Alexander Nekrich, “Rewriting History” (1980)

In 1965 a ten-volume edition of The History of the World, prepared by the Humanities Faculties of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was completed. I was deputy editor, responsible for the tenth and last volume, which was devoted to a history of the Second World War. The book was at the stage of being collated when I was invited to see the censor of the Mysl (Thought) publishing house, which was preparing the volume for printing.

On the table in front of the censor lay a sheet of paper with columns of names written on it. Before each name was a two-digit number. I sat down on the chair beside the censor and when I glanced at the sheet, saw the familiar names of Marshals of the Soviet Union – Bagramyan, Vasilievsky, Govorov, Zhukov, Rokossovsky, and others. Next to Rokossovsky’s name was the number 13, next to Zhukov’s was an 11. At first the censor asked me to explain some of the formulations I had used, which he found dubious. My replies and willingness to throw out a few sentences in different places satisfied him. But that was only the beginning of our talk.

“In your volume” said the censor, “there seems to be a sort of cult of Marshal Zhukov.”

“What do you mean? “ I asked and suddenly felt my irritation mounting. “There is no Zhukov cult in our volume.”

“Zhukov” the censor objected, “is mentioned 11 times (!) Isn’t that too often?”

My answer was roughly as follows: our text mentioned commanders at the fronts and representatives of the Headquarters of the Supreme Command, either in connection with large-scale operations like, for example, the battle of Moscow, the defence of Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kursk, and the Berlin operation, or it referred to them in connection with changes in command at the fronts. It was natural therefore that some Marshals were mentioned more often than others.

“But” the censor insisted, “ Eleven times is too often.”

“Yet we mention Marshal Zhukov only when we have to. Rokossovsky is mentioned even more than Zhukov — 13 times. Does that mean that we have a Rokossovsky cult too?”

The censor set aside his sheet of paper with displeasure. Then he paused, sighed, and adopting a more amicable tone asked, “So, you think we won’t have any unpleasantness because of you, when the tenth volume comes out in print?”

“Of course not,” I answered with assurance, although in fact not only was I not sure, but I actually expected a great deal of unpleasantness because of the way we had treated the USSR’s unpreparedness for the German assault, because of our sympathetic tone towards the USSR’s Western allies, and other things.

As it turned out, we did not have any difficulties on account of our ‘ Zhukov line’. But the Central Committee command, in the person of S. P. Trapeznikov, head of the Department of Science and Higher Institutes of Education, was dissatisfied with our volume, and even called it ‘ discreditory’ – a new-fangled term, slightly milder than ‘ slanderous’.

Censorship in the head

This episode, which took place 13 years after Stalin’s death, shows that the censor in the USSR adheres strictly to the dictates of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Zhukov was still in disgrace for the time being and the censors were zealously making sure that nothing good was said about him, unless absolutely necessary.

Censorship, which was introduced by Lenin as a ‘temporary measure’, has become one of the pillars supporting the edifice of the Soviet regime. In the last quarter of a century censorship in the USSR has grown now more, now less rigorous, depending on the instructions received from the Central Committee, but its main task has remained unchanged: not to allow any deviations from the tenets of official Soviet ideology, or any departure from the confines of Soviet conformism.

The censor’s sway is felt most acutely in the social sciences, especially in the sphere of history. Soviet censorship begins in the head of the historian. When preparing to research some topic he must imagine not only the difficulties he will face because of a shortage of primary sources, and because he is unlikely to be able to work in foreign archives etc, but he must also assess the ‘acceptability’ of his topic from the point of view of the censor. There are themes which to this day remain taboo for a historian whose field is Soviet society – for example, the history of working class and peasant parties, other than the Bolshevik Party. Even the real history of the CPSU is impossible to research because the ban on the works of Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, the Bulletins of the Opposition, the Socialist Herald and many other sources, dooms any such attempt to complete failure. This is why it is something of a heroic feat when a Soviet historian manages to “ drag out” a new document under some pretext or other. It is impossible to research the problems of genocide in the USSR, Soviet-German relations in the Hitler period, and particularly the problems of their collaboration in 1939-41. Any theme which the authorities think might damage the prestige not just of the USSR, but of pre-revolutionary Russia too, is quickly rejected. It is sufficient to cite as an example A. A. Zimin’s research on the origins of the Campaign of Prince Igor, in which he suggested that this monument to Russian culture, which has been officially sanctioned and revered by party and government, is an apocryphal work of the eighteenth century. Zimin’s manuscript was discussed at a closed meeting, to which rank and file members of the Academy’s Institute of History – the majority of Zimin’s colleagues – were not admitted. At the entrance to the meeting room a gangling youth was posted as a security guard. The youth L.G., then a junior member of the Institute, a few years later, by an irony of fate (or perhaps quite logically), was to hold a prominent post in the Committee for Printing Affairs. As a consequence of the meeting Zimin’s manuscript was not printed, and furthermore for a few years nothing he wrote was published. All this contributed in no small degree to his early death in February 1980 at the age of 60.

For the conscientious researcher work loses all point if the censor asks him not only to delete this or that fact, but also to reach conclusions that are acceptable in the current political scene. And this is where self-censorship comes into play, the most important of all forms of censorship in socialist society. Self-censorship exerts a profound influence not only on the quality of the research done, but also on the researcher himself. If censorship is an essential element of the structure of the USSR, on a par with the army and state security, then self-censorship is an essential quality of homo Sovieticus — especially the sub-species of writer specialising in history and social and political sciences.

The second ‘ tier’ of censorship in the USSR is the state censor, embodied in the institution called the Chief Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in Publishing, called Glavlit for short. It is attached to the USSR Council of Ministers but employs censors in the provinces. Along with Glavlit, censorship is undertaken as the need arises by the military censor, the special military censor, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the KGB, and, of course, the Central Committee itself, which has the deciding vote when there is a dispute over whether or not to publish some piece of historical research. The individual censor is in most cases anonymous. The author usually comes into contact with him through the publisher, and it is almost always futile to protest against his demands.

My book 1941, 22 June, which was published in the sixties by the Nauka (Science) publishing house in Moscow, provoked a bitter controversy. It was the subject of a special investigation in the Central Committee of the Party and passed through several censors – Glavlit, the military censor, the special military censor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the KGB – before it finally came out in print. Each authority suggested cuts, the last one (the KGB) recommending that it should not be printed at all. In August 1967 the book was withdrawn on the orders of Glavlit from all libraries which did not have ‘special’ storage space (that is the overwhelming majority of libraries in the USSR), and the copies were burned.

But this was an extreme case. Usually the author is governed by self-censorship and the censors.

The limits of liberalisation

In the first five or six years after Stalin’s death the censorship of historical work slackened considerably. This could be seen first in the fact that a wider circle of archive materials became available. Besides that, foreign material was transferred from closed to open storage, contacts with the outside world were expanded and it became possible to order microfilm from other countries through the libraries and institutes. During the first 10 years after the “Great Loss” a large amount of interesting research appeared in almost every branch of historical learning. This development reached its peak at the All-Union Conference of Historians in Moscow at the end of 1962. After that clouds quickly began to gather again.

Those who ran ahead and outstripped the pace of events were punished even in the relatively liberal post-Stalinist period. For example, the historian E. N. Burdzhalov was expelled from the Party and driven out of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences for writing articles which appeared too ‘seditious’, on the history of the February and October Revolutions. Later, in the 1960s, the historian Dunaevsky was forced to recant for having dared to use as a source for an article the memoirs of another historian, Slutsky (branded a Trotskyite by Stalin in 1931), memoirs which only by a miracle had survived the years of the Terror. In the 1970s several collections of articles devoted to the history of the Russian proletariat were destroyed, after provoking the fury of the Party’s historical Mafia, based in the Academy of Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the CPSU and in the Supreme Party School. The director of the Institute of History of the Soviet Academy, P. V. Volobuev, entered into the debate on the other side, and paid for it by losing his director’s chair.

All the same, the course of events after the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 led to serious changes – mostly psychological – in historical science. The rehabilitation of victims of Stalin’s terror revived, for example, the genre of biographical history and memoirs, which had completely disappeared in the years of Stalin’s dictatorship. But very soon, under the pressure of the Party reactionaries, special clichés were introduced which, as it were, created an invisible boundary between what was allowed and what was not These clichés made things easier for the censor and at the same time were a form of restraint on authors who were “taking liberties”.

We can turn for an example to the most complete and up-to-date history sourcebook, the 16- volume Soviet Historical Encyclopedia. Its first volume appeared in 1961; the last (No. 16), in 1976. The early volumes came out while Khrushchev was still in power, and the articles in them bear the stamp of the struggle at that period against the “Cult of Personality”. In the biographies of victims of the Terror in the 1930s – for example of Marshal A. I. Egorov – the writer states: “He was slandered and suppressed in the Stalinist period of the Cult Of Personality. Posthumously rehabilitated” (p. 473, Vol. 5, 1964. Another example is on p. 631 of same volume). Ten years later, however, in Vols. 14-16, a milder formula appears: “unlawfully repressed, posthumously rehabilitated”. (See, for example, the biography of M. N. Tukhachevsky, pp. 588-600, Vol. 14, Moscow 1974; also of I. P. Uborevich, ibid, p. 642; I. S. Unshlikht, ibid, p. 872; I. E. Yakir, p. 852, Vol. 16, 1976.) Gone is the reference to slander, to Stalin, and finally, even to the “period of the Cult of Personality”.

Search in vain through the Soviet Historical Encyclopedia for biographies of N. I. Bukharin, G. E. Zinoviev, L. B. Kamenev and Leon Trotsky. They are not there because – in Khrushchev and Brezhnev’s times, as in Stalin’s – they have been reckoned to be on the “rubbish heap of history “ (Trotsky’s own expression, which has since been adopted by orthodox Stalinist historians of the CPSU). However, one cannot exclude the possibility that in time they may be retrieved . . . A tiny exception has been made for Trotsky. His writings of course appear nowhere, but in an article called ‘Trotskyism’ in the Encyclopedia you can find the dates of his birth and death. Progress indeed!

The removal of Khrushchev in 1964 led to a tightening up of the censorship. Once again, the scissors went into motion and the special storage sections were stocked with new additions [see Index on Censorship 3/1979, p. 4]. In 1965-6 the Party Committee of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History prepared to publish a survey of the state of historical science in the USSR. This was a fairly critical survey for its day, directing historians to study the “ blank patches” of Soviet history. The text of the survey was discussed twice by a general Party assembly of the Institute (consisting of about 300 people), and it won unanimous approval. Then it was sent off to the Nauka publishing house to be printed. The text was typeset, but the venture got no further. The censor would not let it through and did not give any explanations. In fact, he was following the instructions of the Central Committee. In vain the lower Party committee appealed to the “ chief ideologist” Suslov. They got no answer, and the survey was never published.

Censorship was again significantly tightened in connection with the events of 1967-8 in Czechoslovakia. For the Prague Spring demonstrated that the censor is one of the cornerstones of socialist society. As soon as censorship was abolished in Czechoslovakia not only did the sores of Czechoslovak socialism open for all to see, but the political structure began to crumble. With almost Biblical resonance the WORD rang out and the regime tottered. The Soviet leadership immediately grasped what was going on: freedom of expression could shatter the political foundations of Soviet socialism. Among other things the Soviet intervention in 1968 was bound to curb the general trend towards free expression in socialist countries and the demands that censorship be abolished.

Dangerous talent

The most amusing thing is that, officially speaking, censorship does not exist in the USSR. The very term is firmly repudiated when applied to a socialist regime. The Soviet Historical Encyclopedia, in an entry on ‘ Censorship’ states categorically (p. 718, Vol. 15, 1974).:

“Socialist revolutions put an end to bourgeois censorship. The constitutions of socialist countries guarantee the workers freedom of the press . . . The protection of state and military secrets in printed matter is carried out in socialist countries by special organs”.

It remains to add that these ‘ special organs’ not only check the text but are also on the look out for a possible ‘ sub-text’ – i.e., things that are not actually in the work but might be implied.

At the end of the sixties the censors (for this is what we shall continue to call them) even started using a special term: “unchecked sub-text”. On this pretext the censor, always wary of dirty tricks, began to cut out whole chunks of a text. A classic example was the time when the censor asked two authors who had written on the history of German Fascism to erase the phrase: “Hitler created a Party which one might join but never leave.” The censor obviously saw in this remark an allusion to the Soviet Communist Party, whose statute does not provide for free exit either. Those who do try to leave the Party on some pretext or other are reckoned either to be madmen (with a good chance of being put in an asylum) or ‘anti-Soviet’ (with a strong probability of landing in prison). In our day the censor takes great pains to ensure that readers do not make ‘parallels’, so that when reading about the past they do not make any unfavourable connections with the present.

The appearance of exceptional minds has proved the greatest irritant. They are regarded as a potential source of unrest. Talent is the only challenge to conformism. It is not accidental therefore that in the seventies the main blows were aimed at talented historians. One recalls the hullaballoo that arose in 1970 about A. Y. Gurevich’s book Questions of the Rise of Feudalism in Western Europe (see the journal Questions of History, No. 9, 1970), and the muffled struggle over L. Batkin’s history of the Italian Renaissance, which has not been published to this day. Both books seemingly bear no relation to present-day Soviet life, but there is a primordial envy of talent and then again, there is the danger of associations . . .

Nevertheless, the 1970s are markedly different from the Stalinist epoch in that historians have appeared who have defended their convictions despite the pressure of the Party bosses and their own conformist colleagues. And colleagues have appeared who support them, and not only support them, but exert pressure to have their work published and block any attempts to punish them by “academic methods”, i.e., by cutting their work out of editorial schedules and collections that are being planned. Therefore, despite all these restrictive, obstructive and limiting measures, despite the censoring and defamation of talented and honourable historians living in the USSR, the candle continues to burn.

Translated by Marjorie Farquharson,
Index on Censorship 4/1980