< Magnitizdat


magnitizdat- can self-releasing circumvent censorship?





"Roentgenizdat" LP pressed onto X-ray film

It has to be said, the spirit that animates history’s more enduring artworks has been a particularly resilient one: it has been a force armed with the improvisational abilities that turn catastrophes into defining moments of creative brilliance rather than mere moments of collapse. Often the interventionist decrees of authoritarian powers have unintended positive consequences for the creative communities that outlive these edicts, since their injection of raw fear into the public consciousness can quickly separate vanity-driven dabblers from those who no know other way of life but art, and whose defense of that art is therefore carried out with a survivalist level of determination. In particularly extreme situations, where a possible death sentence hangs over any artist who dares to contravene official State ideology, a similar separation of wheat and chaff occurs whereby inessential content falls away from a creative work’s core message. Yet as we glorify the resisting artist in this scenario, it has to be remembered that his or her struggles are only part of the story: in times when totalitarian power is in the ascendancy, it is busy piecing together its own narrative of heroism and resistance. As per the Czech dissident writer Josef Vohryzek, “…the totalitarian state has had to raise the policing function to one of the greatest virtues. In television films and propaganda programmes, it is no longer a worker or party secretary who embodies all the finest human qualities, but a cop.”1

In writing this, Vohryzek almost certainly has in mind the Soviet-era Czechoslovak TV thriller Třicet případů majora Zemana [The Thirty Cases Of Major Zeman], which was especially notable for its caricature of the Czechoslovakian music-related subculture- one episode of the series goes after the local brand of hippie, derisively known as máničky [“mops”], not only portraying them as anti-social, cutthroat drug dealers but also as potential terrorists (the máničky in the 1972 episode ‘Mimikry’ eventually resort to hijacking a plane in order to escape to the West.) Such adventurous hyperbole, whether or not it actually convinced anyone of the máničky threat to orderly society, illuminates the fear that authoritarian regimes have of public expression, and music in particular. The inspiration for 'Mimikry' was, after all, the local group Plastic People Of The Universe, despised by the puppet government of Gustáv Husák. The group, formed in the mold of psychedelic jesters like Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa2, was not even overtly political, yet was clearly seen as contravening Marxist-Leninist notions of duty and discipline. The hardliners' bafflement at how such groups could even exist in the 'workers' state' was adroitly answered by the writer Jiři Ruml: "it is unlikely that poets would ever enjoy the economic security they now have as skilled crane drivers; it is just that they would sooner ‘raise spirits’ than raise heavy loads."3 Anyway, as the group's popularity expanded, so did the necessity to skirt around the law by performing in public gardens rather than official performance venues. The anti-Plastic People campaign of arrests, performance bans and the like eventually culminated in a 1976 show trial, which had the unforeseen effect of galvanizing the dissident movement around playwright (and notable Plastic People backer) Vaclav Havel: the 'Charter 77' document, circulated by Havel and several hundred co-signatories, lent its name to a larger movement that became one of the more prominent human rights organizations within Eastern Europe. Though their challenge to the State was largely energized by political events like the Helsinki Accords of 1975 (with its overtures towards self-determination and toleration of "fundamental freedoms"), the State's aversion to musical expression in particular also played a significant role in shaping Charter 77's resistance.

Before we continue any further down this road, though, it is important not to impose a single standard of oppressiveness on all of the authoritarian states of the post-WWII era. The 'Brezhnev Doctrine' of 1968 officially allowed countries within the Eastern Bloc to be independent in local affairs, provided the individual nations cleaved to the Kremlin's definitions of what constituted socialism and capitalism.4 Within the socialist-aligned nations, there were different grades of police surveillance, differing opportunities for travel to the West, and different stages at which the production of insurgent media was curtailed. The "self-management" or non-Stalinist socialism of the former Yugoslavia, with its comparatively lax border controls and strikingly articulate, creative avant garde, was already far removed from the situation of a country like Romania. The latter was identified by such horrors as its suffocating Securitate police force, and by being the only country in the Eastern bloc to outlaw abortion as a means of dramatically increasing the population. Along with this, there was almost zero distribution of independent or avant-garde printed materials (to say nothing of self-released underground music), since even the rental of a typewriter required authorization from the "militia," once an exhaustive amount of personal information was provided. Part of the official State policy regarding these expressive tools read as follows:

"If the application is granted, the applicant will receive an authorization for the typewriter for 60 days. On a specified date, the owner of the typewriter must report with the machine to the militia office in order to provide an example of his typing. A similar example has to be provided every year, specifically during the first two months of the year, as well as after every repair to the typewriter."5

For a nation in which, during the 1980s, nobody "…was entirely sure what constituted a crime,"6 and in which Nicolae Ceaușescu "for no obvious reason…suddenly began a campaign against yoga", the above edict actually seems somewhat banal. Yet it is representative of the ideological infiltration or micro-management that made any provocative creative act incredibly risky, if not outright lethal to one's self.

That anyone took such risks at all is a testament to mankind's almost biological restlessness when it comes to matters of self-expression and public recognition. In almost all nations of the former USSR, some small but indomitable group of cultural agents sought to erode the official narrative on pressing matters like economics, ecology, public health and, naturally, the possibility of unrestricted access to authentic culture. The samizdat publication - a Russian portmanteau of sam [self] and izdat [to publish] - has become, along with mail art, one of the key "unofficial" art forms of the post-industrial age, and a crystallization of the dogged persistence with which the era's dissident subcultures carried out their actions. Like the 'zine culture more familiar to Western readers, samizdat varied wildly in their content, from contrapuntal politics to transcriptions of classic literature to comics (notably, the superheroine Octobriana created by the Russian group Progressive Political Pornography.) Much like Western 'zine culture, the information within the publications' pages was usually given priority over the visual and tactile attractiveness of the publications, that is to say, their value is objects to be presented. Bindings and print quality also varied wildly, typically in accordance with what kind of materials could be obtained while under heavy surveillance (samizdat that were simply handwritten, for example, were not a total anomaly.) In rare cases, samizdat were even sold in something akin to a retail operation (i.e. the apartment of Budapest architect László Rajk): historian Victor Sebestyn recalls "samizdat boutiques" in Soviet satellite Hungary, where

…various publications would be laid out on a long table. The 'customers', whose names would never be taken, would say which magazine they wanted, and Rajk's team of 'copiers' would produce the texts in time for them to be collected the following week. It was a remarkably efficient system.7

The practice of samizdat eventually became so well known that it gave rise to related clever neologisms and code words, such as tamizdat (tam being a term in Slavic languages for "over there," thusly meaning publications and recordings smuggled in from Western countries.) When the practice was transposed to a different medium - magnetic tape - it was re-dubbed magnitizdat. Prior to this method of audio distribution, there were other stunningly improvisational means of making unofficial recordings: the Lithuanian music writer Mindaugas Pelickis notes a phenomenon known as roentgenizdat or "on the bones" records, named as such because discarded X-ray film was the medium onto which the spiral grooves were etched.8 "On the bones" jazz records or "ribs" were a staple of Soviet underground nightspots of the 1950s, and were originally created as a response to austerity conditions during the foregoing world war (the format survived into the punk rock era as well.) Their lifespan, similar to that of other volatile media like acetate disks, was quite brief (perhaps an upward limit of a month and a half), and official recognition of the medium in 1958 led to the expected spate of new prohibitions and imprisonments. The authorities themselves seem to have gotten in on the act, as well, since some "ribs" exist that are little more than "audio traps" meant to ensnare Westernized youth: some records might feature a few tantalizing moments of rock 'n roll that were then abruptly terminated by a scolding voice repeating the official Party line about rhythm-fueled degeneracy.

"While [music performance] was technically forbidden, it was possible; one need only take the necessary precautions not to attract too much attention. For example, when the Free Orchestra split the bill with 'Gen' Ken Montgomery, the posters that had been designed deleted the reference to Gen Ken as an American artist.”

Not all unofficial audio products from the Soviet era were as esoteric or as low-fidelity as the "ribs", though. The early circulation of magnetic tape reels within the USSR seemed like it would be a great boon to freedom of expression: instead of circulating insurrectionary ideas through the shaky medium of samizdat carbon-paper transcriptions, whose content could not be altered, all variety of speeches, music etc. could now be circulated on a re-writable medium. Some samizdat were prone to fall apart or crumble after minimal use, as well, giving them the colorful local euphemism bibula [toilet paper] in Poland. In addition, the creation of magnitizidat reel-to-reel tapes was already less fraught with risk than the publication of samizdat: Soviet regulations on paper duplication were more tightly controlled, and "access" to photocopying equipment meant getting clearance to pass through double-locked, guarded, steel doors. Only in 1989 could the L.A. Times report that the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs "'wanted to relinquish control over the acquisition, storage and operation of copying equipment,' admitting that photocopiers are now standard office equipment and not really the grave threat to state security they were once perceived to be."9 By contrast, anyone was permitted to own a home tape recorder (despite their daunting purchase price), and "magnitoalbumy" or tape albums tended to be years ahead of what the state-owned record company, Melodiya, was allowed to produce. For example, the first rock music LPs within the USSR appeared as "magnitoalbumy" prior to Melodiya's flirtations with the rock idiom.

All was not smooth sailing, though, when it came to the availability of blank recording media in the Soviet era. An outright ban on blank media would have been a tacit admission that a larger community of dissent existed than what was claimed by official propaganda, but other means of restriction could be applied in place of a blanket ban. One method was to classify cassette tapes as "luxury items," as was done in Latvia and elsewhere- governmental authorities could limit perceived insurrectionary practices by pricing these media above what most citizens could normally afford, while not betraying their paranoia quite as much as they would have by disallowing their sale altogether. Cassette culture stalwart Lord Litter confirms this practice as being widespread in the former East Germany, where a single blank C60 cassette could cost $12 U.S.10

As the reader can probably also surmise, getting cassettes past the customs inspectors of the USSR provided its own challenges. At least one would-be networker, who advertised in the back pages of Electronic Cottage magazine, included instructions on how to write his name and mailing address in Cyrillic characters- the presumption here was that this would seem less suspect than parcels sent from abroad with the name and mailing address written in Roman characters. Importing original copies of mass-produced Western albums into the Soviet republics could be done by bribing the right officials, or by the intrigue of CIA agents, while much popular music could be recorded from picking up shortwave radio broadcasts. The propagation of Cassette Culture was a different story. On one hand, more difficult since the nature of that propagation involved so much direct contact rather than going through 'black market' intermediaries. No information has surfaced about covert operations to smuggle handmade cassettes into the USSR: the small and scattered worldwide audience of Cassette Culture consumers was difficult to pin down ideologically, and not as profitable as Beatles records would have been for an enterprising black marketer. On the other hand, much of the work flowing through the cassette underground was likely to confound censors and inspectors: though a cassette of Anglo-American rock songs would have invited immediate suspicion, what could be said for a tape of pure noise or hyperactive audio collage work, with visual accompaniment to match? While it could be interpreted as counter-productive chaos, one could just as easily argue that such sounds promoted acceptable socialist / anti-traditionalist sympathies in the vein of early Russian Futurism.

Because of this, hysteria over the banning of musical imports may have been limited to the West's commercial output. Enough communication did exist to organize concert events and tours for Western 'underground' and 'alternative' artists, especially as the reforms of the 1980s emboldened some within the artistic sphere. During this heady period, it was not impossible for unconventional groups like the Sugarcubes to bounce into Lithuania from Iceland (by 1988, local authorities were far more likely to be concerned with the Sąjūdis movement's repeated calls for restoration of Lithuanian as the official language and full disclosure of Stalin-era crimes.) Lord Litter, in conversation with East German artist Jorg Thomasius, also notes that

…when approached about how it is possible to make ‘forbidden music behind the Iron Curtain,’ Jorg is quick to dispel the myths in these words: “these words are absolute, but the reality is not. Behind the Iron Curtain it was possible to make contacts with others in the West.” […] “Forbidden” is also perhaps too exotic a word to describe Jorg’s actions. For years Jorg worked with “Das Freie Orkester” [The Free Orchestra], who performed in small spaces around East Berlin. While it was technically forbidden, it was possible; one need only take the necessary precautions not to attract too much attention. For example, when the Free Orchestra split the bill with Gen Ken Montgomery, the posters that had been designed deleted the reference to Gen Ken as an American artist.”11

As the Brezhnev "Sinatra" doctrine became more prominent in the later Soviet years, it would not be inconceivable for travelers throughout the Eastern bloc to exploit the somewhat less oppressive conditions in one Soviet colony in order to transport audio artworks to another.

In general, when confronted with binary ‘good vs. evil’ configurations, in which each side accuses the other of utmost evil, we also have to be wary of absolutist propaganda (regardless of which two political foes happen to be locking horns at that particular time.) While oppressive regimes abroad may legitimately be designated as such, invocations of their absolute evil nature are a time-tested ploy for diverting attention away from the ‘home’ country’s own failure to maintain a passable openness of expression. One recent manifestation of this transference of blame has come about upon China’s ascendancy as ‘global power’: news stories of the Chinese obsession with crackdowns on the World Wide Web have been manifold, especially as regards their battle of wills with the Google search engine. If we date their censoring efforts to the late 1990s, though, we find that the Anglo-American alliance is not exactly averse to a bit of such ‘filtering’ when this suits its own needs (more on this later.)


arrow this is an excerpt; full chapter is available in Unofficial Release: Self-Released And Handmade Audio In Post-Industrial Society.


1 Josef Vohryzek, “Thoughts Inside A Tightly-Corked Bottle.” Trans. Paul Wilson. Vaclav Havel et. Al., The Power Of The Powerless, p. 199. M.E. Sharpe Inc., New York, 1985.

2 The group's name is borrowed from a song off of the 1967 Mothers of Invention LP Absolutely Free.

3 Jiři Ruml, “Who Really Is Isolated?”, trans. A.G. Brain. Vaclav Havel et. Al., The Power Of The Powerless, p. 182. M.E. Sharpe Inc., New York, 1985.

4 This was then followed by the amusingly named "Sinatra Doctrine" of Mikhail Gorbachev, named so because individual states were allowed to do things "their way" (a reference to the classic Sinatra tune "My Way.")

5 Victor Sebestyen, Revolution 1989: The Fall Of The Soviet Empire, p. 165. Pantheon Books, New York, 2009.

6 Ibid., p. 164

7 Victor Sebestyen, Revolution 1989: The Fall Of The Soviet Empire, p. 149. Pantheon Books, New York, 2009.

8 Some helpful visualizations are available here.

9 Michael Parks, "Soviets Free The Dreaded Photocopier." L.A. Times, October 5, 1989.

10 See "Here Comes The Rest Of The World!" by Lord Litter, Electronic Cottage #4 (July 1990), p. 19. Hal McGee, Apollo Beach, Florida.

11 “Jorg Thomasius: After The Wall Has Fallen,” by David Prescott. Electronic Cottage #4 (July 1990), p. 17. Hal McGee, Apollo Beach, Florida.

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