –

Нет, и не под чуждым небосводом,

И не под защитой чуждых крыл –

Я была тогда с моим народом,

Там, где мой народ, к несчастью, был.

(Akhmatova 1963: 7)

No, not under foreign skies,

Nor under the protection of foreign wings –

←13 | 14→

I was then with my people,

There, where my people, unfortunately, were.

– articulates the void that came between the “two Russias” after the Revolution, as well as the author’s unequivocal position vis-à-vis those who found themselves elsewhere geographically, ideologically and stylistically as a result. So much so that authors in Soviet Russia were often viewed by their émigré peers, especially of the older generations, not only as allies in their fight against the Soviet regime, but also as ideological opponents. It was their life experiences and, more importantly, their means of registering Soviet reality in their texts that often provoked suspicion and misunderstanding on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain. Over time, as tamizdat was gradually rejuvenated by new arrivals from the Soviet Union, these differences would fade, yet they never disappeared entirely. But until the Third Wave of Russian emigration took over tamizdat in the early 1970s, the temperature in the relationships between publishers, critics and readers in the West and the authors in Russia was often quite hot.

The lack of direct communication between authors and publishers across state borders could not but provoke letters of protest and public renunciations of tamizdat publications, whether or not such letters in Soviet newspapers were genuine, forced, or only “suggested.”6 Indeed, especially in the early years of tamizdat, few authors were happy with how their manuscripts were handled abroad. Their frustration was caused not only by textual flaws, including the plain typos with which tamizdat (as well as samizdat) was infested, but also by the short-sighted reception of their works in western media, and in particular in the émigré press (to say nothing of the reluctance or inability of most tamizdat publishers to pay authors royalties or fees). Much depended on the author’s current status in Russia which, crudely put, ranged from official to semi-official to underground.

←14 | 15→

To repeat, tamizdat was never limited to dissident writers. The same author could be in the vanguard of gosizdat before falling out of favor and being forced into the underground, like Solzhenitsyn; the author may have been active as an official and even high-ranking Soviet critic but not as a prose writer, as was the case with Lydia Chukovskaya and Andrei Siniavsky (until his second identity as Abram Tertz was exposed); the same author may have been able to publish lyrical verse in the official Soviet press, but not works on less innocent subjects, such as Akhmatova’s Poema bez geroia (Poem without a Hero) and Requiem. The conventional distinction between official and non-official is hardly applicable to tamizdat given its inherently dual nature that combined both.

Unsurprisingly, tamizdat jeopardized or altogether aborted one’s chances of getting published in gosizdat, but it could also cast a shadow on authors’ reputations among their like-minded nonconformist audience in the underground, especially when political changes raised hopes that the grip of censorship would abate, as was indeed the case during the Thaw, especially after the Twenty-Second Party Congress. One might go so far as to say that, at least in the early 1960s, samizdat and tamizdat derived from a different ethos: while releasing one’s manuscript to samizdat and circulating it locally in the underground was considered an act of civic solidarity, courage and even heroism, letting it be leaked abroad and (not) seeing it published in tamizdat could be viewed as disgrace or even a betrayal of one’s civic duty as a writer and citizen. Far from being a rule, and perhaps even an exception, when Akhmatova showed a copy of her Requiem, newly published in Munich, to Chukovskaya, her reaction was more than ambivalent: “Here is enough shame for us,” Chukovskaya wrote that day, “that the great ‘Requiem’ rang out in the West before it did so at home.”7

Whether anonymous, pseudonymous, or published under the author’s real name, tamizdat included works written a long time ago by authors who were no longer alive (e.g., the poets of the Silver Age), or works produced more ←15 | 16→recently by writers who were still around to face the likely consequences of such a transgression. Although direct punishment for publishing abroad was not always guaranteed, and the extent of the punishment, if any, varied from light reprimand to years of hard labor, the painful memory of the Doctor Zhivago affair affected authors’ choices as they dared to consider, let alone pursue, the opportunity offered them overtly or indirectly by tamizdat, or when they simply found out that their works had appeared abroad “without their knowledge or consent” (this standard disclaimer was widely used by tamizdat publishers to protect authors from the authorities).8 When Akhmatova’s Poem without a Hero was first published in New York in 1960, three years before Requiem, the sensational news promptly invited a flashback to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: “Out of fear I could hardly grasp the meaning of Anna Andreevna’s words. […] It means, everything is again as with ‘Zhivago’ […]. Anna Andreevna is anxious, but somehow not too much. She must be hoping that the story with ‘Zhivago’ will not be repeated.”9 Indeed, as Chukovskaya also noted in the same diary entry, on February 20, 1960, “the times are special now, you cannot predict anything in advance.”10

A joint venture of the Russian emigration and western institutions, tamizdat remained firmly inscribed in Soviet literary history until the Iron Curtain was lifted and the Soviet Union collapsed. Tamizdat’s political mission was then made obsolete. Having lost much of its politically oriented readership, tamizdat has gone down in history, prompting the writer Zinovy Zinik to claim that it is only now, beyond the political context, that the genuine literary motifs of exile and emigration – and, by extension, of tamizdat – have started floating to the surface (Zinik 2011: 256). There is, however, another reason to look back at tamizdat: today, thirty years after the Cold War’s end, we are witnessing a resurgence of its rhetoric and, worse, reenactments of ←16 | 17→some of its most austere policies on both the international and local scales (not only in Putin’s Russia, but also across the U.S. and Europe).

The post-Soviet “thaw” of the 1990s, as it may now be called, made tamizdat obsolete not only politically but also technologically. It introduced an entirely new path for clandestine texts to “go live,” bypassing not only state censorship, but also geographical borders, however open they may have been by the 1990s. From then on, geography and space itself seem to have hardly mattered as they have become virtual, while the time previously required by a typical tamizdat operation has also shrunk to just a few clicks. Yet while in the early days of the Internet “cyberspace seemed to be free and open” (the ultimate freedom of speech incarnate), today, as Robert Darnton has also pointed out, “it is being fought over, divided up, and closed off behind protective barriers” (Darnton 2014: 13), suggesting an eerie (re)turn to the geopolitical realities of the Cold War, when the world was divided. In case we have forgotten, tamizdat serves as a reminder that “the power of print could be as threatening as cyberwarfare” (ibid.). In fact, it was more threatening.

* * *

The papers and talks published below complicate, expand, and otherwise challenge the above definition of tamizdat from a variety of perspectives. Focusing on the “spatial turn” as a theoretical premise and a driving force of tamizdat, Olga Matich uses the examples of Abram Tertz (aka Andrei Siniavsky), Vasily Aksenov, Sasha Sokolov, and the anthology Metropole, to introduce the concept of “textual embodiment,” which, she argues, allowed these and other authors to transgress the panopticon of the Soviet literary establishment “textually” before doing so “physically,” when they emigrated. The approach is not limited, however, to authors who eventually followed in their runaway manuscripts’ footsteps: the term “textual embodiment” is equally applicable to those who published in tamizdat but stayed in the Soviet Union. Looking at diasporic writing through the lens of defamiliarization (ostranenie), Matich points to “geographic back and forth movement” as one of tamizdat’s inherent features: “the Russian texts clandestinely sent there for publication because they were unpublishable here migrated back home (here) since that was where most of their readers were located.” Laying bare the spatial ambiguity of the opposition between “here” and “there,” Matich’s ←17 | 18→article, moreover, projects it onto the axis of the time that elapsed “between sending manuscripts abroad, publishing them there, and their returning to the Russian reader.”

Based on archival findings, Polina Barskova’s article confronts tamizdat from an angle that is both historically and linguistically unusual. It reveals the peculiar generic cross-pollination that informed Harrison Salisbury’s celebrated book on the Siege of Leningrad The 900 Days. Although the book was first published in English in 1969, it was many years in the making, including the author’s visit to Leningrad in 1944, soon after the Siege was lifted, as a foreign correspondent stationed in Moscow. Going over the sources available to Salisbury then and later, Barskova dwells in particular on two first-hand accounts by Siege survivors that the American author relied on. First, she illustrates how The 900 Days not just drew on, but incorporated entire paragraphs of Anatoly Darov’s novel Blokada (The Siege), especially those parts of it that yielded information tabooed in the Soviet press. Second, Barskova examines the unpublished notes of Igor’ Diakonov, found in Salisbury’s archive. “A new text thus emerges,” Barskova writes, “a palimpsest in which Diakonov reconstructs his own version of events in response to Salisbury’s multi-character panorama, inscribing it in and over Salisbury’s text.” As a result of Salisbury’s double dialogue with Darov in the United States and with Diakonov across Soviet state borders, tamizdat, in the broad sense, reveals a “peculiar ability to fill in the gaps of historical knowledge while also generating new controversies and misunderstandings, and thus widening the field of historical interpretation.”


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
gosizdat samizdat Russian literature Cold War USSR «contraband» literature
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 368 pp., 10 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Yasha Klots (Volume editor)

Yasha Klots is Assistant Professor of Russian at the Hunter College (CUNY), New York. He received his Ph.D. in Russian literature from Yale University in 2011 and M.A. from Boston College in 2005. His research interests include Russian and East European émigré literature and book history, contemporary Russian poetry, linguistic anthropology, bilingualism and literary translation, Gulag narratives, urbanism, the mythology of St. Petersburg and representation of other cities in Russian literature. He is also the director of Tamizdat Project, an online archive of documents on «contraband» Russian literature (1956-1991).


Title: Wiener Slawistischer Almanach Band 86/2021
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370 pages