Censorship in the Soviet Union  

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Without the right of correspondence

A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theatres show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink.” --One of Zizek's jokes, first appeared in print in Welcome to the Desert of the Real.

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Censorship in the Soviet Union was pervasive and strictly enforced.

Censorship was performed in two main directions:


Destruction of printed matter

Soviet government implemented mass destruction of pre-revolutionary and foreign books and journals from libraries. Only "special collections" (spetskhran), accessible by special permit from the KGB, contained old and politically incorrect material.

Soviet books and journals were also removed from libraries according to changes of Soviet history. Often Soviet citizens preferred to destroy politically incorrect publications and photos, because those connected to it were frequently persecuted.

After the arrest of Lavrentiy Beria all subscribers of the second edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia obtained a page to replace the one with Lavrentiy Beria article, instead containing Vitus Bering articles.

Soviet censorship of literature

Works of print such as the press, advertisements, product labels, and books were censored by Glavlit, an agency established on June 6, 1922, to safeguard top secret information from foreign entities. From 1932 until 1952, the promulgation of socialist realism was the target of Glavlit in bowdlerizing works of print, while Anti-Westernization and nationalism were common tropes for that goal. To limit peasant revolts over the Holodomor, themes involving shortages of food were expunged. In the 1932 book “Russia Washed in Blood,” a Bolshevik’s harrowing account of Moscow’s devastation from the October revolution contained the description, “frozen rotten potatoes, dogs eaten by people, children dying out, hunger,” but was promptly deleted. Also, excisions in the 1941 novel “Cement,” were made by eliminating Gleb’s spirited exclamation to English sailors: “Although we’re poverty-stricken and are eating people on account of hunger, all the same we have Lenin.”

As peasant uprisings defined pre-World War II Soviet censorship, nationalism defined the period during the war. Defeats of the Red Army in literature were forbidden, as were depictions of trepidation in Soviet military characters. Pressure from the Pravda prompted authors like Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyev to redact a section in “The Young Guard” where a child reads in the eyes of a dying Russian sailor the words, “we are crushed.” Since Stalin regularly read Pravda, which was itself censored by Glavlit, it was wise for an author to obey Pravda’s advice. Also, Joseph Stalin handpicked who received the Stalin Prize, further incentivizing an author’s pandering to Stalin’s tastes, besides the obvious risks involved with disregarding them.

Censorship for the purposes of nationalism after World War II spread Anti-Westernization, smacking of Russia’s traditional xenophobia. For instance, in the 1950 edition of “The Order of Sevastopol,” censors screened the book’s references to Frenchmen as, “a people of very lively imagination,” and the chivalrous treatments which the French gave to Russian prisoners—such as eating in the passenger’s lounge and being given a hundred francs per month—were extracted from the text. Historically, Russia has been technologically inferior to the West, which is demonstrated by Glavlit editing out a section of “Sevastopol,” which enviously describes London’s technological accomplishments in flattering detail. Religious intolerance and atheism was another goal of post-WWII censorship, and was an extension of Anti-Westernization. In the children’s novel “Virgin Soil Upturned,” references to God making mist out of tears shed by the poor and hungry were rescinded.

The “Khrushchev Thaw" beginning in 1953 with Stalin's death brought liberation of previously banned literature, and greater liberty to the authors writing during this time. Glavlit’s authority to censor literature decreased after they became attached to the USSR Council of Ministers in 1953. The nascence of de-Stalinization—the government's remission of Stalin’s policies—is evident by censors replacing his name in “For the Power of the Soviets,” with words like “the party,” or “the Supreme Commander.” Anti-Westernization was also suppressed, and in 1958 “Sevastopol,” became divested of cuts meant to hide the West’s technological advancement and Russia’s backwardness. When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn'sOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” a novel about a prisoner’s brutal experience in the Gulag, was released to the public in 1962, it was clear that socialist realism was disappearing. However, censorship was not completely absent from this era. Emmanuil Kazakevich’s 1962 novel, “Spring on the Oder,” was posthumously injected in 1963 with descriptions of American bigotry, selfishness, and racism which was not in the novel originally. These examples of Anti-Westernization indicate that works were still expurgated for propaganda, but censorship declined with Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization.

Censorship of images

Repressed persons were routinely removed not only from texts, but also from photos, posters and paintings.

Soviet censorship of film

Censorship of film was commonplace since the USSR’s inception. Beginning with the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), censoring film effectively advanced socialist realism, a mode of art production that positively portrays socialism and constituents of socialist nations. As propaganda tools against the masses—particularly the illiterate—themes of Anti-Westernization and nationalism depicted socialist realism in films by negatively portraying elements of capitalist countries while positively depicting the Soviet Union. Elements of Anti-Westernization included censoring religion and technological superiority, while signs of weakness in the Soviet military like lost battles or frightened soldiers were expurgated to further nationalistic goals. Nationalism was also achieved by obfuscating the reality of the Holodomor in order both to prevent exposing information to the West about the inhumane collectivization and to discourage peasant revolt. Film censorship peaked during the rule of Stalin (1941-1953).

Acting as the chief censor for films, Stalin was demanding meticulous revisions in a way befitting his interpretation, as if a co-author. One famous letter Stalin wrote to Alexander Dovzhenko pertained to, “The Great Citizen,” a film about the purge trials. Stalin's letter made several intrusive revisions on the characters, props, and vital scenes such that the entire film needed restructuring.

Kulaks were Ukrainian peasant farmers resisting Stalin’s crop collectivization, and Anka’s lover uses the party card for iniquitous purposes. In the final scene of the movie she confronts him at gunpoint and, after he ignominiously begs forgiveness, she has him arrested by the authorities. By vilifying Kulaks, Stalin aimed to diminish public sympathy for them, even while millions were starved to death because he forcefully redistributed their crops. Socialist realism is promoted since, at the end of the movie, her loyalty to the party takes precedence over her romantic feelings; therefore, Stalin approved its production. However, not all films earned his approval.

One example is the 1940 film, “The Law of Life,” which was retracted from cinemas after ten days because it negatively portrayed a Komsomol leader by depicting him as hypocritical and abusing of his power. Stalin organized a military tribunal which castigated the scenarist Aleksandr Avdeenko, accusing him of inaccurate representations of Soviet reality. While nothing was said of the director, Avdeenko was jettisoned from the party. However, directors were not always spared, as in the case of Margarita Barskaia. Her film “Father and Son,” features a factory director who prioritizes his work over educating his son, Boris. Portraying Boris as an unhappy child and the father—a war hero—as a slothful parent was regarded as slanderous by a film reviewer. After her movie was removed from cinemas she was arrested, and died in the Gulag.

While Glavlit censored literature, Stalin micro-managed the film industry. He made “recommendations” on what should be included, edited, or deleted entirely. If ignored, similar consequences to those that befell Margarita were meted out. However, while he was obsessed with films, Stalin was uneducated on film production. Due to this ignorance, Stalin thought of the director as a mere technician who carried out instructions. Therefore, he dictated that camera angles should not be shot from below, or above the actor, but always at eye level. Stalin’s callowness over the importance of the director’s work was of great benefit to the filmmakers since, “with few exceptions, they survived.”

The centrality of Stalin in film censorship lasted to his death in 1953, but the strictness of Soviet censorship did not survive him. Khrushchev succeeded Stalin as the USSR’s Premier, and articulated de-Stalinization in his secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At this point, censorship finally began to diminish; this was known as the "Khrushchev Thaw.” Film output grew to 20 pictures in 1953, 45 in 1954, and 66 in 1955. Movies now introduced themes that were formally considered taboo, like conflicted characters. In the 1956 film, “Ballad of a Soldier,” Alyosha, the main character, experiences a conflict between his lover and his obligations to the military. The off-screen text at the end of the film reads, “He could have become a worker…grown wheat and adorned the earth with gardens. But all he managed in his short life was to become a soldier.” This represents the way in which socialist realism declined in prominence. Indeed, one could imagine Stalin censoring this film believing it featured an inner conflict between duty and love, which is not an ideal depiction of the Soviet soldier. Without the reforms the “Thaw” engendered, this film would have never been produced. However, restrictions were not completely absent during this time. The 1956 American film “Silk Stockings,” starred Cyd Charisse, who played a brash Soviet agent sent to Paris to retrieve a famous Russian composer. During her mission, she became enamored with the city and longed to extricate herself from Russia; predictably, this film was never released in the USSR. While restrictions on film still pervaded during the “Khrushchev Thaw”, they were significantly fewer than under Stalin.


Translations of foreign publications were often produced in a truncated form, accompanied with extensive corrective footnotes. E.g. in the Russian 1976 translation of Basil Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War pre-war purges of Red Army officers, secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, many details of the Winter War, occupation of Baltic states, Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, Allied assistance to the Soviet Union during the war, many other Western Allies' efforts, the Soviet leadership's mistakes and failures, criticism of the Soviet Union and other content were censored out.

Control over information

Main articles: Printed media in the Soviet Union, Television in the Soviet Union, Radio in the Soviet Union.

All media in the Soviet Union were controlled by the state including television and radio broadcasting, newspaper, magazine and book publishing. This was achieved by state ownership of all production facilities, thus making all those employed in media state employees. This extended to the fine arts including the theater, opera and ballet. Art and music was controlled by ownership of distribution and performance venues.

Censorship was backed in cases where performances did not meet with the favor of the Soviet leadership with newspaper campaigns against offending material and sanctions applied though party controlled professional organizations.

In the case of book publishing a manuscript had to pass censorship and the decision of a state owned publishing house to publish and distribute the book. Books which met with official favor, for example, the collected speeches of Leonid Brezhnev were printed in vast quantities while less favored literary material might be published in limited numbers and not distributed widely. Popular escapist literature such as the popular best-sellers, mysteries and romances which form the bulk of Western publishing was nearly non-existent.

Possession and use of copying machines was tightly controlled in order to hinder production and distribution of samizdat, illegal self-published books and magazines. Possession of even a single samizdat manuscript such as a book by Andrei Sinyavsky was a serious crime which might involve a visit from the KGB. Another outlet for works which did not find favor with the authorities was publishing abroad.

It was the practice of libraries in the Soviet Union to restrict access to back issues of journals and newspapers more than three years old.

Jamming of foreign radio stations

Due to the appearance of the foreign radio stations broadcasting in Russian and inaccessible for censorship, as well as appearance of a large number of shortwave receivers, massive jamming of these stations was applied in USSR using high-power radio-electronic equipment. It continued for almost 60 years. Soviet radio censorship network was the most powerful in the world.

All information related to radio jamming and usage of corresponding equipment was concerned as a state secret. On the eve of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow the Olympic Panorama magazine intended to publish a photo with a hardly noticeable jamming tower located in the Fili district. Despite the photo being made from a public place it was approved for publication only after the tower was cut from it.

One more way to limit Soviet citizens in access to outer information was the control over the production of receivers with frequency range shorter than 25 meters. Receivers with those ranges were primarily exported and were sold very rarely within the country.

Circumvention of censorship

Samizdat, allegoric styles, smuggling, and publishing abroad were used as methods of circumventing censorship.

For example, an underground library was functioning in Odessa from 1967 to 1982, which was used by around 2000 readers.

Soviet dissidents were active fighters against censorship. Samizdat was the main method of information dissemination. Part of the dissident movement was engaged in protection of civil rights. The first in USSR uncensored newsletter distributed through Samizdat during 15 years - from 30 April 1968 to 17 November 1983. Such organizations as the Moscow Helsinki Group or the Free interprofessional labor union were also engaged in similar activities.

There were cases of literary hoaxes, where authors made up a translated source. Poet Vladimir Lifschitz, for instance, invented a British poet named James Clifford, who allegedly died in 1944 on the Western Front. Vladimir published poetry which he claimed was written by James Clifford, but which was actually his own work.

One more method was so called "dog method". According it one should include an obviously ridiculous and attention-drawing vivid episode in the work. As a result, minor nuances went unnoticed. In this manner, a movie named The Diamond Arm was saved after the director, Leonid Gaidai, intentionally included a nuclear explosion at the end of the film. The Goskino commission was horrified and requested that the explosion be removed. After resisting for a while Gaidai removed the explosion and the rest of the film was left almost untouched.

One of the important information channels were anecdotes. Through this folklore form people often express their critical attitude to authorities and communistic ideology. Political anecdotes became widespread in 1960 - 1970. In 1980 a good anecdote propagated from Moscow to Vladivostok in three days.

See also

Other Eastern Bloc states:

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Censorship in the Soviet Union" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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