Writers were to varying extents bound to the Marxist-Leninist cause throughout the Soviet period, overseen by the stifling Union of Soviet Writers and Goskomizdat (State Committee for Publishing Houses, Printing Plants, and the Book Trade). The strictest period of Soviet censorship, however, began in 1934, when Andrei Zhdanov, then head of the Communist Party, informed the First Congress of Soviet Writers that their work should ‘depict reality in its revolutionary development.’ This idea came to be known as Socialist Realism, and meant that all literary works had to adhere to a ‘master plot’ mapping the transformation of an ordinary worker, inherently good but marred by a benign flaw such as tardiness, into a fully conscious contributor to socialist society. Books could also be banned during this period on the grounds of constituting religious or Western propaganda, expounding sympathy for the Tsar or, in the case of Soviet states like Ukraine, promoting the ‘wrong’ kind of nationalism.
Punishment for non-compliance was a serious business; exclusion from the Union of Writers alone could end a career, and was generally followed by exclusion from the Party. In some cases it ultimately led to imprisonment in a gulag or even execution.
Socialist realism re-appeared sporadically in mutated forms throughout the remainder of the Soviet period, but ceased to be the dominant principle of artistic production after Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s ‘Terror’ and cult of personality in his Secret Speech of 1956.
For all you need to know about Socialist Realism, we recommend Katerina Clark’s seminal work The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual.
5 Banned Russian Books You Should Know
Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov
Bulgakov was best known during his lifetime as a dramatist for the Moscow Art Theatre. In fact, perhaps surprisingly for the man at the top of our list of banned authors, his play The Day of the Turbins was known officially to have been Stalin’s favourite. Nowadays he is even better known as the author of The Master and Margarita, which he began in 1928 and had not finished at the time of his death in 1940. Over this twelve year period, Bulgakov kept the manuscript hidden at all times, and even burnt it in 1930, though this had more to do with his own disappointment in what he’d written than the fear of arrest. The fact that Bulgakov resumed writing The Master and Margarita after this event is believed to have inspired the work’s most quoted line, ‘manuscripts don’t burn.’
Heart of a Dog, meanwhile, tells the story of an eccentric scientist who decides to transplant a human heart, brain and testicles into a stray dog, resulting in chaos. Though easy analogy was never Bulgakov’s style, many (including the Soviet censors of the day) chose to read this as a metaphor for the Bolsheviks’ misguided attempts to transform human beings. The book was banned in the Soviet Union until 1987.
However, before 1987 it circulated in both samizdat form (printed at home and passed among friends) and tamizdat form (published abroad but in the original Russian. Shapero has a copy of each for sale:
The samizdat copy is printed on extremely thin paper (possibly baking parchment) and bound in an amateur card and red buckram binding, with the title hand-stencilled on cover. It was originally owned by a Russian documentary filmmaker, who says:
The book came into my possession at the end of the 70s, and was given to me by a friend. I was given other books during this period as well, but these I returned to their original owners at the time … With just one exception (Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki), I only ever read books like this at home and never took them outside the flat in order avoid any unnecessary risks … I myself never tried to reproduce and distribute this type of book, as it was illegal to do so, but one of my friends was involved in the production of Khroniki tekushchikh sobytii [Chronicle of Current Events], while another was arrested in 1975 for involvement in the dispersal of forbidden works.”
(Translated excerpt from e-mail, 8 August 2012).
Our tamizdat copy appears in an edition of the journal Grani (Boundaries) from 1968, published in Frankfurt am Maine in 1968. The journal also includes the first appearance of Right Hand, a short story by Solzhenitsyn.
Requiem, Anna Akhmatova
Akhmatova began this elegy in 1935 but, like Heart of a Dog, it remained unpublished in Russia until 1987. In the foreword to the poem, Akhmatova describes waiting in vain for news, in the freezing cold, outside the St. Petersburg prison where her son had been detained, and being asked by one of the many other mothers waiting there, ‘can you write this?’. Requiem is the result of this desperate request. It pairs moving description of the hardship and anguish of life during the so-called Great Terror – something Akhmatova knew well, as both her first and second husbands were arrested and killed by the Soviet government – with meditations on the anguish of the Virgin Mary on seeing her son crucified. An emblematic denunciation of Stalinist repression and the suffering it brought, Requiem is considered by many to be Akhmatova’s finest work.
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and of little value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.”
OK, you’re probably well aware of Pasternak’s novel – or at least of the 1965 film version starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. What you may not know is that Doctor Zhivago has a rather intriguing publishing history.
After Soviet authorities rejected the book, Pasternak approached the Italian publisher Feltrinelli about the possibility of his publishing it in Italian, with the hope that it would eventually be translated from this into other European languages. Feltrinelli obliged, and published the book in 1957. Albert Camus read this edition nominated it for the Nobel Prize in 1958; however, the novel could not win unless it was also published in its original language.
According to the literary historian Ivan Tolstoi, the CIA seized upon this opportunity to highlight the way that writers were treated in the USSR and decided to make sure Doctor Zhivago was published in Russian at any cost. Although the Russian edition bears Feltrinelli’s name, he did not print it; Tolstoi claims that the CIA had the typescript copied at Malta airport and published it in The Netherlands with the help of several emigrés. Pasternak did win the Nobel Prize in 1958 but was not allowed to accept it, a terrific coup for anti-Soviet propaganda.
The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
With the 1962 publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solzhenitsyn’s first novel, also set in a Soviet labour camp), many Soviet citizens hoped that the days of Stalinist repression of subversive literature were long gone. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case. Solzhenitsyn had felt uneasy about making The Gulag Archipelago, his masterpiece, publicly available, and kept it under wraps for four years after he finished writing it. However, his hand was eventually forced: the KGB discovered a copy of one of the typescripts in August 1973, and Solzhenitsyn ordered that a microfilm of the novel that had been sent to the west a few years earlier went to print via the YMCA press in order to forestall any possible interference by the KGB.
Solzhenitsyn’s own life perfectly illustrates the absurd and often seemingly arbitrary way in which the Soviet government treated its artists: first imprisoned in a gulag for eight years for making a derogatory comment about Stalin’s leadership in a letter to a fellow soldier; then celebrated as the author of a brilliant exposé of the horrors of life in a labour camp; and finally (in large part thanks to The Gulag Archipelago) extradited to West Germany and charged with treason.
The Gabrieliad, Aleksandr Pushkin
We’ve cheated a bit with this last one, but we wanted to highlight the fact that the practice of banning books was prevalent in Russia long before the Bolsheviks came to power and what better way than Pushkin’s Gabrieliad.
Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) is widely considered to be Russia’s greatest national poet; even today, many Russians refer to him as ‘наше всё’ [our everything]. He is known for works including Boris Godunov, Ruslan and Liudmila, The Bronze Horseman, and his novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, which was described by a contemporary critic as ‘an encyclopaedia of Russian life,’ and whose most famous (and eccentric) translation was completed by none other than Vladimir Nabokov.
The poet was so greatly respected during his lifetime that Tsar Nicholas I served as his own personal censor. Ultimately, however, he was fatally wounded in a duel with his brother-in-law, Georges-Charles d’Anthès, a French officer who had attempted to seduce the poet’s wife. The St Petersburg home in which Pushkin died is now on of Russia’s most popular tourist destinations.
However, the wholesome image of Pushkin as a national treasure and literary genius cut down in his prime is somewhat undermined by The Gabrieliad, which is both blasphemous and erotic, satirising the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth and the Fall of Adam and Eve. Bored and revolted by the pious hypocrisy of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pushkin wrote this satirical amalgam of several of the Church’s most revered dogmas in April 1821. It tells the story of Mary, a beautiful young Jewess neglected by her older husband. The Lord sees Mary and falls in love, and sends the Archangel Gabriel to tell her this; but before either of them can take matters further, the Devil presents himself to Mary as a handsome man and seduces her. Gabriel eventually drives the Devil off in order to seduce Mary himself. Once Gabriel has left, God pays Mary a visit of his own, disguised as a white dove. The debauchery continues.
Much too scandalous to be published at the time, the text instead circulated anonymously in manuscript form. It came to the attention of the authorities only in 1828, at which point an inquiry was opened and Pushkin was brought in for questioning. He initially denied his authorship, but as the work was known to be his, the poet was obliged to write a letter to the Tsar Nicholas I confessing and expressing contrition in order to avoid exile.
The poem was first published in a collection of Russian poetry in London in 1861. Many editions were subsequently smuggled back into Russia, where they circulated illegally. Meanwhile a (heavily censored) version of the text in Russian appeared only in 1907. The poem was finally published there in full in 1917.