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Public Culture 13.2 (2001) 191-214

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The Terrifying Mimicry of Samizdat

Serguei Alex. Oushakine

I think that to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system. This is perhaps what happened in the history of the Soviet Union.

Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice

At a certain point, the struggles of the dominated were so romanticized . . . that people finally forgot something that everyone who has seen it from close up knows perfectly well: the dominated are dominated in their brains, too.

Pierre Bourdieu, In Other Words

For years, Western academic studies of the Soviet Union focused on the dynamic of domination and resistance, and Soviet dissidents were at the center of these studies. The disappearance of the Soviet system dramatically changed this situation: not only did the dissidents fail to perform the role of active political subjects in post-Soviet Russia, but they also virtually ceased to exist as an object of Soviet and Russian studies. This essay is an attempt to bring back the dissident movement by revisiting samizdat documents that circulated in the dissident network from the late 1960s until the late 1970s. I will try to avoid, however, the long-standing Sovietology tradition of locating these texts exclusively [End Page 191] within the context of dissidents' ideological struggle with the dominant political structure. Instead, I want to read them through the discursive web of Soviet society within which they were conceived (or caught?) and whose traces they carried. By analyzing the rhetoric of public political dissent in the Soviet Union, I suggest a Foucauldian version of mimetic resistance that significantly differs from the influential framework of hidden transcripts of resistance developed in the work of James Scott and appropriated by some scholars of Russian/Soviet society. Contrary to the tradition of locating resistance outside of the field of power--be these "hidden" areas in the underground, background, or foreground of the dominant--I argue that the oppositional discourse of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union manifested itself as very much a "surface" phenomenon. The oppositional discourse in a sense shared the symbolic field with the dominant discourse: it echoed and amplified the rhetoric of the regime, rather than positioning itself outside of or underneath it. 1

Forgetting Samizdat

Among the representations of the swift collapse of the Soviet Union, the word glasnost is probably one of the most familiar. Traditionally, glasnost is translated in English as openness and transparency. While being basically right, this translation misses one essential point. Etymologically glasnost derives from the Russian word glas (voice). Thus to exercise glasnost means to become a subject of public speech or, to put it differently, to conduct one's activity in the form of a publicly available discourse.

Certainly the word glasnost, often associated with the politics of Mikhail Gorbachev, [End Page 192] had been in use long before perestroika. In February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev articulated the idea of openness and public criticism in his famous speech "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" delivered to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party (CPSU). 2 Ironically, it was the Sovietdissidents--the "children of the Khrushchev thaw" 3 --who took Khrushchev's appeal seriously and in the 1960s and 1970s became probably the most vocal and articulate advocates of the politics of glasnost. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a writer who is usually seen as the epitome of the Soviet dissident movement, wrote in his 1969 "Open letter to the Secretariat of the Writers' Union of the Russian Federation": "Glasnost, honest and complete glasnost, is the first and foremost condition for the healthy development of any society, and our society as well. And those who do not want glasnost for our country are simply indifferent to the fatherland." 4 Vladimir Bukovsky, another prominent Soviet dissident, in 1979 described the task of dissidents in the following way: "We did not play in politics, we did not invent programs for 'liberation of the people.'. . . The only weapon we had was glasnost. Not propaganda but glasnost, so that nobody could say afterwards 'I did not know.'. . . We were not expecting any...


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