Beware of the all-hearing pig’s ears in the walls
In the third column to mark the centenary of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, Vitali Vitaliev looks at the all-too-familiar to him technology of Soviet censorship
“It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.” – M Lermontov
Let me begin in a purely Soviet manner – with contradicting myself. Yes, contrary to what I promised in my last’ After All’, I won’t reveal the answer to the real-life Soviet riddle of why broken light bulbs sold like hot Russian pirozhki in the late 1980s USSR. The reason is that your answers keep pouring in as I write. Your response has exceeded all expectations. The number of the emails with your guesses (including several correct ones!) has reached this column’s absolute record and keeps growing - as I hope, not just because of the lucrative prize of a broken ballpoint pen that doesn’t write. And since most of your emails also contain some fascinating stories and anecdotes – engineering and other, they deserve a separate ‘After All’ which I plan to write (with your help) in the near future. In the meantime, keep those answers coming...
The not-too-burning topic of broken light bulbs (pun intended) neatly leads us to the subject of my today’s ‘After All’ – Soviet censorship. As one of the very few surviving staff journalists of the Soviet satirical magazine Krokodil, I had an in-depth knowledge of the latter in action.
Once in the early 1980s, I penned a seemingly innocent piece about chronic shortages of socks and electric light bulbs in the city of Dnepropetrovsk. Who needs to wear socks in the dark, when no one can see them anyway, or something like that? Well, the story was spiked (or ‘butted’, in Russian journalistic jargon), because Dnepropetrovsk region was President Brezhnev's birthplace and, as such was supposed to be a horn of plenty, stuffed with such consumerist luxuries as socks and bulbs. Like Caesar's wife, Dnepropetrovsk was above suspicion, read criticism - on a par with Moscow, ‘an exemplary communist city', which, incidentally. also suffered from shortages of socks, bulbs and pretty much everything else.
Apart from jamming Western radio and TV broadcasts, the technology of Soviet censorship was simple: a pair of scissors, a rubber stamp and a Xerox photocopier behind bars.
Let us briefly consider each.
I remember Tanechka, our editorial courier, rushing along the corridor with the next issue's proofs to be taken urgently not to the printers, but first to the GLAVLIT censors, who had to rubber-stamp (literally!) every single page before it was allowed into print, and whose offices were in the same building as ours. The word ‘GLAVLIT’ was an abbreviation of Glavnoye Upravleniye Literaturi (Chief Directorate of Literature), and was in effect a department of the KGB. In 1953, shortly after Stalin's death, that very GLAVLIT was responsible for posting to all ‘Soviet Encyclopaedia’ subscribers a leaflet ordering them to take a pair of scissors, cut out the pages on Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin's closest henchman, who had just fallen into disfavour, and replace them with the enclosed article on the Bering Strait! The leaflet threatened random on-the-spot checks by specially appointed inspectors...
Our ‘personal’ Krokodil censor was called Dmitri Anatol’yevich, and the set of proofs marked for his eyes used to be code-marked with his initials – ‘DA’, which stood for ‘Yes’ in Russian, albeit ‘Niet’ (No) would have been more appropriate. Dmitri Anatol’yevich was a perfectly amicable fellow, who greeted everyone warmly in the canteen, but shook hands with no-one.
To be honest, I pitied Dmitri Anatol’yevich. I imagined a woman asking him on a date: “And what do you do, sweetie?” What could he say? I am a censor? It is like saying: “I am a child-molester, darling.” Or “I am a murderer, pet.” Whoever said that murder was but an extreme form of censorship?..
Our building, housing a dozen or so newspapers and magazines, had only one Xerox photocopier in the basement. To get anything - from a reader’s letter to an expense claim – photocopied, a journalist had to collect five executive signatures (including that of the ubiquitous Dmitri Anatol’yevich, no doubt), so most simply chose not to bother. If you were lucky enough to procure all five, you then had to descend to the basement and shove the document through a tiny barred window, behind which three women in dirty blue overalls – each looking as arrogant and self-important as our Editor-in-Chief's personal driver – were operating a single old copying machine. The copy ladies' working hours remained a mystery, possibly even a state secret, and the window of their dark copying sanctuary normally stayed shut. Through the locked doors one could sometimes discern the characteristic muffled sighs of the exploited photocopier.
What were they copying there covertly, behind bars? A collection of Gorby's secret speeches? The Constitution of the USA? Or a popular hard-to-obtain book “All You Should Know About Sex”, translated from Bulgarian? Only God or, possibly Stalin, knew...
“Hold your tongue and never say what you think, if you want to survive! Walls have ears!” – such was the valedictory I received from my parents at the tender age of six. It was a cruel thing to say to a child, even to a Soviet child, but they were doing that for my own sake... To my disappointment, no matter how hard I searched the walls of the room where I slept, there were no signs of any pink piglet’s ears growing through the wallpaper (for some reason, I was sure that the wall’s ears, if any, should resemble those of a pig), not even in those multiple spots where it got unstuck from the wall to reveal bald patches of peeling stucco...
But the invisible all-hearing ears were always there – catching, registering and reporting every dissenting noise, no matter how slight. They constituted the USSR’s most appalling feature, for the country that does not trust its citizens, not even children, does not have the right to exist, so its collapse in 1991 was not only logical but welcome.
It would be great to finish on that optimistic note and to conclude that freedom of speech has finally triumphed in Russia. Alas, the reality is different. Without getting into detail, I refer you to our news story published on 7 September: Putin’s ‘psychological firewall’ induces Russians to self-censor online, study finds
It looks like the invisible electronic ears are still embedded in the walls of Russia. Powered with the latest eavesdropping technologies, they stir and rotate tirelessly, like two tiny radars...