Banned, censored, exiled: Soviet era literature

After the Soviet Union was formed in 1922, books gradually began to be aligned with communist ideology. However, there were some Russian writers who persevered within the totalitarian state and managed to create art out of hardship.

The Bolshevik-led October Revolution of 1917 provided ideological justifications for restricting the flow of foreign ideas and analysis into the USSR. One of the first manifestations of this would be the creation of the Main Administration for Literary and Publishing Affairs, or Glavlit, aiming to purge Soviet society of all expressions regarded as destructive to the new order and suppressing political dissidence.

When literature came under state control

Characteristics of books that were considered “harmful” to the Soviet Union included failure to promote the worker’s class consciousness and willingness to work hard, religious propaganda, pro-tsarist ideas, opposition to revolutionary class struggle and promoting national hatred.

Writers were bound to the Marxist-Leninist cause via the stifling Union of Soviet Writers. Meanwhile, Goskomizdat (State Committee for Publishing Houses, Printing Plants, and the Book Trade), made all publishing decisions.

“Enemies of the People”

The restrictions became especially severe during the 1930s under Stalin’s rule when the regime regulated literary expression through socialist realism. The inner party struggles and the subsequent repressions against the “enemies of the people” led to heightened censorship, which was now aimed at eliminating not only anti-socialist ideas but also any ambiguity that might lead to free interpretations.

In order to get their work published authors used allegorical references and compromised on a few lines, or even entire chapters. Openly controversial titles were smuggled abroad and published with the help of Russian émigrés and, in some cases, the CIA, who used them as propaganda tools during the Cold War.

Punishment for non-compliance was a serious business and particularly in the ‘Terror’ period of the 1930s, started with exclusion from the Komsomol and the Party and progressed to being sent to one of the numerous gulags, or, finally, execution.

Defying the Soviet system: Notable works of Russian literature

The struggle between the Russian writers seeking to tell the truth and the repressive Soviet system can be exemplified by the three works below.

Мастер и Маргарита [The Master and Margarita]

One of the greatest novel to come out of Communist Russia is a fiercely satirical fantasy that remained unpublished in its author's home country for over thirty years. The story concerns a visit by the devil to the fervently atheistic Soviet Union, finding it crawling with corruption

Manuscripts don't burn

Having started in 1928, Bulgakov burned the manuscript in 1930, only to rewrite and revise it for the next ten years until 1938. In common with most of Bulgakov’s prose it was not published until long after his death in 1940.

During his life, Bulgakov was best known for the plays he wrote for the Moscow Art Theatre. He published a number of novels and stories through the early and mid 1920s, but by 1929 his career was ruined: government censorship prevented publication of any of his work and Stalin personally forbade him to emigrate.


Мы [We]

It is a book in which one man, living in a future totalitarian society,  finds himself rebelling against the dehumanising forces of an omnipotent dictator. Sound familiar?

The Eastern origins of Orwell's 1984

The work’s influence on George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World has been well documented. Huxley however always denied that he had read the work before writing his novel. Orwell maintained that Huxley was in denial, and fully acknowledged that he himself read and reviewed a French edition of the novel some months before starting on 1984.

During the early 1920s Zamyatin’s masterpiece circulated in the Soviet Union amongst a small literary circle and received one public reading, but was almost immediately banned.

A copy of the manuscript found its way out of the country, and the book has appeared in English, French and Czech translations, but never in Russian until 1952.

Requiem (Реквием)

Written between 1935 and 1940, ‘Requiem’ was not published in Russia until 1987. Two personal dramas in particular - the arrest and imprisonment of her son for 18 years and of her husband, who would finally die in a camp - inspired the content of this work. Primarily a sequence of poetry and prose portraying some of the full-fledged horrors endured by Soviet citizens who were wrongly imprisoned, as well as the anguish of their relatives, especially the mothers and wives, those women with whom Akhmatova stood in line outside the prison walls.

An Elegy for Russia

While Isaiah Berlin had predicted in 1946 that ‘Requiem’ would never be published in the Soviet Union, it was memorised by the author and a few close friends for fear that writing them down would jeopardise their lives. An emblematic denunciation of Stalinist repression and consecutive sufferings, ‘Requiem’ is considered by many to be Akhmatova’s finest work.

Find out More

Explore first editions and rare books in our Russian and Eastern European department including Rossica and works in vernacular languages.

Contact Yulia Fedorenko for more informaton.