Thursday, February 4, 2010


In the beginning there was the word and the word was wild. Assorted authorities throughout history, armed to the teeth with coercive altruism, sought to tame the word, but language is liquid. Try as they might, it cannot be clenched in a fist. In contemporary times the escaped word found freedom and refuge in samizdat.

Samizdat is the term used in the Soviet communist bloc to describe underground publications. In Hungary, the leading samizdat publication was Beszélő [The Talker] published by Gabor Demszky. The archives of his ’illicit’ production can be found at the Open Society Archives.

Radio Free Europe reporter, Stephen Polgar, May 3, 1982 wrote in ’Samizdat in Hungary: A New Voice is Heard’: “there is already one sign that Beszelo is different from the other samizdat material available … It was run off on a duplicating machine [117 pages] and appeared in 1,000 copies. That number may seem miniscule compared with those of officially sanctioned publications, but considering that most such underground literature has been simply typed until now, it is an important innovation.

In their introduction to Beszelo, the editors point out the gaps in information that they want to fill. As subjects of interest to them they mention strikes, censorship of official publications, independent religious groups, student organizations, personal and group activities aimed at helping ethnic Hungarian populations in neighbouring countries, and the situation of "lonely truth seekers, who cannot resign themselves to the fact that those in power are stronger. ..."

In an article by Hungarian poet, Miklós Haraszti, author of The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism, he wrote, “a man was subjected to psychiatric treatment for political reasons. Its title is "Things Like That Don't Happen Here." One thousand copies! Now that is a threat to the cohesiveness of community as protected by The State.

In 1988, Gabor Demszky, and his then-wife, Roza Hodosan, were permitted to travel outside Hungary for their first time. It was my pleasure to host them for a visit to Toronto that summer. A few months later in Budapest, they were rounded up and severely beaten by the police.

Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn’s monumental documentation, The Gulag Archipelago, as well as many great novels and human rights documents pertaining to freedom, circulated hand to hand in the Soviet bloc. Samizdat gained its greatest foothold as a result of the Helsinki Accords signed by all protagonists involved in the Cold War.

Various functionaries of The State sent out their textual assault gangs to confiscate the word in the wild. In Hungary, The State had two locations where samizdat could have a safe haven. The first was the basement of the security forces. The other was in the attic of the Országos Széchényi Könyvtár (National Széchényi Library), which is located in the Buda Castle Palace, declared a World Heritage Site in 1987.

On a fortuitous day in 1990, I found my way into this attic. How I managed to enter into to this secure domain will have to be untold for the time being – it would jeopardize the livelihood of two freedom-loving individuals who had taken an unauthorized person, a foreigner no less, into such a sensitive area.
The door to the stairwell was unmarked except for a number. After ascending a steel staircase, another non-descript door appears with the instruction above the door, No Smoking. How banal!
As the attic revealed itself, I found that it was more sensitive than I could have imagined – row on row of documents pertaining to the Horthyist regime.

Miklós Horthy was declareded Regent and Head of State in 1920, after having banned the Communist Party. He held that position until his ouster in October 1944, when he had a falling-out with Hitler’s forces. One would think the communists would delight in exposing the machinations of this National Socialist stooge, however, the documents being sequestered, also contained accurate intelligence reports the Horthyists received on the machinations of the commies.

The National Library accepted samizdat from the security services, but it also accepted donations. It was in keeping with their policy of being the central storage for the nation’s memory. The police could not trump this mandate, however, they could tightly control access to the memory. So the word was rounded up from the wild and sequestered on dusty shelves.

Anyone wishing to access this memory, were required to be vetted by the security police. Standards were excessively high; only demonstrable devotees of communist crap were permitted to read the ‘anti-social’ material found inside samizdat. If the potential reader is of good ideological breeding, they were then required to explain their intentions towards samizdat. Those who pass had to specify the item to be perused – no fishing expeditions permitted. The item would then be brought to a special room under surveillance. A reader could bring a single page of paper and a pencil – nothing more.

One might think all this procedure has changed since the fall of the commies. Largely, it hasn’t. The security apparatus no longer has role. The samizdat collection is now of historical importance. It has become precious. Access restrictions still apply, but they are no more onerous than a visit to access the material in the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto.

Samizdat has become respectable. It’s practitioners have found themselves in various positions of power in the Visegrád Group of nations. Samizdat has now found an honoured position in the international community.

The International Samizdat Association, founded in 1976 by the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty with the mandate "to encourage efforts to make the texts of [samizdat] documents most readily available to libraries and individual scholars, as well as to support research projects which make use of samizdat materials for scholarly research purposes". Today, almost 30 years later, the goal is to encourage and support international research in samizdat, dissent and alternative culture”

Below are a few photographs taken inside this attic of samizdat. As far as is known, these are the only photographs of the place ever posted into the public domain.
On these shelves appear assorted newspapers published by the emigre community in
the West. The material here was either confiscated from Westerners at the
airport, or acquired by police search warrants of dissidents.

Tamizdat, was the name given to those publications that were published outside
of Hungary. Literally it means 'there published'

Friday, January 29, 2010

Poetry Is Poetency column in Speak-Up 1985/7

Below is an exerpt from the opening preamble to a series of columns (also below) entitled, Poetry is Poetency, which contained snippets of news pertaining to assorted encounters between The State and The Poet:
"The Peoples Republic of Poetry is an organization of poets, artists and writers, largely based in Canada, but with allies in other parts of the world. Among its other activities, the Peoples, Republic of Poetry (PRP) regularly monitors the samizdat literature of assorted totalitarian countries for news of concern to poets."
Click on image to enlarge