Soviet censorship: the origins

The Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution, Illiberal Liberation
1917-41, published by Bloomsbury, January 2020

Walking the razor’s edge: the origins of Soviet censorship, Illiberal Liberation, January 2020.

How it happened:

Polly was invited to contribute to this book, edited by James Harris, Professor of Modern European History at Leeds University, Prof J Arch Getty of University of California, Dr Peter Whitewood, senior history lecturer at York University and Dr Lara Douds of Northumbria University. Another contributor, Sheila Fitzpatrick, ‘the best known revisionist historian of the Russian Revolution’, who encouraged Polly to visit the newly opened Soviet archives.

Polly Corrigan

In 1923, Pavel Lebedev-Polianskii gave a speech about the work of the newly formed Soviet censorship organisation, of which he was the head. The Main Administration for Literary and Publishing Affairs (known in Russian as Glavlit for short) had been set up in 1922. Looking back on the first year of their work, Lebedev-Polianskii noted that Glavlit was often reproached for its work, but that it had to prohibit anything that would ‘hinder the building of Party and Soviet’ while at the same time avoid ‘violating the cultural interests of the country.’ He complained that: ‘[t]he work of Glavlit is exceptionally difficult. You have to walk a razor’s edge all the time.’ [1]   

Censorship in the 1920s was indeed a balancing act. Once characterised as an inevitable feature of a totalitarian regime[2] or as a phenomenon that was in some way unique to the Bolsheviks,[3] the phenomenon of censorship in the early Soviet era was more complex both in intention and function. New interpretations of state power have led to new ways of conceptualising censorship, not as one act of top-down prohibition, but as a more diffuse activity. While many scholars still take the view that Soviet censorship fits the top-down definition, the evidence demonstrates that censorship in the Soviet 1920s shares aspects of this more heterogeneous censorship found in other nations and other historical periods. 

The vast majority of the citizens of the new Soviet Union were illiterate; serfdom had been abolished less than half a century before. The Bolsheviks saw literacy as a tool with which to begin to create a society in which every worker could participate and contribute their share. Beyond that, the Soviet leadership 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.[4]

Stalin himself was a great reader, who would advise his sons to rely on the lessons of the Russian classics during World War II: ‘You will need to make decisions. But if you read a lot, then in your memory you will already have the answers how to conduct yourself and what to do. Literature will tell you.’[5] Although the Bolsheviks were inspired and nourished by books, reading had also taught them that writers often use their talent to criticise those in power and that readers are devious and find ways of reading what is forbidden. How to harness this power, yet avoid the corrupting influence of the written word? This question would prove far more complex than the simple choice between culture and Soviet power suggested in Lebedev-Polianskii’s ‘razor’s edge’ metaphor. It was less a case of a walk along one razor and more of a dance around several, in which the steps kept changing and the music would stop and start suddenly. 

Lenin was highly critical of the tsarist system of censorship and had explicitly not wanted a system of censorship – at least, not one that resembled the pre-revolutionary system. In an essay on literature written before the revolution, Lenin made clear his disgust with the censorship of the imperial age: ‘An accursed period of Aesopian language, literary bondage, slavish speech, and ideological serfdom!’[6] In the same essay, Lenin made clear that he believed in freedom of the press. However, the key to understanding Lenin’s conception of a free press turns on his definition of the word ‘freedom’: ‘We want to establish, and we shall establish, a free press, free not simply from the police, but also from capital, from careerism, and […] free from bourgeois-anarchist individualism.’[7] Ever aware of the lessons of the French Revolution, around the same time as this essay was written Lenin had noted in his diary the inconsistent attitudes of the Paris Communards towards the French press, which he believed had contributed to the defeat of the Commune.[8]

This apparent contradiction, between the condemnation of Russian imperial censorship and the need for a new censorship that would serve the interests of the proletariat, is central to understanding the early years of Bolshevik censorship, which wove together elements of classic censorship – the forbidding of the written word to silence enemies – with educational elements of ‘speech regulation’ in a combination that reflected the extraordinary dynamism and upheaval of the years of revolution. 

The new censorship found practical expression in the very first months after the revolution, when the decision was taken to close down newspapers that were perceived as anti-revolutionary. In a session of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies in November 1917 Boris Kamkov, a left-wing Socialist Revolutionary, framed the ban in terms of a classic model of censorship – the closing down of free speech. He argued that the ban was morally comparable to pre-revolutionary censorship: 

When Bolshevik newspapers were closed down [under previous regimes] we expressed our indignation along with our Bolshevik comrades. No one has yet called for the overthrow of the existing regime, yet press freedom is being infringed without due cause. We are [morally] obliged to rescind these repressive measures, which bring shame on the Russian revolution.[9]

On the contrary, Lenin explained, the very existence of those newspapers was itself a constraint on meaningful freedom of speech, because the main aim of those newspapers was not to print the ‘truth’ but to underpin the agenda of the capitalist bourgeoisie. Lenin declared: ‘We must get away from the notion that a press dependent on capital can be free. This is an important question of principle.’[10]

The distinction made by Lenin was subtle. While the character of this censorship is the same as the censorship he fought against – taking the form of the closing of newspapers – the objective is different, as it was argued in terms of class struggle. The aim was to serve the proletariat and not to simply silence the enemies of the regime. Even though Lenin decried the ‘literary bondage’ of the pre-revolutionary years, he had nevertheless sketched out a rough plan for a system of censorship long before the revolution. He 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, from beginning to end, without any exception, infuse into it the life-stream of the living proletarian cause.’[11]

To oversee every published item – ‘without any exception’ – sounds simple. In fact, it was a tall order, complicated by the need to build such 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. Through the early 1920s, this began to change. With the creation of the main Soviet censorship organisation, known as Glavlit, the boundaries of Soviet censorship slowly became clearer, often through debate. The system was just about workable, but it was by no means ‘total’ nor was it always entirely successful. 

In the first decade of Soviet power, censorship was a response to a number of interlocking factors, chief of which was the programme of mass literacy organised by the new Soviet state. Here another balancing act began: between illiteracy, backwardness and innocence on the one hand – and progress, wisdom and cynicism on the other. As the Bolsheviks perceived it, the aim of the Soviet programme of mass literacy was not thought control as an end in itself, but engagement with a new and more complicated political process than the Soviet population had faced before. It was not about simply silencing enemies, as a more ‘classic’ reading of censorship might suggest. 

A policy of state censorship as a response to mass literacy is not unique to the Bolsheviks; it has been a common response to the questions that a literate population throws up in many countries over the centuries. What was different about the Soviet experience was the particular way that they combined elements of both education and political security. The balance between these two aspects – another razor’s edge – coupled with their fierce belief in the importance of literature and the written word would ultimately overpower their attempts to manage what Soviet citizens were reading. The central role of literature in inspiring many Bolsheviks meant that the question of censorship was one that they all wanted a say in and would intervene personally on throughout the 1920s. 

Censorship and Soviet censorship 

Lebedev-Polianskii conceived of the work of Glavlit in terms of a relatively simple dichotomy: censorship as the prohibition of written material that would obstruct the building of a successful Soviet state, without damaging its cultural integrity. Weighing the fate of the Soviet state against cultural progress was an equation that would never add up, because Lebedev-Polianskii had bypassed Lenin’s own thoughts on censorship, especially the conceptual division between the use of (pre-revolutionary) censorship as a tool of bourgeois conservatism and the idea of (post-revolutionary) censorship as an anti-bourgeois weapon. This distinction is important, as censorship had a very specific meaning in the early Soviet period, different from the one used by scholars 100 years later. A glance at more recent developments in the thinking on censorship, as well as some useful historical examples, provides a useful backdrop against which to analyse what was implicit in the Bolshevik approach to censorship. 


The recent literature on censorship in the USSR has witnessed a flourishing of understanding of the nuances of censorship. While Arlen Blium described it as an act of ‘systematic, single-minded and universal control’, Samantha Sherry called for a definition free of this ‘top-down’ approach, instead describing it as: ‘a system of control which can range from explicit orders to the implicit actions of the author him/herself, all of which result from the overarching state ideology […] regard[ing] censorship as a continuum, from explicit censorship to implicit censorship.’[12]

Where censorship was once understood to signify the actions of an institution, usually a national government, to prohibit the speech of an enemy, this view has evolved into a quite different conception of censorship, which interprets it as a more ubiquitous process that is present at various different levels of a society thus making it: ‘unavoidable, irrespective of the given socio-political context’ and therefore no more likely to be found in one ideological context than another.[13] This revision in the analysis of censorship helps us to directly address the specifics of censorship in the early Soviet years. In particular, it speaks to the issue of the challenges and opportunities for the state of a newly literate society. 

Rather than viewing censorship as one homogenous activity, this new thinking presents different sub-categories of censorship, including the concept of ‘speech regulation’, which relates to censorship with an educational or social goal. Although rarely applied to the Soviet context, in these early years, we find plenty of examples of speech regulation. These efforts at control were non-traditional in their motives: they did not arise from a desire simply to repress dissenting voices, but from the goal of promoting a specific set of social values. They were also non-traditional in their practices. Soviet leaders engaged with a lively and diverse literary world and explored ways to encourage writers to take on Soviet values. They also turned the censor’s pencil on themselves. These actions were examples not of classic censorship, but of speech regulation. They found that they had to regulate certain areas of speech in order to uphold their ideological principles, not because of a rigid dogmatism, but because they believed it was impossible to deliver the liberation of the proletariat without these constraints on some areas of speech. 


In the early modern period in Europe, 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 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.[14] 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.[15]

Yet this development has not been interpreted as a move towards authoritarianism on the part of 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.’[16] 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 destabilised. 

In the United Kingdom, 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.[17] Classic censorship persisted well into the early twentieth century: as James Joyce traipsed around Europe trying to get his masterpiece Ulysses published, copies of his book were not only banned in the United States and Europe, they were burned or confiscated by those governments and those who tried to sell them were put in prison.[18]

Despite the recent lively debate about what constitutes censorship, scholars still identify the Soviet example of censorship as the ‘classic’ or regulatory model, rather than as a censorship of a more ambiguous variety. Discussing various examples of ‘social and discursive exclusion’, Beate Muller asserts that it is only the example of the writer in a totalitarian state whose book is denied publication by the cultural authorities, that meets ‘the requirements of the term censorship.’[19] Again, in Patterson’s analysis, the Soviet era is identified as a time of ‘greater repressiveness’, which was cemented by ‘the codification of communist esthetics.’[20]

Censorship in principle 

In December 1919, the Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree entitled, ‘On the eradication of illiteracy among the population of the RSFSR,’ which announced the intention to terminate illiteracy in all Soviet citizens between eight and 50 years of age – with the specific intention of making possible ‘conscious participation in the political life of the country.’[21] Documents from the province of Vologda provide us with some insight into how local authorities attempted to take on this enormous task. Before any actual teaching could begin, the authorities needed to identify who was to be taught and appoint staff for the organisations that would run the programme. In February of 1920, Vologda’s Provincial Department of Public Education held a ‘Literacy Week’ during in which instructors would be sent out to find out how many of their local citizens were illiterate. Towards the end of 1920, 32,296 local citizens in Vologda had been identified as illiterate and 430 ‘liquidation schools’ (from likvidatsiia negramotnosti meaning ‘liquidation [elimination] of illiteracy’) had been set up, in which 8,500 adults between the age of 25 and 40 were enrolled. By the end of December, just 40 adults had graduated as fully-fledged readers from three schools.[22] The instructors and members of the Extraordinary Commission for the Elimination of Illiteracy had a mountain to climb if they were to meet the target of teaching the remaining 32,256 adults to read.

At a national level, the Commissariat of Enlightenment (the Soviet ministry of education and the arts), headed by Anatolii Lunacharskii, held responsibility for the programme of mass literacy. At this point censorship was a vital part of education policy, as it was crucial to keep firm control over what and how the Soviet population was learning and what they were reading as part of this process. It is highly significant that the education ministry played a role in Soviet censorship, as this points to an educational basis for the desire to censor that, as already noted, is one of the ways of identifying speech regulation as opposed to than classic censorship. 

In January 1920 the State Publishing House, which existed under the direction of the Commissariat of Enlightenment, was given a formal censoring role. After this date, nothing could be printed without State Publishing House permission. During these years, Nadezhda Krupskaia was at the forefront of similar policies of speech regulation, including removing ‘obsolescent’ literature from libraries.[23] The aim of these arrangements was to help Soviet citizens make proper choices about what to read, so that in turn they would make good choices about how to help to build the Soviet state. 

However, as time passed, elements more resembling classic censorship were consolidated. In the summer of 1922, Glavlit (Glavnoe upravlenie po delam literaturii i izdatelstv or the Main Administration for Literature and Printing Affairs), was formed by the Council of People’s Commissars to take control over all aspects of censorship. This was by no means the end of the involvement of Lunacharskii’s Commissariat, which continued to oversee Glavlit and even had the power to appoint the head of the organisation. But in the structure of Glavlit’s leadership, there was another important clue as to how the Bolsheviks conceptualised censorship. The Soviet political police – at that point known as the GPU – were given a hand in the running of Glavlit, including a say in the appointment of the organisation’s two assistant heads. 

This combination of education (speech regulation) and security (classic censorship) are central to understanding Glavlit and how it functioned, as they illustrate the dual nature of the process of Soviet censorship. The Soviet censor is often perceived only as a one-dimensional creature, intent on silencing dissenting authors, but in actual fact the work of the Soviet censor was just as complex and multi-dimensional as in other nations and during other periods of history.

This inbuilt divide between the representatives of Soviet education and security at the head of Glavlit can be seen in the formulated aims of the organisation: ‘to prevent publication and distribution of works which (1) contained propaganda against the Soviet regime, (2) divulged military secrets, (3) stirred up public opinion through false information, (4) aroused nationalistic and religious fanaticism, or (5) were pornographic.’[24]

These aims encompass elements of both classic censorship, such as the preservation of military secrets and speech regulation, such as the ban on pornography. They mirror the aims of the early modern Europeans by trying to prevent the publication of work that either diminish the state in the eyes of the reader through propaganda or false information or that would stand in the way of the creation of the state as they had conceived it, in this case by preventing religious or nationalist fervour. 

While a traditional definition of totalitarian censorship might focus on the banning of texts by certain authors, the vision of censorship outlined in the aims of Glavlit is more complex than this. By and large, the aims bring the focus of censorship to the protection of the reader. In this, they follow the rubric set out by Lebedev-Polianskii, by simply trying to prohibit anything that would turn Soviet citizens against their own state. Although censorship was also a method of muzzling those who might criticise the Soviet regime, this was not its initial impulse – or at least, not its only impulse. The aim was also to decontaminate the world of the written word, newly opened up for the great majority of Soviet citizens, from anything that might detract from their ability to take part in the political life of their new homeland. As Stephen Kotkin notes in his examination of the cultural life of the inhabitants of Magnitogorsk: ‘Soviet censorship […] was not merely an act of suppression; its chief goal was to inculcate values.’[25]

Here again, in Kotkin’s formulation, we see those two aspects of censorship – the need to suppress and the need to educate. When formulated in this way, the two aims of the censor seem almost polar opposites; one is negative, a removal or a denial and the other positive, reinforcing and even uplifting. The tension between these two aspects of censorship made its practical application a complex process. 

Putting censorship into practice

Censorship, as it was practiced on a day-to-day basis, was a somewhat patchy process, undertaken by censors with various backgrounds and levels of education. At first, it was not understood as a permanent policy but a pragmatic necessity, as Lunacharskii’s regretful comments confirm: ‘What else is there to do?’ He wrote, ‘A time of transition is a time of transition.[A1] [26] Intervention from the political police was a regular feature of Soviet censorship in the 1920s. Members of the Politburo, including Stalin himself were closely involved with censorship during the 1920s and their approach was improvised and fluid. 

In the years of the civil war, classic censorship flourished, dominated by a security agenda. In 1918, legislation defining the boundaries of military censorship was produced,[27] and in 1919 minutes of a Politburo meeting titled ‘on the censorship of materials on the theme of foreign policy,’ expressed concerns that military information in the press may be picked up by foreign powers.[28] Documents from meetings of the Politburo and Central Committee in 1919 suggest that security was one of the main aims of censorship, with fears raised about the possibility of foreign policy secrets being given away in the Petrograd press.[29] In these documents there is explicit reference to the concept of ‘censorship’ with discussion of ‘censoring newspapers’ to prevent reports of a military nature from being read by the Bolsheviks’ enemies.

Despite the immediate demands of the war, censorship of civilian reading matter was also the subject of much debate by the Soviet leadership. Lunacharskii seemed to be unable to even make up his own mind, writing that ‘Genuine art… cannot sing in a cage…’ while admitting that censorship must not be feared, even in the case of literary fiction: ‘… for its banner, its elegant exterior, might hide a poison for the still naive and benighted spirit of the great masses.’[30] But when Lunacharskii tried to defend the freedoms of Soviet writers, Lebedev-Polianskii reprimanded him, arguing that the very same writers had ‘… a manifestly preposterous character with a significant share of deliberate lies.’[31]

Gradually this debate began to evolve towards a model of censorship that could be defined as speech regulation. Trotksy, who had written extensively on literature and revolution, found himself at the centre of much of the debate.  In 1921, he sent a top-secret memo to the Politburo, demanding their views on the ‘absolutely unacceptable’ verse by Demian Bednyi 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 Pravdato look out for ‘these kind of tricks’.[32]

In another letter written in 1922, Trotsky’s discussion of censorship again had an educational bent. He expressed his worry about the effect that ‘bourgeois, individualistic literature’ could have on the Soviet youth and called for closer attention to the world of poetry, as well as the need for literature that actually represented the Bolshevik outlook: ‘We need to pay more attention to questions of literary criticism and poetry, not only in the sense of censorship, but also in the sense of publishing. It is necessary to produce more and more of those works of art that are imbued with our spirit [emphasis added].’[33] The distinction between the act of censorship and the encouragement of ‘Bolshevik’ writing suggests that Trotsky himself is dividing the act of censorship up into different categories – the first being ‘actual’ censorship and the second a paying of careful attention to how to create literature in tune with Bolshevik aims. While Trotsky himself may not use this terminology, it is clear that this second category of censorship might be defined as speech regulation, its basis firmly in the educational domain. 

By 1924, Trotsky found that his own writings were at the centre of a row over censorship. The minutes to a meeting of the Politburo in November record that the Politburo ‘considers it necessary to inform the Central Committee […] that the absence of Trotsky’s book “The Year 1917” in bookshops creates rumours about the prohibition of the Central Committee of this book.’[34]

The switch in Trotsky’s role was a sign of the volatility of the political situation. However, this was not just a question of Trotsky’s standing in the party. Stalin’s effort to silence the voices of political rivals is often cited as evidence of his totalitarian determination to eliminate his enemies. However, one instance of censorship in the mid-1920s indicates that even Stalin was more concerned with speech regulation for educational purposes than he was with the silencing of his adversaries. On 2 March 1927, Stalin took the extraordinary step of writing to the editors of three major newspapers, including Pravda, explaining why they must censor the speech he himself had made on the previous day: ‘I am very sorry that I had to delay the printing of the speech yesterday. But you must understand that I was guided only by the interests of the cause. I spoke quite frankly at the meeting. I did it because there were no stenographers at the meeting, and knew that my speech would not be recorded. I wanted at least once, at one large meeting, to say everything frankly about one of the most important questions of our international policy […] it is impossible to print it in this form if we want to avoid possible misunderstandings and, perhaps, even complications in the external world.’[35]

It is clear that in this instance, censorship was not used as a tool of the powerful against the weak, but as a tool of speech regulation. It seems that events were moving at such a pace during this decade that Stalin had decided that sometimes even his own truth about the situation was just too much for the reading public. 

A Politburo document from 1923 confirmed that education was an important element of censorship: ‘our censorship should have a pedagogical slant.’[36] This aim is repeated in an article written by the leadership of Glavlit around 1924, albeit with a more political edge, in which the organisation was described as: ‘an instrument for counteracting the corrupting influence of bourgeois ideology.’ The article went on to outline the two paths of their censorship policy: the ‘administrative and censorial pursuit’ of writers, as well as the exertion of ‘skilful ideological pressure’ on writers.[37]

While these examples of censorship demonstrate an educational approach, much of the work of Glavlit did proceed in a more traditional fashion – with censors reading and banning books. From the days following the revolution, libraries were emptied of ideologically ‘undesirable’ books. Krupskaia recorded as early as mid-1918 that the number of such volumes in many regions of the USSR was ‘greatly reduced’. [38]

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 that were still in existence. Far fewer books published by co-operative publishers were banned, only eight in fact.[39]

The stories of writers who suffered arrest or worse during this period are well-known. 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’ and between 1925 and 1940 she was unable to get any of her poetry published in the USSR. Osip Mandelstam was another poet whose misfortune at the hands of the Soviet authorities is well-known thanks to the memoir of his wife Nadezhda. 

For Mikhail Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, the 1920s were a turbulent time. His satirical short story The Fatal Eggs had been returned to him by his editor, with ‘about twenty passages underlined which I would have to change because of the censors.’[40] In the same year he experimented with journalism, commenting ambiguously as he did so: ‘My story “Bohemia” appeared in the first edition of Krasnaia 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.’[41]

In 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.’[42]

Nevertheless, despite these well-known cases of repression of writers, by the late 1920s Lebedev-Polianskii was not happy with the work of Glavlit. In the spring of 1927, in a missive to the Orgburo, he summarised 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’.[43]  

Censorship and the Political Police

Lebedev-Polianskii’s disappointment at the failure of Glavlit to work in the way he had hoped illustrates just how complex and difficult is the work of the censor. Perhaps because of this complexity, Glavlit was never quite the only organ of censorship in the USSR. The process of regulating culture was such a massive and evolving matter that from the start other state institutions were involved, notably the political police, known in those years as the Cheka or the GPU/OGPU, who took an increasingly dominant role in the process through the early 1920s.

The Cheka provided assistance in the process of censorship in a surprising variety of ways. In the words of one Russian historian, every member of the political police, ‘from a […] militiaman and a district warden to the head of the NKVD’ all pitched in to help with matters of censorship when needed.[44]

The Cheka was represented in the Glavlit leadership. Its officials spent a great amount of time compiling reports about the thoughts and deeds of the Soviet intelligentsia throughout the 1920s. But it went further than that. During the first years of Glavlit’s existence, the Cheka was 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 authorisation; it also acts against all infringers of the laws and rules on censorship.’[45]

A letter from a librarian working at Gosizdat addressed to Lenin, written in January 1922, made clear that in terms of censorship of foreign literature, the Cheka still had the upper hand over Gosizdat, despite the latter holding official responsibility for the matter. The letter informs Lenin that Gosizdat does not have a regular or up-to-date supply of ‘whiteguard’ literature (which Lenin had requested). After making a couple of suggestions as to how he could organise a supply of such material – including via Kamenev who apparently received such reading matter occasionally via visitors from abroad – the librarian opted for the most likely: ‘I think that through the Cheka it will be faster and more regular.’[46] Perhaps as a result of this letter, a resolution of the Politburo in May 1922 proposed by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, asked Politburo members to become part of the apparatus of censorship themselves, requesting that they: ‘give 2–3 hours a week to view a number of non-Communist publications.’ Once they had completed their reading they were instructed to send written feedback for the rest of the Politburo.[47]

The presence of the Cheka in the activities of censorship demonstrates the element of classic censorship in the character of Soviet censorship. The role of a police force as a regulator of speech is clearly a characteristic of a traditional type of censorship. However, even the involvement of the Cheka in the process is a little ambiguous, because of perceptions of the role that the Cheka played in Soviet society. From its inception in 1917, it was supposed to be a completely different and novel type of state police, a total break with the imperial Okhrana. The Cheka – and specifically Dzerzhinskii, the organisation’s first head – was seen to be imbued with a ‘moral purity’. Dzerzhinskii himself was often portrayed as the bringer of light and even repression itself was recast as a positive process which had ‘life-affirming’ qualities and was ultimately ‘the expression of the will of the proletariat and the peasantry.’[48]

It is easy to see how this quasi-religious role of the Cheka speaks to the educational mission of the Soviet censor, thus blurring somewhat the distinction between these two categories of censorship. This in turn seems to open up the possibility of a new definition: a fusion of both classic censorship in which the means of censorship is the political police and a censorship in which the aims are educational and therefore fall under the heading of speech regulation. Perhaps this is a censorship that is unique to these early years of the Soviet Union.

The linguistics of censorship 

When the Bolsheviks talked about ‘censorship’ they often managed to avoid using that precise word, instead using euphemistic language, even when it was clear that the intention was to control what people read. Trotsky, Lunacharskii, Stalin, Kamenev and several others regularly wrote memos and messages to one another and to various writers and printers on censorship. When they did refer to ‘censorship’ it was usually not related to censorship of literary material, but to matters of the printed word as it related to foreign policy and the security of the nation. For example, when Stalin telephoned the editors of various newspapers, including Pravda, to ask them to cease publishing the exchange rate of the ruble, he spoke of a ‘ban’.[49]

In her analysis of forbidden books in the Soviet era, Varustina notes that in Russian there are two adjectives to denote the word ‘forbidden’, both with subtly different meanings. Understanding these differences helps to illuminate the Bolshevik approach to censorship. The first term ‘zapretnye’ and the second is ‘zapreshchennye’. While they both have the same root (‘zapret’, meaning ‘prohibition’ or ‘ban’) and can both be translated as ‘forbidden’ in English, Varustina argues that Russians understand them to have slightly different layers of meaning. While ‘zapreshchennye’ is a more everyday variety of impermissibility and is more often found in combination phrases to describe physical objects such as ‘forbidden goods’ or ‘forbidden films’, ‘zapretnye’ has a stronger linguistic resonance to it and is found in the phrase ‘forbidden fruit’. She argues that this gives it an added meaning, which can be expressed as something like: ‘desired, but forbidden’.[50]

An examination of the regularity of the use of these two terms in government documents during the 1920s demonstrates that the Bolsheviks leant towards using the word that was less loaded with meaning. The term ‘zapretnye’ is hardly used at all, in any government document. By comparison, the term ‘zapreshchennye’ appears multiple times, including in several documents concerning matters of censorship.[51]

For example, writing after Lenin’s death in 1924, Lebedev-Polianskii explains that one copy of every image commissioned for Lenin’s memorial will be sent to Glavlit and adds: ‘This will enable us to create an archive of permitted and forbidden drawings.’[52] The word he uses here to denote ‘forbidden’ is ‘zapreshchennye’.

The subtle distinction between these two words illustrates that even in the language used about censorship there is a diversity that reflects the deep and complex nature of what it means to attempt to regulate the literature of a nation. The more regular use of ‘zapreshchennye’ in the official discourse on censorship suggests a type of ban that is more pragmatic, improvised; a ban that speaks of speech regulation rather than classic censorship. It was not so much a question of ‘thought control’ or of a moral judgment about the nature of the text in question, as the use of the word ‘zapretnye’ might indicate. Instead, the more frequent use of the word ‘zapreshchennye’ might speak of a more immediate response to a text that was recognised as contingent and necessary, given the extreme nature of the work that the Bolsheviks were trying to do, of which they were all well aware.  


For centuries, monarchs and governments have acted to control what their citizens were reading. This impulse was often justified as a way of protecting those citizens, although more commonly it was a way to defend national identity and security. 

In the case of the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent years, a similar struggle took place. However, in this period there were some notable features that set censorship apart from both historical and contemporary comparisons. First, the project of mass literacy in the new Soviet Union was initiated by the Bolsheviks themselves and with the deliberate aim of engaging Soviet citizens in the political process. Secondly and allied with the first point, was Lenin’s own comprehensive rejection of the idea of pre-revolutionary censorship and his complete willingness to use censorship in a post-revolutionary setting. Both the programme of literacy and the use of censorship followed a very particular political programme, in a very particular political context. As a result, the way that early Soviet censorship functioned was a unique synthesis of different strands of what we now understand as censorship. It exhibited features of classic censorship – implementation assisted by the political police, the banning of texts. However, there was also a clear element of educational censorship – or what is now known as speech regulation – within early Soviet censorship, working to uphold the values of the new Soviet state and act against texts that might violate those values. This can be seen clearly in the aims of Glavlit and in the practical interpretation of those aims throughout the 1920s.

The quotidian reality of Soviet censorship underscores the many different ways in which the Bolsheviks talked and thought about the process. What is clear is that to them, it was certainly not just another tool with which to fight their enemies. The language they used to discuss and write about the process demonstrates a plurality of approaches to the problem of what citizens should be allowed to read. The manner in which Stalin even went so far as to censor himself is again redolent of a censorship of social values, rather than the work of a tyrant. 

Lastly, there hangs a question mark over what the involvement of the political police in the process of censorship signifies. To most, this would be the cast-iron evidence that Soviet censorship was totalitarian in its nature – after all, the involvement of the state police is a classic measure of an authoritarian system of censorship. However, in these early years of censorship, it is possible to argue that even this was more complex than this. At this stage, the Bolsheviks conceived of the role of the political police as a force that would enact the will of the proletariat. In this role, as defenders of Bolshevik values, it could be argued that the role of the political police contained an element of speech regulation. Knowing as we do how the relationship between political police and the proletariat would develop throughout the 1920s and into the terror of the 1930s, this seems implausible to say the least. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that in the early 1920s, although the means was the use of a political police force – and thus ‘totalitarian’ in nature – the aims were educational and therefore not what we might expect of a traditional style of censorship. In this, as in so many other aspects, Soviet censorship was very far from Lebedev-Polianskii’s formulation of a choice between the two sides of the razor’s edge. In the heat of the revolution, for perhaps the first and last time, censorship became a complicated fusion of different approaches, discussed in different ways, but all finding their roots in the specific context of the years of revolution, the Bolshevik programme of mass literacy and Lenin’s conception of a revolutionary censorship that would serve the proletariat. The state could not become what the Bolsheviks wanted without the citizens learning to read and also being kept away from what might damage the future of the Soviet state – they were one and the same aim. 

The contradictions inherent in Lenin’s plan to establish freedom of the press through proletarian control of all printed matter – to use censorship as a means to freedom – were further complicated by the practical difficulties of creating and running an institution fit to carry out this complex role. A policy that may have been perceived as a temporary solution hardened into something permanent. As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s, the situation began to change in very visible ways. The Soviet state continued to build a network of institutions around the arts, beginning with the creation of the Union of Writers, followed quickly by the Committee on Artistic Affairs. Although neither of these organisations had an explicit censorship role, both worked to control and regulate the works of their members in particular ways and the development of the idea of socialist realist writing fed into this regulation as well. Yet what is interesting is that these new institutions, coupled with Glavlit and the OGPU, could never deliver a satisfactory process of censorship, a process in which all new publications conformed to ideological standards. Whether or not Soviet censorship was ‘totalitarian’ in its aims, Glavlit were severely criticised by the Politburo well into the 1930s for their ‘totally unsatisfactory’ work.[53]

Although censorship in the Soviet Union began as an ideological necessity for the Bolsheviks, backed by simple, self-evident principles, the reality was that it was never an easy thing to administrate. The growth of Glavlit and other organisations certainly streamlined the process somewhat, but the questions that were raised in the debate over censorship in the 1920s – how to manage the sheer volume of literary output in a country as huge as the Soviet Union, what could and could not be said, where the line is between censorship and ensuring the literary identity of the nation – had not been fully answered by the end of the 1920s and would continue to be debated through the 1930s. 

[1] Tat’iana M. Goriaeva, Politicheskaia tsenzura v CCCP 1917-1991 (Moscow, 2002), p. 191.

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] Herman Ermolaev, Censorship in Soviet Literature, 1917-1991 (London, 1997), p. 1.

[4] Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: a Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton, 2017), p. 30.

[5] Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, Vol II: Waiting for Hitler 19281941 (London, 2017), p. 2.

[6] V. I. Lenin, The Re-Organisation of the Party & Party Organisation and Party Literature (London, 1905),  p. 16.

[7] Ibid., p. 19.

[8] D. Strovsky and G. Simons, ‘The Bolsheviks’ attitude towards the press in Russia: 1917 – 1920’, Arbetsrapporter Working Papers 109 (Jan., 2007), p. 4.

[9] John Keep (ed.), The Debate on Soviet Power: Minutes of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets – Second Convocation, October 1917-January 1918 (Oxford, 1979), p. 69.

[10] Ibid., pp. 74–5.

[11] Lenin, The Re-Organisation of the Party, p. 18.

[12] Samantha Sherry, Censorship in Translation in the Soviet Union in the Stalin and Khrushchev eras (University of Edinburgh PhD thesis, 2012), pp. 38, 46.

[13] Beate Müller, ‘Censorship and cultural regulation: mapping the territory’ in Beate Müller (ed.), Censorship and Cultural Regulation in the Modern Age (Amsterdam, 2004) pp. 4–5.

[14] I. Kollárová, ‘The reading ideal and reading preferences in the age of Joseph II’, Human Affairs 23/3 (2013), p. 354.

[15] R. A. Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe (London, 2002); Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation: the Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison, Wis., 1984); Richard Dutton, Licensing, Censorship and Authorship in Early Modern England: Buggeswords (Basingstoke, 2000). 

[16] Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation, p. 3.

[17] Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (London, 2014), p. 63.

[18] Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book, pp. 2–3.

[19] Müller, Censorship and Cultural Regulation, p. 11.

[20] Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation, p. 21.

[21] Dekret SNK o likvidatsii bezgramotnosti sredi naseleniia RSFSR, 26 December 1919, Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (GARF). Available at (accessed 31 Oct 2017).

[22] Pergament, L. I, Massovyi pokhod za likvidatsiiu negramotnosti v Vologodskoi gubernii  

 (19181922) (Vologda, 1973). Available at (accessed 31 October 2017).

[23] Ermolaev, Censorship in Soviet Literature 19171991, pp. 2–3.

[24] Ibid., p. 3.

[25] Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilisation, (Berkeley, 1995), p. 368.

[26] Stuart Finkel, On the Ideological Front: the Russian Intelligentsia and the Making of the Soviet Public Sphere, (New Haven, 2006), p. 118.

[27] Tat’iana M. Goriaeva, Istoriia sovetskoi politicheskoi tsenzury: dokumenty i kommentarii (Moscow, 1997), pp. 29–32.

[28] L. V. Maksimenkov (ed.), Bol’shaia tsenzura: pisateli i zhurnalisty v strane sovetov 19171956 (Moscow, 2005), p. 18.

[29] Ibid., pp. 18–19.

[30] Stuart Finkel, On the Ideological Front: the Russian Intelligentsia and the Making of the Soviet Public Sphere, pp. 117-118.

[31] Ibid., p. 121.

[32] L. V. Maksimenkov (ed.), Bol’shaia tsenzura: pisateli i zhurnalisty v strane sovetov 19171956 , p. 33.

[33] Ibid., p.50.

[34] Ibid.p. 92.

[35] Ibid., p. 120.

[36] G. V. Zhirkov, Istoria tsenzuru v Rossii XIXXX vv (Moscow, 2001), p. 257.

[37] Ibid., p. 256.

[38] M. N. Glazkov, Chistki fondov massovykh bibliotek v gody sovetskoi vlasti (Moscow, 2001), p. 8.

[39] Goriaeva, Politicheskaia tsenzura, p. 190.

[40] Ibid., p. 42.

[41] Ibid., p. 56.

[42] Ibid., p. 70. 

[43] Zhirkov, Istoria tsenzuru v Rossii XIXXX vv (Moscow, 2001), p. 257.

[44] Ibid., p. 259.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Maksimenkov, Bol’shaia tsenzura, p. 39.

[47] Ibid., p. 46.

[48] Julie Fedor, Russia and the Cult of State Security: The Chekist Tradition from Lenin to Putin (London, 2011), Ch. 1.

[49] Maksimenkov, Bol’shaia tsenzura, p. 66.

[50] E. L. Varustina, ‘Zapretnye knigi epokhi repressii’ in T. S. Iur’evoi (ed.), Terror i kul’tura: sbornik statei (Saint Petersburg, 2016)pp. 51–2.

[51] The website allows the reader to search all the documents published by the Alexander Yakovlev foundation in their document collections. When the search term ‘запретный’ is used, for the dates 1921–30, one document is returned, on the subject of free movement of former white officers. When the search term ‘запрещённый’ is used for the same date range, 19 documents are returned, including six that are directly to do with questions of censorship. For the same date range, the word ‘цензура’ (censorship) returns 13 documents. (All words searched as they appear here and using each appropriate word ending.)

[52] Maksimenkov, Bol’shaia tsenzura, p. 93.

[53] Lewis Sieglebaum and Andrei Sokolov (eds), Stalinism as a Way of Life: a Narrative in Documents (New Haven, 2000,) p. 148.

 [A1]Does this need a reference?