Smuggled Materials Shed Light on the Soviet Union


Samizdat Collection piece

Many of the self-published Samizdat pieces in the collection were typed on typewriters and distributed through informal political, religious, and cultural circles. (Jessica McConnell Burt/the George Washington University)

It’s 1980 in the Soviet Union, and attempts to stifle ideological dissent are common practice. But ideas want to spread, and with the help of an underground network of bohemian associations, clandestine political circles, and friends both foreign and domestic, these ideas are self-published, distributed, and smuggled out of the USSR at great personal risk. These materials are known as “samizdat.”

The Global Resources Center (GRC) at Gelman Library has a large and growing collection of samizdat (from the Russian “sam” (“by oneself”) and “izdatel’stvo” (“publishing house”) meaning “self published”), thanks to a generous donation by Peter Reddaway, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at GW. “Access to this material, and the associated cultural output essential to substantively interpreting it, is critical to the understanding of the late 20th century and the various ways in which Soviet dissidents resisted the dominant political hegemony,” says Cathy Zeljak, director of the GRC.

GW’s collection covers the mid-1960’s to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Focusing on the response of Soviet authorities to ideological dissent, the collection includes paper originals and copies, photo negatives, film strips, correspondence, petitions, news sheets, articles, memoirs, works of prose and poetry, published and unpublished book manuscripts, press releases, transcripts of trials, bills of indictment, newspaper clippings, and other historical documents. A significant amount of these materials spotlight psychiatric abuse, mental health reform, and the persecution of religious groups. Students and researchers can take advantage of GW librarians with both subject-expertise and Russian and Eastern European language skills to use this rich collection of primarily Russian and English language texts.

“These materials were produced at great risk to the individuals and groups responsible for their creation and distribution,” says Zeljak. “But, in the end, ongoing dissent helped to apprise others of conditions within the USSR and supported a coordinated effort to destabilize the authoritarian regime.”

The Samizdat collection is open to the public and available for research in Gelman Library’s Special Collections Research Center. Please contact [email protected] to make an appointment to view the collection.