The Theory and History of Samizdat

Guenter Hirt; Sascha Wonders [eds.]: Praeprintium. Moskauer Bücher aus dem Samizdat. [Praeprintium. Moscow samizdat books.] CD-ROM. Bremen: Edition Temmen 1998, 230 pp.

Praeprintium, an exhibition that presented for the first time a large spectrum of Moscow samizdat publications to a Western audience, was shown at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin/Preussischer Kulturbesitz, at the Weserburg Museum in Bremen, in Graz, and in Vienna. The show was curated by two scholars who operate under the pseudonyms of Günter Hirt and Sascha Wonders. The cover of the catalogue for the exhibition is black. Adorned with a typewriters typeface, it serves as a reminder of the un-official, pre-Gutenberg nature of samizdat publications. The volume comes with a CD-ROM that was created at the Humboldt University in Berlin, containing almost all the illustrations contained in the catalogue, and additional illustrations showing pages from samizdat books included in the show, with translations.

The CD-ROM included in the catalogue is a great asset. Unlike a regular catalogue that dedicates no more than two or three pages to each item, the CD-ROM gives one the impression of leafing through a real book. The pre-Gutenberg medium of the samizdat book is thus made accessible via a distinctly post-Gutenberg digital medium, complete with a screen design that looks like faded parchment. From this point of view, the fact that the CD-ROM is included in a printed catalogue appears a bit odd. The exhibits in the exhibition were taken from the archive of the Research Institute for Eastern European Studies at the University of Bremen as well as from the private individuals. The exhibition was preceded by a two-part symposium consisting of lectures by young scholars and readings by Moscow samizdat poets. The symposium included the Liyanozovo poets Igor’ Kholin and Genrikh Sapgir who have since died. The volume on the symposium, which is being prepared for publication, will be dedicated to their memory.

Hirt and Wonders’ extensive foreword to the volume presents an outline of Russian media history. It places the printed books presented in the exhibition in a context that ranges from politics to the history of the graphic arts in Russia. The authors support their thesis of the primacy of writing in Russian culture by the common assumption (D. S. Likhachev) that the main achievement of the pictorial icon lies in its ornamental ligatured script (vyaz’) and in the roles of scripture depicted in the icon. However, this assumption poses some problems from a christological point of view. Even if it is true that the subject depicted by an icon makes reference to the events of the gospels, it is perhaps not useful to establish a hierarchy of the media of their representation. The reason is that both images and writing are tertiary from the point of view of theology of icons.

In an icon both the image itself and the writing that accompanies it serve the indepictable. From the point of view of the theology of icons, the function of representation is already guaranteed by the two steps of incarnation (G. Ward) and seeing (L. Uspenskii). It is at a later stage that the thesis of the primacy of writing in Russian culture, as well as that of the periodic questioning of that primacy, becomes productive. While the Old Believers rebelled against any weakening of writing’s authority, Baroque visual poetry (Simeon Polotskii) as well as the lubok, a popular print displaying a pictorial narrative, questioned the subordination of the image to writing. The avant-garde, finally, liberated the graphic aspect of the letter and developed its own inter-media book art. Post-Stalinist samizdat publishing made use of these developments, especially as regards the purposefully created “rough exterior” of its books. During the Stalinist era, the lost aura of writing was restored.

With few exceptions, the Praeprintium exhibition as well as the catalogue and CD-ROM all focus on Moscow, implying the (conscious) omission of Petersburg samizdat, which the editors did not feel competent to include. Even though this is a regrettable omission, it does not diminish the value of the volume.

For a broader overview of Russian samizdat, specialists can fall back upon the anthology Samizdat veka (1997). Apart from Ilya Kabakov, a large part of the artists included in “Praeprintium” are introduced to the Western public for the first time. Additionally, artists such as Vilen Barskii or Vagrich Bakhchanyan who stand apart from the canonical groups are also taken into consideration.

The period covered by Hirt and Wonders spans the 1950s to the 1990s. The catalogue begins with the legendary forefather of samizdat (from Russian “sam sebya izdat'”), Nikolai Glazkov, and continues with the Liyanozovo poets Evgenii Kropivnitskii, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Igor’ Kholin, and Genrikh Sapgir. As far as Moscow counterculture and the political samizdat of Alexander Solzhenitsyn was concerned, only what was not printed was true and worth while reading. Aesthetically, samizdat publications adhered to what Gerald Janecek described as an aesthetic of minimalism, which included the conscious creation of a non-professional, rough outward appearance. The peculiar media specificity of samizdat publications is supplemented by the peculiarities of their reception, especially as far as the Liyazanovo group is concerned (Hirt and Wonders, in this context, talk enigmatically about “Schrifthäuslichkeit“, which might be translated as “writerly homeliness”).

In the form of Ilya Kabakov’s and Pivovarov’s albums or Lev Rubenshtein’s filing cabinets, the Moscow conceptualists also had their own specific rituals when it came to samizdat. Kollektivnye deistviya (Collective Actions), in its turn, used the cycle of actions and performances that goes by the name of Trips Out Of Town (Poezdki za gorod) to act out the dialectics of the visibility of the image and the invisibility of writing, both in the happenings themselves and in their descriptions and recordings. Samizdat aesthetics finally demystifies itself in Dmitry Prigov’s “text graves” (grobiki). Hirt and Wonders also comment, with obvious disdain, on the “programmatic immodesty” that is proudly displayed by newer Moscow artist groups, such as the “Mukhomory” or the radical performance artists Brener and Kulik. To the editors, this kind of self-advertising or self-publication evidently violates the aesthetic of understatement that, for them, characterizes “classical” samizdat. On the other hand, Hirt and Wonders do show some sympathy for Vadim Zakharov’s archiving of early “rough” samizdat and for its obvious visual quotation in the layout of the Moscow intellectual almanach Mesto pechati. The concluding part of the catalogue features a discussion of Aleksandr Brener’s and Anatolii Osmolovskii’s Radek. This magazine has in the meantime undergone a metamorphosis and is now being published in a new, post-Gutenberg incarnation under the title of mailradek. Here, the dyad image/writing seems to have been abolished altogether.

Among the last items featured in the catalogue is Oleg Kulik’s sodomitic book of photographs In the Depths of Russia (V glub’ Rossii), with poems by Vladimir Sorokin. The volume seems passes off pictorial aggressiveness as literary fiction. The catalogue limits itself to the display of one single (non-obscene) photograph from Kulik’s book which shows a path vanishing into a misty forest, past a typically Russian wooden hut. Kulik’s mystifications of sodomy are only accessible to readers who possess the necessary computer hardware to read the included CD-ROM. Hirt and Wonders speak tongue-in-cheek of the “simulative effect of ‘secret reading'”, by which they mean that by using the enclosed CD-ROM the reader is able to experience a situation analogous to that of samizdat in Soviet times. True to the Nietzschean triad of camel, lion, and child the Praeprintium catalogue does not conclude with the poetics of destruction celebrated by Kulik but instead ends with Yulya Kisina’s would-be “children’s books”. Interestingly, on the aforementioned CD-ROM, things are arranged in the opposite order, reflecting perhaps the editors’ belief that we lack as yet the instruments for a chrono-logical ordering of post-soviet para-samizdat art.