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The Game of the Soviet Censor

A Soviet biologist once wrote a monograph entitled Colonial Polyps. He brought it to a publishing house and soon afterward received a letter back from the editor saying: “Your monograph is undoubtedly of great scientific value; however, the title does not quite hold up ideologically. In the last several decades, the colonial system of imperialism has collapsed once and for all. Therefore, the term colonial is offensive to those peoples who have been liberated from imperialist oppression. We suggest that you call your book Developing Polyps.”

I have been assured that this is a true story. At any rate, I see nothing unusual in it. In the USSR, and in many other countries, as we know, there is a system of prohibitions on certain words and terms, on certain phrases, and on entire (almost all) parts of reality. It is considered not only impermissible but simply indecent to print certain combinations of graphemes, words, or ideas. Everyone is obliged to know that these combinations are offensive to peoples liberated from imperialist oppression, or insulting to the head of a friendly state, or to the Soviet people, or simply to good taste. And what is not published somehow ceases to exist—in any case, it exists to a lesser degree; it crosses over to the world of harmless phantoms. Colonial polyps are indecent; therefore, colonial do not exist. There is much else that is improper and does not exist: religion and homosexuality, bribe-taking and hunger, Jews and nude girls, dissidents and immigrants, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, diseases and genitalia. Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, and Nabokov are offensive: ergo, they do not exist. Trotsky is offensive and never did exist. Stalin existed, but not very much.

In a recent article, the critic Efim Etkind points out justly that this predilection for linguistic taboo is a relic of a mythical way of thinking.* I could add that this mythical thinking is visible in another outwardly contradictory phenomenon. It is thought that some combinations of graphemes and words must be constantly repeated—then the phenomena they signify somehow descend from the world of Platonic ideas to the level of reality. If you keep saying over and over again that the Soviet system of agriculture is the most progressive, sooner or later not only will vodka appear on the tables but meat as well. If you repeat enough times that Mao and Brezhnev are great writers, they might finally win the Nobel Prize.

Thus totalitarian censorship is never limited to just crossing things out; sooner or later the writer will be asked to add something. We can recognize the decent writers in Eastern Europe first by the fact that they try not to add anything.

Is it possible to overcome this all-encompassing system of taboo and magical incantation? A writer who crosses over from “normal” literature to the inferno of samizdat may do so (although not necessarily). It has been remarked that every member of the official press has a kind of inner censor, a Freudian superego as it were, who dictates what “passes” and “doesn’t pass.” This superego makes the work of further censors easier—an editor of a journal, a Glavlit employee, the head of the ideological department. But almost every writer—exceptions are rare and belong in the realm of complete pathology—not only has a censor at work in his subconscious but also has its opponent—a seductive demon-jester, an obscene and incorrigible creature who eternally rebels against the censor. This creature tries to push the limits of what is acceptable, to say what usually would not “pass,” and to be silent (or else mumble something nonsensical) when expressions of faithfulness and loyalty are called for.

Freudian terminology is also entirely appropriate here: our demon is a kind of id, the primal instinct of pleasure and death (or at least mortal risk) which not only deceives the external censors but the internal one—the superego—as well. The id bursts out now and then even in the greatest conformists, and at times with tremendous force, driving them to despair and horror. Sometimes such an outburst can push someone into suicide; they say that something like this happened to the famous neo-Stalinist writer Kochetov. But there are a sufficient number of people who tame their id, transferring it to the level of consciousness, and for them the war with censorship becomes completely engrossing, a game that fills up their whole lives, an Eastern European version of psychoanalysis.

A complete absence of censorship is probably inconceivable. Any society, while it remains a society, imposes certain restrictions on its writers and artists. Even when everything is permitted, the mechanics of fashion and the marketplace play the role of a kind of censorship (and often a far from lenient one). But is absolute censorship, absolute control conceivable? Perhaps it is as unattainable as absolute zero on Lord Kelvin’s scale, although it can be approached at a distance which seems infinitely minute. Something like absolute zero is illustrated by Orwell in 1984. But perhaps Orwell’s book is as utopian as the books of the Renaissance thinkers or the Fourierists, who depicted the ideal state of society, the brave new world with ideal people, Perhaps a hopeless hell on earth is just as impossible as a hopeless heaven, and for approximately the same reason: the weakness of human nature and the imperfection of human institutions get in the way.

For after all, the censor, too, is human. Like Homer, he might have to take a nap now and then. He does not possess divine omniscience and perspicacity; on the contrary, his knowledge and the extent of his mind are sometimes inferior to those of the average author or reader. One can compose something so subtle that it will go right over his head. Although the censor is usually faceless, and never communicates with the author eye to eye, once in a great while one can play on his emotions, on his desire to spite someone, on his secret dissatisfaction with his life and profession, on virtually anything at all.

Secondly, the mechanism of totalitarian censorship is so multi-leveled and complex that like any overcomplicated machine it breaks down frequently. One part of the mechanism might fight or compete with another. The instructions change so often, and then there are so many of them, that there is no way of remembering all of them, and they even contradict one another. Much depends on the dictator’s taste and mood, but taste and mood, not to mention the dictator himself, are variable quantities. Objectionable content can squeeze through meaningful pauses, empty spaces.

Thirdly, there is the tradition of Aesopian language, which is as ancient as censorship itself. This tradition has always existed in Russia and Eastern Europe (and in China as well, I think) and it continues to be an important component of the way of life there. Aesopian language is in a certain sense inherent in literature. It belongs in the same category of phenomena as allegory and ellipsis. It is a special, very subtle form of communication, and the writer of the East who finds himself in the West often does not know what to replace this language with. Losing it can be perceived as losing poetic language altogether.

Kornei Chukovsky wrote quite a lot about Aesopian language in tsarist Russia. (Incidentally, Chukovsky’s works on the subject are rather more specimens of Aesopian language than a description of it.) He defined eight varieties of this type of language. His classifications can be both simplified or made infinitely more complicated.

I would call one of the simplest devices of Aesopian language (although I would be lapsing into some inaccuracy in terminology) metonymy, transferal by association. Thus, during the reign of Nicholas I, it was customary to denounce the Turkish pashas or the Austrian gendarmes who drove their own countries, which were adjacent to Russia, into complete savagery and slavery. Oddly enough, this primitive method is a favorite even now. A Soviet writer lambastes Pinochet or a Central American junta, hoping that readers will “understand him correctly.” During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it was fashionable to expose Peking’s brutality, which consisted chiefly of the fact that the Chinese did not allow Western literature into the country and thought Shostakovich was just a lot of racket. A long poem about hypocrisy, racism, and the martinetish stupidity in modern America became a sensation, because the poet would sometimes stick the word “government” into a verse, and it was not entirely clear which government he had in mind (experts maintained that he meant both).

The most sophisticated metonymic substitution is of course Hitler’s Germany. Almost everyone in the USSR remembers the film Ordinary Fascism by the late director Romm. It was spliced together from clips of German newsreels of the 1930s and 1940s. The demonstrations, sports events, and exhibitions of official art in the film looked so ordinary that the viewer left the theater shaken, not so much by the fact of the ordinariness itself as by the unbelievable blindness of the censors who let this film slip by. A situation in which such experiments can be conducted on a censor reminds me of an anecdote, popular in Hitler’s Germany. A passenger on a Berlin streetcar in 1944 sighs: “When are they ever going to string up that bastard?” A plainclothesman comes up to him and says: “Genosse, would you be so kind as to explain who you had in mind?” “Churchill,” says the passenger, “and who did you have in mind?”

This example shows how a transfer by association is possible not only in space but in time (or in both spheres). It is permissible to expose the tyrants of Rome or Byzantium, although here one must avoid strongly worded expressions and analogies that are too obvious. It is not prohibited—although it is not recommended—to point to some of Ivan the Terrible’s mistakes. In books on the Carbonari movement, for example, one can extract some valuable technical information on how to behave and how not to behave at KGB interrogations. Incidentally, these books also contain excellent specimens of the political denunciation. A successful Soviet play was set in a psychiatric hospital for dissidents—but it took place four hundred years ago, during the Spanish Inquisition. Somewhat similar was a cartoon in a Soviet humor magazine: a prisoner is stretched out on a rack, and a monk approaches him with pincers in his hand. The balloon coming out of the prisoner’s mouth says: “I beg you not to forget that 1468 has been declared Human Rights Year.”

It is not so easy to draw the line between such instances of Aesopian language and specific allegory, symbol, or witticism. It is even harder when we turn from metonymy to metaphor. The most banal cliché of all is the comparison of the yearning for change with romantic longing, or political reaction with storm clouds brewing. Yet these clichés—although in a somewhat improved version—are employed as they always have been. In the novel of a major Soviet prose writer who died recently the main characters are blinded and start to suffocate when the peat bogs around Moscow begin burning. The peat bog fires actually exist, but then so does Brezhnev’s regime. However, the censor is more sensitive to metaphor than to metonymy. Metonymy can start one thinking, but it also plays into the hands of the authorities. After all, it is not only permissible to denounce Nicholas I, Pinochet, and the Catholic Church, it is prescribed to do so. But the metaphor—this yearning, suffocating, this storm cloud—that is just pessimism, which doesn’t fit into a world where by definition only health and happiness reign—Blut und Boden.

Another popular device I would call the Scheherazade method: the telling of a tale is broken off at the most interesting place, but in such a way that the reader or viewer can generally guess the ending. For example, if in a movie you see the silhouette of a railroad car on a distant track and then the silhouette of a sentry, and the action takes place in Stalin’s day, it is relatively easy to figure out that most likely there are not strategic materials in the car but prisoners. Something like acrostics even occurs: but that is downright dangerous and therefore very rare. When an acrostic is deciphered, it is hard to say with an innocent expression on your face that it was a coincidence.

A far more customary method is described by Chukovsky. A dangerous text is interlaced with entirely well-intentioned phrases in the hopes that the reader will disregard those phrases he is sick and tired of and catch the essential meaning. This is the tactic of “curtsies” and “lightning rods.” Many writers have achieved such perfection in this method that practically nothing besides obsequious expressions is left in the text.

One can also try putting suspect ideas into the mouth of a clearly negative character. But many have failed miserably in doing this and the borders here are exceptionally well marked. Even if the devil himself appears in a novel (as in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita) he does not have the right to criticize Leninism, for example, or the personalities of members of the government. Still another tactic was earlier used by many nineteenth-century Russian authors, as well as by Heinrich Heine: to say brazenly something directly opposite to what you mean, for example, to praise the secret police in an unbearable sickly-sweet tone, so that the reader grasps the full degree of the author’s dislike. Here Aesopian speech literally coincides with official language, and only the context, e.g., the very name of the author, gives the reader a hint of the truth.

One suspects that in the USSR this method is practiced by most of the official literati. But that is perhaps too bold a suggestion. This method has somehow not taken hold with any self-respecting artists. Still, I had occasion to talk with an antireligious filmmaker who swore that he wanted to draw attention to the spiritual values of Christianity through his film. Another author depicted the postwar anti-Stalin uprising in Lithuania in the gloomiest of colors. He explained to his friends: “It’s better to talk about it that way than not to talk about it at all.” Not long ago, Brodsky was vilified in the Soviet Literary Gazette. I am almost sure that the author of this abusive article is proud of his contribution to the cause of freedom—one way or another, he was the first to mention Brodsky’s name in the popular Soviet press.

As a last resort, despairing avantgardists know still another way to battle censorship. In a complex, surrealistic, or abstract work of art, a clue is given that is understandable only to the author himself and to those few friends for whom he interprets the work. One could call this method “giving them the finger behind their backs.” Incidentally, this very departure into the extremes of avant-gardism is in itself a kind of protest against censorship. In Russia, a person dooms himself to samizdat by this, but in Poland and Hungary and even in Lithuania and Estonia, that is far from the case. And here the censor wins the game, because the “permissible” avantgarde soon ceases to interest anyone but the author and professional critics.

But doesn’t the censor always win? Wouldn’t it be proper to call this compulsory game the best method of manipulating literature? The game fascinates and gives meaning to life: but the writer who gets into this game agrees before hand that totalitarian censorship is unavoidable and essentially unshakable.

While writing this article, I was bothered by the thought that I might be writing a kind of denunciation myself, exposing “the secrets of the trade.” That is why I mentioned only people who have died, and why at times I have also resorted to metonymies and metaphors. Yet still, it seems to me that I haven’t exposed anything new. These cunning and pathetic methods whose object is to wrap the censor around your little finger have probably been studied long ago by the authorities and are permitted within certain bounds—any authority, especially a tyrannical one, needs a safety valve.

A person wastes all his strength, all his time, all his inventiveness on this ridiculous game. The game minimizes the tasks of art—art turns into a wink, a grimace, a jab. Things that are of little significance in themselves get blown way out of proportion, just because the author was able to “slip something by.” People become over-enthusiastic when they get what everyone knows perfectly well anyway in a clever package. If at the same time the author was even to a small degree able to break the restrictions on sex or on linguistic obscenities, this enthusiasm goes beyond all conceivable bounds. Insignificant figures win themselves undeserved reputations just because they have battled with the censor.

Then isn’t it the censor who is creating their reputations for them—and isn’t he perhaps doing so on purpose? The censor upsets any hierarchy of values, muddles minds, and mixes things up so that it seems impossible to untangle them. The censor wins, because he imposes the game on everyone else. But is there anything besides the censor? Perhaps there are no longer any writers from which totalitarian authority must be protected, perhaps there is no longer any totalitarian authority itself: there is only the censor, who is gradually taking over everything; the censor is the Developing Polyp.

  1. *

    Sovetskie tabu,” in Syntaxis (Paris), no. 9, 1981.

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