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Samizdat - a Noble Word with a Touching History
Sunday, May 30 2004 @ 11:58 PM EDT

In order to attack Linus Torvalds and free and open source, proprietary software vendors and their Media Mercenaries are having to invent new meanings for words, because the truth of what they are up to is so ugly, they have no acceptable way to express their true position.

And besides, there really is nothing not to like about code you are free to look at, modify, and share with your neighbor. Freedom appeals to the heart of every normal man.

So they must twist and spin. Sun's President Jonathan Schwartz has recently been twisting his tongue around in order to redefine the words "proprietary" and "free", with laughably loathsome results. AdTI's Ken Brown does some twisting of his own by naming his soon-to-be-published book Samizdat, a word with a very noble history, which he then distorts to give it an ugly meaning so he can attach it to open source. He says open source is like samizdat, by which he seems to mean plagiarizing the copyrighted works of others. That isn't what the word means at all. It also isn't what the authors of the Linux kernel did. Samizdat is a noble word with a touching history worth remembering. The question is: where does Mr. Brown see himself in that history?

Here is what the word means. It is a Russian word that means underground press or self publishing, "a system of clandestine printing and distribution of dissident or banned literature."

Here is another definition from the Jargon Dictionary:

"samizdat /sahm-iz-daht/ n. [Russian, literally 'self publishing'] The process of disseminating documentation via underground channels. Originally referred to underground duplication and distribution of banned books in the Soviet Union; now refers by obvious extension to any less-than-official promulgation of textual material, esp. rare, obsolete, or never-formally-published computer documentation. Samizdat is obviously much easier when one has access to high-bandwidth networks and high-quality laser printers. Note that samizdat is properly used only with respect to documents which contain needed information . . . but which are for some reason otherwise unavailable, but not in the context of documents which are available through normal channels, for which unauthorized duplication would be unethical copyright violation."

A similar definition can be found in Hyperdictionary:

"(Russian, literally 'self publishing') The process of disseminating documentation via underground channels. Originally referred to photocopy duplication and distribution of banned books in the former Soviet Union; now refers by obvious extension to any less-than-official promulgation of textual material, especially rare, obsolete, or never-formally-published computer documentation. Samizdat is obviously much easier when one has access to high-bandwidth networks and high-quality laser printers.

"Strictly, 'samizdat' only applies to distribution of needed documents that are otherwise unavailable, and not to duplication of material that is available for sale under copyright."

So, it has a simple meaning, self publishing, with the connotation of materials not available in any other way. The word has an honorable history, one that Mr. Brown obviously hasn't thought about clearly. That is a flaw he abounds in, judging from what we have seen of his writings so far. Martin Pool has a segment from the foreward to a review copy of a version of a paper that was supposed to represent the book, Samizdat, although they now say it is being rewritten. The foreward was written by Cynthia Martin:

"Russian culture has always recognized the power of the word, spoken and especially written. In contrast to a democratic tradition predicated upon the notion that protecting free speech is necessary to foster the open exchange of ideas, a monolithic world-view, be it tsarist, monarchy, or Communist totalitarianism, cannot tolerate the potential for alternative positions or systems of government gaining broad support. The written word, as the bearer of such alternative ideas, is viewed as quite powerful, and hence, it is not surprising that official control over all forms of publication has been exercised throughout Russian history, especially during the Soviet period.

"State-sponsored censorship developed during the pre-1917 tsarist period, and subsequently found its full elaboration in the Soviet Union. Samizdat was a response to the attempt by the Russian government to control access to all publications and publication outlets. Samizdat referred to the practice of 'self-publishing' by dissident thinkers in a variety of areas, including political thinkers, academics and scholars, scientists, and literary and artistic figures in the Soviet Union. . . . "The punishment for producing samizdat or even possessing such self-published literature could be harsh, resulting in prison sentences or worse. To prevent unauthorized publishing, state control of the printing apparatus was so meticulous, that over long holiday weekends, for example, publishing offices containing typewriters and other forms of copying technologies were literally locked and their doors were sealed. The particular keystrokes of all typewriters were registered with the authorities so that illegally typed works might be traced to those responsible.

"One of the most famous cases of a dissident writer whose works, political and literary, were published via samizdat is the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His personal fate is evidence of how much Soviet Russia feared the bearer of alternative ideas, and how total the attempt was to control the dissemination of texts that offered alternative views. Solzhenitsyn came to be seen as more of a threat inside Russia, where he could still spread his anti-Soviet views, than outside, and therefore he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and expelled from Russia in February 1974."

Solzhenitsyn is perhaps the most famous example known to most Americans, but I have another, personal favorite. My father suggested years ago that I read Nadezdha Mandelstam's book, "Hope Against Hope," and its sequel, "Hope Abandoned." It is the touching true story of her husband's persecution, exile, and eventual murder in the Gulag by the Stalinist government. His "crime"? He wrote some poems the state didn't like, particularly one about Stalin. In his early career, his poetry was published. Later, the state made publication impossible, and his poems were passed from person to person by samizdat. At the end, even that wasn't safe. They were memorized and spread by word-of-mouth, the ultimate samizdat.

Here is a bit about Russian literature, and samizdat, including a mention of Mandelstam:

"Sovietization of Russia affected literature after 1917. Maxim Gorky, Nobel Prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov, Valentin Kataev, Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoi, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ilf and Petrov came to prominence. Whilst Socialist realism gained official support in the Soviet Union, some of the writers were secretly continuing the classical tradition of Russian literature: Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Andrei Platonov, Osip Mandelstam, Isaak Babel, Vasily Grossman, writing 'under the table', with the only hope of being published after their deaths. The Serapion Brothers insisted on the right to create a literature independent of political ideology. This brought them into conflict with the government. The experimental art of the Oberiuts was also not tolerated.

"Meanwhile, émigré writers such as Nobel Prize winner Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin, Alexandr Kuprin, Andrey Bely, Marina Tsvetaeva and Vladimir Nabokov continued to flourish in exile.

"In post-Stalin Russia the Socialist realism was still the only permitted style; writers like Venedikt Erofeev and Nobel Prize winner Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who built his oeuvre on the legacy of the gulags, continued the tradition of clandestine literature. In the post-Communist Russia most of these works were published and became a part of mainstream culture. However, even before the decay of the Soviet Union, tolerance to non-mainstream art was continuously increasing. Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn were published in the 60th. Social criticism of the Strugatsky brothers and the literature of the Mitkis became popular. Another post-Stalin development was the bard poetry.

"In the late Soviet era emigre authors like Nobel prize winner Joseph Brodsky and short story writer Dovlatov have been successful in the West and known in Soviet Union only in Samizdat."

Mandelstam had his own ideas about what to write:

"Yet the Bolsheviks had begun to exert an ever increasing amount of control over Russian artists, and Mandelstam, though he had initially supported the Revolution, was absolutely unwilling to yield to the political doctrine of a regime that had executed Gumilev in 1921. The poet published three more books in 1928—Poems, a collection of criticism entitled On Poetry, and The Egyptian Stamp, a book of prose—as the state closed in on him. Mandelstam spent his later years in exile, serving sentences for counter-revolutionary activities in various work camps, until his death on December 27, 1938, in the Gulag Archipelago."

You can read a bit of his published work here. The idea of the government telling you what you can write about is foreign to Americans, but here is a description of how it worked in then-Czechoslovakia between 1969 - 1987, at the time a Russian puppet state, and the terrible damage it wreaked on the culture and the arts:

"In preserving the status quo, the Husak regime required conformity and obedience in all aspects of life. Culture suffered greatly from this straitjacket on independent thought, as did the humanities, social sciences, and ultimately the pure sciences. Art had to adhere to a rigid socialist realist formula. Soviet examples were held up for emulation. During the 1970s and 1980s, many of Czechoslovakia's most creative individuals were silenced, imprisoned, or sent into exile. Some found expression for their art through samizdat. Those artists, poets, and writers who were officially sanctioned were, for the most part, undistinguished. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984 to Jaroslav Seifert--a poet identified with reformism and not favored by the Husak regime--was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak cultural scene."

Mandelstam is best known for the poem now called "The Stalin Epigram", which led to his arrest and eventual death/execution in 1938. The poem was untitled by the author and was memorized and passed from person to person for safe-keeping, a human chain keeping a poem alive. Mandelstam said he could be shot for composing it. Some have called this poem a sixteen-line death sentence. Here is the poem that Stalin thought was worthy of death, composed by Mandelstam in 1933. It was read aloud by Mandelstam and published only after his death, something made possible only because others risked their lives and took it upon themselves to ensure the poem's survival:

We live not sensing the country beneath us,
What we say can't be heard ten paces away,
and where there's a chance to half open our mouths
The Kremlin crag-dweller stands in the way.

His thick fingers are like fat worms.
He laughs through his bushy cockroach moustache,
And the polish on his boots shines.
All around him are the riff-raff of thick-skinned party leaders.
He plays the half-humans with favours.
Forging edict after edict like so many horseshoes
Shooting some in the forehead, others in the chest, the eye, the groin.

Every day there is an execution -
To our broadchested Georgian,
It's like picking raspberries.

Some estimate that 9.5 million human beings were killed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. And the cultural loss is incalculable. Not every author is willing to die to write a poem, after all. Mandelstam's widow, after his death, wrote this:

"In the years of the terror, there was not a home in the country where people did not sit trembling at night, their ears straining to catch the murmur of passing cars or the sound of the elevator."

Mandelstam's friend and fellow poet Anna Akhmatova described those times, in her poem, "Requiem":

In those years only the dead smiled,
Glad to be at rest:
And Leningrad city swayed like
A needless appendix to its prisons.
It was then that the railway-yards
Were asylums of the mad;
Short were the locomotives’
Farewell songs.
Stars of death stood
Above us, and innocent Russia
Writhed under bloodstained boots, and
Under the tires of Black Marias.

It was in that atmosphere that Mandelstam's poems were preserved, primarily by his wife and his closest friends and admirers. She went into voluntary exile to Siberia with her husband for years. My favorite part of that section of their saga is where she writes about the local peasants in Siberia and how they would regularly ignore the rules to help them, despite being warned not to have any dealings with them. Still, they shared food and kindness with them, helping fellow humans in distress. Here is Nadezhda's account of one of his two arrests. A neighbor, who supposedly was a fan of Mandelstam's poetry and wrote literary reviews, had come uninvited and long overstayed his welcome. There was no food to feed so many, only one borrowed egg, but he stayed until 1 AM talking, ignoring all hints that it was time to leave, when suddenly there came a dreaded knock on the door:

"All hope vanished as soon as the uninvited guests stepped inside. I had expected them to say 'How do you do?' or 'Is this Mandelstam's apartment?' or something else of the kind that any visitor says in order to be let in by the person who opens the door. But the night visitors of our times do not stand on such ceremony -- like secret-police agents the world over, I suppose.

"Without a word or a moment's hesitation, but with consummate skill and speed, they came in past me (not pushing, however) and the apartment was suddenly full of people already checking our identity papers, running their hands over our hips with a precise, well-practiced movement, and feeling our pockets to make sure we had no concealed weapons.

"M. came out of the large room. 'Have you come for me?' he asked. One of the agents, a short man, looked at him with what could have been a faint smile and said: 'Your papers.' M. took them out of his pocket, and after checking them, the agent handed him a warrant. M. read it and nodded. . . .

"And so they burst into our poor, hushed apartments as though raiding bandits' lairs or secret laboratories in which masked carbonari were making dynamite and preparing armed resistance. They visited us on the night of May 13, 1934. After checking our papers, presenting their warrants and making sure there would be no resistance, they began to search the apartment. . . .

"M. often repeated Khlebnikov's lines: 'What a great thing is a police station! The place where I have my rendezvous with the State.' But Khlebnikov was thinking of something more innocent -- just a routine check on the papers of a suspicious vagrant, the almost traditional form of meeting between State and poet. Our rendezvous with the State took place on a different, and much higher, level. . . .

"Following their instructions, they looked in all the places cunning people are traditionally supposed to hide their secret documents: they shook out every book, squinting down the spine and cutting open the binding, inspected desks and tables for hidden drawers, and peered into pockets and under beds. A manuscript stuck into a saucepan would never have been found. Best of all would have been to put it on the dining table."

Mandelstam had been betrayed by the visiting poetry "fan", who really came in order to ensure that Mandelstam didn't flush any contraband poems down the toilet as the police entered the apartment looking for evidence of his crimes. Kafkaesque, but every neighborhood had such a person, she writes, to ensure the law was followed, which required arrests to be publicly witnessed. So, Mandelstam was carted off, to one prison camp and then another. Here is how the end came for her poet:

"Mandelstam was arrested for 'counter-revolutionary' activities in May 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Interrogated by Nikolay Shivarov, he confessed that he had written a counter-revolutionary a poem which started with the lines: 'We live without sensing the country beneath us, At ten paces, our speech has no sound and when there's the will to half-open our mouths, the Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.'

"In the transit camp, Mandelstam was already so weak that he couldn't stand. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in Vtoraia rechka, near Vladivostok, on December 27, 1938. His body was taken to a common grave."

An uncommon man tossed casually into a common grave by a country that had lost all proper sense of right and wrong and of how human beings should treat each other. A death that was perfectly legal according to the laws of that government at that time. That is one account of his death. No one knows for sure, though, precisely how he died or even when, because he had been officially declared an "unperson" after his second arrest in 1938:

"Mandelstam's death occurred in December, 1938, as Hass writes, roughly 'nine months later' in 'a transit camp near Vladivostok.' The details are unknown because Mandelstam was officially an 'unperson' in Stalin's Russia after his second arrest on May 1, 1938. The Russian poet had suffered several heart attacks and a nervous disorder throughout the 1930s as he was increasingly persecuted for his political outspokenness. It can be said with certainty, anyway, that Stalin was responsible for Mandelstam's death. . . .

"'I am no wolf by blood / Only an equal could break me' is a quote from Mandelstam’s March, 1931 poem #227, otherwise known as 'The Wolf.' Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin translate these lines as 'I’m no wolf by blood,/and only my own kind will kill me.' (Selected Poems, 1974, 60). In his book Mandelstam, Brown calls 'The Wolf' one of the Russian poet's 'most dangerous poems' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, pg. 126). It was written in Moscow a few months after an official of the Soviet writers’ organization, the poet Tikhonov, forced Mandelstam to leave Leningrad forever by denying him work and housing."

One man, so long ago. Denied work and housing, then his freedom, and then his life -- for words. For thoughts. For expressing himself. Who wrote a poem and spread it underground, by word of mouth, in fear of his life because of a thought he wanted to share with others. Who lost his life because in every time in history, there are, sadly, those who lack principles and will do things that baffle and appall those who lead lives of integrity. Here is a Mandelstam poem that has outlived the frail and mortal poet:

The ranks of human heads dwindle:

they’re far away.

I vanish there, one more forgotten one.

But in loving words, in childrens’ play,

I shall rise again, to say – the Sun!

He left behind a wife who had done everything she could to save her husband, stuck by him through privations and terror, and who felt the anguish of failure and the pain of her unspeakable and -- by normal human values unnecessary -- loss, a loss that could have been prevented if others in the government-approved literary world had shown more courage:

"The Moscow writers, editors and publishers in the midst of whom Mandelstam was then living were a 'bitch pack' from whom he stood angrily apart. 'I have no manuscripts, no notebooks, no archives,' Mandelstam declared, 'I have no handwriting because I never write. I alone in Russia write from the voice . . .'.

"Fear, propitiation and courtesy played no part in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s self-presentation when she came to write her memoirs three decades after Osip Mandelstam’s desolate end in a Gulag transit camp on the way to Kolyma. 'I . . . was such a wild and angry one', says the unsent letter of farewell to her lost husband with which she ends her second book of memoirs. Even if its only reader turned out to be some 'expert whose task it is to destroy books, to eradicate words, to stamp out thought', her work would at least demonstrate to one of those 'functionaries to whom nothing matters', that 'this crazy old woman fears nothing'."

Here is the saddest part. Osip Mandelstam, toward the end, gave in to the pressure and wrote a poem he didn't mean, one more favorable to Stalin, in a last burst of hopeless, misplaced hope that perhaps it might save him or at least protect his wife after his death. By then he had suffered a nervous collapse and had at one point tried to commit suicide. Reality is hardly ever as swashbucklingly romantic as in the movies.

And so Mr. Brown would like to call his book, Samizdat, debasing a word covered with the blood of innocents. Brown has suggested the government "support" what he calls "true" open source code, and establish a government-approved "open source" code bank of some sort, giving money to universities to create it, to replace the free and open source code that thousands of creative volunteers have offered as a gift to the world already, code written by men and women who did it because they felt like expressing themselves, some of them because they wanted software code to be freely available to all, to benefit the world. As Mandelstam wrote in part of one poem:

How threadbare the language of joy’s game,

how meagre the foundation of our life!

Everything was, and is repeated again:

it’s the flash of recognition brings delight.

It's important to keep clearly before us that software code is speech, a form of expression. Even the law sees it that way. What side would Brown have chosen in Stalinist Russia? I cannot say, but he is attacking an upright man without cause, unless perhaps you count politics or money as a worthy cause, not sending Linus to his death, of course, nothing as dramatic as that. But he does attempt to deface a man's life's work, diminishing his remarkable achievement by falsely implying that it was plagiarism, so as to destroy it and replace it with state-sponsored code, which won't be allowed in business but can be used in universities.

I recall someone explaining to me once that in the Bible story of the three young men accused of not bowing down to an idolic representation of the Babylonian state, who were thrown into a furnace as punishment, that the Aramaic word "accuse", meaning in context accuse falsely or slander, can be literally translated as tearing the flesh off of someone and devouring it. Slander really is a serious thing. Forget the legal seriousness of it, for a moment, and just think about the morals of it, what you do to a man when you unjustly destroy his good name, or try to.

The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution claims it studies "the spread and perfection of democracy around the world." I don't think so.

Epilogue: After I read "Hope Against Hope", I contacted the publishers of Mandelstam's collected work, and asked if there was any way they would permit his poetry to be published on Project Gutenberg for the world to enjoy, even if only a selection of it could be placed in the public domain. It seemed appropriate, something he would find fitting. Mandelstam's widow is dead, and the couple had no children. They refused to permit it. Their book is copyrighted now, you see, and they figured they can make some money for themselves.

The evolution of a poem.

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