What is ‘samizdat’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: samizdat….

I haven’t yet watched The Handmaid’s Tale on television (I’m a slow enough TV watcher that I’m still making my belated way through a boxed set of The Sopranos). But I raced through the Margaret Atwood novel many years ago so I read Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker review — headlined “A Cunning Adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’” — with interest.

Quick takeaway: The show sounds great. And, better than that, Nussbaum even gave me my word of the week: samizdat. Here is how she used it:

He gives her a women’s magazine, samizdat that floods her with nostalgia.

I recognized the word right away and knew it to be Russian, but I could no longer remember its meaning.  It turns out samizdat was a key form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc in which individuals reproduced censored and underground publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader.

The noun dates back to 1967 and means, literally, “self-publishing.” The etymology is straightforward: sam means “self”  and izdatel’stvo means “publishing.” Interestingly, it is said to be a word-play on Gosizdat, the former state publishing house of the USSR.