Jane writes: what would Polly have said about all this?
Sadly we can’t get Polly’s insights into the events of 2020 though she would have plenty to say. Top of the list might well have been irritation at the use of the word ‘Stalinist’ to criticise the recent trend towards state censorship of critical voices. Trump’s threat to close down Twitter is reported with the president’s pic next to Stalin’s. The headline ‘Stalinist censorship’ appeared in UK media reports of the redactions of multiple pages of Sage scientific papers all of them later shown to be critical of the UK Government.
Polly had earned the right to be irritated. In the years before she died in December 2019, she had become a world expert in Stalinist censorship. Her investigation involved primary sources, visiting and exploring recently-opened Soviet archives in Georgia and Ukraine. She found and documented scores of often horrific, previously unknown, case studies involving censorship, harassment, torture, purges and mass execution. Each case was meticulously filed from the transcripts of interrogations to the pardon handed out in the Krushchev era, typically years after death by execution.
It was material she went on to use in her so far unpublished PhD thesis about the Great Terror in the second half of the 1930s and its impact on writers. It also informed the chapter she contributed to the academic volume. The Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution: Illiberal Liberation, 1917-41*, published in January this year less than a month after her death. .
This write up attempts to summarise the chapter entitled, Walking the Razor’s Edge: the origins of Soviet censorship and quotes Polly’s chapter except where indicated.
The book confronts a horrific sequence of events that was a cause of anguish within the USSR but also for millions of onlookers, not least her doggedly pro-Soviet maternal grandparents. It identifies, as one reviewer puts it, ‘how the emancipatory promise of 1917 was transformed into one of the most brutal dictatorships of the twentieth century’. Polly’s chapter is at the centre of this identification – assessing the stance put forward by Western historians throughout the last century that censorship was an essential element of the Soviet dictatorship, ‘an inevitable feature of a totalitarian regime or a phenomenon that was in some way unique to the Bolsheviks’. Censorship, according to this view, involved ‘silencing the voices of political rivals and evidence of his (Stalin’s) totalitarian determination to eliminate his enemies’.
That view is now challenged – and entirely discredited at least in academic circles. The emergence over the last decade or so of this ‘exceptional wealth of archival files that promise new perspectives on the unfolding of the Bolshevik dictatorship’, as the book’s co-editor, Professor James Harris, puts it, tells a more complex, tragic and fascinating story.
The new Bolshevik government committed to bring about a people’s democracy and the ‘enlightenment of the people’ with an initial literacy programme – a challenge in a country where serfdom had only recently been abolished and ‘the vast majority of the citizens of the Soviet Union were illiterate’. It was also a risky move so early after the disruption of the world war followed by the revolution and a new state facing a raging civil war, the threat of a national famine and the ‘perpetual fear of foreign intervention’ – along with constant disruption as ‘vast territories were absorbed into Bolshevik control’, all areas investigated in the rest of the book. And there was a further risk that once literate, the population might make their own democratic choices. There was a debate over whether it was safe to spread literacy, with the Lenins, Nadezhda Krupskaia and Vladimir Illych, each taking a subtly different view.
On the one hand, Nadezhda Krupskaia, deputy to the People’s Commissar for Education, argued passionately in favour of the eradication of illiteracy whatever the cost. ‘We were not afraid to organise a revolution; we are not afraid of the popular masses; we are not afraid that they will elect the wrong people to the Soviets. We want the people to direct the country and be their own masters. Our job is to help the people in fact to take their fate into their own hands,’ she wrote in 1919. Lenin, leader of Soviet Russia supported her at least partly. He had condemned censorship under the Tsars as ‘an accursed period of literary bondage, slavish speech and ideological serfdom’ and along with other Soviet leaders ‘ dreamt of using literature as a way to reach out to the masses, to educate and inspire them, just as they in turn had been set on the path of Marxist revolution by the reading they had done while in exile and in prison’.
But this aspiration was complicated. Lenin wanted to end to Tsarist censorship but planned a new censorship that would serve the interests of the proletariat: ‘free not simply from the police but also from capital, from careerism and from bourgeois-anarchist individualism’. Once in power, newspapers that opposed the revolution were banned – ‘replacing newspapers owned by a few oligarchs in much the same way as they are in this country with communist papers such as Pravda’, James recalls his sister patiently explaining. There is nothing particularly unusual about this kind of regulation. It’s been the norm in Europe since the Middle Ages when ‘higher levels of literacy triggered concern among those in the state and church about what newly educated readers might be tempted to read. Catholics feared uncontrolled reading would lead to the spread of Protestantism …with members of the clergy warning of “the negative effect” of too much reading’. In the UK, the passing of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 was driven by an upswing in literacy combined with a new urban populace – an ideal market for cheap books’ andcontinued well into the 20th century with censorship laws banning books and putting those selling them in prison.
Though ‘rarely applied to the Soviet context, in these early years’, it was this kind of censorship that was actually used – ‘as Soviet leaders engaged with a lively and diverse literary world and explored ways to encourage writers to take on Soviet values … (believing) it was impossible to deliver the liberation of the proletariat without these constraints on some areas of speech.’ Of course there were differences between the law that tried to ban Lady Chatterley’s Lover and what happened in these early years of Soviet censorship – most obviously, the scale of the Soviet system. Lenin ‘visualised a system of total control of publishing by and for the proletariat in which Soviet citizens themselves would keep an eye on all this work, supervise it in its entirety and without exception infuse it into the life-stream of the living proletarian cause’. And when Stalin, a ‘great reader’ who advised his sons to rely on the lessons of the Russian classics during the Second World War, was left to operate this system when Lenin died suddenly of a stroke in January 1924, aged 53, he proved he was the man for the job.
The task for Stalin was ‘a tall order complicated by the need to build an organisation, to recruit and train the necessary staff before they even began to set the parameters of what could and could not be published’. ‘Only the largest multinational companies have over 10,000 employees. Stalin had to organize 350,000 mostly poorly qualified, if not wholly unqualified, and largely semi-literate, “staff” who together had to bring the world’s largest country, with a population of almost 140 million out of an appalling economic crisis amidst serious political divisions,’ Prof Harris points out. Fortunately, ‘ensuring that central directives were being implemented and that the basic functions of government were being carried out … that was Stalin’s metier’.
Thus a newly formed Commissariat of Enlightenment took responsibility both for running a programme of mass literacy while also, through its sub section Glavlit, developing and supervising this vast censorship machine in order ‘firm control over what and how the Soviet population was learning and what they were reading as part of this process’ as ‘an instrument for counteracting the corrupting influence of bourgeois ideology’. It was a gigantic operation. In 1925, the Glavlit Leningrad section alone banned 448 books for political and ideological reasons. Inevitably perhaps, more drastic action was required right from the start. ‘In 1921, the poet Nikolai Gumilev, husband of Anna Akhmatova, was accused of taking part in an anti-communist plot and executed by the Cheka. Akhmatova herself found that her poetry was increasingly contrasted with that of the ‘Maiakovskii faction’ (referring to the prominent pro-Soviet poet Vladimir Maiakovski) – and between 1925 and 1940 was unable to get any of her poetry published in the USSR. ‘ Others to suffer during the 1920s included Osip Mandelstam and Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita. In the end, hundreds of thousands of writers continued to be persecuted and executed through to the 1950s and even later.
It may seem unimportant to know the cause of such as not about ‘silencing the voices of political rivals or eliminating his enemies’ as such. Polly cites an occasion when Stalin censored himself – ‘taking the extraordinary step (on 2 March 1927) of writing to the editors of three major newspapers explaining why they must censor the speech he himself had made on the previous day’. He hadn’t known the speech was being recorded, he explained – and wanted to ‘avoid possible misunderstandings and perhaps even complications in the external world.’
This was what censorship was for Stalin: he was ‘more concerned with speech regulation for educational purposes – Lenin’s plan to establish freedom of the press through proletarian control of all printed matter, to use censorship as a means to freedom – than he was with the silencing of his (own) adversaries.’
It’s in this context, perhaps, that calling Trump, Johnson and Cummings Stalinist is insulting to Stalin. Greed, cowardice and incompetence are behind their clumsy attempts to close down debate and silence critics – with no pretence even of aspiring to being educational or improving society.
Yet the tragedy was implicit in Lenin’s plan. The many organisations set up to implement censorship involving ‘the sheer volume of literary output in a country as huge as the Soviet Union… could never deliver a satisfactory process of censorship in which all new publications conformed to satisfactory standards’. And sadly it seems possible that the impact of censorship could be damaging – the loss of trust in leaders and even in truth. Krupskaia tried and failed to convince the Soviet regime to trust a newly literate people to take their future into their own hands. Faced with Covid-19 and other emergencies, Cummings, Johnson and Trump risk people losing trust in their leaders and in science itself to the detriment of their own future.
The Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution, Illiberal Liberation, 1917-41,edited by Lara Douds, James Harris & Peter Whitewood, (Bloomsbury, £24.99).
laire S shares:
Nela, a film by Andrew Margetson Polly would have loved this. So powerful – Claire Sandy Open document settingsOpen publish panel