In 1986, when I was 14, my father returned from a business trip to Finland and brought me a copy of Time magazine with a piece about John Lennon. Getting such a gift in the USSR was about as unlikely as receiving a free subscription to Netflix in today’s Iran. The Iron Curtain stood in the way of gaining access to any publications other than “organs of the party and government.”
Surrounded by dictionaries, I translated the Lennon story into Russian and made copies to share with friends. I also read the entire magazine, and with particular interest a report on the war the Soviet Union was waging in Afghanistan.
This article made me forget even about John Lennon. Like most Soviet kids, I knew that Russian soldiers in Afghanistan must be doing more than just “planting flower beds,” as state television claimed, given that the bodies of the guys who perished there arrived in my hometown on a weekly basis. So I sat down to translate this piece, too. However, when my father realized what I was doing, he took away both the magazine and the notebook with the translation and said: “If they see this article, they can expel you from school, and they can just put me in jail. Enough of this samizdat!”
That was when I first learned about samizdat, the system of distributing materials banned by the Kremlin: from foreign newspaper articles to books to publications of Soviet dissidents. Samizdat died in 1991, in the new free Russia—who needed carbon-copied articles, when people were free to publish literally everything, from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to doomsday cult psalms? I spent the next 30 years in journalism and didn’t think I would ever use the word again in my active vocabulary. Until February 24, 2022, the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine dramatically changed my plans. I understood that, as a “Russian influencer” and journalist, I could not remain silent.
I launched my Telegram channel, in which I began to inform Russians about Putin’s war and to distribute anti-war materials of other authors, resumed streaming on my YouTube channel, and started speaking on Russian-language news outlets that found themselves in exile. My compatriots became my main audience again—first and foremost, those who, having become victims of Putin’s propaganda, did not know the whole truth about the war.
From the first days of the invasion, as Roskomnadzor, the Kremlin’s chief censor, blocked the websites of Russian opposition media, the word “samizdat” literally swirled on my tongue. Just like in the mid-1980s, people in Russia are living in information isolation again. While there are certain tools (like Telegram and WhatsApp) that provide some opportunity for reality to get around, these are subject to the same problems that all social media suffers from. Namely, a lack of any kind of credibility and verifiability, as well as susceptibility to infiltration by the same organs of propaganda that drive the official state narrative.
The main source of information for the “obediently” silent majority is federal TV, with its propaganda peddlers and Kremlin-controlled Telegram channels. All free media and resources of dissidents are blocked. To reach banned media, you need to install a VPN. And this is not an easy task for an ordinary Russian. Also, free VPNs are terribly slow, and people prefer the ease of pressing a button on their remote control and falling asleep to the soothing message of “everything is under control” broadcast by all the state-run channels.
Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant
Then in April, by dint of serendipity, I was introduced to Yevgeny (Genia) Simkin. Genia and I have had extremely different life experiences but were both born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), six months and two neighborhoods apart. Unlike me, Genia spent most of his life in the United States, but when Russia invaded Ukraine, he felt the same desperate desire to try and help that I did and, given his connections to technology and democratic activism, he sought me out for help with launching a project called Samizdat Online.
That’s when I smiled, because the word and the thought had materialized so fast!
Genia and project cofounder Michael Sprague have deep-seated beliefs that information must be freely accessible for a society to thrive and that dictators and autocrats hurt their citizens, and subsequently the entire world, when they selectively silence certain media outlets or individuals in their nations and replace them with state propaganda.
They (along with very talented engineers based in both Russia and Ukraine) developed a prototype technology that makes access to and distribution of “banned” content a trivial problem. Furthermore, this technology is designed so that it will be extremely difficult for autocratic regimes to block. Samizdat Online generates ever-changing and convoluted links that anyone can click on and see whatever content they lead to without the need for any additional technologies akin to VPN. Any Internet user can click on one of our custom SOS-Links™.
My role was to bring SO to all my Russian resident liberal media outlets, which have been blocked by the Roskomnadzor and which were desperately looking for ways to reengage with their audiences. I was only too happy to participate, and we quickly developed relationships and started unblocking dozens of Russian and Belarusian sites. We assembled a strong team—Anna Trubacheva, editor-in-chief, a renowned journalist from Belarus, winner of the Golden Pen Award; talented editors Olga Baidakova and Shayan Shafii; as well as Tamara Ivanova, a well-known editor and screenwriter, author of major television projects in the US and Russia.
This month, we launched our news portal. Our near-term goals are to launch our own podcast and media channel and to continue to onboard as many blocked publications and voices as possible. We’ve come up with an optimistic formula and are doing everything to make it work: Information leads to understanding, which leads to compassion, which leads to human flourishing.
While the impulse to build this organization was provoked by the war in Ukraine, it quickly became obvious that Russia’s autocrat is just one of many whose people deserve the same consideration. We were not planning on venturing into Iran quite yet, but the events unfolding there over the past several weeks forced us to adjust our timetable. As of two weeks ago, we are now covering Iran and unblocking a multitude of publications that the Iranian leadership would rather Iranian citizens were unable to read.
As a person who has been working with the Samizdatonline.org team since the first month of its launch, I am, of course, an interested party—and as a journalist who has struggled with censorship restrictions all my life, even more so. In short, you can consider me biased, but I believe that the very fact of the appearance of such a project is already good news that is worth sharing.
And, yes, I’m a bit jealous of the 14-year-old Russian who wants to read a story on John Lennon and the Afghan War (Justin Bieber and the war in Ukraine) but who doesn’t have to spend days translating and rewriting the piece. For them, all it takes is to click once to read it, before copying the link to send to their friends. This brings me the hope that if everything’s happening that much faster now, then maybe Russian troops will withdraw from Ukraine much sooner than they did from Afghanistan when I first heard of samizdat.