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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.