14.9 From the history of Soviet censorship

No 14 : 30 June 1970

Does Censorship Exist in the Soviet Union? A samizdat collection of documents from 1917-1922 with an anonymous foreword (Leningrad, 1970).

“‘… people of our era should know what a price in sacrifices was paid by the working class of our country to achieve the right to a’ free press’ reads the foreword to the collection The Bolshevik Press in the Vice of Tsarist Censorship, 1910-1914 (Leningrad, 1939). They should also know what price was paid for the loss of that right.”

The collection includes documents on the initial stage (1917-1922) of Soviet censorship :

1. “Decree on the Press” and “General Regulations on the Press”, signed by Lenin on 27 October (9 November) 1917. Prohibition of the non-Bolshevik press and censorship restrictions were declared to be temporary, extraordinary measures.

“As soon as the new order is consolidated, all administrative pressures on the press will be terminated and absolute freedom will be established for the press within the limits of legal accountability, in accordance with a law which in this respect will be extremely broad and progressive.”

“The present regulations are of a temporary nature and will be repealed by special decree when public life returns to normal.” (As is well-known, there has been no such ‘special decree’ to this day.)

There then follow extracts from the discussion of this question at sessions of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (quotations from the discussions are from the book Proceedings of Sessions of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Peasants’ and Cossacks’ Deputies, Second Convocation, Moscow, 1918).

2. Extracts from the memoirs of D.A. Lutokhin, editor of the journals Economist and Utrenniki (published in Archive of the Russian Revolution, Vol. XII, Berlin, 1923) and from P. Vityazev’s book Private Publishing Houses in Soviet Russia (Petrograd, 1921, issued in duplicated form and with all rights reserved [na pravakh rukopisi]). This chapter deals principally with the period of transition to NEP and the abolition of military-revolutionary censorship.

At that time (1921) the functions of the censorship were exercised by the State Publishing House [Gosizdat] (founded in 1919 by V. Vorovsky and later headed by N. Meshcheryakov and I. Skvortsov-Stepanov). It was then a department of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. In this chapter there is also material on the role was played in censorship by the Agitprop Department of the Communist Party central committee and the Press Department of the VChK-GPU [early titles for the KGB]. It also includes a list of decrees restricting private publishing activity: on the State monopoly of public announcements (1917-1918), the mandatory publication of official communications, etc. Names mentioned include the Petrograd Press Commissar N. Lisovsky; the head of the literature and publishing section of the Commissariat of Enlightenment V. Ya. Bryusov; A. Serafimovich, one of the first “fervent supporters” of the achievements of the October Revolution in the field of the press; and also M. K. Lemke, the author of several research works on the tsarist censorship and, according to rumours of the period, one of the theoreticians of the “statutes” of the Soviet censorship.

3. “Regulations on Glavlit and its local agencies” (from Collected Statutes, 1922, No. 40, article 461; also published in Izvestiya No. 137 of 23 June 1922). Since Gosizdat was the sole State organ possessing all rights to control literature and the press, censorship was within its province. However, as Gosizdat became more and more an economic organisation, it began to lose its typically administrative functions, censorship among them.

Censorship passed from the political departments of Gosizdat to Glavlit, under the Commissariat of Enlightenment, founded by decree of the Council of People’s Commissars on 6 June 1922 (signed by Sykov on behalf of Lenin, who was ill). 6 June 1922 must therefore be regarded as the date on which the official censorship was established (de facto censorship had already been introduced by the “Decree on the Press”). Incidentally, the name Glavlit was formerly short for “Principal directorate for matters of literature and art” (see Small Soviet Encyclopaedia, 1st edition, Moscow 1929, vol. 2). Now Glavlit denotes the “Principal directorate for the safe-guarding of State and military secrets in the press, attached to the USSR Council of Ministers”.

Glavlit is charged, the Regulations read (paragraph 2 a), with “the preliminary examination of all works intended for publication and circulation, both in manuscript and in printed form; of periodic and non-periodic publications, photographs, drawings, maps etc.” Admittedly, the Regulations exclude those publications which were at the time exempt from preliminary censorship (all Party and State publications and scientific works of the Academy of Sciences).

On 2 December 1922 Issue 1 of the Bulletin of Official Instructions and Communications of the Commissariat of Enlightenment published the “Directions of Glavlit to its local agencies”. We quote extracts from it:

“1. Glavlit and its local agencies carry out all forms of censorship: military, political, ideological etc.” (there is no mention of artistic censorship; this omission was made good in the duplicated copy of the “Directions”) …

Paragraph 7 explains what the censorship consists of. For example

“the banning of all sorts of printed works which contain an ideology which is applied to basic questions (society, religion, economics, the national question, the field of art etc.) and which is hostile to us (in the duplicated copy: “which is utterly alien to the working class”)”;

“the deletion from articles of the sharpest passages (as regards facts, figures, evaluations) which compromise Soviet authority and the Communist Party (in the duplicated copy: “aimed at undermining the prestige of Soviet authority”). Glavlit is directly linked with the GPU (its department of Political Control), and one of the two deputy-heads of the local agency of Glavlit is the chairman of the local GPU.”

This chapter gives examples of deletions from books of verse by Sologub, Kuzmin and others; and of orders banning the publication of a number of journals and almanachs, as well as books (among them Begushchaya po volnam by Alexander Grin and a two-volume edition of Akhmatova). It gives the names of censors, the list being headed by the first director of Glavlit, Lebedev-Polyansky.

In the foreword the compilers refer to protests by literary and scientific figures, among them Fyodor Sologub, Academician Ivan Pavlov, against the banning of the activity of private publishing houses. They give an excerpt from a 1926 letter by Maxim Gorky to Romain Rolland about the serious situation of Soviet literature under censorship.