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Censorship in the USSR

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The Provisional Government that succeeded the tsars in March 1917 abolished censorship. However, two days after the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, they reintroduced censorship and extended it to films, art, and music. Though labeled a “temporary measure,” censorship lasted until the late 1980s. Even labels on bottles were subject to censorship; the knowing eye could discern the censor’s individual number, stamp, and date of issue. Violation of censorship rules could be construed as “divulging state secrets,” a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Soviet censors worked with a large volume called Perechen’ svedenii ne podlezhashchikh opublikovaniiu v otkrytoi pechati (List of Information Not Suitable for Publication in Open Sources). It was informally referred to among censors—many of whom were Jews—as the “Talmud.” Among the items “not suitable for publication” were crime statistics, reports of natural and man-made disasters (such as airplane crashes), price increases, individual incomes, the names of many officials, and the identities of their spouses. The censorship system was administered by Glavlit, established in 1922 as the Chief Directorate for Literature and Publishing Houses at the People’s Commissariat for Education (Narkompros). Immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution, works on Judaism and almost all publications in Hebrew were banned. Foreign Jewish literature was strongly censored in the 1920s and thereafter. By the 1930s, the list of forbidden subjects included Lenin’s Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side. Although in 1936 work critical of antisemitism was passed by the censor, at the same time Jewish themes began to disappear from Soviet prose and poetry, except in Yiddish. By 1938 brochures critical of antisemitism that had been published just a few years before were removed from libraries. The recording of Lenin’s 1919 speech condemning antisemitism was removed from record sets. It was reported that a six-cornered star, used as an illustration in a geometry text, had to be excised before the text could be published.

A comparison of a story published in 1936 and republished in 1940 illustrates the policy of diminishing Jewish visibility. In the story “The Blue Cup,” Arkadii Gaidar writes of a “city in Germany, Dresden, from which a worker, a Jew, fled from the Fascists.” Four years later, following the 1939 Soviet–Nazi pact, the same sentence reads: “There’s a city somewhere abroad, and from there a worker fled from the bourgeoisie.” In May 1940, Bezbozhnik (Godless), the magazine of the Militant Atheists, wrote that the major achievement of the Third Reich was the Nazi attack on Judaism, and that Soviet atheists should cooperate with their allies in the struggle against religion. At the same time, antifascist books published from 1933 to 1939 were relegated to “special collections,” some of them never to reappear.

In the first years of World War II Jewish themes and characters reappeared in Soviet literature, but in 1942, the Agitation-Propaganda department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee took up the question “On the recruitment and promotion of cadres in the arts,” resolving that there was a “disproportionate representation of non-Russian peoples (mostly Jews)” in these fields. The number of Jews in leading artistic institutions and mass circulation newspapers began to fall, and from 1948 until Stalin’s death in 1953, their numbers plummeted drastically.

Among “Jewish themes” that were censored was the Holocaust, which, while never denied, was submerged in the general and terrible suffering of many Soviet national groups. Some Yiddish writers dealt with the Holocaust by transferring the locale of the events beyond Soviet borders, especially to Poland, but the subject was rarely raised in Russian publications. As is well known, the “Black Book of Soviet Jewry,” edited by the distinguished Jewish war correspondents Vasilii Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg and documenting the experiences of Soviet Jews during the war, was about to be published when the order came not to release it; the book did not appear in Russia until 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. By 1949, a review of evreiskaia literatura—which can mean “Jewish” or “Yiddish” literature—in the Lenin library concluded that it was littered with “bourgeois-nationalist, Zionist, and clerical” material. Glavlit told all Soviet organs at the republic level to purge the Jewish book holdings of libraries and “in light of the special immediacy of these measures,” it asked the Party Central Committee to assume “special responsibility and supervision.”

Despite the “thaw” and a certain political relaxation in the post-Stalin era, former Soviet publication officials testify that censors would ask, “Are there not too many Jewish names among the authors and characters in journals and magazines?” Many Jewish authors responded by writing under non-Jewish pseudonyms. The secretary of the Union of Writers, Aleksei Surkov, inquired of the Central Committee in 1955 whether works of “Jewish national” literature could be published, and was told that only a small series of classic and contemporary Yiddish works could be republished. Glavlit also consulted the Central Committee about “objectionable” passages in Ilya Ehrenburg’s memoirs—for example, where he said that he had been attacked by both Fascist and Soviet authorities who forbade him to write about Jewish combatants in the Red Army. Ehrenburg was told that “publication was not recommended” unless he removed the offending passages, which he did.

A well-publicized instance of Soviet censorship of “Jewish” themes was the poem “Babi Yar” by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, published on 19 September 1961 in Literaturnaia gazeta. His protest against the silence that enveloped the Jewish tragedy in World War II and his criticism of the antisemitism he perceived in the Soviet Union aroused a storm of condemnation. When Dmitri Shostakovich featured the poem in his Thirteenth Symphony, first performed in 1962 and only three years later in the composer’s native city, Leningrad, further public controversy ensued. Anatolii Kuznetsov published a heavily censored novel, Babi Yar, in 1966. Since an uncensored edition was published abroad some years later, it is possible to see which “offensive” passages had been changed or removed by the censors.

Following the 1967 Middle East war, anything pertaining to Israel or Zionism was heavily censored and politicized. Works of writers who emigrated or who were expelled from the USSR were removed from bookstores and libraries. Only in the final years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was censorship relaxed, permitting the publication of formerly banned Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian, and other writers. Within the Soviet and post-Soviet intelligentsia these works found a very receptive audience, but by the middle of the 1990s many Russian and other readers no longer found much interest in them.

Suggested Reading

Arlen V. Blium, Evreiskii vopros pod sovetskoi tsenszuroi, 1917–1991 (St. Petersburg, 1996); Arlen V. Blium, Zensur in der UdSSR, trans. Jurij Elperin, 2 vols. (Bochum, Ger., 1999), vol. 2 is comprised of archival documents in Cyrillic; Marianna Tax Choldin, A Fence around the Empire: Russian Censorship of Western Ideas under the Tsars (Durham, N.C., 1985); Marianna Tax Choldin and Maurice Friedberg, eds., The Red Pencil: Artists, Scholars, and Censors in the USSR (Boston, 1989); Martin Dewhirst and Robert Farrell, eds., The Soviet Censorship (Metuchen, N.J., 1973); T. M. Goriaeva, Z. K. Vodop’ianova, et al., eds., Istoriia sovetskoi politicheskoi tsenzury: Dokumenty i kommentarii (Moscow, 1997); Harold Swayze, Political Control of Literature in the USSR, 1946–1959 (Cambridge, Mass., 1962).