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Vintage WD: The Author in Russia

In this 1937 article, journalist Eugene Lyons wrote about his observations of the censorship of authors in Russia during the first decades of the Soviet Union.

Some of the most interesting articles from the Writer's Digest archives are the ones that address topics that affected writers of the time. In this 1937 article, journalist Eugene Lyons wrote about his observations of the censorship of authors in Russia during the first decades of the Soviet Union.

By Eugene Lyons, United Press Moscow correspondent for six years.

Writer’s Digest, May 1937

authors in Russia

People under a dictatorship, it has been well said, are condemned to a lifetime of enthusiasm. That harsh sentence applies with exceptional force to writers for the obvious reason that the enthusiasm of the scrivening brethren is essential to the enthusiasm of the rest of the population. Under any social system ever devised, the rulers can’t dispense with propagandists, panegyrists, and court poets: writers all; that’s one of the consolations of our profession.

In the Soviet Union, where I lived continuously for six years, the sentence is easily enforced. Every printing press in the land belongs to the government, every newspaper and magazine is a state-owned institution, every editor is an employee of the dictatorship. Talk of a “kept” press!

The state has an absolute monopoly of all economic and cultural enterprise, but nowhere is the monopoly as jealously guarded as in the domain of ideas – which means every type of writing and publication. A writer who offends the political sensibilities of one publication cannot take his wares to another literary shop – automatically he is blacklisted by them all. If the offense is a serious one, indeed, he is lucky if he is not assigned to chopping trees in some labor camp.

Censorship of the word is more rigid in Russia than anywhere in the world, with only Germany as a runner-up within hailing distance. Every book, before it is even considered by one of the government publishing organizations, must be read and passed by Glavlit the literary censorship office. Ditto every play. Magazines and newspapers, besides being subject to a series of political checks and counterchecks to week out possible heresy, have special persons on their staffs charged with the responsibility of detecting and casting our anything faintly off-color politically.

But the formal censorship is only the outward monitor of literary morals. More pervasive and persuasive is the inner censor in the writer’s own mind. He knows that if he is to survive and prosper, he must keep his tongue muzzled and on short leash. It is not enough to please the official tasters. It is far more dangerous, indeed, to get a piece of writing past the censors, have it published, and be subjected to criticism on political grounds afterward. I have watched the tormented months of playwrights and novelists whose works, duly passed and produced, drew down the hot lava of official anger on their heads. They could only curse themselves as idiots for ever writing such ideologically risqué stuff.

[Read more about what archived WD issues thought about censorship here.]

The Soviet author with an ounce of caution in his make-up therefore thinks long and earnestly before he submits a doubtful work to the state publishers. He censors himself more meticulously than any outsider can because he is more interested in saving his skin than any outsider can be. My personal contact during my Moscow years were chiefly with literary people and journalists (in Europe the two categories coincide more frequently than with us.) Many of them, I knew, had manuscripts in their desks for which they would not dream of seeking publication. “In their desks” doesn’t quite tell the story. When the heretical play or poem or novel gave too realistic a picture of current Soviet conditions, or too personal an interpretation of life, the hiding place was more likely to be an inaccessible rafter or a secret corner of the cellar.

The most tragic thing that can happen to a Soviet author, perhaps, is to be praised by the wrong people. The gifted Russian novelist Boris Pilnyak can testify on that count. Once he wrote a longish story titled “Mahogany.” Though it was a sharply realistic description of the difficulties and desperation of life in a Soviet provincial town, the censors passed it. But accidentally it was published abroad before it was issued in Moscow and the Russian émigré press was moved to say nice things about it. That was enough for the true believers. No sooner had one Soviet paper given the signal, than the entire press and the whole writing fraternity converged on poor Pilnyak in a yelping pack.

Every writer with an active will to survive was obliged to demonstrate his loyalty to the cause by attacking Pilnyak. Neither the content nor the quality of the offending story mattered. Few of those who barked angrily had even read it: their synthetic indignation was distinctly secondhand. For nearly two years thereafter Pilnyak, though recognized as one of the foremost novelists, could not find publication. Ultimately, the self-same story, only slightly medicated, was woven into the novel The Volga Flows to the Caspian Sea and was highly praised by the very critics who had snarled at Pilnyak.

I watched an instance of official ostracism as applied to an offending writer of smaller caliber. Sergei Alimov, who wrote popular fiction and verse, got himself in bad with the authorities by talking too much while under the influence of vodka. I did not know the details of his transgression; I knew only that he was exiled to the Far North for a couple of years. Upon his return, he had the mark of Cain on him. No editor dared to accept his contributions, thought the things he wrote in his chastened mood were in themselves beyond criticism on political grounds. The poems and novels and plays piled up in his narrow room while Alimov worried about making a living.

Then he had a stroke of luck. A Soviet film appeared dealing with an unofficial war fought in 1929-30 on the Soviet-Manchurian frontier. Soon all of Russia was singing and humming a catchy marching song written years before which the director had put into the film. One day Stalin was entertaining a group of literary folk. The song was mentioned. Casually Stalin asked:

“Who wrote the words to that song? It’s good.”

“Oh, a fellow by the name of Sergei Alimov,” someone answered.

That was all – but it was enough. The mere fact that his name had been mentioned in the sacred presence of Stalin in a pleasant connotation sufficed to cleanse it of suspicion. Editorial doors opened, and some of his accumulated writing were accepted – he was snowed under with orders for more.

Censorship of course does not affect the writers whose views are identical with those of the censors. Certain Russian writers of my acquaintance have insisted that the pressure is so light they scarcely feel it. But these were, in every case, hundred-percenters for whom compliance with the official catechism was second nature. The relative freedom of press and conscience in any nation must be judged by those out of step rather than by the ardent goosesteppers.

There are writers who, though not communists, or who are opposed to the new set-up in their secret hearts and minds, have a useful talent for conformity. The majority of those who get on under the totalitarian regimes (Germany, Italy, Russia, etc.) belong in such a classification. They have learned how to placate the powers that control the feed trough.

But the literary gift and the gift of stooging do not always go together. Some writers have a hard time of it to make both end of their ideology meet. It is no accident that so many fine novelists and dramatists in the new Russia seek their materials in the recent or remote past: the civil war years, the sufferings of pre-Soviet Russia, or even farther back in the era of Peter the Great or ancient Rome. The scope for free writing is naturally less restricted the farther removed the subject is from contemporary affairs.

But for writers who do toe the line of Bolshevik dogma, a line that shifts from year to year and therefore calls for considerable qui vive intellectual acrobatics, Soviet Russia offers more privileges and rewards than most countries. The temptation to conform, to become a literary stooge for the particular gang in control of the Kremlin, is that much more compelling.

More than half the Soviet population learned to read and write only in the last 10 years or so. Writers are held in peculiarly high esteem: the natural awe of the backward for the “cultured.” The printed word is a new experience for most Russians, and for the first time in the country’s history they are being encouraged to read, even if their mental fare is carefully selected and doctored for them. A great hunger for information has been aroused and editions of a million or more are not rare for books the government is eager to push.

Novels blessed by the Kremlin reach fantastic circulations; there are a score of Soviet novels, some of decidedly inferior quality, which make Gone With the Wind’s sales look lethargic. There are any number of plays that would make Abie’s Irish Rose wilt with envy. A five year’s run, with simultaneous production in half a hundred citied or more, is commonplace.

More than that: Writing is practically the only major human enterprise not yet socialized by Moscow regime. Writers are paid, and paid handsomely, on an old-fashioned royalty basis for books and plays. Newspaper and magazine contributions are paid on space, the rate varying with the prominence of the author. The ancient law of demand and supply canceled out in other departments of Russian life, still holds good in the literary field. The more popular authors are in great demand and some of them very nearly set their own figures.

Scenario writers for the Soviet cinema don’t possess sunken bathtubs; they may be pikers compared to Frances Marion and Nunally Johnson. But by local standards their incomes are princely.

The press has not learned our trick of syndication and every newspaper pays full space rates for the material it publishes, even if it appears in a hundred other papers. Journalists in great demand, like Karl Radek (before he was put in the hoosegow for alleged Trotskyist activities), Zaslavsky, or Mikhail Koltzov, may thus be paid a hundred-fold for everything they write. The late Maxim Gorki, whose every word achieved the weight of political holy writ, earned fabulous sums for his newspaper articles.

Despite the handicaps of a rigidly controlled press and publishing system, writers under the Soviet arrangement today are on the whole a privileged class. In any statistical chart on incomes they would rank first. There are men and women whose writings bring them royalties of 10 and 15 thousand rubles a month. To understand what that means we need only recall that the average monthly wage in the country is under 200 rubles. In Moscow and Leningrad, writers are very much in view in the most expensive hotels; they can afford the loveliest wives; they have access to plenty of clothes and food in a time of general goods shortage.

The average writer, like the average human being is more concerned with his income than his conscience. Harsh as the censorship arrangement may sound, most authors are by this time fairly adjusted to it. Those who couldn’t make the adjustment have been “liquidated” long ago. The outsider observing the scene, contrasting it with relative freedom of expression in democratic countries, is more aware of constraints than the practicing native literary man.

It is well to recall too that freedom has never been a popular idea in Russia, even before the present authoritarian regime came into power. The chief difference between censorship under Tsarism and under Sovietism is essentially this: the old government insisted merely that nothing specifically anti-Tsarism be written or published, whereas the new regime demands more – that everything be directly or indirectly pro-government. In other words, the Soviets consider neutrality or indifference as on a par with hostility.

The writer must therefore actively support the communist attitude and dogmas. He cannot retire to an ivory tower above the daily fracas. The sort of criticism which the Tsars permitted – witness the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and the pre-revolutionary Gorki, etc. – would be unthinkable under the Bolshevik rulers.

For reasons of international diplomacy Russia, which is eager to be accepted into the company of democratic nations like France and England, is seeking to create the impression that it has accepted democracy. How any one-party system in which political thinking that deviates from the prescribed “Party line” is punished as treachery can be made democratic is a mystery. In any event, the writing fraternity has not yet felt the impact of the new democracy. In a dispatch dated this January 9th the Associated Press reported from Moscow:

“With the transitory rise and fall of personalities and lines of thought in the Russian Revolution, the writer must be sure that what he relates will conform to current theses and also meet future theories. Inasmuch as no one knows what will happen next in Soviet Russia, those conditions are clearly impossible, and so literature wanes.”

In other words, books that are perfectly patriotic at the moment they area written may emerge as “counter-revolutionary” by the time they are published, because the catechism has been altered in the meantime. In my book of sketches of Russian life, Moscow Carousel, I recorded the sad plight of a novelist whose most popular work, with a peasant background, went through nine huge editions. When the time arrive for edition number 10, the book was declared “anti-Soviet.” In the interval the Kremlin’s policy in relation to the peasants had changed. What was entirely acceptable for nine editions suddenly became treacherous . ...

The extent of governmental pressure has varied since the beginning of the revolution. At the present moment there is, relatively speaking, wider scope of the ordinary writer than there was up to 1934. When the first Five Year Plan was under way, private emotions and private problems were practically taboo as subject matter for fiction and drama. The only permissible heroes were, in effect, tractors, electric stations, factories and canals. Stories of the deeply personal variety, particularly love stories, were frowned upon. Sentimental poetry was being written no doubt – people keep on loving and spilling over in word despite official edicts; but such stuff was not publishable.

During that harsh period we always were able to recognize the villain by the fact that he was shaved and had a way with women. Though he lost out in the end, he had a good time of it before that end. The hero was a stalwart, unromantic person who was too busy building bridges or producing widgets to indulge in the lighter joys of existence. Love was treated as a sort of “bourgeois prejudice” and addiction to love a pretty good symptom of a counter-revolutionary attitude.

[Read another WD article from 1937, this one about the American Labor Novel.]

That day is happily over. Compared with three or four years ago, the creative writer under the Soviet system has more choice of human materials. Fun for fun’s sake, comedy, sheer entertainment are once again respectable, though the cautious writer gives even his lightest literary effort a political moral by way of insurance. If this new dispensation continues, as seems likely, Soviet literature may be expected to flourish again after a decade of relative barrenness.

Foreign writers residing in the Soviet land are in a class by themselves. They enjoy a freedom which is denied to native writers. Of course, if they have made their homes permanently in Russia, as a number of Americans have done, they must guard their tongues. Should people like Anna Louis Strong or Louis Fischer suddenly decide to tell too much that is distasteful to their Kremlin hosts, they would find themselves quickly on the capitalist side of the frontiers. Even such people, however, since they write for non-Soviet audiences, dare indulge in bold thoughts which would land Soviet citizens in Siberian exile. Mr. Fischer, I recall, once went so far as to criticize Stalin for allowing himself to be worshipped as a demigod; an act of daring that is inconceivable for an out-and-out Soviet author.

The newspaper correspondent is the freest writer in Russia. True, his cable dispatches must have the censor’s seal and signature before it can be filed at the telegraph office. True, also, if he grows too critical he will find himself expelled or life will be made so difficult for him that he will be glad to leave of his own accord. But by and large he does manage to report the news. Russia, like Germany and Italy, does not want to be isolated journalistically, and must therefore learn to live on terms of amity with the foreign correspondents.

The divisions of foreign correspondents in the official mind is not into truthful and lying, but into “friendly” and “unfriendly.” Naturally the “friendly” reporter, keeping a decent silence about unpleasant events and giving the rulers the benefit of every doubt, has the inside track on news and all the advantages that a dictatorial government has at its command. All the pressure of personal interest, career, scoops, and comfort are on the side of the government. When two correspondents writing of the same event out of a dictated capital disagree, it is safe to assume that the one who is more critical of the government and presents a less flattering picture is nearer to telling the truth.

Personally I went through all the stages between a fervently “friendly” and a sharply “unfriendly” correspondent. For several years before I went to Moscow for the United Press I had been in the Soviet employ in New York, cabling American news to Russia. In reversing the process, in sending Russian news to America, I did not reverse my political attitudes. For a few years I was more or less the Left wing in the foreign press corps of Moscow. Gradually, under the pounding of the realities around me, I came to see the Soviet experiment from a more open-eyed and critical angle. The transition was so slow that I was scarcely aware of it myself. By the time I was recalled by the United Press, six years later, the Kremlin heaved a sigh of relief.

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