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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Censorship Farce

When I learned of the renewal of censorship I suddenly understood that I had really missed it. I was surprised by the feeling that seized me.

It was like nostalgia for childhood. For the greater part of my journalistic career I had been so used to the fact that without the censor's stamp no issue of the newspaper could be printed, that the past few uncensored years have seemed a lot less significant and much less rich in impressions than the long years of waiting for journalistic freedom.

Oh, censorship! Those strange men in their dandruff-speckled suitcoats, who sat in every editorial office and every publishing house with a melancholy air. I always felt more pity for them than indignation at their presence. Almost all of them had a background in journalism or philology, and I could imagine how hard it was for them to censor things they might have written themselves, if their lives had developed differently.

That is probably why they drank more, as a rule, than journalists, although I do not consider journalism the most puritan of professions.

I will never forget how at the dawn of my own journalistic career, in 1967, a very drunk censor refused to put his stamp on a newspaper column because of the phrase "Marx is a titan of thought". In Russian the word "titan" is the same as the word for "titanium", which was forbidden by the Defense Ministry. So this phrase, which some joker, Lenin or Stalin, used to describe the founder of communism, had to be removed, because the name of the metal could not be used in the open press.

Yes, there was a list of banned words. Once, in the Gorbachev years, a young censor showed it to me. It was a thick book, with an exact indication of the towns in which the factories that were there did not officially exist, of the locations where there were no official military units, the existence of which was known not only to any first-grader, but also to homeless dogs, and of what ecologically harmful substances were officially classed as harmless, and so on and so forth.

There were many humorous incidents involving this list. I remember how one head of GLAVLIT, the official name for the censorship organ, in an article in Literaturnaya Gazeta suddenly announced that it was forbidden to describe the flight patterns of migratory birds, either because they fly to nuclear test sites to warm themselves, or, on the contrary, they fly away from such sites, to save themselves.

This was the routine work that newspaper censors did, checking the facts we brought them against a constantly growing list. For some reason I was not surprised when I saw in that thick book of prohibitions a line that made me laugh: "Censorship does not exist in the U. S. S. R".

And this was the truth - and a complete lie.

Of all the articles of mine that were removed, none was taken out by the official censor. I gradually grew to understand the whole process: The newspaper, already laid out, would be sent either to the KGB or to the agitation and propaganda section of the Central Committee, or to the Defense Ministry. From there the call would come to the editor, rarely with an order, more often with a request, "not to publish", "not to print", "to hold" and I can not remember a single instance when the editor refused to grant this request.

This was much more effective than any censor's pencil: The fate of the editor would be put on the table, his future, the favor or disfavor of the authorities.

The real task of the censor was to force authors themselves not to say anything. To be silent, or else to speak through their teeth, or to use the Aesopian language so popular at the time.

I remember the panic that gripped the editors when censorship ended: A burden had suddenly fallen on their shoulders that they used to share with an official organization. So what about the two-day censorship in October? Why was it introduced so unexpectedly? Why was it lifted so unexpectedly?

In real life, judging by the experience of my own newspaper, it was more like a farce than anything else. Two came to our publishing house - both of them military censors by profession. They began to examine articles, not really understanding what they were supposed to be doing - what they should take out, what they should leave in. So they chose a harmless dialogue, began taking phrases out of it that seemed dangerous - a stroke of the pen, and words uttered by the president himself went out the window. Then, as people fulfilling their duty, they left, allowing us the pleasure and pride of appearing with blank spots, too.

But they had accomplished their task. Feelings that it seemed had died forever in the souls of newspaper editors were rekindled: There is someone to be afraid of! There is someone to quake before! There are people whose favor must be sought!

It is not just a matter of individual editors, like Pavel Gusev, of Moskovsky Komsomolets, who hurried to convince the authorities of his love for censorship: "We will not have blank spots in our paper, because we print the truth", he said from the television screen, with the sincerity of a police colonel.

It is other symptoms that are troubling me today. A signal has been given, like the sound of a trumpet: Attention, your career is in danger!

A colleague told me that when he went to his editor with a proposal for a very harsh commentary, he heard in reply: "You know, if censorship were still in place I would say, go ahead, we'll see what happens. But now, it is better not to write it. . ".

Can it be possible that we will once again leave the light and enter a tunnel? I noticed that my hand shook as I wrote these lines.

Yury Shchekochikhin is head of the investigation department at Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.