Anatomy of a Samizdat Criminal

Mr. Nicholas examines underground literature

Expats.cz Staff

Written by Expats.cz Staff Published on 26.01.2006 16:49:10 (updated on 26.01.2006) Reading time: 20 minutes

Written by Sinclair Nicholas
Re-published with permission

I asked several different Czech teenagers in my neighborhood if they know the Czech word “samizdat,” and was quite surprised to find that not one of the five teenagers I asked could explain to me what the word meant. They are typical hip-hop loving, skateboarding Czech teenagers, so I think they represent fairly well the Czech youth of today. A few of them said they had heard that word before, but could not tell me what it means exactly.

Samizdat was the illegal publication of magazines or books that were not sanctioned by the Communist government. My guess is that the meaning comes from the word sam (self) and dát (to give, make), so probably it literally means to produce or issue by oneself. Samizdat was the greatest tool of the Czech underground for freely expressing opinions back when freedom of the press did not exist. It was in samizdat publications that one could find out who in the underground had been arrested or imprisoned, what was really happening in the country, or you could get information about such things as the Chernobyl accident (which initially could not be found in any of the public newspapers since they were strictly controlled by the Communist government, and the Communist government had decided it would be best if Chernobyl did not happen). Also, all of the banned books of dissident writers could be obtained in samizdat form. Samizdat was a societal truth that opposed the lies that were called truth by the mainstream Communist media. These self publications were passed from one person to the next, so that one samizdat magazine or book might eventually be read by several hundred people.

I realize I am not writing anything new to anyone who remembers life before the revolution, but why are so many young Czechs ignorant about this? Sometimes I get the impression that mainstream Czech society for the most part does not discuss these things because there were so many who collaborated with the Communist regime, or at least there are so many who gave what I must call silent agreement since they did nothing about the fact that people had to use samizdat means if they wanted freedom of the press. They ignored samizdat at that time and pretended it didn´t exist, and they are ignoring it today as though it never existed. Too many from the older generations are trying to forget about the unpleasant facts of life here before the revolution since they have a slight sense of guilt about it, but they should get over that guilt since the fearful lives people lived before the revolution should not be forgotten or ignored. By ignoring the subject, many from the young generation consequently do not know the word “samizdat,” and this ignorance could result in everybody having to resort to samizdat publishing once again in order to express their real thoughts.

Under Communism, printing and copying devices were strictly controlled, it was as though the government had placed printing devices into the same category as a very dangerous weapon, and a person trying to get such technology was very suspect, kind of like someone trying to get hold of some plastic explosives or some uranium. I am sure secret police agents asked suspects such questions as, “Why did you buy some used carbon copy machine parts, and where is the machine?” This makes sense if you consider that one of the greatest weapons against a totalitarian state is a free press, which is why all newspapers and magazines were very tightly controlled. A free press always represents opposition, and opposition is not welcome in a totalitarian state. That is of course why samizdat came into existence under the totalitarian state, and also why samizdat went out of existence after the revolution when people started legally publishing whatever they wanted (for the most part, although the publisher of Mein Kampf was prosecuted and censored all the way until the highest Czech court, where he was finally found not guilty). So the new Czech generation that has grown up after the revolution knows all about The Simpsons, but knows little or nothing about the Czech samizdat tradition.

After discovering that those teenagers did not know the word samizdat, it became very clear to me that I simply had to include a chapter about the pre-revolution Czech underground and samizdat publishing; it also seems necessary to write about how the Communists controlled society and punished members of the Czech underground movement, or any person caught producing or distributing samizdat publications. Why aren´t all Czech history teachers including information about samizdat in their Czech history courses? A friend told me that he had recently lectured at a high school about samizdat, so I am happy to hear that some teachers are trying to teach the young about their real Czech history, but I am quite certain that this information is not covered at present in most Czech schools. It should be mandatory, and should be presented in a way that shows how things really worked under Communism, which is what I am going to explain now.

I contacted my friend who did a lot of samizdat publishing before the revolution. I interrogated him so that I could give an honest report of how things used to be before the revolution. I hope that many of the younger Czechs who have no memory of the Communist years will read this chapter and think long and hard about what it meant to have a one-party government. The young generation of Czechs must learn about such things so that Czechs will never make such mistakes again. As soon as you see one political party trying to get rid of all the other parties (could be from the left, could be from the right), go again to the streets and do not leave until you have overthrown that party. Be brave and be willing to go to jail for it, or even die for it, if this is necessary. As soon as a majority of Czechs feel that way about democracy, there will be far less chance that anyone will have to die for it.

Before the revolution, the brave Czechs who were willing to suffer for democratic freedom were mostly represented by the Czech underground. Most of them were long-haired hippies because that does seem like an obvious statement about personal freedom when one lives in a totalitarian society that has regulations about how many centimeters above the collar one´s hair must be. My Czech friend was a long-haired hippy back when hippies were often harrassed and beaten just for having long hair. He told me that there used to be a propaganda campaign against having long hair. The government had nice rhyming propaganda lines like “Dlouhy vlas nechod mezi nas,” which, if I ignore the need for rhyming in English, means, “You long-haired people stay away from us” (“us” being represented by the people´s government); if I want to keep the rhyme I would translate it, “If you got long hair, then head for the barber´s chair.” Under Communism there were government TV advertisements like that. Sounds ridiculous now, doesn´t it? So will many other things you are about to read. Police would often beat these hippies for no other reason than the fact that they had long hair and were obviously the trouble makers who did not believe in or obey the Party. It usually worked that two cops would beat the hippy, with each of the policemen testifying the same story: the hippy had provoked or attacked them first. It always held up in court, and the hippy obviously needed some time in a correctional institute.

The sixties revolution in America was somewhat similar since the conservative society did not much like all those radical hippies, either, but at least in America you could not be thrown into jail for six months before you even got a trial for some trumped up and ridiculous charge. My friend told me that, back then, he met his first American. That American was also a long-haired hippy, so at first he felt like he had something in common with this American hippy, but no one understood why this American hippy was behind the iron curtain, it seemed very strange, then they found out that it was because he believed in Communism and had come to Czechoslovakia to observe the socially just ideals of the Communist Manifesto. My friend and I laughed loudly at the strange irony of that. In America, a radical Communist was quite often a long-haired hippy, whereas a long-haired Czechoslovakian hippy was always a person who was brave enough to openly defy Communism. To be fair, I am sure that this American idealist was fed plenty of illusions by the Communist government, I am sure they prized having such a naďve idiot to display publicly, while at the same time I am also sure they watched him very closely.

My friend quickly ended his communication with that American hippy since the American was living in a dreamland that was not the Communist reality in which Czechs had to live. That American had never lived under Communism and was imagining Communist society in his head. No one knows what became of that American hippy, but I kind of feel sympathy for him since I believe that he truly believed in an idealistic Communist society where people were all socially and economically equal and free. I wonder if he came to realize there was no basic freedom under Communism, surely he woke up to where he really was, but I will probably never know.

FEATURED EMPLOYERS

The first time my friend did prison time was for organizing a concert for the Plastic People of the Universe, a well known underground band at the time. In 1976 they did a concert in some small pub somewhere, the concert was a typical underground event, a gang of friends getting together to play some rock and roll and express a bit of dissidence, but they were breaking the law because one had to have permission from the state to have any kind of concert, but of course the state would not grant them permission to have a concert since they were a bunch of trouble-making, long-haired hippies who obviously stood for something that was against the state.

Some time after they had that concert, perhaps a month or two later, the Czechoslovakian people´s government performed a sting operation. Everyone involved in putting on the concert was arrested at the same time, including seven people who were considered the band´s managers. In English I can only refer to them as managers, but it is actually more like they were members of the Plastic People Clan. Calling them managers sounds too businessy considering how the underground worked, which was like a nonprofit, nonorganization.

Four of them were arrested in Prague and three, including my friend, were arrested in Plzen. They were all taken straight to jail where they sat for six months before they were charged with anything at all. At the same time the government interrogated hundreds of people who were thought to be involved in the underground. They searched apartments and seized letters, song lyrics, address books and anything else that was possibly evidence for an organized group acting against the state. The Communist government legally represented society and its interests, so the government could throw a person in jail if they decided the citizen was not behaving in accordance with the society they represented. In fact, the standard charge used against members of the underground was “vytržnictví” which translates as something like, “disturbing the public peace.” It is difficult for an American to imagine sitting in jail six months before even being charged with disturbing the peace. In America one might pay some small fine for such a thing, but this would never happen if it were some band playing in a bar somewhere. Rather, such an event would be the same as it is in the Czech Republic today, one would see posters advertising the event in order to get more people to come; but, under Communism, such an event had to be passed on secretly between friends, and then one could be easily arrested for this, as was my friend.

I think I should also remind Czechs that this was not oppression being forced upon the nation from Russia. In fact, when Russia was later going through glasnost and perestroika, the Soviet Union altogether stopped caring about intervening in the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia, although the Czech Communist regime at that time was not sure what the hell glasnost meant, so they did nothing in their confusion. Unfortunately Gorbachov came personally and cleared the confusion, he explained to the Communist leaders of Czechoslovakia that they were free to deal with their country as they thought best, then the Czech Communist government, meaning all those Czechs who worked for the government, decided for themselves that they needed to crack down on some of their citizens. So they did, and my friend as well as many other Czech dissidents ended up in prisons, which were also run by Czechs. Most of the Czech citizenry gave their silent agreement. As I mentioned before, perhaps this sense of guilt over national responsibility is part of the reason people do not talk about samizdat anymore.

There was considerable external pressure from various human rights groups and Western governments concerning this case, political leaders and various writers or other artists living in the West argued that those people should not be punished for this according to the Helsinki Accord, which was a very solid argument, so the court case was quite controversial and in the end their punishments were decreased. I obtained a copy of the court transcripts, and I must say it seems extremely ridiculous. The prosecuting attorney repeatedly interrogated witnesses on the stand with questions such as, “Did you hear the word ‘shit´ used in that pub? Don´t be embarrassed, and tell the truth, did you or did you not hear the word ‘shit´?!” The girl on the witness stand said she could not remember, the concert was many months ago, then the prosecuting attorney, being a clever man, said, “You are awfully young to have such a poor memory, a mere seven months ago you cannot remember?! Tell the truth and don´t shame the people´s government!” And the transcript goes on and on like that with him badgering other witnesses to admit they heard the word “shit,” or “ass,” during the Plastic People concert. I think Czech youth need to remember that, under Communism, a guy could sit in a prison getting humiliated and physically abused for six months all because somebody said the word “shit,” which was categorized as having disturbed the peace.

Last year some actor on national television was handing out some film award and said, “I love live television because I can say bad words, like, uh, how about ‘shit?´” The audienced laughed loudly, then his co-moderator, a well known actress said, “Or, how about, ‘ass?´” Everyone in the audience laughed uproariously again, but it seems to me the entire Czech society has completely forgotten all of the court trials like the one from which I am quoting, or perhaps that is part of the reason society thinks it so funny that the actor used a bad word? Are they laughing partly from a sense of relief?

In the end my friend got a year´s probation, though he had already been in prison for six months. The actual verdict I also have, it says that he was guilty of participating in a public performance in which song lyrics had vulgarities that did not meet the basic moral standards of society. Those Communists were great moralists. I am very happy that the current government no longer has the power to convict people on moral grounds, especially since there seems to be very little morality within the current government.

My friend told me that, while in prison, getting hit with a club was like being told good morning, and most of the prison guards were stupid, sadistic bastards who seemed to enjoy humiliating prisoners or demonstrating their power over them. Some people just don´t learn their lessons, they refuse to bow down to the institution and give in, they have to be smart asses over and over and over, but I appreciate and identify with these kinds of people. I have the right to remain silent, and I have the right to say “shit.” If someone told me I will be thrown in jail if I say the word “Hoobaba,” then I would immediately climb to the highest rooftop and yell, “Hoobaba!” I would do it because I simply must, and I figure that I may as well get the shit over with since they are inevitably going to nail me for writing or saying what I think anyway, so I understand and sympathize with others who also think like that. The way I see it, they are the brave ones. They are not stupid, they knew what they were doing and why, they had certain beliefs in their own personal freedom that forced them to defy Communist laws that took away that basic freedom. It may sound strange, but their noble nature forced them to say “shit” in public.

Shortly after this trial, my friend started making a regular samizdat publication, a magazine called Vokno, and this eventually got him in trouble once again. It was the same procedure, this time a sudden arrest of four men, their homes searched and all evidence seized, and lengthy interrogations of about three hundred potential witnesses. This time he was in prison for a year before he went to trial. He was stuck in a small cell, about 3×5 meters, with six other prisoners and four beds. There was a hole in the corner as a toilet with newspaper as the only toilet paper, the cell of course stunk horribly and was incessantly damp and cold. About all each prisoner had was a ratty blanket with a lot of holes in it, they lived on rice and noodles for food since any meat intended for prisoners was stolen by the prison officials. Prisoners got to shower once a week under a long pipe that had holes drilled in it, but the guards liked to turn off the hot water and laugh when the prisoners had no choice but to rinse off in the freezing water. Those kidders. Once again getting hit with a club was like being told hello, once again he was psychologically and physically abused by a bunch of sadistic pricks who were created by the insane Communist system that also enslaved everybody.

He built a radio so he could listen to the BBC, but he got caught with it, so he was thrown in an isolation cell for a few weeks. He was very fortunate that this was in Spring because it was far worse there in the winter since it was so cold. In winter the prisoner had to constantly move and hope he had enough food to compensate for all the energy he burned in order not to fall ill. How could a society do this to some of its most decent people? He was an outcast, a criminal, and the “good citizens” were the prison guards. It was a situation where black is white and white is black, everything backwards, either he was insane or else the entire institution just outside his cell was insane. I understand the feeling. There is pressure and despair in that feeling.

After a year of being in that miserable prison he was finally sentenced for illegally publishing a magazine, maybe he was charged with disturbing the peace again, or perhaps the actual charge was for inflaming the proletariat. He got sentenced to an additional year and a half at a labor camp, an uranium mine that was instrumental in arming Russian missiles and fueling nuclear power plants. The labor camp was its own cruel world where some criminals and guards cooperated to create a low and disgusting system of control, a game of punishments and rewards. For example, there were three kinds of meal tickets issued, according to whether you worked enough or not. If you consistently received the meal tickets of the lowest category, then you would become exhausted and begin having some serious health problems, so this ensured that the prisoners had motivation to work hard. These prisons were full of various criminals, including the criminally insane.

My friend shared his first cell with a guy who had murdered an old lady. Nice cell mate to be sleeping next to. One day, one of the “shift leaders,” a prisoner who was responsible for organizing the work crews, asked my friend what he did to be sentenced to this miserable labor camp, and he responded, quite honestly, “I published a magazine.” I suppose there must be something Czech in my soul because I could not quit laughing when he told me that. And that is something I appreciated about him when he told me all about being a samizdat criminal, he had a sense of humor about it, a Czech sense of humor that figures out how to laugh at the worst of miseries. For Czechs, humor became a tool of survival. It still is.

After his release from the labor camp he was under preventative supervision, or perhaps one could call it house arrest, for an additional two years. This meant that every day he had to report to his local police station for the next two years. He had to be in his house by 10 PM, the police could come and inspect his house at any time they wished, they did not knock, they just walked in and inspected him and his guests and his house. Any guests were always asked for I.D. so that the secret police could compare it with their other lists of names. If he wanted to leave his particular district of Prague for more than eight hours, he had to request permission 14 days in advance of the time he would be absent. His estimate was that about one hundred times, in the course of those two years, the police charged through the door unexpectedly and searched his house.

But, as I said, some people absolutely refuse to learn their lessons, so during this time he was secretly preparing his magazine once again. His friend, named Magor (the same Magor from the Plastic People clan), was in prison at this time. My friend went to greet him at the prison gates when he was released, and said, “Ahoj Magor, here´s the new magazine.” He was proud of his new edition, it was even better than the last one. He would never learn, so of course he ended up back in prison once again. He was sentenced to another two and a half years because the Plastic People disturbed the peace on a big steamboat going up and down the Vltava river. But he was in luck, he went to prison for the third time in February of 1989, so the revolution was just around the corner.

Communism fell on November 17 (my birthday, which may be part of the reason I like living here) and one week after that my friend was released (Magor got out, too) upon the insistence of dissidents within the citizens´ forum. Members of the new government slid him into the secret service, probably as an effort to get rid of all those Communist secret agents who had worked so hard to keep him in prison all those years. He had gone from being an habitual criminal, a notorious public enemy, to becoming a respected citizen. Black had finally become black and white, finally white, while that mass of grey citizenry pulled their window shades up just a crack in order to watch the miracle.

That is the anatomy of a samizdat criminal, in and out of prison forever if it weren´t for the revolution making presidents out of prisoners. In comparison to my friend´s daily reality for four years, it is quite easy for me to write about this and for you to read about it. I do not think we can actually understand or adequately imagine what he went through, we would have to spend four years in a small cold cell with a small daily ration of noodles and a large daily ration of abuse in order for us to really understand the anatomy of a samizdat criminal. But I hope this reminds Czechs, and informs all those Nike Czeenagers, what Communism meant, what it could mean again, and what samizdat was and hopefully will never be again. It is important not to forget this; that is why I am reminding you.

About the Author:
Sinclair Nicholas washed up on the right bank of the Vltava as part of that first and biggest expat wave that was driven by the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution. In "91 he began teaching Czech children to speak English at an elementary school. At that time, due to so many questions from some of his teenaged students (questions like, "How is different, Mr. Teacher, between "fuck off," "fuck up" and "fuck over?"") Sinclair began writing scurrilous phrasal verbs in a notebook, which evolved into his first and most infamous book, Wang Dang American Slang. The book was printed in 1992 with a first printing of 40,000 copies; He used the royalties from American Slang to start his publishing house, WD Publications, and spent the next decade writing and publishing many more of his own books (www.wdpub.cz has all titles as well as an online ordering system).

His latest book, The AmeriCzech Dream, is currently available only as a Czech translated version (you can get it at Luxor), but he will publish the original English manuscript sometime this year (likely this fall). However, we have some of his original, as-yet unpublished chapters available right here at expats.cz– in fact, these original English chapters are not available anywhere else except at this website, so we hope you enjoy the unique reading opportunity.

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