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Banned, Censored, Exiled

Censorship of Books in the Soviet Union
Banned, Censored, Exiled Shapero Rare Books

Discover the world of Soviet era literature, where Russian writers defied totalitarian control to create art out of hardship.

Banned, Censored, Exiled Shapero Rare Books

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. Particularly in the ‘Terror’ period of the 1930s, which 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.

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.

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 appeared in English, French and Czech translations, but never in Russian until 1952.

Lifetime edition of a heavily censored collection of poems written between 1909 and 1945 - the first of Akhmatova’s works to be published after the death of Stalin.

Anna AKHMATOVA  Stikhotvoreniia [Poems] | Shapero Rare Books

Akhmatova (1889–1966) was one of the legendary figures of modern Russian poetry. Her life was one of great achievement and great loss. Her first husband, Nikolay Gumilev, was executed, her second husband, Nikolay Punin, died in the Gulag and her son Lev was also sent to the labour camps. Being one of her country's great lyric poets, she wrote first hand and movingly about Stalin's terror. While fellow poets and artists adored her, she was spied on by the state and finally expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. She survived to become one of the century's most eloquent witnesses to the Soviet nightmare and was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965.

More Books Banned in the Soviet Union

PLATONOV, ANDREI |Chevengur | Shapero Rare Books

Platonov's Chevengur tells of a disastrous attempt to bring about Communism in a small town in central Russia. Originally written in the late 1920s, it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988. Platonov's extraordinary use of words, reflecting both his own inventiveness and the corruption of linguistic meaning in the Soviet Union, unsettles the reader, layering the text with multiple meanings. This, coupled with Platonov's authenticity of voice gives a spiritual profundity to the novel that stretches far beyond its immediate plot lines.

For so many years lost amidst the onslaught of official literature, Platonov's reputation has grown exponentially since the fall of the Soviet Union. Once called 'scum' by Stalin, he has since been described by the translator Robert Chandler as the greatest Russian prose stylist of the twentieth century.

Tsvetaeva's last book of poems - one of only 400 copies for sale.

Written in the early years of her emigration to Western Europe, Tsvetaeva wanted to publish the book in Russia in 1924 on the grounds that it did not contain any political poems. Gosizdat, the state publishing house, however, did not give their consent and so she had to print the collection in Paris four years later, using money she had raised with subscriptions. All of Tsvetaeva's émigré editions were banned for circulation in the USSR.

Find Out More:

Explore first editions and rare books in our Illustrated and Russian Books department, including Russica and works in vernacular languages.

Contact Eleanor Moore for more informaton.

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