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Literature

Banned, Censored, Exiled

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

Discover the world of Soviet Era Literature. A time when 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 created 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. Its aim was to purge Soviet society of all expressions regarded as destructive to the new order whilst at the same time suppressing political dissent.

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 Russian writers seeking to tell the truth and the repressive Soviet system is exemplified by the three works below.

Manuscripts Don't Burn

One of the greatest novels 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 atheist Soviet Union, which he finds is crawling with corruption.

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.

Labour Camps and Secret Police

Solzhenitsyn had originally intended to publish his politically dangerous masterwork The Gulag Archipelago in 1969, soon after it was completed, but he then changed his mind. His hand was eventually forced after the KGB discovered a copy of one of the typescripts in August 1973. A microfilm had been sent to the West a few years earlier, and after the discovery of the typescript in Moscow, he ordered YMCA Press to go to print to forestall any possible machinations by the KGB.

‘You will hear thunder and remember me, And think: she wanted storms.’

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

A lifetime edition of a heavily censored collection of poems written between 1909 and 1945, this is the first of Akhmatova’s works to be published after the death of Stalin.

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's Chevengur

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 reflects both his inventiveness and the corruption of linguistic meaning in the Soviet Union, unsettling the reader with multiple layers of meaning. His authenticity of voice gives a spiritual profundity to the novel that stretches far beyond its immediate plot lines.

Lost for many years amidst 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 following 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 from subscriptions. All of Tsvetaeva's émigré editions were banned for circulation in the USSR.

Nabokov's Early Works

Nabokov was forced to leave Russia with his family following  the October Revolution and began publishing works in Berlin in the 1920s using the nom de plume V. Sirin (after the mythological half-bird, half-woman creature). King, Queen, Knave was the second such work to appear and was a great success. Money earned from sales allowed Nabokov and his wife Vera to clear their debts and to take their first butterfly expedition in the Pyrenees.

Grossman's Everything Flows

Vse Techet [Everything Flows] was Grossman’s first novel to be published abroad and was banned in the Soviet Union until 1989. The unfinished work (Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964) tells the story of a man released from the Gulag after 30 years. The narrator criticizes both Lenin and Stalin and details the atrocities of the Ukrainian famine.

Brodsky's A Stop in the Desert

First edition of Ostanovka v Pustyne [A Stop in the Desert], Brodsky’s second book of poetry in Russian to be published in America. Described as his first ‘real’ book, it is primarily new work together with some of his best verse to date. It is the first Russian-language edition of his works for which Brodsky made the main editorial decisions. At the time of publication, he was still in the Soviet Union (he was exiled in 1972) and his translator George Kline acted as the de facto editor of this book covertly for Brodsky's safety.

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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