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What It Means To Be Censored


When I finish this article, I will go to a copy center on East William Street in Ann Arbor and have it Xeroxed. On East William Street they charge 2.5 cents per page, while other places may charge from three to five cents. Or if some business should take me first to one of the university buildings, I will use one of the small copying machines which have been installed everywhere and are available for general use by both students and teachers.

In the Soviet Union there are copying machines (under the brand name “Era”). Installed in only a few offices, they are inaccessible to the general public. According to rules which are strictly enforced by State Security, these machines must be placed in a separate room with a barred window (or better yet, without any window at all), and sealed by an iron door with many locks. Should an office worker need a copy of some draft or document, he must give his supervisor a special form for this and obtain written permission.

Representatives of the KGB in every office (as a rule, they work in coordination with the Personnel Office) constantly remind the copy-machine operators of the grave responsibility they bear should they do any copying “on the side,” however innocent it may be. But according to good Russian tradition, you can always find a loophole in a law through some small offering or through friends. If you urgently need copies made of a picture, a draft, or maybe a musical score, you can always find some young girl who operates a copy machine and is willing to help. The price—a bar of chocolate or a vial of cheap perfume for a few copies. For larger quantities—twenty or thirty kopecks per page.

The desire to earn a pair of panty hose (which in the USSR costs six to seven rubles on the average) overcomes all fears. And yet these girls do have some sense of the serious dangers connected with this: for while they eagerly accept music or drawings, they will examine a printed text cautiously. They know that any little rhyme or jingle which on the surface might appear quite innocent could always be interpreted as “anti-soviet,” and that the price for this might not be just losing your job (after all, you can always find another eightyrubles-a-month job), but losing your freedom.

When I was a student in the Department of Journalism at Leningrad State University, we often had demonstration lessons at the university printers. One day, despite strict warnings, somebody from our class typeset the line “Dima + Ira = Love” and had it printed out on a scrap of paper. Immediately one of our more vigilant comrades reported this crime to the professor, who happened to be an aged, semiliterate gentleman by the name of Vyazemsky. In contrast to those professors who taught the major humanities courses, only absolute monsters taught courses labeled “Theory and Practice of the Soviet Party Press.” This Pyotr Arkadievich Vyazemsky had written a textbook and included in it, as an unsurpassed example of good newspaper layout, the lead column of a newspaper he had formerly edited. The column looked like this: above—the slogan “Glory to Great Stalin”; along the margins—photographs of two narrow-necked porcelain vases with two profiles of this “Genius father of the nations,” with a stern gaze, identical and symmetrical, staring reproachfully at one another; in the space between the vases was a poem praising Stalin. Any straying from these principles of newspaper design Vyazemsky called petty-bourgeois formalism and, using the worst of all curse words in his vocabulary, “New-York-Timesish”! Having received the informant’s denunciation, this same Vyazemsky straight away organized a complete investigation. The unfortunate student who loved Ira was discussed at a Komsomol meeting, at a departmental meeting, at the Party Office, and, if only the poor fellow had not been rushed to a mental hospital for extreme anxiety, this case would have had serious consequences for him.

Perhaps the present Soviet powers so fear what would occur if citizens had uncontrolled access to duplicating machines and the means of mass communication because their own revolutionary period abounds in stories about underground printing houses, heroically stolen typeface, and photo-duplicated political pamphlets.

Certainly not all editor’s offices in the Soviet Union have their own copying machine, but every editor’s office—whether it is for a newspaper, for book publishing, for movies, for radio and TV, or whatever—does have a little room off to the side with an iron door and a barred window. Here in solitude, as both prisoner and warden, sits a man who is officially called the delegate of Glav- (Obl-, Gor-) Lit, but whom most people call by his old title: the censor.

Without the meticulous examination and sanction of the censor, no morning paper, no detective novel, no fashion magazine, no advanced math text, no book of lyric poetry, no instructions for vacuum cleaners, not even candy wrappers can come off the press. Nothing can be printed on paper, shown on a screen, or broadcast on airwaves without the censor’s knowledge.

A few years ago a young professor from the Leningrad Institute of Arts had invited some guests to his wedding reception. One of his friends from the Academy of Lithography had some two dozen invitations printed for him—they were cardboard squares with a funny picture of Cupid and the lines: “NN and XX invite you for dinner in honor of their marriage. Please come to the restaurant Metropol at such-and-such an hour and day.” Woe to him! Surely it was only the stress and worry of his nuptial preparations which caused the professor-groom to commit such an unforgivable error! Naturally, someone who had not received an invitation (or maybe it was someone who had…) went to the authorities. Instead of a banquet hall in the hotel Metropol, the professor was called on the carpet. He was accused of “criminal ideological negligence as witnessed by the release of printed material without permission from the proper channels” and of “flagrantly flouting the norms of socialist morality” (this last was mainly because the Cupid on the invitation was drawn without his pants). The professor was considered “unfit to educate our Soviet youth” and was deprived of his title and post. His career was disrupted for several years.


Censorship in Russia is as old as the Russian press. It was one of the ecclesiastical prerogatives at that time when most books were religious in content, but with the blossoming of Russian literature in the second half of the eighteenth century, it became a sprawling government department. Under the conditions of despotic monarchy, when almost all law is void, the whim of the censor knew no limits, and only in certain individual instances did men of letters succeed in appealing their cases to higher government channels, and direct appeal to the czar himself was considered to be the only worthwhile possibility.

The censor’s extremes have always been sources of lamentably true anecdotes. At the end of the eighteenth century, on the heels of the French Revolution, Russian censors scratched from cookbooks the phrase “pirogi cooked over liberal heat” for fear it would push the reader’s mind down the loathsome path of “liberalism.” In the nineteenth century Russian Romanticism suffered greatly in comparison with related Western European movements, for the censors had dutifully emasculated the traditional Romantic vocabulary by forbidding such fixed epithets as “divine,” “heavenly,” or “paradisiacal” in referring to female beauty and various erotic situations. We may conjecture that by doing this the censors only hastened the triumph of realism in folk literature on this subject.

The already despotic Russian regime recognized and underscored the significance of the censorship by, for example, insisting on the czar’s right to censor manuscripts personally. Emperor Nicholas I informed Pushkin, “I will be your censor,” and, not even shying from inspecting Pushkin’s personal correspondence, he became a truly carping, harsh, and petty censor for the greatest of Russian poets. This crowned censor differed from his brother censors only in that one had no hope of ever appealing his royal decisions. Such paternal censorship nearly drove Pushkin to insanity, and to a great extent spurred him on to his fatal duel.

Pushkin himself formulated the opinion of intellectual Russia about this problem in his two clever “Epistles to the Censor.” Here is how he depicts the ideal censor (we should notice that Pushkin did not completely reject the institution of censorship: as a Russian, he knew only too well the danger of anarchy of any type, and he feared it):

But the censor is a citizen, his rank sacred:
His mind should be solid and enlightened;
He is accustomed to respecting in his heart both the altar and the throne;
He observes science, propriety and morals,
And does not transgress the written law
He does not block the path to useful truth,
Nor hinder the development of liv- ing poetry….

To be fair, it should be mentioned that among the censors of Pushkin’s time a few were close to the poet’s ideal: the writer S.T. Aksakov, the poet F. Tiutchev, and A.V. Nikitenko, author of the Diary of a Censor, which has become famous in Russian letters.

Despite the essentially liberal reforms enacted by the government of Alexander II in the 1860s, the power of the censor remained unlimited until the last days of the monarchy. What was most characteristic for this bureaucratic government was the fact that any and every unregulated thought suffered at the hands of the censor, regardless of its ideological position: radical writers of the Nekrasov and Saltykov-Shchedrin circle, or the liberal Turgenev, or the deeply moralistic Lev Tolstoy, as well as those who took the rather conservative side in politics and history, such as Dostoevsky and Leontiev—all suffered under the oppression of the state censor. The 150-year struggle of the Russian intelligentsia for emancipation from ideological censorship, for new liberal and democratic institutions, similar to those which had been established in most Western European countries from the middle of the nineteenth century, finally succeeded only as the curtain was already lowering over their heads. With the 1905 Revolution the government censors’ bureau was significantly weakened, and it was completely disposed of after the fall of the monarchy in 1917.

It is well known that after eight and a half months the Bolsheviks entered the scene with young red wine for the old Byzantine bottles of Russian despotism. In their first weeks of power, by imposing the strictest censorship and by confiscating all newspapers and private publishing, they had completely revoked freedom of political discussion and criticism of government activities. Soon after, their ban spread to include literature of any type which was ideologically opposed or even simply not ideologically coincident with the communism of Lenin’s theories.

If the myth about relative freedom from the censor in the Twenties still lives in the consciousness of some modern Russian intellectuals, it is only because all of the following years of Soviet power were marked by the constantly growing strength of the censor’s yoke—if on occasion some signs of softening flashed by, they were only followed by another chill wave of censorial severity. It was in the Twenties that the Soviets, because of their economic weakness, left a small sphere of activity to private capital (NEP), and so some private and cooperative publishers could still manage to exist under the relentless financial and ideological control of the times. In general they tended to publish innocent classics, an abundance of translated adventure novels, and poetry. “Freedom” of the press in the Twenties is explained only by the fact that professional teams of censors had not yet been equipped and trained. The job of censor was often awarded as a sinecure for service in the Revolution, so that the first Soviet censors were former soldiers or agents of the Cheka, that is, people with little education, and without a well-developed nose for literary allusion.

I recently ran across a rather amusing example of this while working on an American edition of the selected lyrics of Sophia Parnok, a Russian poet of that time. “Heart, you have nowhere to fly beneath the wild October moon,” Parnok complained in one of her lyric poems. The Moscow censor demonstrated his vigilance, and at his command “October moon” was changed to “December moon.” The Bolshevik Revolution, you see, is called “Great October,” and to use the name of the month October in a melancholy, “decadent” context, placing it, moreover, next to the negative epithet “wild,” this the censor could not brook. Yet opposite this poem, in the same collection, the poet Parnok succeeded in publishing the poem “Bellarofont,” in which she retells an ancient myth in an ambiguous manner, cursing a nightmarish hydra which strangles the poet’s free voice and creative license. Deciphering this transparent analogy was beyond the grasp of the Moscow censor of the Twenties.


Before beginning the story of the Soviet censor’s bureau, we must pay our respects to the exceptional modesty of this department. In his secrecy the censor in the USSR is unique. It is understandable that the KGB or the military intelligence division would act in strict secrecy. But at the same time, it is no secret that such organizations do in fact exist. On the contrary, their activities, so beneficial to the socialist state, are constantly advertised in the press, in official speeches and pronouncements. Countless books of adventure are dedicated to the feats of Soviet informers and agents of the secret police. There are, of course, many institutions somehow connected with the defense industry whose existence is held in absolute secrecy. Research centers, factories, whole cities sometimes do not even have names—only code numbers.

The position of the censors’ department, however, is somehow elusive. On one hand, it is not officially made a secret, or at least for me the humble little sign on the door of that office was not an infrequent sight in various Russian towns, even in a place so popular with foreign tourists as the veche square in Novgorod. At the same time I do not recall in the press or in any official speeches any mention of our censors. Such an unrelenting observer of Soviet domestic political life as Valery Chalidze received the same impression, as he mentions in his book, To Defend These Rights: Human Rights and the Soviet Union (Random House, 1975). And the fact that control over all means of mass communication is concentrated in their hands certainly helps these brethren from the censors’ bureau obey their vow of humility. In a word, there is not as yet any television series about the heroic workday of the Soviet censor, or any posters depicting a passionate censor with shield and sword, or any pioneer troops with the name “Young Censors.”

The activities of the Department of Security Control of Government Secrets materialize for the press with the appearance of the so-called List (complete title: List of Materials and Information Forbidden for Open Publication in the Press). This rather weighty but humble-looking book is reprinted each year like a telephone book, with additions and changes. Every office connected with mass information owns as a reference book a numbered copy of the List. Should this book be lost, the office manager will pay for it, if not by losing his head, then at least by losing his job or his career. And so these Lists are guarded as dearly as life itself, in the strongest of safes, in the securest cabinets. In the tiny editor’s office of the children’s magazine where I worked for many years, fear of losing the List was so great that it was kept in an even larger safe at the Regional Komsomol office, and when we needed to refer to the book the editor in chief or his executive assistant would get on a bus and go to the Regional Party headquarters.

Censors have, as all professionals do, their own brand of intellectual snobbery, which for them consists of knowing the List by heart, and being able to appreciate the nuances of its latest changes.

How is the censor’s control realized in practice? After a newspaper, magazine, or book has been typeset, a preparatory proof copy is printed. The editor in chief carefully reads it through (this is one of the most important daily jobs of every editor), and if he does not find any errors, he places on every page of the proofs his signature and stamp.

This signed and stamped copy is then taken to the office’s official, ever-present censor. He in turn carefully examines the text, and, if he too finds no transgressions, he also signs each page, and then stamps it with his own number and date. This stamp with the censor’s number is called the “lit,” or “lit number such-and-such,” and the whole process of censorship is often referred to simply as “getting the lit.”

In practice, interference from the censor—or at least any serious interference—is relatively rare. This is explained by the fact that editors’ offices, as well as radio, television, movie, and theater studios, all have veteran editors who know that any serious mistake which is noticed by a censor could have even more serious consequences on their careers. The censor, like a policeman on the beat, exists not to stop a crime, but to prevent it with his intimidating presence.

With the censor’s “lit,” a newspaper, magazine, or book can go to press, radio or TV programs can go on the air, a film can reach the screen.

I first met the problem of obtaining “lit” in the early days of my literary career. A few weeks before the New Year’s holiday season began, I used to supplement my income modestly by writing small plays for youth groups: Santa Claus, the Snow Princess, a rabbit, and a bear were the characters, and the skits ended with lighting the candles on the Christmas tree. Obtaining the “lit,” without which my troupe of occasional actors did not even have the right to begin rehearsal, meant no end of anxiety: the censor was condescending, and in a leisurely way would delay approving my work, perhaps because he considered it to be of less than prime importance. His assumption was, of course, correct, but it did not take into account the extremely seasonal nature of my plays—New Year’s Day doesn’t wait!

A “lit”-marked work is untouchable. An actor on the stage might throw out an extra word or two, but changing even one printed character in a “lit”-marked text, even a comma, is a crime. If, nonetheless, some mistake is caught after obtaining “lit,” such as a simple typing error, the printed text with the correction is again sent to the censor, who again reads through it, signs, and stamps it.

Of course, such a system, with controls on many levels, where people and not robots are at work, occasionally makes mistakes, and horrendous ones can slip into the mass media. It was not so long ago that the nation-wide edition of Pravda, concluding a long article on an international topic, called not for the hackneyed “triumph of internationalism,” but for the “triumph of imperialism” instead. The local newspaper of Kaliningrad during the autumn fishing season was looking for a slogan which would call Party members patriotically to join the fishermen in their trawlers, and came up with the headline: “Put All Communists Out to Sea!” Neither the editor nor the censor noticed the ambiguity, and allowed this renegade slogan, unheard of since the days of the Russian civil war, to slip into the press.

Not long before the end of the Vietnam war, the Leningrad Youth newspaper Smena (Working Shift) published a picture of a yellow-skinned man coming out of the jungle with two decapitated human heads in his hands. The caption below the picture read: “The lads of Electrosila busy at work” (Electrosila is a large model factory in Leningrad). Here the editor’s and the censor’s mistake is easily explained: both were in a hurry to sign the column with the prepared text, but without the mounted picture, which apparently arrived later.

This censorship on many levels is the main reason for the inefficiency of the Soviet press. As a rule, Soviet citizens find out about an event, which took place perhaps even in their own country, one day later than the rest of the world. Or they may hear more timely news from Western radio stations. Having heard from a Western station about an earthquake in Soviet Central Asia or about the death of a politician in Moscow, one customarily waits a day or two for information about this in the Soviet press. It is interesting to note that the day when World War II ended, still a holiday on Soviet calendars, is celebrated one day later in the USSR than in the rest of the world, for these very reasons of censorship. I remember how, sitting before a forbidden radio on May 8, 1945, as an eight-year-old boy, I first heard the joyful marches and reports of victory on BBC. When I ran to tell my mother of this, even through her tears of joy she forbade me to share the news with friends and neighbors, lest they discover that we listened to an unofficial radio. In the USSR the marches and rejoicing began only on May 9.

While it cannot be said that the inefficiency of mass information in any way worries the Soviet leadership, they have nonetheless made several attempts to improve the situation. On television and radio evening news programs it is sometimes possible to hear news of events which took place that very day. Special censors’ offices have been installed in direct conjunction with the editor’s offices of newspapers and other organs of the mass media, and they serve to hasten the process of censorship. For book and magazine publishers, the censors come on predetermined days and hours, or, as was the case in my editor’s office, we took the proof copies directly to Security Control.

The question may arise: how do government and Party workers on the upper levels obtain efficient and reliable news information? For them there are special editions of TASS—the so-called “White TASS” and “The Planet.” To gain access to these sources of information (which, by the way, are accessible to all mankind beyond the borders of the Communist world) in the USSR is a sign that one belongs to the elite. When I was working as a journalist I heard a great deal about special compendiums of daily world events, which were prepared by TASS only for members of the Party Politburo. People say that these newspapers are published in large type (Party leaders are by no means young), and not only are they not subject to censorhip, but they also have a peculiar selection of articles: along with the most important news information they include articles about the progress of Soviet hockey teams and other sports groups, whose patrons are particular Party leaders.

What kind of people do the censors recruit? In contrast to their poorly educated predecessors of the Twenties, the majority of today’s censors have degrees from universities, institutes, and official Party schools. A diploma does not necessarily signify a high level of education: membership in the Party, especially active membership, greatly facilitates entrance into a university, passing one’s courses, and finding a comfortable job upon graduating. But the diploma does bear witness to a certain elementary level of education.

Of course, a job with a Party organ, with a branch of the Soviet leadership, or with the KGB is significantly more prestigious and useful than working for the censors’ bureau. Hence the censors’ office tends to gather those who claim spotless Soviet reputations, loyalty to the Party (partiynost), those who have a few personal contacts (this last is just as necessary for building one’s career in the USSR as it is elsewhere in the world), and those who somehow fall behind their peers and comrades in intellectual and spiritual qualities, in their ability to adapt. I do not want to make a general rule, but in my own experience (and I stress that this is only on the basis of my own personal acquaintances), censors almost all tend to be people who are physically or mentally handicapped: invalids, amputees, former polio victims, hunchbacks, or people with noticeable physical deformities, or those with obviously limited mental abilities, such as people with slow and difficult speech, people with difficulties understanding plain conversation. (One may protest here that these same qualities are found in workers with other Party and government jobs, and I would agree, but in my opinion, these types of people are most prevalent in the offices of the censor.)

But the above describes only the rank and file. The management personnel of censor’s offices are recruited from the same class of Party bureaucrats who fill positions of leadership around the whole country: the nomenklatura of cities, collective farms, theaters, soccer teams, academic institutes, and book publishers. Moreover, they are constantly transferring from one department to another. So because of his title alone, the director of a fire-fighting brigade can become the director of the Kirov Ballet. (This is an example taken from life: such was the career of a Leningrad functionary, P.I. Rachinsky. From fire chief to union boss to the directorship of a retail book company, then director of a television studio, then director of the Kirov Theater of Opera and Ballet, and at last to a premature retirement with pension—because Rachinsky was involved in a scandal dealing with foreign currency.)

I myself have come across only two directors of censors’ bureaus. The first was a man of very short stature, quite reticent, “a man in a case,” as Chekhov would say, who went by the name of Chupikov. He was director of a censors’ bureau in a small town on Sakhalin Island, and he was in charge of one elderly woman, the only censor under him. When I asked about his past, it turned out that he was a former prison guard. In the late 1950s jobs were scarce for many guards in Siberia and the Far East, since most of Stalin’s concentration camps had been terminated.

Several times in Leningrad I saw a figure of somewhat higher caliber from the censors’ bureau—Markov. I first bumped into him when he was still the editor of the newspaper Evening Leningrad. I had dropped by the publishing house “Leninizdat” on some business and found a group of journalists and editors there happily listening to the exciting stories of a colleague who had just returned from the West. The storyteller was Markov. As a member of a Leningrad delegation he had been to Hamburg. His impressions of the lively streets of Hamburg were so strong that he forgot the caution typical of Soviets in such situations, and described with relish all kinds of erotica, some of it rather perverse, with which he had become acquainted in the German nightclubs and porn theaters. The word “Reeperbahn” (a street in Hamburg with a certain reputation) was always on his lips and since that day the journalists have always called him “Reeperbahn.”

Perhaps still under the influence of his impressions of Hamburg, Reeperbahn-Markov gave his secretaries, typists, and female reporters no peace. This resulted in a large-scale scandal, and the management decided it best to transfer him to a Leningrad television studio. However, he was soon removed from his job with television for the same reasons and was appointed chief of the Leningrad censors’ bureau (perhaps because there it would be harder for him to find sexual satisfaction among his paralytic subordinates).

In 1975 I heard the name Markov in connection with a trial. They were trying the writer Maramzin, and books which were seized in a search of Maramzin’s apartment had been sent for examination to the Bureau of Security. Examining court evidence is also one of the functions of the censor. I do not recall precisely what Reeperbahn said about the works of Shestov, Berdyaev, and the other philosopher-idealists found there, but a confiscated copy of Nabokov’s Lolita qualified as a flagrantly pornographic work which could bring grave danger to the morals of the Soviet people. Having heard this, I recalled Reeperbahn’s Hamburg tales, which make the fateful passion of Humbert Humbert seem innocent and pure by comparison.


For the most part the articles of the List concern the safety of military secrets: the position of troops, factories, work for the army, information about new types of arms, and so forth. The details of these prohibitions we will dwell on later, but the principle upon which the List rests is this: the security of army and government secrets.

It is often asked if the censor is allowed to forbid the publication of something for ideological reasons.

There are no such regulations among the articles of the List, but beyond the List, there are instructions which oblige the censors to maintain ideological control. In forbidding the publication of something which does not agree ideologically with the Soviet norm, the censor does not risk any arguments with the editor, that is, no Soviet editor in his right mind would say to a censor, “You have no right to censor that, such a case is not covered in the List.” First of all, the editor knows that the censor’s right to veto is unlimited, that the List gives only concrete examples and leaves open the question of all other possible cases. And the editor also knows that when the censor forbids something for ideological reasons, he will report this action to Party officials, and their ruling cannot be repealed.

The censor can forbid publication because something “distorts Soviet reality” (read: it is sharply critical), because it is decadent, or because it is ambiguous, allusive, and “gives rise to uncontrolled associations.”

With special care the censor suppresses anything that might be construed to reflect a positive, or even neutral, attitude toward religion—in particular the Christian religion. For example, Soviet propaganda encourages the study of native history as an important element of a patriotic education. Editors of newspapers and magazines are obliged to publicize the activities of children’s clubs, youth groups, and other patriotic functions. The activities of these groups are primarily camping trips to places connected with grand historical events, and they entail touring, photographing, and studying landmarks of old Russian architecture. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of old Russian architectural monuments are churches and monasteries! From time immemorial pious Russian peasants lived in wooden huts, and even fortress walls were usually only earth embankments with wooden palisades. But the churches were built of stone and made to last forever—many of them are masterpieces of world architecture.

In the first two decades of Soviet power the Bolsheviks, ignoring the historical and artistic value of these sacred places, destroyed them with a ferocity that was unusual, and yet characteristic of converts to any new faith upon meeting relics of the old belief. The entire world was grieved with the senseless savagery of the Nazis who destroyed such chefs-d’oeuvre as the Novgorod cathedral of St. Sophia. These were unrestorable losses for Russian culture, yet the world somehow reacted very weakly to the tenfold greater loss which the Bolsheviks wrought upon their own culture and history! Today, even among intellectuals, it has become fashionable to connect this barbarism with a significant Jewish or non-Russian stratum in the early Bolshevik leadership. It is possible that members of this group played some role, but in view of the fact that they were so few in number when compared to the Russians, it could not logically have been a very large one.

Even in the Fifties, after many years of government-sponsored anti-Semitism, when Jews were not allowed to get even within shooting range of any responsible government posts, the destruction of historic churches continued. One need only recollect how the Church of the Savior, designed by Rastrelli, the very church before which Raskolnikov bowed and kissed the earth, was destroyed in the early Fifties in the very center of Leningrad on Sennaya Square.

But for the present moment it seems that the destruction of religious monuments has ceased. In any event, one no longer hears the cries of the demolition crews. But a slower destruction continues—churches are used as vegetable cellars, warehouses for oil and fuels, small factories, or sculptors’ studios. (This was the case with a marvelous church built in the eighteenth century by the architect L’vov in Murino near Leningrad. When I examined it not long ago the sculptor using it had torn through a wall near the altar to build a bathroom.) In places frequented by foreign tourists, the churches are now being restored.

When describing these patriotic itineraries to the press, authors have resorted to a cliché acceptable to the censor—churches are now customarily called “memorials of the folk genius,” and a very enthusiastic author can even discover in these ancient designs a few sacrilegious ideas. Difficulties for the censor arise with illustrating such materials, especially when crosses have been preserved on the church cupolas. The censor’s reaction to a cross is like a devil’s reaction to a cross: for the censor the cross is something intolerable, something he allows only for sale to foreigners in limited editions. As a result artists and photographers have worked out a compromise: churches are drawn and photographed in such a way that either the cross is located above the picture frame, or the cross is seen “in profile,” so that the church appears to be crowned with some sort of short spire.

I previously (Kontinent, No. 9) gave as an example of the censor’s fear of religion an anecdote about one of the children’s plays I wrote. The action was to take place in ancient Greece, and the censor had crossed out everywhere the word “god,” even though these were not Christian but Hellenic gods: Zeus, Aphrodite, etc.

To illustrate what is meant by “uncontrollable associations,” allow me to give two examples.

Once in a film studio I, as a potential author, was shown an instruction pamphlet from the Government Committee on Cinematography. The pamphlet listed themes from Russian history which were considered undesirable for the Soviet screen, and they recommended refusing the work of scenarists who expressed a desire to write on any of those themes. In passing out the new pamphlet they explained to me that the representative from the committee was concerned with the “uncontrollable associations” these themes might suggest. What, exactly, were these forbidden themes?

According to the government committee, associations beyond the control of Soviet authorities could appear in the minds of Soviet citizens viewing films dealing with the peasant uprisings of Stepan Razin and Emilian Pugachev, or concerning the tragic fate of the writer Radishchev who was tried at the end of the eighteenth century for his anti-government writings, or while watching films dealing with government (and censorial) oppression of the liberal-democratic writers of the 1860s or the terrorist antigovernment activities of their contemporaries, the revolutionary nihilists. That is to say, almost the whole history of the Russian liberation movements, which Soviet official propaganda claims for the genealogy of Russian communism, has been declared undesirable for Soviet screens!

There is a reason for this. In conditions where any direct criticism of a government’s actions is categorically forbidden, any book or film which depicts protests against despotism of any kind is immediately interpreted by the citizenry as a hieroglyph for contemporary life. The authorities realized that a complete ban of historic themes would be impossible, for then it would be necessary to begin by banning many works of classical Russian literature, as, for example, the satirical writings of Saltykov-Shchedrin, whose pamphlets directed against the autocracy sound surprisingly biting in today’s Russia. But in the most mass-oriented of all arts—cinema—dangerous themes ought to be limited somehow.

One tragic victim of this government pamphlet was the remarkable writer, actor, and director Vasily Shukshin. His long-treasured dream was to make a film about Stepan Razin, the leader of a peasant uprising, but Shukshin was never able to obtain permission to shoot such a film, despite his exceptional popularity and the numerous compromises which he undertook for the sake of his goal, until he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of forty-five during the filming of a propaganda film by Bondarchuk, They Fought for the Fatherland (from a novel by Sholokhov).

On those infrequent occasions when a significant historical date requires the production of a prize-winning historical film, the film undergoes particularly strict scrutiny by the censor. By way of example, take the recent film Star of Captivating Happiness, dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Decembrists’ revolt. When the film was being shot, the censor demanded that the actor Kazakov (who has black hair), playing the role of the stormy prince Volkonsky, be replaced by the actor Strizhenov (with blond hair). The reason given was that the dark hair and hooked nose of Kazakov might lead the viewer to think about the role that Jews played in Russian liberation movements.

I remember another cinematographic pamphlet in which subjects recommended to the scenarist are listed. I cannot forget the following example of some clerk’s imagination: “Picture a small island in the Arctic Ocean. The collective of a Soviet polar expedition. Five men, five various characters. A Komsomol radio operator begins to have feelings of love for a female meteorologist, who in turn loves the older expedition leader. But the sensitivity of the Party organizer prevents a tragedy” and so forth. Such gripping, dramatic subjects, born in the solitude of censors’ and editors’ offices, were suggested by the dozens.

Working in children’s literature, I frequently met the censor’s vigilance in another area considered a source of uncontrollable associations: fairy tales. Undoubtedly, the censors had been instructed to suppress any attempt at satirical allegory. As a result, many themes traditional to fairy tales were considered suspect—such as the dragon which fiercely subjugates a freedom-loving country, or any description of a kingdom suffering from a stupid and whimsical king (Khrushchev!).

Of course the censors do have a reason for this, for a whole genre of Russian literature in the twentieth century is based on such allegories, beginning with the tales of Evgenii Zamyatin, written in the early Twenties, to the classic example of Evgenii Schwartz’s play The Dragon. Schwartz’s play was a bold satire on Stalinism, written when Stalinism had reached its peak; it was rescued from suppression only because it seems that even the censors feared to recognize the play’s political allusions openly; the author and the critics cleverly reinterpreted the satiric target of the play as Nazi Germany.


The censor’s Instructions to the Leningrad Editors (or Protocol Plus

Uncontrollable Associations)
time: January, 1975

place: Leningrad

The day before, our secretary in chief, an elderly spinster, had been scurrying about our offices, red from excitement and clucking, “Comrades, tomorrow at nine o’clock the censor will come to instruct us. Everyone must be there, tardiness is strictly forbidden! It promises to be interesting, comrades—we will get a mass of new information.”

Standards in our office are rather loose, and no one usually arrives at work any earlier than noon, but because of this event (only once a year!), we all gather in the editor in chief’s office and take a seat along a long meeting table.

I have chosen a bad seat: across from me is a colleague from the political department who recently transferred to our magazine. He formerly worked as an editor in chief of a youth newspaper, but was discharged a) because of drunkenness and b)—and this is the main reason—for two political mistakes: he allowed the publication of an article which admitted that rock music had some good qualities, and he published another article which stated that Bobby Fisher, despite his awful personality, is nevertheless a good chess player. But his contrition was rather short-lived, for he sat across from me with a red, swollen face, the smell of alcohol on his breath, and it was obvious he had not slept the night before.

The boss offers his place at the head of the table to the censor who has come to instruct us.

I am somewhat acquainted with this censor. He makes a rather pleasant impression: a retired air force officer, for whom this job is a quiet and secure little niche.

“Comrades,” he says, “I would like to report to you a few additions and amendments to the 1973 List.”

“More prohibitions, that is,” interrupts my neighbor, grumbling. But the censor is not perturbed.

“Yes, more limitations, but I would also like to report to you about repealing the limitations on a number of items, which were formerly closed to publication without special permission.”

We look at each other: this is something new—removing prohibitions does not happen every year.

“But let us begin, comrades, with the mistakes your magazine has made recently and which our comrades have corrected.

“In a feature article in issue No. 6 of last year, the author makes reference to Soviet fishermen catching fish near the Kerguelen islands. I remind you that the editor’s office must show special permission from the State Ministry of Fishing Industries for any publication of such information….”

I knew something about that reference. Not long ago I was sent on a business trip to Moscow for just such permission. I arrived at the State Ministry of Fishing Industries with the manuscript in my briefcase. As a whole the story which we wished to publish had no direct relationship to the Soviet fishing fleet. The author had written about the experiences of an adolescent with family problems, and the hero’s father who worked as a fisherman in the North Atlantic figured in the plot. The whole day I sat chatting with bearded sea captains while waiting for an appointment with the Assistant Minister. According to regulations, no one lower than the Assistant Minister of State Fishing Industries himself is allowed to grant publication rights even to a children’s story.

Toward evening I got my appointment. The Assistant Minister turned out to be an affable and witty man, and we both began to joke about the absurdity of the situation: that an editor must travel at government expense from Leningrad to Moscow so that the Assistant Minister can affix his signature to a children’s story. I was certain that he would immediately sign the story in order to finish with this silly formality as quickly as possible, and I expected to return to Leningrad that same evening without wasting any more government money. But no. Having had his laugh, the Assistant Minister placed the manuscript in his briefcase and said, “Now I’m going to have to do a little reading to find out which of our secrets you are exposing here….” He told me to come back the day after tomorrow.

“So instead of introducing more stupid prohibitions, we should just stop fishing in foreign waters, stop breaking international conventions,” mumbles the tipsy truth-seeker sitting across from me.

“What will you have to eat with your vodka, then?”* I whisper to him over the table.

“In this same issue No. 6,” continues the censor, “the island of Ceylon is mentioned in an article. Forget that name, comrades. There is now only the independent state of Sri-Lanka, there is no more Ceylon….”

Now that he has started on geography, he will certainly mention the Kuril Islands. And sure enough, he does.

The Kuril Islands are very difficult to draw on small-scale maps. If an artist forgets to include in the northeast corner of the Pacific Ocean this little row of tiny islands which the Soviet Union snatched from Japan in the last war, the censors’ bureau considers this to be a sort of recognition of Japan’s territorial claim to the Kurils. Not long ago one of my acquaintances, an artist, was hired by Aeroflot to paint some advertising posters. In his own characteristically expressive manner he drew as a backdrop for a beautiful, smiling Aeroflot stewardess a red silhouette of the country—a map of the USSR. But perhaps he grew tired, or maybe simply forgot to sprinkle on the right hand margin those few red dots which symbolize the Soviet Kurils. The censor missed it, posters of the USSR without the Kurils were published and sent to various countries, including Japan, where this mistake, of course, was noticed and caught up by the newspapers. Needless to say, the Japanese did not win back their islands as a result of this, but certainly somewhere some censor suffered serious consequences.

The geographical chapter of our instruction continues.

“It is forbidden to publish any kind of information relating to the history of territorial divisions between Russia and China, without special permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Recently, comrades, one of our Far Eastern publishers put out a brochure against the territorial claims of the Maoists. The brochure cited data about the history of the creation of the Russian-Chinese border, beginning with the sixteenth century, including maps. All of this data was taken from openly available sources, namely, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately protested the publication of this brochure. As you may know, Maoist propaganda could misinterpret the bands of Cossack settlers who pioneered the Far East as though they were aggressors seizing lands. At the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the whole stock of brochures was destroyed.

“In issue No. 10 of your magazine, an author writes that the Chelyabinsk tractor factory produces—exact number of—tractors per day. It is forbidden to publish information about the production of tractors in numerical terms. One can cite only data about the average for the country or for a republic. You understand, today tractors—tomorrow tanks. Why give information about the productive strength of our defense industry?”

Dangerous information to leak in the age of computers and reconnaisance satellites!

“It is forbidden to expose the full amount of capital investment in the construction of the Baikal-Amur railroad. One may show individual areas of construction, or give facts about outstanding workers for socialist emulation, about heroes of labor….”

“Why, they even mentioned this figure aloud at an open meeting of the Komsomol Congress!”—breaks in my insubordinate colleague once again and blurts out some enormous sum of money. The censor looks at him with a smile of pity, as though to say: drunks can’t be trusted—they don’t understand the simplest things! Well, he made a mistake and mentioned the full sum of capital investment aloud. But maybe the enemy did not notice it this first time and let it slip by, so we had better keep quiet about it for the time being.

“Comrades, the editors and local controlling organs of one of our Central Asian literary journals made a very serious mistake when they allowed a translation of F. Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal to be published. Fortunately, the mistake was noticed in time and publication was repressed after the first chapter. The problem was that the novel described in detail techniques for preparing and staging a terrorist act against a powerful public official, all of which, as you know from our past instructions, is forbidden in print.”

I have read The Day of the Jackal in English. It is an ordinary adventure novel, and it never occurred to me that our Soviet terrorist, if we may so call him, might perform his terrorist act like Forsythe’s James Bond hero—visiting Belgian gunsmiths and Parisian café owners. Another matter entirely would be to check out of the library Che Guevara’s Tactics of Guerrilla Warfare, a book too hastily translated and published a few years ago. The methods described by Che are completely realistic, and could be used in an armed insurrection in the Caucasus or the Altai. It is also considered criminal to own Curzio Malaparte’s book Coup d’état: The Technique of Revolution. This last, by the way, was judged to be criminal in 1968 at the Leningrad trial of the All-Russian Social Christian Union for Liberation of the People (VSKhSON), the only militant group, in theory at least, in the whole history of modern Russian dissident thought.

“In order to publish the memoirs of Soviet Army leaders, a permit from the Soviet Army’s main political control bureau is necessary…. A serious error was made in publishing the memoirs of Marshal Zhukov: the number of those who died in the Seige of Leningrad was cited as being more than one million….”

Well of course any actual confirmation of the catastrophe wrought by Stalin is highly undesirable. But it would be impossible to keep data about the tragedy of our city a complete secret. The official figure has been reduced by one-half.

“Comrades, if you are writing about the seige and you must cite figures about the dead, the final number of victims is 641,803 people. All other data are considered false….

“Information about instances of cholera and bubonic plague within the territory of the USSR after 1937 are allowed to be published only with permission of the State Ministry of Health.

“Texts and graphics concerning so-called ’emblems’ for cities in the USSR are allowed publication only with confirmation from Glavlit…. A certain unhealthy independence has arisen in connection with this matter recently. Suddenly everybody wants to think up an emblem for their city. They’ve started making buttons and postcards with the emblem on them now. The press often blindly supports this, shall I call it, enterprise. But in the meantime, the Party Central Committee has pointed out that the majority of these emblems are cast in the style of reactionary heraldry, and do not reflect the labor or the achievements of the Soviet people….

“Recently in a sports-news article, the hockey teams of the Kalinin Army Sports Club and the Defense Ministry Team of Lipetsk were mentioned. Comrades, you all know well that it is forbidden to publish even this kind of information in the public press, since even this could shed some light on the location of our troops….”

Then he began the most routine part of a censor’s lecture. As editors, we should be on guard for any mention of troops in any context. If, for example, in a children’s poem about skiing we should meet the following lines:

Petya does not fear the blizzard,
In the glorious town of Kaluga,
Petya’s papa is an officer,
And sets an example for his son,

then we are obliged to forbid their publication. Why, the enemy might get the idea that some troops are stationed in the town of Kaluga.

“It is forbidden to publish caricatures and other materials of a derogatory nature about heads of foreign states without special permission from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. This includes materials about the ruler of Spain, General Franco. At this time Soviet diplomats were sounding out Spain; hence Franco, whose picture Soviet cartoonists were so skilled at drawing, was withdrawn from their repertoire of caricatures. He was usually represented as a dwarf leaning on a bloody axe as Tito used to be depicted earlier], and materials about the government activities of former US President Richard Nixon [pictures of Brezhnev embracing Nixon were still too fresh in our minds].

“Comrades, I promised to inform you about our removing several earlier restrictions. It is now permissable to publish, without the preliminary agreement of any departments, caricatures and derogatory material, feuilletons and satires, against the following political figures: August Pinochet (Chile), Thieu (South Vietnam), Park Chung Hee and Den (South Korea), Ian Smith (South Rhodesia), Jacobus Johann Fuches and B. John Vorster (Republic of South Africa)….”

“Thank you, dear Lord,” I say, “I have lived to see the era of a liberal censor!”

But my colleague across from me does not answer. He is sleeping.


To everything I have said about censorship I must add one more circumstance of no small importance—namely, that the whole system and practice of Soviet censorship as realized by the Bureau of Security of Military and State Secrets is only a small part of a more general, ever-active censoring system. And it is only the most exterior face of the censor.

The censor at Glavlit only finishes, polishes, so to speak, a long process of censorship.

Where does this process begin? Where does the censor start?

Before sending an issue of a magazine to press, the editors send copies of it, or at least copies of the main articles, to the Regional or City Party committees (and this is before the censor even sees it). In Moscow or in the Union republic capitals the committee could be the local or all-Union Central Committee, and for youth and children’s publications the corresponding organs of Komsomol, although Party organs also check over youth and children’s publications.

Every Party and Komsomol staff has its own special functionaries who work as instructors for the press, and are assigned to particular publishers, studios, or theaters. All of these instructors are subordinate to the chairman of the propaganda department of a given Party or Komsomol agency, which is in turn subordinate to the assistant secretary of that agency. This assistant secretary—whether he works for the Central Committee, or for the Regional, City, or District committees of the Party or of Komsomol—is always in charge of ideological questions. In order to simplify control over the activities of mass media, the assistant secretaries, who are in charge of propaganda departments and special press departments, are hired along with other officials from these departments on to the editorial staffs of newspapers and magazines, television and movie studios. Or they may join special commissions for screening theatrical productions, without whose confirmation a show will never see the stage. The salaries for officials who serve as editors, by the way, are rather substantial.

Along with this pyramidal system of Party hierarchy, all agents are subordinate to a corresponding agent on a higher level, and they bear full responsibility before the authorities for their assigned area of work. So it happens that sometimes, when an “incorrect” book, show, or newspaper article appears, not only the editors, authors, and directors suffer, but the Party bureaucrats assigned to them as well.

In Komsomol this subordination is twofold: on the one hand higher Komsomol offices have control, and on the other hand editors are also subordinate to parallel Party organs. Besides fearing the usual indefatigable, regimental Party control, the experienced editor also lives in terror of unexpected and arbitrary constraints from higher powers. A typical example of this happened in our editor’s office about ten years ago. A perfectly normal issue of our magazine had not met any protests from the Party agencies nor from the censor, when suddenly—like a bolt from the blue—they called our editor in chief to Moscow, “on the carpet,” and severely warned him to prepare a complete explanation for the serious errors he had allowed in the last issue.

Naturally, not knowing from which direction to expect the next attack, the boss went to Moscow very depressed.

There they did indeed reproach him, or “sand the shavings off him” as they say in Party jargon, for publishing an excerpt from an autobiographical story by Vadim Shefner, a favorite Leningrad lyric poet. The story is light, gay, completely harmless, describing in rather bright colors his childhood in a Leningrad orphanage in the post-Revolutionary years.

We were found guilty of causing colossal damage to the moral upbringing of the younger generation by publishing an excerpt that was filled with dirty words and expressions. As it turned out, these were two or three words from thieves’ jargon of the Twenties, which are more than customary in Soviet literature of and about that period, and in one of the episodes the hero is asked about venereal disease in a form he is filling out.

As any normal Soviet editor would, our editor admitted his personal guilt and the guilt of the whole collective, and promised to take measures in his magazine to raise the level of responsibility among his workers. He was given some sort of Party and administrative penalties, which in themselves were not so terrible (they did not fire him!), but what was worse—this occurrence automatically attracted for the next couple of years the nagging attention of especially quarrelsome censors on our harmless children’s magazines.

After this “sanding the shavings,” a bureaucrat acquaintance explained unofficially to our editor what the problem really was.

One of the pillars of the Soviet government, Anastas Mikoyan (he was at that time still in power and had the reputation of being the most enlightened of Soviet leaders—he visited Hemingway in Cuba and gave “Papa” a bottle of Armenian cognac), had walked into his grandson’s room, and found the boy reading with interest the ill-fated issue of our magazine. “What are you reading, sonny?” And the grandson read aloud the story’s few colorful words. The grandfather was horrified: according to his Victorian or Stalinesque moral standards a child under eighteen should not even hear about the existence of venereal diseases and he ordered the guilty magazine to be severely punished. So it was done.

But even the strictest daily censorship which the Party offices do is only censorship on the surface.

Editorial personnel are chosen and drilled to nip in the bud any attempt to bring an unregimented thought into the press, the stage, or the screen.

I remember Filipov, who was then the assistant secretary of the Party Regional Committee, at a meeting of Leningrad editors. He spread his clawlike hands, mutilated by the war, before him for effect and hissed, “You, Party editors, ought to be an iron sieve, through which the author must crawl to press….”

In the foyer of the meeting hall, an exhibition of decadent art was set up as if it were showing images of Nazism, but instead of Picasso and Kokoshka, they exhibited in this hallway in Smolny some rather humble book covers, which were decorated with geometric designs, instead of the traditional birches or doves. This was hateful abstractionism!

(Filipov, by the way, came to a bad end. His young son, despite his upbringing with such a strict communist papa, took a vodka bottle and cracked the skull of an air force officer who happened to be passing right by the Smolny building. They tried to hush the matter up, but word did get around, and the father was transferred from his rather visible Party post to one somewhat lower—a representative of the Leningrad Committee of Radio and Television. He ruled the Leningrad airwaves for a few years, until a new family tragedy befell him: his wife, tortured by his tyranny and unfaithfulness, committed suicide. Once again the scandal spread around the city. The Party leadership gave the order again to lower Filipov’s position in the ranks—this time to director of the agricultural publishing house, “Harvest.” Filipov could not bear this humiliation and died of a heart attack on the same day.)

But censorship starts even earlier than the editor’s office. The Soviet literary milieu has coined the phrase “internal censor.” The “internal censor” cuts short the writer’s creative designs; the “internal censor” is working from the very moment of creation.

And even earlier.

One beautiful April day I was walking with my three-year-old son on the Petrograd side of Leningrad. There was plenty of blue sky and red calico (for this was just before the May 1 holiday). On the Neva River were marvelous war ships with various flags. We were happy.

Suddenly, as we were walking in a thick crowd of people, my son pointed to a bust of Lenin’s head made of twisted wire and hanging above the street (it was a somewhat frightening figure, I must admit). He loudly shouted, “Papa, look! Lenin’s skull is hanging there!”

Many people in the crowd burst out laughing, and I instinctively lifted my finger to my lips and said, “Shhhh.”

Our censorship begins with this “Shhh.”

translated by Joseph Deney

  1. *

    Russians eat dried fish with alcoholic beverages—translator.