Mette Newth
Oslo 2002

Forbidden Books and Newspapers

Specific period: 19th and 20th century

A brief summary of the history of censorship in Russia in 19th and 20th century

Censorship reforms began in Russia in a single decade of tolerance (1855-1865) during the reign of Tsar Alexander II, when transition was made from legislation on pre-censorship to the punitive system based on legal responsibility. The press then enjoyed greater freedom. But censorship laws were re-imposed in 1866, in effect reversing the reform. Only half a century later, pre-censorship was abrogated in the law of 1905 - 1906. Finally all censorship was abolished by the Temporary Government on April 1917. This freedom was however short lived, as the decrees only were in force until October 1917. Following the formal separation of church and state in 1918, a new, long and extensive era of strict censorship began, now executed by the revolutionary rulers of the USSR, lasting until the end of the 1980s.

In 1922, the central censorship office was established, known for short as Glavlit. Aiming to purge the Soviet society of all expressions regarded as destructive to the new order and contagious to the minds of people, the Glavlit had absolute authority to subject the performing arts and all publications to preventive censorship, and suppress political dissidence by shutting down "hostile" newspapers (1). The strict authority and meticulous practice of Glavlit covered not only the USSR but also all Soviet occupied countries.

The first publications documenting the history of Russian censorship appeared in the 1860s during the reform of censorship laws, primary initiated by the authorities. Thus Historical Information on Censorship in Russia, attributed to the author P. Schebalsky, was published in 1862 by order of the Minister of Public Education, based on the complete collection of laws and documents from the archives of the Censorship Department and the Ministry of Public Education, and covering the period from Peter the Great until 1862. The first government publications were printed in limited editions and subjected to restricted access, but public interest and press debate on the subject of censorship reform stimulated publication of various aspects of the history of Russian censorship, such as in the Russian Archives and Russian Antiquities. Based on these publications, A. Skabichevsky published Essays about History of Russian Censorship in 1892. The book became a great success among the progressive reading public, but its very popularity caused the censorship authorities to ban the Essays from public libraries.

In connection with the 1905 celebration of the 200-anniversary of the Russian Press, a series of books were published devoted to the history of Russian censorship, as well as a number of articles on the history of censorship in Western Europe and Russia until the 20th century. (2) In 1971 the Union Catalogue of Russian Illegal and Forbidden Publications of the 19th Century was published. A second expanded edition of the catalogue was published in 1981 - 1982, containing the indexed collections of more than 75 libraries, archives and museums. (3) The dissolution of the USSR and the new Russian Press Law of 1990 have spurred publication of new works on the history of censorship, and libraries in Moscow and St. Petersburg have organised several conferences and exhibitions devoted to the history of censorship.

Censorship in Imperial Russia: 19th and pre-revolution 20th century

The National Library of Russia, custodians of a Secret Department until 1917, today holds collections such as The Free Russian print collections (app. 15,000 items) containing banned and illegal publications printed in Russia and abroad between 1853 and 1917. Further more, the library holds the complete printed records and catalogues of publications subject to censorship during the pre-revolution period. The extensive censorship of pre-revolution Russia embraced all categories of printed material in all languages of the empire, as well as Russian emigrant publications and foreign publications. The annual lists of banned books in different foreign languages, such as French, Polish and German, contain both books initially forbidden and books legally imported to Russia then banned. The total number of listed banned books, magazines and newspapers in the period1803 - 1916 is approximately 20,000 items.

Censorship in the USSR period: 1917-1988

The Russian State Library in Moscow, the former Lenin State Library, holds the largest collection of banned publications published after 1917 in Russia. The collection was kept in the Department of Special Storage, founded at the Lenin State Library in 1922 (Decree of December 14, 1921). Simultaneously, the central censorship office, Glavlit, attached to the Council of Ministers of the USSR was established. The Department of Special Storage received publications directly from Glavlit, authorised to withdraw literature from open collections and from bookstores.

Initially, the collection was modest, containing mainly religious, anti-Bolshevist and anti-Leninist publications. The collection soon grew, following internal party conflicts of the 20s and 30s and the Stalin purges. The majority of banned books were written by persons who were purged during the reign of Stalin. Also publications deemed to contain other "defects"; such as a preface written by a purged political figure or a photograph of the same person, or quotations from his or her works. Also minute "defects" in seemingly quite innocent books could be placed in the closed storage.

After World War II, the Department of Special Storage began receiving foreign books and periodicals on a regular basis from Glavlit; foreign "Rossica-Sovietica", social-economic and military publications, and all literature by Russian emigrant authors, irrespective of subjects.
By 1988 when "perestroika" began, the Department of Special Storage was closed down. The collections then contained app. 27,000 Russian books, 250,000 foreign books, 572,000 issues of foreign magazines, app. 8,500 annual sets of foreign newspapers and 8,000 publications.

The collections of the Department of Special Storage, a secret to the general public and of restricted use, were never recorded in any other form than a manual catalogue card archive. All annual deposits by the Glavlit of banned foreign publications (books and magazines/newspapers) were listed. Glavlit also prepared an alphabetical index of banned Russian books. The relevant lists of banned foreign and Russian books are available at the Russian Émigré Literature Department, successor of the former Department of Special Storage.

Long-lasting censorship

Censorship in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics remains the longest lasting and most comprehensive censorship in the 20th century. In the 19th century Imperial Russia, censorship was also extensive. Russia's long history of censorship has been well documented in numerous publications both by Russian and Western experts. However, the actual records of the vast number of books and newspapers that were subjected to strict censorship in Imperial Russia and the USSR are mainly still only accessible in special collections, Russian language manual catalogue card archive and printed lists deposited in the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg (pre-revolution period) and the Russian State Library in Moscow (the USSR period).

Since the end of the 1990s, both libraries have undergone formidable changes concerning information technology. They have been converting their data bases to on-line catalogues, their truly staggering general collections naturally being a first public service priority. Considering the pressing duties and limited resources of the libraries, they can hardly be expected to solely undertake the task of making publicly available the data of Russia's long history of censorship.

Selected literature:

Historical Information on Censorship in Russia, attributed to the author P. Schebalsky, published in 1862

Essays about History of Russian Censorship, A. Skabichevsky, published in 1892.

Union Catalogue of Russian Illegal and Forbidden Publications of the 19th Century, published in 1971

List from the database: literature on censorship in the Russian Federation

List from the database: literature on censorship in the USSR.

  1. In the early 1920s during the time of Lenin and Trotsky, writers and artists were granted creative freedom, provided they observed the rule of not engaging in overt political dissent. Thus the visionary Avant Garde aesthetic movement, formed already in 1915 by Russian artists having embraced the ideals of the European Modernist Movement, did survive until 1932.
  2. Published in Brokgauz's Encyclopaedic Dictionary, some time later publishing the article Censorial
  3. Penalties by Bogucharsky, wherein the index of books censored and destroyed during the period of 1865 - 1902 for the first time was published.
  4. The transcribed Union Catalogue, representing one major source on censorship in 19th century Russia, has been included in the "Beacon for Freedom of Expression" data base.