(lit., self-publication), the publication and circulation of uncensored materials in the Soviet Union. Samizdat was not exclusively a Jewish phenomenon: Soviet dissidents of all nationalities had recourse to this mode of expressing nonconformity and disseminating ideas from the late 1950s until glasnost. Jewish samizdat—uncensored works on Jewish subjects, produced by Jews for a Jewish readership, and disseminated among Jews—included periodicals, pamphlets, and even books.
Jewish samizdat encompassed original and translated works, materials composed in the Soviet Union and in prerevolutionary Russia, and works produced abroad. A by-product of the restrictions upon publications on Jewish themes and in Jewish languages, and generated by the struggle of Soviet Jews for emigration and for the recognition of Jewish culture and nationality, it reflected a wide variety of views and issues. According to estimates, Jewish samizdat material accounted for approximately one-third of all samizdat material produced in the Soviet Union between 1970 and 1987.
Jewish samizdat began as a phenomenon concurrently with general samizdat, gathering momentum in the early 1960s. Its primary objective was to provide Jews with information about Jewish history and culture and Israel. Moscow and Riga were the principal centers of this activity, the bases for a complex network of personal contacts enabling materials typed, photocopied, or photographed in one city to be brought safely to others. In the late 1960s, this activity was enhanced and came to include professional translators from various Western languages, who would type out 5 to 10 copies of their translations and have them taken to other cities, where they would be reproduced in a like number of copies.
Indeed, the forms of publication were at first extremely primitive. Many texts were copied by hand. Typewriters also came into use but proved problematic: in addition to the limited number of copies it was possible to make on a typewriter, the machines were identifiable and the individuals using them were frequently apprehended. Sometimes photocopying was possible, but generally the process was prohibitively expensive. The optimal method was copying by duplicating machine; however, the close supervision such machines were under made this difficult. Nonetheless, thousands appear to have read samizdat material in the 1960s, a single copy of a samizdat production passing through many hands.
Popular works included Russian pieces by Vladimir Jabotinsky (Fel’etony [Feuilletons], Evreiskoe gosudarstvo [The Jewish State], and his novel Samson Nazorei [Samson the Nazarite]), the autobiography of Chaim Weizmann, and works on the Holocaust and the Eichmann trial. Perhaps most important of all were Leon Uris’s Exodus, which was typed out in translation both in full and in abridged versions, and books on the Six-Day War. Other favorites included lyrical poetry by Russian Jewish poets Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik and Shimen Frug, and novels on Jewish topics, such as Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf, Howard Fast’s My Glorious Brothers, and Andre Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just. These works cautioned against assimilation, called for pride in Jewish nationhood based on centuries of Jewish history, and offered models of behavior and belief. Other materials disseminated in samizdat included Hebrew-language textbooks, duplicated in full or in part, notably L. I. Riklis’s Mori (My Teacher) and Aharon Rozen’s Elef milim (A Thousand Words), brought in originally and given to local Jews by the Israeli embassy prior to June 1967 and by tourists.
The peak of samizdat activity occurred between 1970 and 1973. Individual and collective letters and petitions to emigrate were copied or reproduced; they included or incorporated the names and addresses of the signatories to help others overcome their fears and make their own applications. The next stage was the appearance of periodicals, indicating a more organized and thought-out venture no longer restricted to individuals and small groups. The first periodical, ‘Iton (Newspaper), became the semiofficial organ of the Jewish movement in the Soviet Union following its All-Union Coordinating Committee’s decision to disseminate samizdat materials. In this period, Moscow took pride of place, although Riga and Leningrad remained important centers of samizdat activity. Of 20 periodicals that appeared between 1970 and 1987, 14 came out in Moscow, the materials reaching cities throughout the USSR. Although most periodicals produced only a few issues, altogether more than 100 numbers appeared, some of them containing several dozen pages.
In their contents, the periodicals were divided between the primarily political and the cultural-literary. Examples from the first category, including ‘Iton and Iskhod (Exodus), were more militant, presenting information on how to conduct the struggle for emigration. The second, such as Evrei v SSSR (Jews in the USSR), Tarbut (Culture), and Leningradskii Evreiskii Al’manakh (Leningrad Jewish Almanac), sought instead to foster Jewish consciousness and culture within the Soviet Union. These three latter examples were the only publications that appeared over a considerable time period—1972–1979, 1975–1979, and 1982–1987, respectively—publishing more than 10 issues—20, 13, and 15, respectively. A particularly significant samizdat document was the “White Paper” produced by the organizers of the Symposium on Jewish Culture in the Soviet Union, which was scheduled for December 1976 but was canceled by the authorities. The document described the reasons behind the decision to convene the symposium, its preparation, and harassment by the KGB, and included papers designed for it.
Jewish samizdat helped promote the revival of Jewish national consciousness, satisfying a thirst for basic Jewish knowledge and stimulating interest in Jewish heritage. Indeed, samizdat became increasingly sophisticated as the Jewish movement developed. By the mid-1970s, thought-provoking collections were produced by writers who examined themselves and their positions, acknowledging the origins of their Jewish consciousness in Soviet antidiscriminatory practices, yet underscoring familiarity with Jewish history, art, philosophy, and religion as a means to strengthen Jewish identity. By the late 1970s, Jewish samizdat was coping with new challenges: the departure of more than 70 percent of Soviet Jewish emigrants to countries other than Israel, and the restrictions on emigration, which meant that even if the 1979 peak of more than 50,000 continued, the vast majority of Jews would remain in the Soviet Union for many years.
The tasks of samizdat in the last decade before glasnost were thus to encourage a minority to emigrate, to arouse the Jewish consciousness of others in order to help them make a knowledgeable decision regarding their country of destination if they resolved to depart, and to prevent the spark of Jewish sentiment from disappearing among those not contemplating emigration, and instill among them a positive attitude to Jewish identity. Ultimately, the goal of Jewish samizdat was to eliminate its own raison d’être—to attain a legal, open status for Jewish activity in the Soviet Union with free access to the Jewish world outside.
Stefani Hoffman, “Jewish Samizdat and the Rise of Jewish National Consciousness,” in Jewish Culture and Identity in the Soviet Union, ed. Yaacov Ro’i and Avi Beker, pp. 88–111 (New York, 1991); Benjamin Pinkus, Teḥiyah u-tekumah le’umit: Ha-Tsiyonut veha-tenu‘ah ha-tsiyonit bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot, 1947–1987 (Kiryat Sedeh Boker, Isr., 1993), see esp. pp. 408–417; Yaacov Ro’i, The Struggle for Soviet Jewish Emigration, 1948–1967 (Cambridge, 1991), chaps. 7–8.