January 12, 2017

Slavic Scholar Compares Putin's Censorship to Soviet Era Speech Restrictions

A Slavic scholar and alumna spoke at the Seminary Co-Op Wednesday on Russian censorship and her “love affair with Russian.” 

Marianna T. Choldin returned on Wednesday to Hyde Park to discuss her most recent memoir, Garden of Broken Statues, with fellow alumna Judith E. Stein. 

Before delving into her discussion of censorship, Choldin briefly discussed her path toward the study of Slavic literature and the serendipity along its way, noting that “accident plays an important role in her life.” The very first accident she described to the audience was the simple fact of her birth, which she described as having occurred in the “post-Sputnik generation,” an age of accelerating competition-driven research into Soviet life. 

Her upbringing as the granddaughter of Ukrainian émigrés and as the daughter of a well-traveled anthropologist led to what she described as another one of her life’s accidents—her first encounter with Russian literature. 

“My love affair with Russian was launched in the summer of ’56 on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia,” she said.  

Choldin described a scene to the audience of her sitting on a bench, reading an abridged paperback edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when she met encountered her first Soviet anthropologist. “He bellowed at me that I should not be reading an abridged version, and in any case, I should read it in Russian. ‘Go! Learn Russian! Read *War and Peace* as it should be read!’” 

Pausing to reflect on this anecdote, Choldin noted “Sometimes, you can really say what got you started on something, and that was what got me started on the study of the Russian language.”  

She recounted her first visit to the Soviet Union for a week-long anthropology convention with her father when she was 18, describing the sheer foreignness of it. “It was truly like being on a different planet,” she said, using a metaphor her book returns to often. “People looked different to me. Their clothes were different. Their shoes were different. Of course, their language.” 

Her next accident came while working toward her Ph.D. back at the University of Chicago. There she stumbled upon a bibliography from the Committee on Foreign Censorship, which contained a list of books, magazines, and publications in German, French, English, and Russian that had found their way to the Russian Empire and had been deemed “dangerous” by Russian censors and modified. 

Choldin began her discussion of censorship in Imperial Russia, noting that “the imperial censors, when they crossed things out, did it with black ink, and I knew their joke—that they were covering it with caviar.” She noted that censors would also “take razor blades and scrape text off the page” or “take scrap paper, tear it up, and paste it over the offending passage.” 

Censorship became subtle and insidious after the Bolshevik Revolution. “When Lenin started this Soviet system, he declared there was no more censorship,” Choldin said, because censorship was a “bourgeois imperialist phenomenon.” Nonetheless, Choldin noted that Lenin called for “temporary restrictions on the press” to maintain national security. 

Even researching imperial censorship while in Soviet Russia, Choldin recalled, was difficult, describing the issue as “verboten.” Choldin coined a new term for this unique system—omni-censorship. 

Translation was but one of the media of omni-censorship. “At the worst of times,” she said, “it was a constant struggle for creative people.” Intellectuals did not simply find their works altered but were given directives about what to publish and where to present it, oftentimes by the KGB. 

When asked whether only literature was censored, Choldin noted that fiction, magazines, and even music—noting Tchaikovsky among other composers—were regulated. Composers’ works were often altered, or they were told simply to not perform certain venues. 

To conclude, Choldin touched upon comparisons to free speech in modern Russia. Responding to an audience member, she confirmed that tactics under President Vladimir Putin were comparable to those of the USSR. “When you end up with a president who is a KGB officer through and through, it’s not a big mystery what you’re going to get.” Tactics like active state control of the media and targeted suppression and even killings of dissenters, she argued, were not unfamiliar. 

The last accident prior to her publishing of Garden of Broken Statues was discovering the literal garden that would generate the book’s metaphorical title. While in Moscow, Choldin saw an overgrown garden of toppled statues of old heroes of the USSR. As a scholar of Slavic literature, she recognized them immediately but considered that a newcomer would see nothing but the history of a different planet.