The organisation of censorship

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The Narkompros

Being a writer was not an easy job in the Soviet Union. Either you wrote according to the rules prescribed by the party - and covering the subjects determined by it - either you were confronted with censorship or worse, like arrest, deportation or execution.

A first important institution which played a distinguished role in the censorship in the Soviet Union in the time of The Master and Margarita was the Народный комиссариат просвещения (Наркомпрос)  [Narodny komissariat prosveshcheniya] (Narkompros) or the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment. The translation can be subject to discussion, since the word просвещение [prosveshchenie] also means educatoin, information and civilisation. Anyway, the Наркомпрос [Narkompros] was People's Commissariat, or the Ministry, in charge of national education and other area's related to culture and sciences.

Anatoly Lunacharsky

From the October revolution to 1929, the writer, critic and journalist Anatoly Vasilevich Lunacharsky (1875-1933) was heading the Narkompros. At first, People's Commissar Lunacharsky protected avant-garde artists like the poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893-1930) and the painters Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (1879-1935) and Vladimir Yevgraphovich Tatlin (1885-1953).


Furthermore, Anatoly Lunacharsky helped his brother-in-law Alexander Aleksandrovich Bogdanov (1873-1928) to establish the пролетарская культура [proletarskaya kultura] or proletarian culture, abbreviated to пролеткульт [proletkult], which was a movement that would be the basis for «real proletarian art», averse from all «bourgeois influences». Initially, Bogdanov pleaded for autonomy in art, which should not be dependent on political control by the Communist Party. The goal was to awaken workers without calling on «civilian specialists» or «revolutionary intellectuals».

It must be said that under the influence of Proletkult, Russian artists were prominent players in international arts movements like constructivism and kubism. But the Social Realism - more about that later -, would soon made an end to this role.

But it was also Lunacharsky who organized the first campaigns of censorship in the Soviet Union and who was heavily opposed to Bulgakov, which made him the prototype of the critic Latunsky in The Master and Margarita. However, in 1933, when Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was consolidating his power, Lunacharsky lost all of his important positions in the government and he was appointed ambassador to Spain, but he died on the way to his new place of employment.

According to the Ukrainian philologist and polemist Alfred Nikolaevich Barkov (1941-2004), Lunacharsky was the real prototype for the critic Latunski in The Master and Margarita. According to the literary critic Georgy Aleksandrovich Lesskis (1917-2000), he was the model for the character Berlioz. We think it was neither, but you can read more about that in the Characters section of this website.

A nation-wide control mechanism

The Narkompros had activities in different areas. In addition to the normal sections dealing with educationin general, it also administered the so-called Главное управление по делам литературы и издательств (Главлит) [Glavný oepravlenje po delam literatoeri i izdatelstv] (Glavlit) or the Central Administration for Literature and Publication Affairs, a section that was created in 1922. Glavlit had to prevent state secrets from being published and was therefore also responsible for censoring what was published in book form or in newspapers and magazines.

Another department of the Narkompros, the Главный репертуарный комитет (главрепертком) [Glavny repertuarny komitet] (Glavrepertkom) or Central Committee for Repertoires, was created in 1923 and had to approve the theatre repertoires. Especially the Glavrepertkom caused Bulgakov much trouble. Time after time they banned his plays from the theatres where they were planned to be represented.

In 1927, a new organisation was created, the Главное управление по делам художественной литературы и искусства (Главискусство) [Glavnoe upravlenie po delam khudozhestvennoy literatury i iskusstva] or Central Directorate for Literature and Art Affairs (Glaviskusstvo) to co-ordonate the activities of the various administrations dispersed in various departments of the Narkompros.

In 1936 the organisation of the censorship activities was complemented with the Управления театральных зрелищных предприятий (УTЗП) [Upravleniya teatralnykh zrelishchykh predpiyaty] (UTZP) or Directorate for Theatre Enterprises which was meant to to provide one single agency authority over all troupes, estimated at approximately nine hundred. In Moscow there existed also the Управления Московских зрелищных предприятий Наркомпроса (УМЗП) [Upravleniya Moskovskikh zrelishchykh predpiyaty Narkomposa] (UMZP) or Directorate for Moscow Entertainment Enterprises belonging to the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment.

The UTZP and the UMZP were, together with the Glavrepertkom, located on Чистые пруды [Chistye Prudy] or Clean Ponds. In chapter 12 of The Master and Margarita, Koroviev refers to that building when he attacks the self-righteous adulterer Arkady Appolonovich Sempleyarov of the fictitious Acoustics Commission of the Moscow theatres.

And we have not mentioned everything yet. Because, in addition to the organisations directly run by the Narkompros, the work of writers could also be checked and censored by other institutions such as the so-called Объединение государственных книжно-журнальных издательств (ОГИЗ) [Obedinenie gosudarstvennikh knizhno-zhurnalnykh izdatelstv]] (OGIZ) or the State Union of Book and Magazine Publishers, which was an organisation operating directly under the authority of the Council of People's Commissars, the Sovnarkom, and further also by the Государственного объединения музыки, эстрады и цирка (ГОМЕЦ) [Gosudarstvennogo obedineniya muzyki, estrady i tsirka] (GOMETS) or the State Union for Music Hall, Concert and Circus Enterprises.

And, in closing, the secret service of the NKVD had, since 1920, a bureau to exercise control over literature, It was called Литконтроль [Litkontrol] and it had to «monitor the life, the creative work, the moods, the friendships, and the statements of all Soviet writers».

Social Realism and the Writers' Union

The ideology of the Communist Party wanted to influence the creative processes from the first moment of artistic inspiration up to the distribution. The party was supposed to be the artist's muse. Therefore the Social Realism was introduced in 1932 as the only acceptable aesthetic form. The merits of a work of art were measured by the extent to which it contributed to the building of socialism among the masses.

Another initiative in the field of literature, also in 1932, was the creation of the Союз советских писателей [Soyuz sovietskikh pisateley] or Union of Soviet Writers. It was established by a decree of the Party in order to bring the literati into line with Marxism-Leninism. This association replaced the Российская ассоциация пролетарских писателей (РАПП) [Rossiskaja assotsiatsija Proletarskich Pisatelej] (RAPP) or Russian Association of Proletarian Writers founded in 1925. The first Congress of the new Writers' Union was presided over in 1934 by Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov (1868-1936), better known as Maksim Gorky. The Writers' Union was one of the many творческие союзы [tvortsheskye soyuzi] or artistic unions. These unions were so-called «voluntary» associations, similar to trade unions, but completely under the control of the Party. More than that: they exercised control over the activities of their members.

The Государственный комитет по делам издательств, полиграфии и книжной торговли СССР (Госкомиздат) [Godudarstvenny komitet po delam izdatelstv, poligrafy i knizhnoy torgovli SSSR] (Goskomizdat), or the State Committee for Publishers, Printers and Book Trade in the Soviet Union (Goskomizdat) made, together with the secretariat of the Writers' Union, all decisions about publications. Even the provision of paper became a hidden form of the censorship mechanism. This explains why, in the novel, when Pilate asks Matthew Levi to accept something from him, the latter answers: «Have them give me a piece of clean parchment».

The social command

The policy toward literature adopted by the Communist party in 1928 is characterized by the term Социальный заказ [sotsialniy zakaz] or the social command. It was in connection with the first Five-Year Plan and carried out by the RAPP and the editorial boards of publishing houses. Under this policy, specific themes were dictated to writers with the goal of stimulating socialist construction and to further the ideological ends of the state. Statements of RAPP leaders make it clear that they supported such historical themes, if treated from the proper Marxist point of view. The theme that Bezdomny had to deal with on command of Berlioz was related, for example, to the state ideology in connection with religion and faith, particularly the conviction that Jesus never existed.

Bulgakov is specifically ridiculing this social command in the novel when his hero, the master, recalls that the editor to whom he submitted his manuscript asked him, what in his opinion was a totally idiotic question: «who had given him the idea to write a novel on such a strange theme?» It was obviously not in his social command to write a novel about Pontius Pilate.

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