What does smuggling have to do with books?

Book smuggling is mentioned in Robert Darnton’s cycle of the life of books. We talked about it in the first episode of our podcast. You can find it here.

One of the agents in the life of books that Darnton mentions is a smuggler. Not a vocation one would expect when talking about books and reading. Still, the illegal and risky movement of books across borders was occasionally necessary. Another proof of power of books and literature.

When government banned particular kinds of literature in the Soviet Union and some countries in Eastern Europe, samizdat was born. It was a system of publication that allowed to print and spread the prohibited literature. Here is a definition of samizdat by Merriam-Webster. This kind of publishing activity appeared around the late 1950s. The term ‘samizdat’ means both a way of publishing and a kind of literature produced by it. The familiar contemporary term ‘self-publishing’ has a lot in common with that publication practice of the Soviet times. Even the meaning of the two parts ‘sam’ (self) and ‘izdat’ (izdatel’stvo – publisher) sound so well-known and harmless. But the reasons and political influence of these two ways of book creation differ greatly.

Contemporary self-publishers choose this way due to economic, professional or even personal reasons. Samizdat authors and publishers had no other choice to bring their works to readers.

File:Russian samizdat and photo negatives of unofficial literature in the USSR.jpg
This image of typewritten samizdat copies and photographic films is from the Wikipedia article

There was also ‘tamizdat’. This lesser-known term is more closely connected to book smuggling. The literary works prohibited by the authorities could have been smuggled out of country (most often to Europe) in order to be properly published there. This is ‘tamizdat’; ‘tam’ means ‘there’. Foreign tourists brought manuscripts out of the country and returned with published books, one copy at a time. Or sometimes smugglers were citizens of the Soviet Union who were allowed to travel abroad. Ultimately, all book smugglers risked being caught crossing the border with banned literature.

“Writers were not only forbidden to create works that were dissident, formally complex, or objective (a term of reproach), but they were also expected to fulfill the dictates of the Communist Party to produce propaganda…”

from Literature under Soviet rule, Encyclopedia Britannica

Samizdat and tamizdat are closely connected. Some of the prohibited books were published abroad, smuggled into the Soviet Union and then became objects of samizdat – people would make hand-written copies (or even page-by-page photographs) of texts that would later be passed on or sold. This was an illegal enterprise, one was always at risk of being prosecuted for it. Another popular way of spreading this literature was through carbon copies. One typewriter could make multiple carbon copies at a time, so can you imagine the quality? All of us high quality e-book readers today, can we imagine reading with such dedication?

A close-up of a samizdat page (also Wikipedia)

Some of the examples of Russian literary classics that were originally published via tamizdat are: poems by Joseph Brodsky, Venedikt Yerofeyev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, and The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was, for instance, first published in Italy in 1957. Books were considered luxury goods so the amount of smuggled materials was not very high, although, I believe, it is not easy to hide a 200-page manuscript in your luggage and hope no one would find it.

There was also ‘Gosizdat’, but this is a tale for some other time.

When I first discovered that there is academic interest in the role of smugglers in book publication and distribution, it changed the image of library-dwelling book historians in my head to that of dashing and brave adventurers. In my own eyes, I could finally combine my two childhood dreams: working with books and being Indiana Jones! There is much to research in the history of book smuggling, can you imagine what an exciting field of work lies ahead?

Here are some suggestions for further reading:

P. Steiner On Samizdat, Tamizdat, Magnitizdat, and Other Strange Words

D. Pospielovsky From Gosizdat to Samizdat and Tamizdat

Friederike Kind-Kovács, Jessie Labov Samizdat, Tamizdat, and Beyond: Transnational Media During and After Socialism

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