In the 1960s samizdat, that is a system of underground publishing of uncensored materials, became an important factor of public life in the Soviet Union. At the end of the 1960s, the Soviet Research Department of the RFE/RL Research Institute started to systematically collect samizdat documents that reached the West. Those documents were considered a valuable first-hand source from inside the Soviet Union and were actively used to prepare radio programs. By the time the Samizdat Archives (SA) was set up as a separate unit, the Samizdat collection numbered hundreds of documents. The SA staff was responsible for collecting, cataloguing and checking the new arrivals to separate potential forgeries and verify the information in authentic documents.
Specially chosen members of the SA staff studied each incoming document carefully to identify and separate items which were possibly falsified and to verify the information in the authentic ones. If they believed that publicity would be harmful to a document’s author or to anyone mentioned in it, the document was not disseminated. Priority was given to those documents that were considered most important in terms of RFE/RL's policy and mission as formulated in its Policy Guidance and other strategic papers. This meant that the SA was much more interested in political samizdat rather than in fictional prose or literary journals.
Each of the selected documents was given a registration number for identification under the letters AS (altogether 6617 documents were registered). The primary goal of the Samizdat project was to make Samizdat documents available to the Radio staff. Selected documents were circulated inside the Radio in the form of a regularly published bulletin (which during certain periods was either weekly or fortnightly) called "Materialy Samizdata" (Materials of Samizdat). The first issue of "Materialy Samizdata" was published on May 31, 1968, before SA came into being as a separate unit. The bulletin contained the original texts of Samizdat documents with minimal comments (with a cover page listing included documents). The publication was suspended in December 1991, though before its final termination, nine more issues were published.
At the SA, the registered Samizdat documents were organized as an archive with two complete sets of materials: the first was used by Samizdat staff (Series 9), while the other was open to researchers (Series 10). “Materialy Samizdata” made Series 14. Another publication by SA was “Sobranie dokumentov Samizdata“ (Collection of Samizdat Documents). 30 volumes of this collection (totaling over 3000 registered Samizdat documents) were published between 1972 and 1978 with limited number of copies to supplement the Slavic collections of several national and university libraries in Europe and the United States (Series 11). To create easy access to the published Samizdat documents SA staff developed numerous finding aids, including seven issues of registers (1971-1977) in Russian and in English, several sets of card files, name indexes and electronic databases (Series 1-8, 30).
Since RFE/RL wanted to provide reliable information, the factual content of Samizdat documents was very carefully checked. For reference purpose, the staff of the Samizdat unit built up clipping collections (Subject and Biographical Files) covering topics relating to Samizdat issues (Series 12, 13). There is also a set of reference sources (Series 70) and several card files relating to SA activities in the field (Series 20-29).
Those Samizdat documents that were not registered and not published in "Materialy Samizdata" made a backlog ("unpublished Samizdat documents"). The backlog included documents that were considered falsified or unreliable, that contained information which was impossible to verify or that were of lesser interest. Many documents from the Perestroika period also ended up in the backlog because there were so many arrivals that it was impossible to include everything of importance in "Materialy Samizdata". During the existence of SA, several projects were initiated with the aim of processing the backlog; none of them were completed (Series 36-42).
The remaining Samizdat documents were hardly organized at all: only part of them were in folders, few folders had titles, many were mixed up with other records (processing notes, reference materials, administrative records). The mixed materials were divided into the following groups - Unpublished Samizdat documents, Reference materials, Processing materials, Administrative records. When processing Unpublished Samizdat documents, we assumed as a basis for their sorting that there were three groups of folders with original titles: those with a personal name as a title, those with a subject heading as a title, and those with dates used instead of a title. Following this principle the whole mass of unprocessed Samizdat documents was divided into three series: Unpublished Samizdat: Subject Files; Unpublished Samizdat: Biographical Files; Unpublished Samizdat Sorted Chronologically (Series 44-46). Since the majority of the original titles were in Russian (some in English), all titles are given in Russian.
With the beginning of the Perestroika period, in the wake of glasnost and the cessation of foreign radio jamming, RFE/RL was bombarded with letters from the Soviet Union. In February 1989, SA was assigned to the task of processing this correspondence. It created the Collection of Letters that is part of the SA holdings (Series 31-35).
During the same period, SA became famous for its Informal/Regional Press Collection, which was considered to be the best in the West. Though the collection includes a certain number of pre-Perestroika issues, it consists mainly of publications of the period from 1987 to 1992. Traditionally, as it was at SA, this collection is divided into two series: Informal Press (over 1000 tiles, 6000 issues) - Series 19, and Regional Press (1400 titles, 10,000 issues) - Series 20. In fact, however, as several staff members noted in their interviews, it was very hard to distinguish one group from the other, and the two series are very much intermixed. There are several finding aids to this collection created at SA (Series 15-17).