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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.

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