Editors and censors

Editors and censors

Experiences of writers in the USSR in the 1920s-1930

This paper will focus on the experience of editors and censors in the early decades of the Soviet Union. In this period, as the Bolsheviks worked to ensure that all working-age citizens learned to read, they also began to attempt to control the nascent national through a programme of censorship.

We have come to think of censorship as an inevitable part of Soviet life, however, a close reading of Lenin’s view of censorship indicates a more subtle and complex approach. Lenin believed in free speech, yet he also strove for a discourse that was free from the bourgeois influence.

This ambiguity in his thinking, combined with the myriad practical challenges of organising the new Soviet state, meant that in the early years, Soviet censorship was very much an improvised process. One result of this was that roles of the editor and the censor became somewhat interchangeable. As publishing houses came under state control, the boundaries between the editor and the censor collapsed, and this situation was made even more muddled by the intervention of the political police, who also played a role in keep an eye on Soviet writers.

This paper will use the case studies of the writers Mikhail Bulgakov and Vasily Grossman

whose relationship with the Soviet editor/censor was characterised by this ambiguity and discuss how this relationship influenced his great novel The Master and Margarita.

Some background on my research

My starting point was wanting to examine the Soviet political police, who we tend to call the KGB, but in the period in which I study them, the 1930s were known as the NKVD. I decided to this in light of the recent opening of the archive of the Soviet political police in Kyiv, Ukraine. Although most of the Soviet era archives in Russia were opened to historians in the 1990s, the exception was the FSB archive in Moscow, which remains closed to this day, making archival research into the Soviet political police almost impossible.

So, the archives in Kyiv have given historians an unprecedented window into the workings of the political police in the Soviet time, and this has provoked many new works of scholarship on the subject. To add to this flourishing debate, I decided that I wanted to examine the NKVD in the 1930s, with particular focus on their repression of writers during this period.

Of course, writers were not the only group who were repressed in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. During this decade, the NKVD carried out a huge purge of the Soviet population – many hundreds of thousands of people were arrested, and many of them were exiled or executed. This horrific episode is one of the most important in Soviet history, and also one of the least understood, mostly because until very recently there was very little archival evidence on which to base enquiry.

I started to look at the structure and organisation of the political police and discovered that although it was a very effective organisation – very good at arresting and imprisoning many thousands of people when they were ordered to do that – they were also really badly organised. Minutes of meetings from that decade show that there was constant criticism of the organization from within its own ranks. My thesis suggests that there are important lessons to be learned about process and results – a dynamic that ran through the purges. With the interrogation file being the ultimate material that demonstrates this tension – they wanted the rule of law, but also needed to lock certain people up.

As I made this discovery, I also began to think about which case studies to use to illustrate the working methods of the political police, and writers seemed to be a very useful case study, for a number of reasons:

  1. I wanted to use a case study that would really illustrate the ‘political’ dimension of the political police. Writers seemed ideal, as they carried a large part of the ideological burden of the nascent Soviet state in this decade. They were charged with helping to educate Soviet citizens about their socialist future, or as Stalin put it, they were to be the ‘engineers of the human soul’.
  2. Their crimes were political – and political only. They were often arrested for actions such as writing a poem – actions that had no other criminal aspect. This was not the same for those who were arrested for political crimes such as plotting to kill a member of the Soviet leadership, or committing acts of anti-Soviet terrorism, whose actions (whether actually real or not) carried a straightforwardly criminal aspect. (Although this is more the case for writers arrested in Soviet Russia, other writers such as those arrested in Ukraine were charged with crimes such as membership of nationalist groups.)
  3. Writers were repressed in relatively large numbers across the Soviet Union – perhaps most famously the poet Osip Mandelstam, but there were many more less well-known writers and intellectuals who suffered in this period – some estimates think that as many as 2000 writers were arrested or executed in this decade.

Soviet censorship in historical context

I began to explore the debate in Russian studies around censorship, and to simplify, found it to be dominated by one Russian scholar, Arlen Blium. Blium has made some very important contributions to the literature, giving valuable insights into the workings of the Soviet censorship system, especially after the WWII. However, his argument is also characterised by an ideological and historiographical narrowness, so I began to be interested in other moments in history when censorship had been employed as response to mass literacy.

In the early modern period in Europe, higher levels of literacy triggered a paternalistic concern among those in both the state and the church about what newly educated readers might be tempted to read. This concern was about more than then purity of their citizens’ souls. It stemmed from a deeper anxiety about national identity. Across Europe there existed a growing level of disquiet over what people should and should not read. Catholics feared uncontrolled reading would led to the spread of Protestantism, and the learned feared the rise in ‘superficial’ reading matter, with members of the clergy even going as far as to warn against the ‘negative effects’ of too much reading.[i] Different ways of reading signalled different ways of thinking, new channels for the spread of ideas, and this was a threat to the stability and identity of the nation. Those in power had felt that they had no choice but to institute the first widespread censorship laws.[ii]

Yet this development has not been interpreted as a move towards authoritarianism on the part of the early modern states but a necessary phase of their development. Annabel Patterson argues that censorship played an important role in the formation of new and emergent nations, because nations in the process of defining or searching for their own identity often regard that identity as bound up in the literature of the day. Thus, censorship naturally becomes a tool to shape the nation. As Patterson explains, the early modern period in European history was a time when ‘all the major powers were themselves emergent nations, engaged in a struggle for self-definition as well as for physical territory, and when, in consequence, freedom of expression not only was not taken for granted, but was a major subject of political… concern.’[iii] At this stage of development, freedom of expression was a threat to a new nation, because all aspects of social, economic and political development were still in flux, and could so easily become destabilized.

So I used this as part of my approach in examining the implications of the work that editors and censors did in this period.

Role of Soviet editors

How did editors fit into this chaotic, new Soviet world? And who were the editors? As we will see, in this chaotic period, editors could come in many different guises.

In 1921, Trotsky sent a top-secret memo to the Politburo, demanding their views on the ‘absolutely unacceptable’ verse by poet Demian Bedny that had been published in that day’s copy of Pravda. Trotsky suggested that the language had a coded meaning, and while he held back from suggesting any kind of prohibition, he proposed warning the editors of Pravda to look out for ‘… these kind of tricks’.[iv] This example illustrates the immediacy of the situation in those early years – Trotsky is reacting to something already published, and suggesting censorship but in the most informal language, suggesting that censorship in those early years was something instinctive rather than thought out as a policy. Of course, by 1924, Trotsky found that his own writings were at the centre of a row over censorship, a signal of what was to come for him in the years ahead.

Gradually, through the 1920s, the process became slightly more formal, with the creation of Glavlit, the Soviet censorship body. Much of the work of Glavlit proceeded in a conventional fashion – with censors reading and banning books. From the days following the revolution, libraries were emptied of ideologically ‘undesirable’ books. Krupskaya recorded as early as mid-1918 that the number of such volumes in many regions of the USSR was ‘greatly reduced’. [v] In 1925 alone, the Glavlit Leningrad province office, banned a total of 448 books for political and ideological reasons. The majority of these, some 255, were those published by private publishing houses who were still in existence. Far fewer books that had been published by co-operative publishers were banned, only eight in fact.[vi]

Big problem here was that censor/editors often ill-educated – a consistent criticism.

In the spring of 1927, in a missive to the Orgburo, he summarized their first five years. He struck a somewhat pessimistic note, writing that the original aims of Glavlit, as outlined in 1922 had not really been followed, for various reasons including what he describes as ‘political reasons’, and that the detail had been worked out as time went along. He looked back on the joint work of the party and the organs of censorship and reflected on the problems of censorship and particularly on the problems of adapting private publishers ‘to the desired state’ and preventing them from ‘pursuing profit’.[vii] 

Furthermore, so unsuccessful were they, that during the first years of Glavlit’s existence, they were also involved in the actual work of censorship too, as is made plain in a report titled ‘Report of Petrogublit 1923-24’. Local offices of Glavlit were known as ‘gublit’ (a shortened version of gubernskii otdel literatury i izdatel’stv or provincial office of literature and publishing houses). The report states that: ‘The GPU, and in particular the Politcontrol GPU [the office of political control], is the organ with which Gublit most of all and most often has to deal with and keep closest contact, Politcontrol carries out the final control of the publications to which Gublit has had preliminary authorization; it also acts against all infringers of the laws and rules on censorship.’[viii]

Bulgakov and Grossman

In his diaries and letters, Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, recorded his various skirmishes with the world of publishing, and with the censor throughout the 1920s. This period was a turbulent time for Bulgakov, who had given up his career in medicine to follow his true vocation – writing. He worked for a spell in the literary section of the Commissariat of Enlightenment, followed by another a secretarial post in the literature section of the Political Enlightenment Commissariat.

In 1921, he wrote to his mother that life in Moscow was ‘a mad struggle for existence’ and that he was in and out of work, but about to start a trial period as a writer for ‘an industrial newspaper that has just started up’.[ix] By the mid-1920s, Bulgakov’s fortunes were somewhat mixed. He had given up industrial journalism, and had finished writing his satirical short story The Fatal Eggs. This had been returned to him by his editor, with ‘about twenty passages underlined which I would have to change because of the censors’.[x] Perhaps in recognition of the problems he faced in writing satire, in the same year he went back to journalism, commenting ambiguously as he did so: ‘My story “Bohemia” appeared in the first edition of Krasnaya Niva today. It’s my first venture into the specifically Soviet petty journalistic sewer. I reread the piece today and I like it very much…’[xi]

In the autumn of 1926, Bulgakov’s flat was searched by agents of the OGPU and his diaries and one manuscript (The Heart of a Dog) were confiscated. In his statement to the OGPU, Bulgakov spoke with disarming openness (or calculated remorse) about the story he had written: ‘I think that this story turned out to be much darker and angrier than I had envisaged while writing it, and I can understand why it has been banned.’[xii] From this point onward, life got harder for Bulgakov, and he regularly petitioned Stalin to be allowed to travel or live abroad. However, it was not a simple linear decline into obscurity. Despite his bouts of frustration and despair, and the hostile and insulting reviews that met his works, Bulgakov remained a surprisingly active figure into the 1930s, with regular work at the Moscow Art Theatre. This is not to say that he was given creative freedom in any sense –  and he was clearly furious with the way that he had been treated – but does perhaps demonstrate even towards the end of the 1920s the situation still had elements of ambiguity.

As for the impact on Bulgakov’s novel most famous novel, The Master and Margarita? This novel is a satire of the terrible years of the 1930s, and in particular a satire of Soviet literary life. As such, the novel opens with a conversation between author and editor, who is spectacularly beheaded by a passing tram in chapter three later. Written for the draw.

This is the conventional view of the persecuted Soviet author, but lately, scholars have explored a more nuanced reading of the relationship between Soviet censors and writers. Robert Chandler’s translations of and articles about Vasily Grossman’s novels in particular demonstrate how censorship was not always imposed from above, but at times something more complex. Grossman was a war reporter and novelist who reported on the battle of Stalingrad. He would use his experience to write two epic novels about World War Two – one called For A Just Cause or Stalingrad, and one called Life and Fate. L and F well known in English, but Stalingrad or FAJC currently being prepared in English edition.

To focus on the first novel of the dilogy and how it censored. Chandler’s research on the different drafts of the novel has shown that when Grossman submitted a draft of FAJC, the editors demanded that Grossman add in the story of a dissident Communist German into the book for its 1952 publication. This character is added, but Grossman builds in a little ambiguity here, because when Schmidt talks about Hitler, in the Russian version he uses the word “Vozhd’”. This is word simply means leader, but it is important because Vozhd was the word that was commonly used to describe Stalin in the Soviet Union. So, in this instance, Grossman is using this word to draw an implicit parallel between Hitler and Stalin.

Perhaps most controversially, Chandler argues that the books themselves are more interesting and inventive as a result of the intervention of the editors and censors, and that Grossman’s talent was to be able to use their suggestions to great creative effect.

One of the most memorable chapters of Grossman’s Life and Fate is Anna Shtrum’s last letter to her son, which is a eulogy for the Jews of East Europe. This letter is also mentioned in an earlier novel by Grossman, or rather we know about how it travels from a Ukrainian ghetto all the way to Anna’s son. But the fact that we don’t get to read the letter (until we read Life and Fate) – the silence is very powerful. censorship, whether internal or external. In fact, an echo of Annabel Patterson’s explanation of the relationship between ceonsroship and literature in the early modern period.


[i] Kollárová, I, ‘The Reading Ideal and Reading Preferences in the Age of Joseph II’ in Human Affairs, 23/3, (2013) p354.

[ii] R.A. Houston, RA, Literacy in Early Modern Europe (London, 2002); Annabel Patterson, Censorship and interpretation: the conditions of writing and reading in early modern England, (University of Wisconsin Press, 1984); Richard Dutton, Licensing, censorship and authorship in early modern England: Buggeswords (Palgrave, 2000). 

[iii] Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation, p3.

[iv] Ibid, p33.

[v] M.N. Glazkov, Chistki fondov massovikh bibliotek v godii sovetskoi vlasti (Moskva, 2001), p8.

[vi] Goriaeva, Politicheskaya tsenzura, p190.

[vii] Zhirkov, Istoria tsenzuru v Rossii XIX-XX vv (Moskva, 2001) p257.

[viii] Ibid, p259.

[ix] Bulgakov, M, Diaries and Selected Letters, (Richmond, 2013), p3.

[x] Ibid, p42.

[xi] Ibid, p56.

[xii] Ibid, p70.

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