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Chapter 3. The Commissariat

The architecture of totalitarian thought control is nefarious, and the Soviet system executed that design to perfection. Chilling perfection. Or almost.

Published onFeb 23, 2021
Chapter 3. The Commissariat

1989. November. As the Berlin Wall started to come down, we in the West who didn’t live (yet, anyway) under a system of mass surveillance began to recognize more fully than we ever had before just what a nefarious, ostensibly absolute system had been established to restrict the freedoms of people in the eastern part of Europe—from East Germany and the Baltic states through Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, down through Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, and then across all eleven time zones and fifteen republics of the Soviet Union. That system was odious. It crushed the souls of generations, killed millions, and distorted reality for hundreds of millions more. The damage is still being undone.

And for what? Without it, perhaps, we might never have had worlds of art and culture created under these particular eastern tyrannies, including especially those by the writers—Witold Gombrowicz, Tadeusz Konwicki, Bruno Schulz, Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal; Nobel laureates such as Czeslaw Milosz, Svetlana Alexievich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Boris Pasternak—who have had so much to teach us about beauty, morality, absurdity, and truth. But maybe it existed then to show us now what a system designed and imposed upon us without our consent could actually do to us as people. That system—the Monsterverse, à la Russe—was designed and built in the name of the very same Enlightenment that brought us the Encyclopédie and Rousseau’s Social Contract and the American and French revolutions; indeed, it was first installed by a Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment in the 1920s. The Enlightenment that this commissar—Anatoly Lunacharsky, a Russian revolutionary and confidant of Vladimir Lenin—was supposed to preside over never, in fact, materialized. Its last nominal vestige today is the Russian, formerly Soviet, state monopoly publishing house for Russian school textbooks, Prosveshcheniye (“Enlightenment”), headquartered in Moscow. (“Eight generations of Russian people grew up and learned using our books,” its website says.)1 But the Soviet model, and its Central and Eastern European knock-offs, dominated the intellectual and cultural landscape of all of these countries—in the Soviet Union from 1917, and in the Eastern bloc from after World War II—thanks to the power of a military, security, intelligence, and police apparatus that was able to suppress dissent, alternatives, and opposition. It governed all media and information, from newspapers and book publishing to radio and film. It was designed to produce a new type of Soviet socialist man, a socially engineered human being who, in theory, fed a certain diet of information while being controlled, in body and mind, by a governmental system, would behave according to socialist principles and build post–Soviet revolutionary society: a society, in practice and theory, no longer focused on perpetuating private gain, injustice, inequity, and worse.

In reality, of course, the Soviet system became one of the most heinous and oppressive ever built. Any system that leads to the requirement to register every typewriter with the state, as the Soviet-imposed system did in communist Romania, and every Xerox machine and mimeograph with the government, as it did in postwar Poland, is fairly likely to be biased against freedom of thought. Media and communication, as a monopoly business run by the state, becomes an engine, we can see now, that exerts—for systemic reasons, and independent of the personalities involved in stewarding it—a nefarious impact on liberty, equality, and justice.2 Indeed, monopolies of any kind, state or private, determining a society’s media and information landscape will exert a largely nefarious effect on society, wherever that society may be and at whatever time in human history.

The Soviet architecture of totalitarian thought control was built, to be sure, upon earlier imperial systems of censorship and information policies from the Russian, Hapsburg, and Ottoman empires. But the Soviet architects who designed it in Moscow and Saint Petersburg and exported it westward brought it to a whole new level. For the printing press, the dominant media at the time, the plan’s draught was clear. Step one: bring all book-production equipment and materials—typesetting, printing, binding, and packaging machinery, as well as paper production—under state control. Step two: control all publishers’ access to outside information and manuscripts. Step three: control the distribution of all printed materials—books, journals, newspapers, and magazines. Step four: control the access of national publishers to foreign readers (and hard currency) and of national readers to foreign literature. Step five: place control of every publisher’s finances under the state.

Saturday, January 27, 1990, four thirty in the afternoon: as the Polish United Workers’ Party was meeting in Warsaw’s Palace of Culture to formally disband after forty-one years of rule, the curtain rose on Richard Wagner’s six-hour opera Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”) in Warsaw’s famous Teatr Wielki. Around five o’clock Warsaw time, as the three Fates watched the golden thread of the future get clipped in two, signaling the end of the eternal rule of the gods on the stage, delegates to the last Communist Party meeting in Poland were singing the “Internationale” together for the last time (a scene televised on the evening news), and hundreds of protesters, in a small and rather cathartic riot, were hurling bottles, rocks, and invective at the ring of blue and white militia vans guarding the Palace. Outside the gates of Warsaw University, on Nowy Świat, the winter sun was setting over makeshift tables where vendors were displaying books and pamphlets by, among other writers, Raymond Aron, Václav Havel, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, and whiskered students were selling little pins that read, “No more communism.” One student was selling a sticker of the same Mount Rushmore–type portrait of the four heads of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin that had graced billboards all over the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. Without a caption, the image conveyed a simple indictment in 1990 Poland: that all systems that begin with Marx lead inevitably to the savagery of Stalin.

Sticker for sale in Warsaw, 1990.

This was a day of carnival in a season of change for Poland—in many ways representative of the situation in Central and Eastern Europe at large. The economic reform program of the new Polish prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was at the end of its fourth week of slashing subsidies and eliminating cheap credits and tax concessions, after having already devalued the zloty. According to Polish state television, inflation was at 68 percent that month; prices on basic goods had risen on average 45 to 50 percent since the start of the year four weeks earlier; food prices had skyrocketed 755 percent. Real income had dropped some 40 percent. Mazowiecki’s chief spokesperson, Małgorzata Niezabitowska, stated that 55,800 people were registered as unemployed in January (as against 9,600 in December). The country had begun setting up soup kitchens. On Krakowskie Przedmieście, a graffito scrawled in thick red ink provided strollers with one citizen’s verdict on the reform and its champion, Leszek Balcerowicz. “Balcerowicz,” it read, “is a Mengele of the economy.” The clutches of protestors who used to congregate, before the water cannons came, in front of the enormous former Central Committee headquarters on Nowy Świat had already moved on to chant in front of the finance ministry on Świętokrzyska.

Nowhere was the strain of Polish austerity measures more evident than in the field of culture. That year the new culture minister was Izabella Cywińska, a former theater director and Solidarity member, who had been imprisoned for a period during martial law. Under pressure from both her enemies and her friends to preserve state subsidies for various cultural programs and institutions, she had in fact appeared quite ruthless in withdrawing government funding, in line with the Balcerowicz reform program. As a result, some 160 theaters had had to close, 130 weeklies had failed, and 300 journalists were already out of work in Warsaw. Acknowledging herself, on the record, to be “la donna mobile,” Cywińska reversed herself on earlier promises to keep down the state price of Polish newsprint and book paper and to keep up subsidies to important literary journals. As a result, the price of paper—2.8 million zlotys (US $300) per ton in December and 12 million zlotys (US $1,280) per ton in January—had risen as high as the world price, and book publishers had begun to turn to the better-quality and more readily available paper of Finland.

Cywińska, like other post-communist culture ministers in the region, had surrounded herself with advisors who had been close colleagues from the literary and theater underground. In her view, those who knew how to economize on a microscale to obtain supplies and services on the black market would be able to find ways of economizing on the macro—given the free market that had started to emerge. It is true that the black market seemed to be regulated by the same laws of supply and demand that had begun to exert their effect on the unregulated general economy. But the rules of these two economies were not identical, and so Cywińska and her top advisors found themselves being criticized on two fronts. On the one hand, there were those who charged that the ministry was not using enough nonmarket mechanisms to prop up valuable institutions during the difficult transition period of shock therapy. (As an example, this group was demanding reform of the absurd tax laws in Poland that made the costs of private philanthropy—the donation of cash, equipment, or services to publishers—prohibitive.) On the other hand, there were those who blamed the new government for not yet having created purer market conditions for culture—a sort of natural-selection environment in which only the economically fittest would survive. In a November 1989 confidential report, as the austerity measures were being planned, the ministry’s Department of Books put these two views together in a sort of dialectical unity. Pure market conditions, the report stated, would be the most ideal environment for book publishing in Poland. But it blamed a recession in the book industry in late 1989 on the sudden urynkowienie, or marketization, of the general economy, and it went on to recommend continued select government intervention in the industry.3

Poland’s conflicted approach concerning the government and the economy—representative, in a number of ways, of attitudes throughout the region—dated back to the consolidation of totalitarian thought control and the command economy, both established in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For forty years in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the state controlled the fields of culture, education, and media with an iron fist—much more severely than in even the harshest traditions of the Russian, Hapsburg, and Ottoman empires. Over these decades, the communists of Eastern Europe, basing their efforts in a bastard social-science jargon born with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, tried to perfect the totalitarian control of media and communication. Russian political philosophers, some of whom had become Soviet ones, developed blueprints for control that seemed to them a part of the great experiment that was the revolution. The leading exponents of this social engineering saw print as a key instrument in the transformative educational process that would bring into the world a qualitatively “new” society of socialists. In The ABC of Communism: A Popular Explanation of the Program of the Communist Party of Russia (1922)—among the best known and most widely circulated of all the pre-Stalinist explanations of communism—Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhenskii wrote that

The most powerful method of state communist propaganda is the state publishing activity. The nationalization of all the reserves of paper and of all the printing establishments, makes it possible for the proletarian state, despite the great scarcity of paper, to publish by the million any literature which is particularly important for the masses at a given moment. Everything issued from the state presses is made available to the generality of the people by publication at a very low price, and by degrees it is possible to issue books, pamphlets, newspapers, and posters for free. The state propaganda of communism becomes in the long run a means for the eradication of the last traces of bourgeois propaganda dating from the old regime; and it is a powerful instrument for the creation of a new ideology, of new modes of thought, of a new outlook on the world.4

Russian philosophers from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, embodying both wittingly and unwittingly various Russian imperial traditions, no doubt helped to lay the groundwork for this approach—to state, to state and society, to revolution.5 But it was the early Soviet minister Anatoly Lunacharsky, who served in the USSR’s government for twelve years, from 1917 to 1929, as Commissar of Enlightenment, who was given the brief. Considered (at least in his own words) “a Bolshevik among intellectuals and an intellectual among Bolsheviks,” Lunacharsky took as his mandate to remake the new state’s education system and the arts—and had a heavy hand in the design of its media control.6 It was his planning that built the Soviet Monsterverse—but it owed much to the longstanding fascination in Russia for the French Enlightenment. Let us remember that Russia’s empress Catherine the Great had been so enamored of Voltaire that she invited him to the Russian capital to consult with him on the design of Russian cultural and educational institutions. She had been so enamored of Diderot that she invited him to Russia so he could publish the Encyclopédie there. She asked Diderot to submit to her a plan for fundamentally remaking the education system she had inherited—it was only in Russia, she said, that he could put the values of the French Enlightenment into practice—and she offered to pay him his entire salary for doing so, for fifty years, in advance (which he accepted).7 Indeed, the empress bought the libraries of Voltaire and other Enlightenment luminaries and brought them to Russia, where they are still ensconced in Russian state libraries to this day.8

This pseudoscience of creating “a new ideology, of new modes of thought, of a new outlook on the world”—again, the Soviet Monsterverse—involved much more than an oppressive system of censorship. After World War II, every state in postwar Central and Eastern Europe took a basic series of steps to quash any possibility of free thought that could be construed as challenging to the regime. Together, these steps, adumbrated below, constituted one of the more damaging, enduring experiments in thought control that modern Europe has ever known.

Step one was to bring all book production equipment and materials—typesetting, printing, binding, and packaging machinery, as well as paper production—under state control throughout the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc. When, for example, the Czechoslovak Communist Party seized power in 1948, publishing houses were ransacked, their typecases and letterpresses removed, and paper mills nationalized. Printing was made a state monopoly industry and centralized to such a degree that from 1948 to early 1990 there were only five legal book printers in Bohemia and Moravia. The largest of these, Poligrafický Prumysl, employed an astonishing seventeen thousand workers in 1989. These printing houses maintained a vertical as well as horizontal monopoly on the entire book production cycle. They controlled its every aspect, from typesetting and printing through trimming, binding, and packaging. And only a certain number of publishers—usually one for each sector (textbooks, science, history, literature, children’s books)—received legal licenses from the regime. That said, editors and publishers in the region have always been forthright about the fact that this kind of state control predated Communist power in the region. Státní Pedagogické Nakladatelství, the state publishing house for textbooks in Czechoslovakia, for example, was founded by Empress Maria Theresa in 1775, originally as a branch of the empire’s Bundesverlag. And then, as under Communist rule, state representatives read every manuscript before it went to press. The editors’ stake in explaining that tradition is a major one: they wish for new visitors to understand that eradicating the idea of state control from Czech publishing involved pulling out roots that had grown into the soil not for three generations but for ten.

Step two was to control the publishers’ access to outside information and manuscripts. DILIA, the state copyright agency, was created in 1950 under the control of the Czech ministry of culture. Before the revolution, DILIA represented all Czech publishers seeking to buy foreign rights and all Czech authors who were allowed by the writers union to sell their rights abroad—except the signatories of Charter 77, who were forbidden by the state from publishing or selling their rights at all. The ministries of culture and finance also controlled the hard-currency receipts and expenditures of all publishing houses, so that no editor or publisher could acquire foreign manuscripts abroad and circumvent DILIA.

The royalty laws that DILIA dealt with day to day were designed to repress creativity and reward servility to the state. Czech authors were paid royalties according to the number of signatures (pages) they had in their printed book and the number of copies the publisher printed. This encouraged cronies of publishing chieftains to write long books about nothing important and ask for six-figure print runs. For works from abroad, DILIA used to pay Western authors a flat fee for their rights—say, a thousand US dollars for the right to print a medical text in a run of ten thousand copies, and a pro rata fee for whatever exceeded ten thousand copies. And needless to say, no publisher in the Soviet Monsterverse had legal access to information sources that are standard international reference works in Western publishing—resources, for example, such as Literary Market Place or Books in Print.

Step three was to control the distribution of all printed materials—books, journals, newspapers, and magazines. It became clear that distribution was the single largest problem plaguing publishers throughout the region. In Czechoslovakia, control was exercised through two state-run distribution agencies: Knižní Velkoobchod (KV) for books and První Novinová Společnost (PNS) for journals, magazines, and newspapers. A few publishing houses were allowed to keep their own prewar bookshops after 1948, but book wholesaling was, without exception, nationalized. Year after year, book publishers grew used to believing KV’s market surveys, to printing the number of copies stipulated by KV, and to setting the prices on their books according to national guidelines from a government institute. Publishers abstained from any duties that might resemble Western-style publicity and marketing. After the collapse of communism, most of the formerly exclusive, legal publishers had no idea who exactly was “end-using” their books.

Yet every week, about thirty to forty new titles, or 1 million copies, were delivered by KV to the 1,200 bookselling establishments in Bohemia and Moravia. The deliveries were based on a three-stage planning process stretched out over two years. In the first stage, some eighteen months before D-Day (always a Thursday), publishers sent three hundred to four hundred copies of their list of forthcoming titles (the edicni plan) to KV headquarters; KV would collate them and send a package by post to the eight district headquarters of Knižní Maloobchod (KM), its regional subsidiaries. KM was responsible for conducting surveys to determine the book market in each district and for sending the numbers back to Prague. Most of the time the numbers were computed by “experience,” in the words of the staff—easier in specialty literature (“as the market is known”); more difficult in children’s literature and belles lettres. A publisher could also send its edicni plan directly to bookstores to publicize its list of new and forthcoming books, but that was not a common practice.

This step concluded, representatives from the eight KM headquarters, plus a representative from Slovakia, would come to an inn outside of Prague for one week (usually in the spring) in order to hear presentations by the leading publishers about the books these publishers were most interested in promoting (about ten such presentations per day). But, of course, these meetings could not result in changed price structures for single books or series, significant advertising campaigns in magazines or on television, or major changes in projected print runs. Book prices were set by tamper-proof state guidelines, established by a single pricing institute. Advertising and all promotional gimmickry, so very necessary in Western publishing, were absent or primitive throughout the Eastern bloc. The allocation of paper was controlled by an immovable state apparatus in the ministry of culture. Indeed, as these meetings had almost nothing to do with the interplay between actual demand for literature and real possibilities for satisfying that demand, they usually took on an existential air—helpless retailers and wholesalers meeting with powerless publishers—and ultimately degenerated (or perhaps evolved) into a free-flowing beer festival.

The second phase of publication would begin when the publisher would send a book into production at the typesetting/printing house (books were most often typeset and printed by the same establishment). At this point the publisher would send KV a synopsis of the final product and the exact estimated production schedule. KV would contact KM directly or through its monthly bulletin, Co nového vyjde (What’s Newly Published), to adjust the delivery numbers if necessary, and then conclude a wholesale purchase order from the publisher. (KV would pay 70 percent of the cover price of a book to the publisher and sell it to KM at 77 percent, the 7 percent net representing KV’s take on the book trade. The figure is not dissimilar to the net margin of book-trade wholesalers elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe; Romania’s Întreprindera de Diffuzare i Cărţii, for example, took 8 percent.9)

At this stage, three possibilities existed: One, the publisher might want to circulate more copies of a given book than KV agreed to market; KV would take them if the publisher bore the cost of publicizing the extra copies. Two, the number of copies ordered would match the number scheduled for printing—in which case, there was no problem. Three, the number that the publisher would print might be less than the number KV would order (this occurred all the time). In this case, KV would alert the retail centers. The book dealers would agree to divide the actual print run among themselves, often basing the division on district population figures, with no consideration paid to actual demand.

In the third phase of publication, the publisher would notify KV that the book was about to be issued. Through its other weekly newsletter, Nové knihy (New Books), KV would alert stores, roughly a month in advance, as to the week in which the book would be delivered. Nové knihy, though produced for the book trade, actually sold briskly at PNS kiosks because people had no other way of knowing which new books would be appearing in the shops on Thursday (books rarely being reviewed in advance of publication). About a week after the announcement, KV would begin loading its trucks and cars for shipment to stores and weigh-station warehouses. The shipping process would take about a fortnight before a title reached the remotest of bookshops; critics used to say that the books, wrapped in unprotective paper (not plastic), would sit for months in rattletrap warehouses with leaky roofs. Bookshops that received their books ahead of the announced publication date were obliged to keep them out of customer reach until the designated date of delivery. This system lasted until March 1990—four months after the revolution—when it was breached by émigré publishers who, carrying formerly banned books in trucks, vans, and cars, rumbled across fallen border checkpoints from West Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland, and also from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, bringing their produce to market directly to the bookstores.

Step four was to control the access of national publishers to foreign readers (and hard currency) and of national readers to foreign literature. In Czechoslovakia, Artia was established in the 1950s as the state trading monopoly for the import and export of cultural products such as sheet music, violins, and books. Virtually every Czech publishing house that wanted to sell its books abroad, and every institution and individual that sought to buy foreign books, had to proceed at some point through this enormous bureaucratic apparatus. Knižní Velkoobchod was Artia’s leading supplier of books for export; Zahraniční Literatura, a small network of foreign-literature (mainly Soviet literature) bookstores, was its biggest client for books imported from abroad. Bloated for forty years by sinecure staff positions and an unfair, artificial monopoly that restricted the access of Czech publishers to markets in the West, Artia, like DILIA, lost its monopoly once the Berlin Wall came down.

Step five, easily the most important, was to put control of every publishing house’s finances under the state. The state monitored publishers’ expenditures, taxed them heavily, and tithed all of the income. An elaborate subsidy-and-tax system of pipes and funnels was built among the houses, printing plants, state book-trade organs, and relevant ministries to directly subsidize certain houses, indirectly subsidize printing plants and distributors (so that they could not function without state support), tax and reward authors, and control the profits earned by any and all publishers. The consequent fiscal helplessness—“pauperization,” as some put it, in translation—of many publishers after the revolutions of 1989 became one of the sorest sources of concern.10

The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a touchstone charter for human freedom, set forth in 1948 that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”11 In Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, part of the Universal Declaration, it is written:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.12

This covenant was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 (after May, when the Communists in Prague staged their bloodless coup) by a vote of 48 to 0, with eight abstentions; Czechoslovakia was one of the eight. International jurists maintain that the covenant has acquired, through its “cumulative and pervasive effect,” among other reasons, the force of international law. The communist states of Europe accepted the Universal Declaration when they signed the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki in 1975, but they violated the spirit and letter of the law until 1989. UNESCO’s mandate to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image” followed.13 The United Nations (through the UN Human Rights Council) passed a resolution affirming “that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice,”14 and condemning “unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online.”15 Of course, these multilateral initiatives did not arise in a vacuum; they were part of a Cold War world, an emerging bipolar world, pitting what was once the freer West against the East under totalitarianism.16 But the written commitments of state signatories notwithstanding, every one of the state actors in the Soviet Monsterverse restricted the access of its citizens to ideas, limited the “free flow of information”—and, by doing so, malformed millions of members of the generations that would follow.

In Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal’s comic allegory about the life of the printed word in Czechoslovakia, the wise fool Hanta—Hrabal’s hero—works at a pulping press, forced to destroy the two tons of old books that are recycled each month. But Hanta has such a deep love for the book that he cannot bring himself to pulp all of the tomes that the garbage men bring to him. He rescues so many each week—old philosophy volumes, lives of the saints, first editions of novels—that all the shelves and cupboards of his little apartment gradually become stuffed with Schiller, Lao Tzu, and Nietzsche.

Early on in the novel, Hanta describes how horrified he was as a youth by the physical destruction of books—before his senses were deadened by thirty-five years working the compactor. He had chanced across a cache of thousands of gilt-edged, leather-bound volumes from the Royal Prussian Academy, stowed in some barns near Prague just after World War II. With a librarian friend, he had arranged to bring the books to the ministry of foreign affairs, just “until things simmered down,” when they could be returned to Germany. But someone snitched, the Soviet army found out, and they declared the books spoils of war. Hrabal describes Hanta’s shock at what the soldiers did:

So the column of military vehicles started transporting all the leather-bound tomes with their gilt edges and titles over to the railroad station, where they were loaded on flatcars in the rain, and since it poured the whole week, what I saw when the last load of books pulled up was a constant flow of gold water and soot and printer’s ink coming from the train. Well, I just stood there, leaning against a lamppost, flabbergasted, and as the last car disappeared into the mist, I felt the rain on my face merging with the tears, so when on my way out of the station I saw a policeman in uniform, I crossed my wrists and begged him with the utmost sincerity to take out his handcuffs, his bracelets, as we used to call them, and take me in—I’d committed a crime, a crime against humanity.

This was Hanta’s first brush with the postwar destruction of the printed word. “A few more years of the same, though,” writes Hrabal, “and I got used to it.”17

In reality, most of the book lovers, intellectuals, lovers of ideas, and citizens of Central and Eastern Europe never did. Indeed, for all of those decades, an independent “second society” battled Stalinist strictures and censors with whatever communications equipment could be found and put to use: carbon paper, mimeograph machines, and makeshift printers and binderies, as well as radio, television, audiocassette recorders, and VCRs. Tens of thousands of people were regularly involved in the production of illicit publications in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Soviet underground, and millions read and disseminated them. Václav Havel, speaking as one of the dissidents in 1975, explained why. He spoke of censorship producing a loss that is “infinitely deeper and more significant than might appear from the numbers involved.”

The forcible liquidation of [. . .] a journal—a theoretical review concerned with the theatre, say—is not just an impoverishment of its particular readers. It is not even merely a severe blow to theatrical culture. It is simultaneously, and above all, the liquidation of a particular organ of society’s self-awareness and, hence, an interference, hard to describe in exact terms, in the complex system of circulation, exchange and conversion of nutrients that maintain life in that many-layered organism which is society today; a blow against the natural dynamic of the processes going on within that organism; a disturbance of the balanced interplay of all its various functions, an interplay reflecting the level of complexity reached by society’s anatomy. And just as a chronic deficiency of a given vitamin (amounting in quantitative terms only to a negligible fraction of the human diet) can make a man ill, so, in the long run, the loss of a single periodical can cause the social organism much more damage than would appear at first sight.18

Samizdat—from the Russian, to self- (sam) publish (izdat’)—is credited for helping to end totalitarian thought control in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, bringing freer expression and more democratic institutions to hundreds of millions of people. With typewriters, carbon paper, and the copy machine, dissident writers and thinkers in the East bloc created a parallel communications culture, even a parallel political culture, and they managed to outflank official media and its state-controlled messages. The ideas shared across samizdat’s so-called second society or second culture became the backbone of the human rights movement and freedom and free expression. Future Nobel Prize Laureates Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov, among others, first published much of their work this way—as did world leaders including Havel and Lech Wałęsa who emerged from the underground dissident movement. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn, Havel, and others maintained that the liberation of the Soviet Union and the East bloc would not have happened without it.19

Today it might be worth thinking about creating a parallel samizdat culture of our own here at home, as we scan the American communications landscape and solemnly realize how our media elites keep failing us over and over again. The fact is, our mainstream television networks, radio broadcasters, newspapers, press agencies, and magazines have missed and/or avoided essentially every critical story for the last thirty years. Our mainstream media has failed to help Americans focus on, understand, predict, or explain the roots of Donald Trump’s 2016 election (and the Americans who voted for him), the rise of Bernie Sanders (and the Americans who supported him), the real estate and banking crisis of 2008 (and the Americans who suffered so profoundly from it), the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and the Americans and Iraqis and others who have been killed and wounded there), the earlier rise of al-Qaeda—indeed, even the collapse of the Soviet bloc and Berlin Wall brought about in part by the underground press. Our coastal media elites live in a bubble. Issues that are key to millions of voters in the heartland—and issues that are vital for Americans to discuss moving forward—are systematically ignored.20

What if now were the time for a new self-publishing here at home—a new samizdat? The time to create a new, parallel communications network and a fresh system for information sharing? A parallel network and a fresh system owned not by commercial interests—so Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and other seemingly “self-publishing” platforms can’t factor in here—nor by the state or the government, but by the very people who create and maintain them, part of a widening nonprofit, noncommercial ecosystem. Václav Havel spoke of the battle of first and second cultures as an epic contest between “an anonymous, soulless, immobilizing (‘entropic’) power,” on the one hand, and “life, humanity, being, and its mystery,” on the other.21 Fellow dissidents spoke of samizdat’s second culture as “the only meaningful construction” people could create if they did not want “to remain passive appendices of the political and social structures created by the ruling power.”22 They signaled each other as they wrote, distributed, and published—from the smallest codes, of the kinds that the Encyclopédistes used, to the largest and, also like the Encyclopédie, most earth-shattering.23 Solzhenitsyn spoke of the mystical wisdom of a process in which information that is urgent somehow rises to the top. Samizdat, Solzhenitsyn wrote, “knows what is what.”24

This may be the moment for media that politics enjoyed 2,600 years ago, when democracy—dēmos (people) plus kratia (power, rule)—took hold in Greece. Indeed this may be the moment when the Internet could bring to media what our Periclean forbears brought to government more than twenty centuries ago—the power of the people.25 Havel wrote of truth—relevant enough today—as a “virus,” something that can “slowly spread through the tissue of the life of lies, gradually causing it to disintegrate.” Hard to read that now, for sure, but back then he was referring to a society—Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, the whole bloc—in which everyone was living the lie, rather than living in truth. The “crust presented by the life of lies is made of strange stuff,” Havel wrote.

As long as it seals off hermetically the entire society, it appears to be made of stone. But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, “The emperor is naked!”—when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game—everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.  

Havel wrote of truth as a “bacteriological weapon” that a single civilian can use “to disarm an entire division.”26 Much as Diderot and the Encyclopédistes described their project as a “war machine”—machine de guerre—designed to defeat church and state back in their day as well.27

The battles over the future of the past in this part of the world were real28—and were not fought only over print and paper; control over the screen, and indeed the network of screens and sounds that cinema and television made manifest, was a key tenet of the early Soviet social architects.29 The Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki, looking with me at the monstrous television tower in Warsaw thirty years ago, likened the structure to a hypodermic needle shooting “narcotic shit” into the body politic of the Polish nation. Withdrawal from that kind of dependence—on a national scale—brought with it paroxysms of junkie violence.30 Let us remember that in the so-called bloodless or “velvet” revolutions that erupted as these and other countries burst out of this suffocation, the blood that was shed, in the main, ran from the corpses of protesters that army tanks and gunshots scattered at the feet of the television towers in Bucharest, Vilnius, and Moscow. They were protesting the lies lived, purveyed, and broadcast by the totalitarian state.

These were the first real and physical battles for control over our screens, battles of freethinkers versus . . . the Monsterverse.31

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