A Community in print

Poland’s underground press, ‘the second circulation’ 1976-1989

When Czesław Milosz arrived in Warsaw in 1981, fresh from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the visits he made, was to a private apartment, to meet with the people responsible for bringing his poems to Polish readers. From 1951, when Milosz had refused to return to Stalinist Poland, a ban had been imposed on the printing and publication of his works. However, despite this, volumes of his poems, unevenly and unclearly printed in conspiracy, became a key element of one of the most fascinating phenomena of the Communist era – ‘the second circulation’, or the underground printing and publication of texts outside of state censorship. In no other country of the Soviet bloc, did the phenomenon reach the same scale it did in Poland.

by Łukasz Bertram


From the first months after the Second World War, censorship of the written word, was one of the objectives and a fundamental principle of the Communist party’s rule in Poland. The policy was implemented by the Main Office of Control of Press, Publications and Shows, whose employees kept control over the thoughts expressed not just in books and articles, but even on packaging. In 1964, a group of a few dozen writers decided to protest the censorship with a letter to the Prime Minister, which was one of the indications for the formation of a new opposition amongst intellectuals. In 1968, ‘Independence without Censorship’, was one of the slogans of students rebelling in the name of civil rights. In later years, without the approval of state censorship, only a few volumes of poems were reprinted. The opposition was slowly recovering after anti-intelligensia and anti-semitic attacks on participants of the protests in 1968, in addition, censorship in Poland was substantially less strict than in other communist countries and allowed for the publication of content that would have had no chance in Moscow or Prague.

A hunger strike organised in Holy Cross Church in Warsaw by Worker’s Defence Committee members. October, 1979 / photo Leszek Krzyżewski, KARTA Archive

Things changed in the mid-70s. The intelligentsia was angered by ‘corrections’ implemented to the Polish Constitution (amongst others adding to it an alliance with the USSR), and in June 1976, workers took to the streets to protest sudden price rises. Support for the participants of the manifestations led to the formation, in September 1976, of the Worker’s Defence Committee (KOR).

Members of the committee not only wanted to take action and initiative, but also to inform society about it. Thus, the first periodicals were quickly born, based on the model of the Soviet samizdat: each reader was encouraged to rewrite a few copies on a typewriter and pass them on to others. However there was soon a dilemma, what next? Advocates of this method argued that it encouraged people to active participation, but at the same time, they were also worried that a method of mass production would provoke the authorities to suffocate KOR in its embryonic stage. Their opponents, younger and more dynamic, did not have such reservations – they felt that publishing initiatives should be based on solid foundations. And it was their vision which prevailed. Already in the spring of 1976, a small duplicator was smuggled from the West by a few dissidents from Lublin. Shortly afterwards, it arrived in Warsaw, and after a subsequent few months, dissidents in Warsaw were able to buy four more machines from a sale at the US Embassy. In the following years, this technological base kept expanding, largely thanks to the help of the Polish emigration.

Leszek Moczulski, one of the leaders of the Movement for Defence of Human and Civic’s Rights (public domain)

Thanks to the duplicators, a whole plethora of publications were printed informational, publicist, those directed towards the intelligentsia, workers, and even farmers. Other opposition groups and organisations, on the right of KOR, such as the Movement for Defense of Human and Civic Rights, Confederation of Independent Poland and Movement of the Young Poland, also published their own periodicals. Second circulation books also began to appear. The first place amongst book publishers was gained by the Independent Publishing House NOWA, which was associated with KOR: already, in the autumn of 1977, it published 3 thousand copies of Kompleks Polski (a novel by Tadeusz Konwicki) – in this case thanks to the secret use of a professional state printing house, which would later become a commonly used method. Already in the 70s, NOWA published works of others like Josif Brodski, Günter Grass and George Orwell, as well as a sensational collection of the censorship office’s materials, which had been transported abroad.

For the publishing conspiracy to be a success, it needed not only texts, ideological engagement and the overcoming of fear of repression. Before non-conformist essays and novels could reach readers, a long chain of people had to demonstrate their agility, organisational abilities, together with a combination of responsibility and bravery. The movement produced self-taught specialists in printing dies, feeders and distribution. It was necessary to foil the agents of the Security Service (SB), obtain paper in secret from state shops or plan transportation routes for valuable duplicators.

Russian samizdat and photo negatives of unofficial literature in the USSR (photo by Nkrita; CC BY-SA 4.0)

The second circulation was not only about discussions between editors and intellectuals, but also about rooms filled with an intense smell of white spirit, which was used in the simpler machines; arms smeared up to the elbows with paint and trips with heavy rucksacks to basement stockrooms of those sympathetic to the opposition’s cause. The problem of money and salary suddenly came to mind, which sparked moral concerns and worries about ideological purity amongst some dissidents. But it was a necessity. Every now and again, opposition publishers had to go into hiding for several days, cutting themselves off completely from contact with the outside world in some secluded basement, to make sure that SB could find no trace of the publishing premises. Under these conditions, it was difficult to work normal working hours and to maintain a livelihood.

There were many interesting personalities and characters among those working in the publishing underground and unusual personal relations developed. For example a witty journalist, who held a PhD in Literature held also the position of a humble printer, toiling at the machines, whilst a certain Professor of History was given the nickname “Lord Comfort”, when he popularised the use of a washing detergent with the same name to produce printing dye. Later, in the 1980’s, an unlikely friendship formed in the printing room between a descendant of one of Poland’s most recognisable aristocratic families and a chauffeur, son of a Warsaw postman.

Inhabitants of Gdańsk in front of the Main Gate to the Lenin Shipyard, during the strike, August 1980 (public domain)

In the summer of 1980, the underground printers and editors supported a wave of strikes and later many of them became actively engaged in the functioning of the printing and media for Solidarity. After the introduction of martial law on the 13th December 1981, the ten million strong organisation fell apart, however a team of conspirators, experienced in the fight against the regime, remained. The first underground publications appeared almost the day after General Jaruzelski’s announcement of Martial Law. After that, there was a real ‘paper landslide’: it is difficult to count all the underground publishers: from the powerful ‘concerns’ such as NOWA, CDN or Krąg, with catalogues counting hundreds of entries to ephemeral publishers whose career ended with only their one book published. In underground stores publications known as ‘bibuła’ calling for direct action against the regime, sat next to literary almanacs or political magazines. Great interest was gained by publications which wrote the full truth about modern history, which had been ruthlessly falsified for decades.

In the 1980s, the largest publishing houses also entered the market for cassette tapes and even videos. It is not by accident that I am using the word ‘concern’ or ‘market’. The ethos of the opposition was more and more strongly woven together with business calculations. Publishers began to compete for the ever more discerning reader, who was no longer satisfied with just anything illegal. On the peripheries of this great movement, there were also people who published stamps of Solidarity solely for profit, and also the precursors of piracy, those who did not even try to respect author’s rights.

T-55A on the streets during Martial law in Poland (photo by J. Żołnierkiewicz; public domain)

Until 1989, over 6.5 thousand books and 5.5-5.8 thousand newspapers and magazines appeared in Poland outside state censorship. In the USSR, it was over 300 magazines, in Czechoslovakia around 900 books and 80 magazines, in Hungary and East Germany – only a few dozen publications each. It is hard to give one reason which was responsible for the great success of the Polish “second publishing circulation”, measured by the number of people engaged as well as the number of titles published. It is necessary to take into account the Polish conspiratorial tradition during the time of the partitions, as well as during the occupation of Poland during the Second World War. We should also remember that the repressions against the dissidents in Poland were generally milder than those in the USSR and other countries within its sphere of influence. The Security Service and Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) were acting inconsistently and were meandering between turning and un-turning the screw of repression. In the 1970s, the leadership refrained from harsh intervention, fearing the loss of Western loans, and in the following decade, it became increasingly pliant. The Polish Security Service strived more towards the penetration of the opposition movement than to its destruction. Likewise, in the 1970s, as in the 1980s, they were successful in getting their secret agents involved in the structures of the second circulation, some of them even directed the publishing houses. However, the Secret Service never gained control over the second circulation. There is a third dimension to the Polish phenomenon: its internal pluralism and diversity. Already in the 1970s, readers could choose between more left-wing and more right-wing magazines; in the 1980s they had at their disposal the enunciations of socialists and radical freemarketeers. The market was flooded with the publications of the underground “Solidarity” – and at the same time one could find there also some anarchic magazines, full of harsh critique of both the ruling government, as well as the mainstream opposition. Publications were also published, by their own expense, by other groups, amongst them Jehovah’s witnesses, Muslims and members of gay community.

Polish second circulation books & brochures printed in 1980’s (photo by Julo; public domain)

Not all experiences gained through underground activities helped those engaged in the fight for freedom to navigate in a new reality after 1989. For some, being skilled at the printing machine, went hand in hand with an attraction to alcohol. Also, in dissident circles, fierce conflicts began to erupt, sometimes lasting until today. However, the experience of the second circulation constituted an important and universal lesson: in the engagement in a social movement, nonconformism, building a community and also self-organization.

Statistics: J. Olaszek, Drugi obieg wydawniczy w PRL i samizdat w innych państwach bloku sowieckiego: podobieństwa, różnice i wzajemne wpływy, [in:] Drugi obieg w PRL na tle samizdatu w państwach bloku sowieckiego po 1956 roku, ed. P. Gasztold-Seń, N. Jarska, J. Olaszek, Warszawa 2016

Author: Łukasz Bertram – PhD, Sociologist, also historian. In January 2020, he defended his doctoral thesis on the biographical experiences of Polish communists. Author of the book, „Obieg NOW-ej” (Warszawa 2013). Member of the editorial team of „Kultura Liberalna” weekly.

Translation: Blanka Konopka