Monday, March 17, 2008

Samizdat, Magnitizdat and how individuals overcame state censorship with private copies

A Book review from the New York Times, March 24, 1985


Published: March 24, 1985


The Private War Against Soviet Censorship. By Donald R. Shanor. 179 pp. New York: St. Martin's Press. $13.95.

FACED with a revolution in technology that is rapidly transforming the industrialized world, the leaders of the Soviet Union are in a quandary. If they openly embrace the new technology, the horizons of Soviet citizens may expand far beyond the limits set by official censorship. But if they close their doors to new discoveries, they may soon lose their place among the advanced nations of the world. Soviet rulers, early on, sacrificed the freedom of their people at the altar of industrial progress; now they are afraid to loosen the bonds, even at the expense of scientific advancement.

This fascinating dilemma is an underlying theme in Donald R. Shanor's ''Behind the Lines: The Private War Against Soviet Censorship.'' Using interviews with more than 150 present and former Soviet citizens, Mr. Shanor, a professor of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, investigates the ways in which censorship is circumvented in Russia. He also explains how Soviet public opinion is expressed and examines the programming of United States radio stations broadcasting to the Soviet Union. But it is his description of the resourcefulness of ''the underground telegraph'' that is most intriguing.

Mr. Shanor points out that the samizdat literature of the dissidents is but a small part of an underground information network that probably includes the vast majority of Soviet citizens - people who are not dissidents but simply want to know the truth about what is going on around them. They carefully read between the lines of the official press and eagerly circulate news gleaned from relatives abroad. They listen regularly to foreign radio broadcasts and to audio and video cassettes smuggled from the West. Music, politics, drama - every subject is of interest. For those living under Soviet rule, information is the coin of the realm.

Recent reports indicate that the Soviet Union is now negotiating to buy large numbers of Western-made personal computers, but it is not clear how such computers will be used. The Russians have as yet no organized program to develop computer literacy among the young. They seem more concerned with maintaining their centralized control over communications. And so vast sums of money are spent on technology used to jam Western broadcasts. Copying machines are kept under lock and key, the production of video recorders has been halted, and direct telephone dialing abroad came to an end soon after the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Despite these controls, audio tape recorders have become a staple in Russian homes, and there are now more than 168 million radios and 100 million television sets out of a populaton (in 1980) of about 267 million. While Soviet censors busy themselves tracking down samizdat authors by the typeface on their typewriters, ordinary citizens are planning picnics out of town, beyond the range of the jammers, where they tape-record Western broadcasts on shortwave radios that they have rewired themselves. Finnish television programs are picked up in Estonia, ''the unofficial video recording center of the U.S.S.R.,'' where they are recorded on video cassettes and then distributed throughout the country, sometimes with Russian-language voice-overs. Magnitizdat (tape publishing) is taking its place alongside samizdat .

The future holds new problems for Soviet censors, as foreign companies compete to develop smaller, cheaper and more efficient products - word processors and personal computers with printout capabilities; tiny wireless radios and televisions, powerful enough to pick up international transmissions; cordless telephones no larger than a wristwatch that can be dialed directly to receivers abroad.

Mr. Shanor believes that in the long run the Soviet Union will be unable to control the private use of the new technology. Let us hope he is right. His is an optimistic view, one that foresees a better informed Soviet public demanding more openness from a new generation of Soviet leaders and holding them accountable for their actions.B

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