ussr in Bodo 2014
ive, copyright infringing open source digital
librarianship, we need to go back nearly a century and take a close look at the specific social and political
conditions of the Soviet times that shaped the contemporary Russian intelligentsia’s attitudes towards
The communist ideal of a reading nation
Russian culture always had a reverence for the printed word, and the Soviet state, with its Leninist
program of mass education further stressed the idea of the educated, reading public. As Stelmach (1993)
Reading almost transplanted religion as a sacred activity: in the secularized socialist state, where the
churches were closed, the free press stifled and schools and universities politicized, literature became the
unique source of moral truth for the population. Writers were considered teachers and prophets.
The Soviet Union was a reading culture: in the last days of the USSR, a quarter of the adult population
were considered active readers, and almost everyone else categorized as an occasional reader. Book
prices were low, alternative forms of entertainment were scarce, and people were poor, making reading
one of the most attractive leisure activities.
The communist approach towards intellectual property protection reflected the idea of the reading
nation. The Soviet Union inherited a lax and isolationist copyright system from the tsarist Russia. Neither
the tsarist Russian state nor the Soviet state adhered to international copyright treaties, nor did they
enter into bilateral treaties. Tsarist Russia’s refusal to grant protection to foreign authors and
translations had primarily an economic rationale. The Soviet regime added a strong ideological claim:
granting exclusive ownership to authors was against the interests of the reading public, and “the cul
ant instruments of knowledge dissemination. First, the statutorily granted
“freedom of translation” meant that translation was treated as an exception to copyright, which did not
require rights holder authorization. This measure dismantled a significant barrier to access in a
multicultural and multilingual empire. By the same token, the denial of protection to foreign authors and
rights holders eased the imports of foreign texts (after, of course the appropriate censorship review).
Due to these instruments:
“[s]oon after its founding, the Soviet Union became as well the world's leading literary pirate, not only
publishing in translation the creations of its own citizens but also publishing large numbers of copies of
the works of Western authors both in translation and in the original language.” (Newcity, 1980, p 6.)
Looking simply at the aggregate numbers of published books, the USSR had an impressive publishing
industry on a scale appropriate to a reading nation. Between 1946 and 1970 more than 1 billion copies of
over 26 thousand different work were published, all by foreign authors (Newcity, 1978). In 1976 alone,
more than 1.7 billion copies of 84,304 books were printed. (Friedberg, Watanabe, & Nakamoto, 1984, fn
Of course these impressive numbers reflected neither a healthy public sphere, nor a well-functioning
print ecology. The book-based public sphere was both heavily censored and plagued by the peculiar
economic conditions of the Soviet, and later the post-Soviet era.
The totalitarian Soviet state had many instruments to control the circulation of literary and scientific
works. 1 Some texts never entered official circulation in the first hand: “A particularly harsh
prepublication censorship [affected] foreign literature, primarily in the hum
nd was simply bad literature, but it was issued in huge print-runs.” (Stelmakh, 2001, p.
Libraries were also important instruments of censorship. When not destroyed altogether, censored
works ended up in the spetskhrans, limited access special collections established in libraries to contain
censored works. Besides obvious candidates such as anti-Soviet works and western ‘bourgeois’
publications, many scientific works from the fields of biology, nuclear physics, psychology, sociology,
cybernetics, and genetics ended up in these closed collections (Ryzhak, 2005). Access to the spetskhrans
was limited to those with special permits issued by their employers. “Only university educated readers
were enrolled and only those holding positions of at least junior scientific workers were allowed to read
the publications kept by the spetskhran” (Ryzhak, 2005). In the last years of the USSR, the spetskhran of
the Russian State Library—the largest of them with more than 1 million items in the collection—had 43
seats for its roughly 4500 authorized readers. Yearly circulation was around 200,000 items, a figure that
included “the history and literature of other countries, international relations, science of law, technical
sciences and others.” (Ryzhak, 2005)
Librarians thus played a central role in the censorship machinery. They did more than guard the contents
of limited-access collections and purge the freely accessible stocks according to the latest Party
directives. As the intermediaries between the readers and the closed stacks, their task was to carefully
guide readers’ interests:
“In the 1970s, among the staff members of the service department of the Lenin State Library of the
U.S.S.R., there were specially appointed persons-"politcontrollers"-who, apart from their regular
professional functions, had to perform additional control over the literature lent from the general stocks
(not from the restricted access collections), thus exercising censorship over the percolation of avant-garde
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aesthetics to the reader, the aesthetics that introduced new ways of thinking and a new outlook on life
and social behavior.” (Stelmakh, 2001)
Librarians also used library cards and lending histories to collect and report information on readers and
suspicious reading habits.
Soviet economic dysfunction also severely limited access to printed works. Acute and chronic shortages
of even censor-approved texts were common, both on the market and in libraries. When the USSR
joined its first first international copyright treaty in its history in 1973 (the UNESCO-backed Universal
Copyright Convention), which granted protection to foreign authors and denied “freedom of
translation,” the access problems only got worse. Soviet concern that granting protection to foreign
authors would result in significant royalty payments to western rightsholders proved valid. By 1976, the
yearly USSR trade deficit in publishing reached a million rubles (~5.5 million current USD) (Levin, 1983, p.
157). This imbalance not only affected the number of publications that were imported into the cashpoor country, but also raised the price of translated works to the double that of Russian-authored books
(Levin, 1983, p. 158).
The literary and scientific underground in Soviet times
Various practices and informal institutions evolved to address the problems of access. Book black
markets flourished: “In the 1970s and 1980s the black market was an active part of society. Buying books
directly from other people was how 35 percent of Soviet adults acquired books for their own homes, and
68 percent of families living in major cities bought books only on the black market.” (Stelmakh, 2001, p
146). Book copying and hoarding was practiced to supplement the shortages:
“People hoarded books: complete works of Pushkin, Tolstoy or Chekhov. You could not buy such things.
So you had the idea that it is very important to hoard books. High-quality literary fiction, high quality
science textbooks and monographs, even biographies of famous people (writers, scientists, composers,
etc.) were difficult to buy. You could not, as far as I remember, just go to a bookstore and buy complete
works of Chekhov. It was published once and sold out and that's it. Dostoyevsky used to be prohibited in
the USSR, so that was even rarer. Lots of writers were prohibited, like Nabokov. Eventually Dostoyevsky
was printed in the USSR, but in very small numbers.
And also there were scientists who wanted scientific books and also could not get them. Mathematics
books, physics - only very few books were published every year, you can't compare this with the market in
the U.S. Russian translations of classical monographs in mathematics were difficult to find.
So, in the USSR, everyone who had a good education shared the idea that hoarding books is very, very
important, and did just that. If someone had free access to a Xerox machine, they were Xeroxing
everything in sight. A friend of mine had entire room full of Xeroxed books.”2
From the 1960s onwards, the ever-growing Samizdat networks tried to counterbalance the effects of
censorship and provide access to both censored classics and information on the current state of Soviet
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society. Reaching a readership of around 200,000, these networks operated in a networked, bottom-up
manner. Each node in the chain of distribution copied the texts it received, and distributed the copies.
The nodes also carried information backwards, towards the authors of the samizdat publications.
In the immediate post-Soviet political turmoil and economic calam
nerally—cannot be understood outside this history.
The emergence of DIY digital libraries in RuNet
The copying of censored and uncensored works (by hand, by typewriters, by photocopying or by
computers), the hoarding of copied texts, the buying and selling of books on the black market, and the
informal, peer-to-peer distribution of samizdat material were integral parts of the everyday experience
of much of educated Soviet and post-Soviet readers. The building and maintenance of individual
collections and the participation in the informal networks of exchange offered a sense of political,
economic and cultural agency—especially as the public institutions that supported the core professions
of the intelligentsia fell into sustained economic crisis.
Digital technologies were embraced by these practices as soon as they appeared:
"From late 1970s, when first computers became used in the USSR and printers became available,
people started to print forbidden books, or just books that were difficult to find, not necessarily
forbidden. I have seen myself a print-out on a mainframe computer of a science fiction novel,
printed in all caps! Samizdat was printed on typewriters, xeroxed, printed abroad and xeroxed, or
printed on computers. Only paper circulated, files could not circulate until people started to have
PCs at home. As late as 1992 most people did not have a PC at home. So the only reason to type
a big text into a computer was to print it on paper many times.”3
People who worked in academic and research institutions were well positioned in this process: they had
access to computers, and many had access to the materials locked up in the spetskhrans. Many also had
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the time and professional motivations t
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