The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), known also as the Soviet Union, was an Eastern European country that existed from 1922 to 1991. It was an officially atheistic state (though religious organisations were not outlawed) and censorship was pervasive. Upon dissolution, fifteen different countries, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan became independent.

General censorship[]

Modern Russian censorship had been relatively lax, but back when Russia was known as the Soviet Union, it had an very extensive Culture Police-type system, even more than the current Chinese one.

  • Foreign films were graded particularly harshly; domestic films with the following might get past, depending on the situation. It was not uncommon for domestic films to be created, widely screened, and then censored or banned as well (like the 1930 epic Earth, which was screened extensively and controversially before being censored).
  • Every movie made in the West and not specially approved for translation into Russian was banned. Light-hearted French comedies were approved and translated with little or no fuss, but something like Star Wars would be banned and bad-mouthed in newspapers for a long time.
  • Soviet censors were notoriously prudish, so anything with sexual content was banned. A notable exception was the very sexual Little Vera, a perestroika-era thriller, which was the first Soviet film to include an explicit sex scene.

Pornography was prohibited in the USSR and, as it was deemed "a product of the Western decadence" as well as "an obstacle to the workers for the building of the Communist society" and, as such it was curtailed by the state.

Pornographic images and videotapes were smuggled into the Soviet Union for illegal distribution. In addition to the anti-pornographic law, such smuggling was prohibited by legal provisions giving the Soviet state the exclusive right to conduct foreign economic trade. Due to said ban, it also became an habit for NATO pilots to bring copies of Playboy magazine to intercept Soviet bomber probes. It was even said that during Cold War times when Soviet Union planes flew close to the borders of the NATO side, with NATO planes flying on their side. Unusually, the definition of pornography was stretched, as material which could be considered erotic in other countries were classified as pornographic in the USSR. Said restriction, however, was lifted in modern Russia.

  • Many overtly religious films (due to the USSR's anticlerical politics and formal promotion of atheism). Due to its status, films about Russian Orthodoxy were more likely to get through (especially during the major religious revivals of the 1940s and 1950s).
  • Anything showing the United States or another Western country in a positive light was banned. American works that trashed capitalism and democracy were more likely to be approved. This backfired on them when the Soviet authorities, at the very end of the Soviet Union, allowed the Oliver Stone film Wall Street, as the message Stone was sending (that capitalist fat cats were exploiting the economy for obscene gain) aligned neatly with Soviet ideology. Soviet viewers cheered on Gordon Gekko as a hero, which hilariously led to him being a more-heroic character in the sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Repressed persons were routinely removed not only from texts, but also from photos, posters and paintings.

Translations of foreign publications were often produced in a truncated form, accompanied with extensive corrective footnotes. For example, in the Russian 1976 translation of Basil Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War content, such as the Soviet treatment of neighbouring states, many other Western Allies' efforts, the Soviet leadership's mistakes and failures, criticism of the Soviet Union, and other content, were censored out.

Due to the appearance of foreign radio stations broadcasting in Russian territory and inaccessibility for censorship, as well as the appearance of a large number of shortwave receivers, massive jamming of these stations was applied in the USSR using high-power radio-electronic equipment. It continued for almost 60 years. The Soviet radio censorship network was the most powerful in the world.

All information related to radio jamming and usage of corresponding equipment was considered a state secret. On the eve of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, the Olympic Panorama magazine intended to publish a photo with a hardly noticeable jamming tower located in the Fili District. Despite the photo being of a public place, it was approved for publication only after the tower was cut from it.

The production of receivers with wavelengths shorter than 25 meters was also controlled. Receivers with those ranges were primarily exported and were sold very rarely within the country.

Circumvention of censorship[]

Samizdat, allegorical styles, smuggling, and tamizdat (publishing abroad) were used as methods of circumventing censorship. For example, an underground library was functioning in Odessa from 1967 to 1982, which was used by around 2,000 readers. Soviet dissidents were active fighters against censorship. Samizdat was the main method of information dissemination. Such organizations as the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Free Interprofessional Labor Union were also engaged in similar activities.

Other forms of illegal distribution included roentgenizdat and magnitizdat, copying and distributing music not available in the Soviet Union.

There were cases of literary hoaxes, where authors made up a translated source. Poet Vladimir Lifschitz, for instance, invented a British poet named James Clifford, who allegedly died in 1944 on the Western Front. Vladimir published poetry which he claimed was written by James Clifford, but which was actually his own work.

One more method was a so-called "dog method". According to this, one should include an obviously ridiculous and attention-drawing vivid episode in the work.[citation needed] As a result, minor nuances went unnoticed. In this manner, a movie named The Diamond Arm was saved after the director, Leonid Gaidai, intentionally included a nuclear explosion at the end of the film. The Goskino commission was horrified and requested that the explosion be removed. After resisting for a while, Gaidai removed the explosion and the rest of the film was left almost untouched.

One of the important information channels were anecdotes. Through this, folklore from people often express their critical attitude to authorities and communist ideology. Political anecdotes became widespread in the 60s and 70s.

Book censorship[]

Works of print such as the press, advertisements, product labels, and books were censored by Glavlit, an agency established on June 6, 1922, ostensibly to safeguard top secret information from foreign entities but in reality to remove material the Soviet authorities did not like. From 1932 until 1952, the promulgation of socialist realism was the target of Glavlit in bowdlerizing works of print, while anti-Westernization and nationalism were common tropes for that goal. To limit peasant revolts over collectivization, themes involving shortages of food were expunged. In the 1932 book Russia Washed in Blood, a Bolshevik's harrowing account of Moscow's devastation from the October Revolution contained the description, "frozen rotten potatoes, dogs eaten by people, children dying out, hunger," but was promptly deleted. Also, excisions in the 1941 novel Cement were made by eliminating Gleb's spirited exclamation to English sailors: "Although we're poverty-stricken and are eating people on account of hunger, all the same we have Lenin.

As peasant uprisings defined pre-World War II Soviet censorship, nationalism defined the period during the war. Defeats of the Red Army in literature were forbidden, as were depictions of trepidation in Soviet military characters. Pressure from Pravda prompted authors like Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyev to redact a section in The Young Guard where a child reads in the eyes of a dying Russian sailor the words "We are crushed." Since Joseph Stalin regularly read Pravda, which was itself censored by Glavlit, it was wise for an author to obey Pravda’s advice.

With the start of the Cold War, a curse on anti-Westernization was proclaimed, mirroring the American Second Red Scare to some extent. For instance, in the 1950 edition of The Ordeal of Sevastopol, censors made over three hundred cuts, screening the book's references to Frenchmen as "a people of very lively imagination", and the chivalrous treatments which the French gave to Russian prisoners—such as eating in the passenger's lounge and being given a hundred francs per month—were extracted from the text. Historically, Russia has been technologically inferior to the West, which is demonstrated by Glavlit editing out a section of Sevastopol which enviously describes London's technological accomplishments in flattering detail. Religious intolerance and atheism was another goal of post-World War II censorship, and was an extension of anti-Westernization. In the children's novel Virgin Soil Upturned, references to God making mist out of tears shed by the poor and hungry were rescinded.

The "Khrushchev Thaw", beginning in 1953 with Stalin's death, brought liberation of previously banned literature, and greater liberty to the authors writing during this time. Glavlit's authority to censor literature decreased after they became attached to the USSR Council of Ministers in 1953. The nascence of de-Stalinization—the government's remission of Stalin's policies—is evident by censors replacing his name in For the Power of the Soviets, with words like "the party," or "the Supreme Commander." Anti-Westernization was also suppressed, and in 1958 "Sevastopol," became divested of cuts meant to hide the West's technological advancement and Russia's backwardness. When Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novel about a prisoner's brutal experience in the gulag, was released to the public in 1962, it was clear that socialist realism was disappearing. However, censorship was not completely absent from this era. Emmanuil Kazakevich's 1962 novel, Spring on the Oder, was posthumously injected in 1963 with descriptions of American bigotry, selfishness, and racism which was not in the novel originally. These examples of anti-Westernization indicate that works were still expurgated for propaganda, but censorship still declined with Khrushchev's de-Stalinization.

Instances of book censorship[]

  • Every work of Friedrich Nietzsche was banned in Soviet Union since 1923 on proposal of Nadezhda Krupskaya. All works were placed on the list of forbidden books and kept in libraries only for restricted, authorized use.
  • Animal Farm - this book by George Orwell completed in 1943 was banned in the USSR and other communist countries because of its allegory to the Russian Revolution and particularly Josef Stalin (since it was written as such as a means to slip past the editors). Orwell found that no publisher would print the book, due to its criticism of the USSR, an important ally of Britain in the War.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four - this novel by George Orwell was banned by the Soviet Union in 1950, as Stalin understood that it was a satire based on his leadership. It was not until 1990 that the Soviet Union legalised the book and it was re-released after editing.
  • Doctor Zhivago - this novel was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988 for criticizing life in Russia after the Russian Revolution. When its author, Boris Pasternak, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was forced to reject it under threat from the government of him and his loved ones getting deported or worse.
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - this novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn set in a Soviet labor camp in the early 1950s which describes a single day in the life of ordinary prisoner, was banned from publication in the Soviet Union in 1964.
  • The First Circle - this novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which details the lives of scientists forced to work in a Stalinist research center was banned after Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964, all extant and forthcoming works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were banned in the Soviet Union. Even before he was deported, he could only publish his work abroad..
  • The Gulag Archipelago - This novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was banned in the Soviet Union because it went against the image the Soviet Government tried to project of itself and its policies. However, it has been available in the former Soviet Union since at least the 1980s. In 2009, the Education Ministry of Russia added The Gulag Archipelago to the curriculum for high-school students.
  • According to an interview from Noam Chomsky in 1980, even his non-political work was under a total embargo.
  • The second book in The Space Odyssey Series;; by Arthur C. Clarke, was banned mid-serialisation in 1984 after it emerged that a number of characters were named after Soviet dissidents.

Film censorship[]


In the Soviet Union, the film industry was regulated by the USSR State Committee for Cinematography (Государственный комитет по кинематографии СССР Gosudarstvenniy komitet po kinematografii SSSR), more known as Goskino, created in 1963. Its frequent targets were directors such as Andrei Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky for works which were deemed too critical or depressing.

A system of tenets known as Socialist Realism was in place. The radar pinged if its heroes weren't working-class, if the setting was not a factory, the kolkhoz or the Red Army, if the film did not featur any respect toward Communism, to name a few. The radar slightly pinged by light-hearted comedies, historical dramas and science fiction films including references to future perfected Communism, but genres like action, erotic or horror were difficult to smuggle past the radars. Violence was allowed as long if the targets were Nazis, White Guards (the soldiers of the Russian Empire), American spies and other enemies of the state and if the perpetrator was a serviceman or a Communist guerrilla, would be otherwise forbidden. Genres such as ostern, war film, detective and spy movie were kind of violence niche, though in the latter two, scenes featuring violence were usually only in the climax. As someone would expect, criticism of religion was allowed.

All of this fell after the collapse of the USSR (which started to crumble during the 1980s), as films produced in modern Russia do not have any radar.

Instances of film censorship[]

  • Gone with the Wind - this American romantic drama film was banned between 1939 and 1990 for unknown reasons.
  • Andrei Rublev - this epic biographical historical drama film was banned in the USSR for its themes of artistic freedom, religion, political ambiguity, autodidacticism, and the making of art under a repressive regime. Because of this, it was not released domestically for years after it was completed, except for a single 1966 screening in Moscow.
  • Prometheus (1936) - this film was banned in the Soviet Union for promoting Ukrainian nationalism[1].
  • Comissar - this film released on September 1967 was banned for its depictions of Jews, as the government saw them as a fifth column, covert Zionists and potential traitors to the Soviet Motherland, which became more pronounced after the Six-Day War. Representations of Jews in films were generally suppressed in this era. The ban was lifted in 1987.
  • The Glass Harmonica - this film was banned by the Soviet govenrment in 1968 for its surrealist animation and its perceived anti-authoritarian symbolism. This was the only animated film ever banned by Soviet censors. The ban was overturned in 1987.
  • Brief Encounters (Korotkie vstrechi) - this film was banned by the Soviet government in 1968.
  • The Long Farewell (Dolgie Provody) - this film was banned by the Soviet government for its negative view of a mother-son relationship.
  • The Godfather - this American crime film was banned by the Communist government for romanticizing the criminal world. In 1990, the ban was lifted.
  • Star Wars - this American sci-fi film was banned by the Soviet government and bad-mouthed in newspapers for a long time. However, In 1990, the ban was lifted. Its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back was not shown on public television until 1988.
  • Repentance - this Georgian art film was banned in 1984 for its semi-allegorical criticism of Stalinism.
  • The Grapes of Wrath - despite its socialist message, the film version of the novel of the same title was banned after Soviet audiences ended up being impressed that the Joads could afford their own car.
  • All American films were banned in the USSR until 1932's Cabin in the Cotton, which was the first to be deemed "anti-bourgeois" enough to pass muster (since it's about a sharecropper mediating between management and labor and taking the side of labor).

Internet censorship[]

The .su country code top-level domain was created on September 19, 1990 and still exists to this day under Russian control.[2] The Soviet Union initiated work on OGAS to create a computer information network that it could take control of to rival the western Internet. However, the USSR was dissolved before that could happen, while the World Wide Web was gaining acceptance.[3] However, a petition was started on Change.org in 2017 for Apple Inc. (and Unicode) to create an emoji for the Soviet Union.[4]

Television censorship[]

All media in the Soviet Union was controlled by the state including television and radio broadcasting, newspaper, magazine, and book publishing. This was achieved by state ownership of all production facilities, thus making all those employed in media state employees. This extended to the fine arts including the theater, opera, and ballet. Art and music was controlled by ownership of distribution and performance venues.

Censorship was backed in cases where performances did not meet with the favor of the Soviet leadership, with newspaper campaigns against offending material and sanctions applied through party-controlled professional organizations.

In the case of book publishing, a manuscript had to pass censorship and the decision of a state owned publishing house to publish and distribute the book. Books which met with official favor, for example, the collected speeches of Leonid Brezhnev were printed in vast quantities while less favored literary material might be published in limited numbers and not distributed widely.

Possession and use of copying machines was tightly controlled in order to hinder production and distribution of samizdat, illegal self-published books and magazines. Possession of even a single samizdat manuscript such as a book by Andrei Sinyavsky was a serious crime which might involve a visit from the KGB. Another outlet for works which did not find favor with the authorities was publishing abroad.

It was the practice of libraries in the Soviet Union to restrict access to back issues of journals and newspapers more than three years old.


  1. https://dovzhenkocentre.org/en/top-100/prometheus-prometei/
  2. Delegation Record for .SU, Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. 2021-11-30.
  3. Why the forgotten Soviet internet was doomed from the start by Chris Baraniuk, BBC. 2016-10-26.
  4. Make The soviet Union Flag an emoji by Alexander Charmander, Change.org. 2017-03-01.

External links[]

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