The Distress of the Text: Samizdat Aesthetics from Glazkov to Prigov

Ann Komaromi, University of Wisconsin, Madison

This paper contains notes toward a typology of appreciation of the Samizdat text. Most writing about Samizdat has surveyed chronology, composition, or context (Suetnov, Bosiljka and Wertsman, Losev, Anninskij, Alekseeva). Artists’ books and underground visual art have received some attention (Samizdat veka), but the aesthetic significance of the unintended “distress” of Samizdat texts—deformations of the text, mistakes and corrections, traces of inadequate production and overuse—has not. Retrospective evaluation and recent artistic praxis, however, indicates that a more focused study in this area is appropriate.

The endowment of aesthetic significance to the Samizdat text is complicated by several factors. Many of these physical texts were not intended to be aesthetically significant. Their deformation due to practical circumstances may seem anti-aesthetic. Additionally, the special aura of truth and moral advantage (Daniel′) surrounding these uncensored communications tended to marginalize aesthetic considerations as inconsequential. In this context, reading the physical Samizdat text aesthetically constitutes an act of transgression in the spirit of Barthes’ “minor myth” of the scandal of aesthetic pleasure as opposed to the correctness of ideology. Put another way, a “dissident” attitude toward the system of Samizdat emphasized its (Jakobsonian) “referential function”, while an aesthetic attitude read an expanded “poetic function” into the physical texts.

In this paper, I look at the texts’ “distress” within this dichotomy of apprehension. Nuances and extensions of these attitudes, including attempts to “beautify” the text and the post-Soviet artistic recreation of Samizdat aesthetics, will be addressed. This exploration will posit continuities as well as incongruities, suggesting an enduring spirit of “Samizdat” from Nikolaj Glazkov’s invention of the term, to Dmitrij Prigov’s playful reflection on it.