360° Analysis

On Czech Samizdat and Tamizdat: Banned Books of 1970s and 1980s


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August 07, 2014 16:55 EDT

What the samizdat books contained was less important than the very fact of their existence which in itself.

History of independent, underground, “samizdat” publishing in Czechoslovakia has become relatively well known to this day. And equally well-known has become the “tamizdat” book production of Czech (or Slovak) exiled publishing houses of 1970s and 1980s, i. e. the ones outside Czechoslovakia – based in Western Europe, the USA and Canada. A number of essays and treatises on this subject have been published in English, too.

Origins of Samizdat

As far as the 20th century is concerned, the first traceable independent, illegal book production coincides with the Second World War years, 1938-1945, when Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany. Hand in hand with the establishment of Stalinism in post-war Czechoslovakia in late 1940s and early 1950 came another, stronger wave of independent book publishing, but after the “thaw” of 1956, which put an end to the most cruel, harshest form of Communist dictatorship in the country, during the relatively liberal 1960s, and especially during the short period of freedom in Czechoslovakia (1968-69), it was less and less necessary to disseminate samizdat, type-written texts as they could mostly be replaced by products of real, legal printing presses.

The “golden era” of Czechoslovak samizdat started with the so-called “normalization” of political situation in occupied Czechoslovakia: The Soviet Army invaded the country in 1968 to stay there for 23 years – and the political and cultural consequences of it are well known, too. The best known samizdat series, among many others, were Edice Petlice (Padlock Editions, established by Ludvík Vaculík in 1972), Edice Expedice (Dispath Editions, established by Václav Havel in 1975), Popelnice (Dust Bin Editions, established by Jiří Gruntorád in 1978), Jazzová sekce (Jazz Section Editions, a semi-legal series established by Karel Srp in 1979), and Pražská imaginace (Prague Imagination Editions, established by Vladimír Kadlec in 1985).

Hundreds, even thousands of predominantly type-written volumes appeared in those series (and in many more), of course, mostly in very small print runs. Such Czech and Slovak “books” represent the best of Czechoslovak “samizdat” (the Russian/Soviet term started to be used in Czechoslovakia to refer to such dissemination as early as 1970s). And it is a well known fact, too, that a number of Czechoslovak samizdat publishers of 1970s and 1980s were tried, sentenced and imprisoned only for such freedom-loving activities of theirs.

“Samizdat” and “Tamizdat”

Quoting here a bit of a worn-out Latin motto, habent sua fata libelli (“according to the capabilities of the reader, books have their destiny”) may be excused. Certainly even books have their ups and downs, their moments of glory and moments of decay when they fall into oblivion – perhaps with some chance to have something to say again one day. The reasons for which can sometimes be quite irrational and unpredictable as they definitely are not directly dependent on the literary value of each individual book alone.

As it is hard to believe that there would not be enough interesting books on Jesus Christ published in the West, it was probably the author himself who made the book attractive. Or, better said, what the author was supposed to be: a banned Marxist in a reportedly socialist country who wanted to make Christianity interesting even in the eyes of the so-called atheists.

If this is true for book production anywhere, anytime, it is probably even more conspicuous in the case of samizdat book production because of one reason: The very essence of samizdat book production lies more in an extra-literary sphere than in a purely literary one. In other words, what samizdat books contained was less important than the very fact of their existence which in itself was an evidence of cultural and political resistance in times of totalitarian regimes.

Therefore we have to be extremely cautious when trying to measure the success – to say nothing about the quality – of a particular samizdat book according to its relatively high print runs or according to how many times it had been published in samizdat. By the way, it is a well known fact, that the highest print runs of Czechoslovak samizdat in 1970s and 1980s were achieved by the Jehovah Witnesses, though their output mostly consisted of poor translations of religious texts into Czech.

Nevertheless, at least one fact can be taken for granted right away: The success of a samizdat edition alone could not guarantee any other success of a respective book anywhere else, any time later – and vice versa – the failure of an original samizdat book abroad did not have to explain its failure or success at home.

Egon Bondy and his Handicapped Underground People

Egon Bondy’s novel Invalidní sourozenci (The Handicapped Siblings) was written in 1974 by a little known author who never published any of his poetry and fiction before 1968 and in the “normalization” decades was utterly dependent on samizdat book production. The novel was inspired by the author’s life in Czech underground community of rock musicians, poets and artists and in it the author addressed the same community. The book worked as a sort of an apology of the “merry ghetto” of this community.

Now there are, incredibly, 14 different type-written editions of the book found in Prague-based Libri prohibiti library which, together with three more editions found in the author’s personal archives, probably represent the absolute top record in Czech samizdat book production – 17 different type-written editions of the discussed book.

The keen interest in the book especially on the side of the above-mentioned Czech underground community has always been in sharp discrepancy with little or no interest on the side of prominent Czech dissidents and dissident samizdat publishers, so had it not been of one edition in Václav Havel’s Edice Expedice, of Pavel Tigrid’s interest that resulted in his publishing an extract of the book in Paris-based Czech exiled journal Svědectví (1980), and especially of Josef Škvorecký’s interest that generated the first printed publication of the book in 68 Publishers (1981), the book would probably be only known and successful within a limited and somewhat isolated circle of readers at home.

Nevertheless, the tremendous success of the book among a section of Czech samizdat readers provoked one more edition abroad: We have in mind Josef Jelínek’s miniature piracy reprints. Mr. Jelínek used to make the miniature reprints of Czech books published in exile in his office in Erlangen, Germany, pursuing only one aim: to make smuggling back to Czechoslovakia easier. Bondy’s book Invalidní sourozenci was published in Erlangen in 1983 and, according to the data given by Jiří Gruntorád, head of Libri prohibiti library, some time later Mr. Jelínek even made one more reprint of the book: Maybe several hundred of the miniature copies of Invalidní sourozenci were successfully smuggled into Czechoslovakia in those years. So insatiable was the Czech readers’ thirst for this book that the demand probably lasted until the late 1980s.

Of course, the book was published by regular printing presses in Czechoslovakia soon after 1989 – first in 1991, next in 2001. It was even published in two translations, in Italian and Germanbut everywhere and every time met with little success only: Its time is probably gone now. The target group of its devoted readers has begun dying out, and the role of the book has been fulfilled.

A Marxist’s Jesus

This is an example of a very different samizdat publication. Milan Machovec’s monograph on Jesus was originally written in 1969 to fit the demands of Orbis / Svoboda publishers’ series of books called PORTRÉTY that consisted of brief, concise monographs always titled only with the name of a respective historic figure.

Since the author was a well-known person both at home and abroad, being one of the founders of Christian-Marxist dialogue that took place both in the East and the West in the 1960s, it was not difficult to rouse interest of foreign publishers in Western Europe and even in more remote parts of the world. The nine samizdat editions of the book Ježíš pro atheisty (literally: Jesus for Atheists, the English translation was published under the title A Marxist Looks at Jesus), found in the Libri prohibiti library (including exemplars from Vaculík’s Edice Petlice and Havel’s Edice Expedice) are, as we are told, the average number, nevertheless the print runs of such typewritten editions were usually limited.

It was a factual book, a serious treatise that could hardly compete with more attractive books of fiction, a fact, which makes the incredibly keen interest in the book on the side of foreign publishers in 1970s and 1980s even more unbelievable: The book was published six times only in Germany and later on in ten more languages in 11 more countries – including Japan and South Korea.

On the other hand, the book had never been published in its Czech original by any exiled Czech publishing house. Here we are, of course, faced with a different kind of an appeal: As it is hard to believe that there would not be enough interesting books on Jesus Christ published in the West, it was probably the author himself who made the book attractive. Or, better said, what the author was supposed to be: a banned Marxist in a reportedly socialist country who wanted to make Christianity interesting even in the eyes of the so-called atheists. Such a hypothesis could also explain the lack of interest in the book on the side of Czech exiled publishers. They were mostly forced into exile because they could not cope with atheistic Marxists ruling their home country: Why should they publish a book written by one of them, though one who later got in trouble with party bosses and became a dissident?

As we know from the recent history of Czechoslovakia, this trial was one of the most important factors that led to the establishment of Charter 77 by the end of the same year – and the so-called “Brown Book” undoubtedly served as one of the eye-openers of the day.

Back in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of 1990s, the book also met with little interest. It was published as early as 1990 under a less provocative title of Ježíš pro moderního člověka (Jesus for a Present-Day Man) and in a large print run that could not sell and had few if any reviews. The second edition of 2003 got to print only some months after the author’s death. It was a small print run that hardly paid. Nowadays, the book is on its way to oblivion, having fulfilled its temporary role both at home and abroad relatively well.

“Brown Book” and “The Merry Ghetto” 

The third example is the so-called “Hnědá kniha” o procesech s českým undergroundem (“Brown Book” on the Trials of Czech Underground), published for the first time in samizdat in 1976 and then again, enlarged, in 1980. It is a publication whose way to readers was extraordinarily unusual. As an anthology of the most different texts – documents, testimonies, literary texts, essays, song lyrics, etc. It was completed as a source of true, factual information, that was to face the massive official propaganda launched by the totalitarian regime during the trial of the members of the underground rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe. As we know from the recent history of Czechoslovakia, this trial was one of the most important factors that led to the establishment of Charter 77 by the end of the same year – and the so-called “Brown Book” undoubtedly served as one of the eye-openers of the day.

By the way, the name of the volume is purely incidental. Its first edition had no name and was bound in a brown-colored cardboard folder – because this was reportedly the only cardboard color available at the time. The second editionalready had the name of the so-called “Brown Book” – the title found in quotes, of course.

Since the extra-literary and temporary function of such publication is more than obvious it should not surprise us to find out that the “Brown Book” was never published abroad or again in samizdat after 1980 – and it is to come out in a critical, annotated edition only now, more than 30 years after its publication in the form a of nameless samizdat. Such publications can probably only function as a “mediator” of information, some of which may only be of ephemeral value. Some of the texts found in the “Brown Book” were published prior to it, some later, some were translated into foreign languages but as a whole the “Brown Book” was of no interest on the side of Czech exiled publishers. And there was no need to be sorry too much because the anthology had fulfilled its extra-literary function almost immediately.

And yet there was a response to the “Brown Book” among the Czechoslovak exiles, though bearing an absolutely different title. We have in mind the first LP of the Plastic People of the Universe, called Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, released in the UK and France in 1978 together with a voluminous catalog either in English (The Merry Ghetto) or in French (Le ghetto joyeux),which incorporated a number of texts found only in the “Brown Book” before. The editors of the LP and of both the catalogs – the Canadian Paul Wilson, the Frenchman Jacques Pasquier, and the London-based Czech Ivan Hartel never even mentioned the “Brown Book” as the invaluable source of information, but again, we do not have to blame them for it.

Instead they managed to create their own version of the original samizdat which functioned as the proverbial first snowball that set an avalanche into movement: The Plastic People of the Universe were not to be forgotten, more and more records with their music were released in the West before 1989 and all their music was published on a number of CDs after that year in their home country – and they themselves became a living legend whereas the “Brown Book” having served its extra-literary purpose became a collection of documents highly appreciated by archivists and historians up to these days.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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