The world inhabited by Winston Smith was all but realised in Brezhnev’s USSR, recalls Letchworth-based author Vitali Vitaliev.
I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four in Moscow, in the late 1980s. A tattered and dog-eared paperback was lent to me for one night only, and next morning I was to pass it on to the next person in line.
The book, like all other works by George Orwell, was strictly banned in the USSR. A huge scandal erupted when an American publisher tried to display it on his stand during the International Book Fair in Moscow in the early 1980s. I worked as an interpreter at the Fair and remember an irate Soviet official shouting at the hapless publisher: “Take this book away from your stand this very moment! You can display anything – even Golda Meir (sic), if you wish, but not Orwell!”
The punishment for being caught in possession of Nineteen Eighty-Four could be a prison term. Curiously, that only added to the clandestine pleasure of reading. I was savouring the book until dawn, and by the time the last page was turned, I was close to tears. How could someone, who had never been to the Soviet Union and had never lived in a totalitarian state, describe our life with such poignant precision?
We had a real-life ‘Ministry of Truth’, the KGB. One of its departments was called Glavlit, the state censorship agency.
The word in itself (an abbreviated merger of ‘Glavnoye Upravleniye Literaturi’ – ‘Chief Directorate of Literature’) is Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ made real. From the moment of taking power, the Bolsheviks were meticulously destroying the Russian language by simplifying its grammar and littering it with thousands of meaningless neologisms.
Each week, Glavlit released a constantly updated thick instruction manual listing books to be confiscated from all libraries and bookshops of the USSR.
A student of mine, who worked as a bookseller, used to show me these censorship ‘bulletins’ regularly – at considerable risk to herself. Alongside the works of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn and other ‘dissident’, or émigré, writers, they contained thousands of seemingly innocuous titles in physics, chemistry, engineering, and technology.
The whole ‘danger’ of those books lay in the fact that they had mentions of Khrushchev, Stalin and/or other political figures, who had by then fallen out of favour with the system, in the introductions. They constituted a huge part of the list, since every book, no matter how scholarly and esoteric, was supposed to begin with a quote from a ‘great leader’ in power.
In Brezhnev’s times, the names of Stalin and Khrushchev were not supposed to be mentioned in print at all. My mother told me how, in the early 1950s when the head of the Soviet secret police and Stalin’s henchman Beria was exposed as a ‘British spy’ and subsequently shot, all subscribers of the multi-volume ‘Great Soviet Encyclopaedia’ received in the post several printed sheets to be glued into the letter ‘B’ volume where the article on Beria was.
The enclosed instruction requested all the Beria pages be cut out of the book and the new ones, with a disproportionately lengthy article on the Bering Strait (!), inserted instead. Special Glavlit inspectors would conduct random house checks to make sure everybody had complied.
Wasn’t it precisely what Orwell’s O’Brien meant when confiding in Winston during his Room 101 interrogation that if a single mention of a person or event could not be found in print it was as if they had never existed? The other indisputable reason for banning technical – as well as children’s and all other – books in Brezhnev’s times was emigration of the author.
No wonder Nineteen Eighty-Four was one of the Soviet system’s biggest bugaboos: it explained the technology of totalitarian power.
Amazingly though, those who controlled the printed word found it quite proper to read the banned books themselves (remember “All animals are equal but some are more equal than the rest”?).
In a brilliant case of Orwellian doublethink, all major publishing houses had secret departments producing limited editions of prohibited books for the elite’s exclusive consumption. I’ve seen such books (each individually numbered and with the word ‘Classified’ prominently stamped on the cover) a number of times thanks to a friend’s mother-in-law who worked in the CPSU Central Committee library. One of them was Nineteen Eighty-Four – in impeccable Russian translation.
The number on the plain white cover was ’59’, and underneath it the word ‘Sekretno’ (‘classified’) was printed.
Another ‘special edition’ was ‘Secrets of Eternal Life’ by C Northcote Parkinson (again, rather conscientiously translated into Russian). The senile octogenarians who ruled our poor country were naturally – and exclusively – curious about the secrets of ‘eternal life’, since it was they – not the oppressed voiceless crowds they controlled – who were supposed to live forever.
By the year 1984, Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four had been all but translated into reality in the Soviet Union.
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