Samizdat: Underground Resistance Made Public
Samizdat means “self-published.” A Russian term, it refers to any underground publication banned during Communist rule in the USSR and Soviet bloc. It includes essays, books, art, poems – whether original or copied, it was all illegal.
Yesterday I attended the opening of Samizdat: The Czech Art of Resistance 1968-1989 at the Embassy of the Czech Republic. The exhibit is part of a broader project at the embassy called Freedom of Expression in the Contemporary World that focuses on the fight for democracy and freedom in modern-day Burma, Belarus, and Cuba.
Tuesday’s reception included guest speaker Normando Hernández, a journalist, human rights advocate, and former prisoner of conscience in Cuba.
“When we speak of samizdat, many people think it’s history, but that is not the case,” Hernández told us. “I was arrested in Cuba for exercising my right to freedom of expression. Today in Cuba there are plenty of artists and journalists persecuted for what I call 21st century samizdat.”
The Czech Republic has a unique perspective on repression and how important subversive work can be for human rights. The underground Czech culture kept alive a resistance that made the Velvet Revolution possible. It’s no coincidence Václav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, was a samizdat writer.
“Behind the samizdat are personalities who brought down dictators,” Hernández reminded us. “Today, as a former prisoner of conscience…as a free man, I honor the art of samizdat as the highest symbol of human freedom.”
The exhibit includes photographs taken by secret security agents’ cameras, which line a wall cozily next to a typewriter used to produce samizdat. Books of banned artwork, lyrics, and essays fill five displays, shaped subtly in the five points of the Soviet red star.
Samizdat music and film, including rarely seen footage of Václav Havel, are particular highlights.
Daniela Sneppova, curator of the exhibit, showed me some other standout pieces, including tiny books with room for a magnifying glass in the spine and photo-sized prints of banned literature hidden in boxes labeled as undeveloped film so security wouldn’t open it. “At that time,” Sneppova told me, “if it wasn’t documented, it didn’t exist.”
What stood out to me most was not how remarkable the works were, but how unremarkable: a book opened to a page on Salvador Dalí, a picture of someone reading on the train, a page of Sex Pistols lyrics. The exhibit’s audio portion isn’t political or offensive – it’s just a little quirky. Long hair depicted in the films, typical for most American images from the 70s, was against the law in Czechoslovakia and a major statement in the underground movement.
Freedom of expression is something we tend to take for granted in the United States, where our clothes, hair, and music aren’t determined for us. We sometimes make light of Dalí’s silly persona, forgetting what it would be like to have no Dalí to discuss in the first place.
Whether we’re at risk of complacently or currently fighting with our lives for free expression, people of every country could learn important lessons from Czech resistance art. At a time of great oppression, samizdat kept culture alive, reminding people not only to keep fighting but to fight for something beautiful.
Samizdat: The Czech Art of Resistance 1968-1989 runs through June 8 at the Embassy of the Czech Republic. Address: 3900 Spring of Freedom Street, NW, Washington, DC 20008. Nearest Metro: Cleveland Park and Van Ness (both Red). Open Monday-Thursday 10 am-4pm and Friday (10 am to 2 pm). Call 202/274-9105 to schedule an appointment and ask for the exhibit guide.