Paint it black. How (self‑)censorship, war, and sanctions affected book publishing in Russia
Ирина Кравцова|Анна Павлова
Paint it black. How (self‑)censorship, war, and sanctions affected book publishing in Russia
7 November 2022, 20:16

Illustrations by Anya Leonova / Mediazona

A revised bill banning “LGBT Propaganda” is being pushed through by the chairman of Russia’s state legislature, Vyacheslav Volodin. Initially, the author of the initiative, State Duma deputy Alexander Khinshtein, proposed to introduce relevant articles into the Administrative Code, which involve fines of up to 5 million rubles, expulsion from Russia (for foreign citizens) and arrest for up to 15 days. He also promised that the law would apply to all books and films. Writers, publishers, and book industry professionals discuss with Mediazona their expectations, preparations for increased censorship in Russia, and the war in Ukraine.

“I’m glad that the publisher decided not to cut the text, but to paint it black instead,” recalls Max Falk, a Russian author whose book Shattered («Вдребезги») was released this October. Prior to publication, his publisher LikeBook made the decision to paint over the descriptions of sex between two men. “Where there once were feelings, the characters’ attractions to one another, the experience of realizing one’s sexuality, there’ll now just be those empty black lines. I’m sorry we had to do this, but it was impossible otherwise.”

The publishing house admits that after ordering a linguistic analysis, they decided to remove some fragments. “And to be transparent about this censorship, these sentences were painted over with a black marker. They made up 3% of the book.”

Shattered tells the story of two gay men, and was originally published on the fan-fiction site Ficbook. There it appeared alongside the ground-breaking queer novel Summer in a Scouting Kerchief («Лето в пионерском галстуке»), a love story of two young Russian men at a Soviet summer camp. The latter’s success was unprecedented for the modern Russian book industry, with over 200,000 copies printed and sold in its first year of publication. It caught the eyes of State Duma officials, who in response to the book’s publication, proposed to equate “LGBT propaganda” with propaganda of national, racial, or religious hatred.

The book has been criticized widely on television and on “patriotic” social media, with former Duma deputy Zakhar Prilepin, himself a writer and a former battalion commander in the occupied regions of eastern Ukraine, going so far as to say he would have liked to burn the publishing house that released the book. “As they say: what are our boys fighting for? We must adopt a law guaranteeing the protection of our national Soviet symbols: the red banner, the red kerchief, paintings and sculptures of real and cult heroes of that period. More and more we’re seeing people try to deface this,” Prilepin wrote on Telegram.

A heyday for self-censorship

The new law banning “LGBT propaganda” will expand the censorship that publishers of children’s literature began to face ten years ago. Maria Orlova, an organiser for the charity book market “Lantern” recalls that in September 2012, a law on “the protection of children from harmful information” came into force.

“In these holy 2000s we’ve seen a certain flourishing of literature, with so much being published,” she says. “Tons of different publishers have cropped up, for both youth and adults, all positioning themselves as such, eager to talk with kids and parents about the harder parts of life: about death, about migrants, about history, and about war.” 

The adopted law, according to Orlova, hit children’s literature first, while most other publishers didn’t pay it much attention. “The book industry didn’t come together as a united front against this genuine censorship law.”

The law on the protection of children from harmful material was also written so poorly, Orlova recalls, that it gave a lot of space for arbitrariness. Stores removed books that seemed to belong to the “18+” category, although there was no marking on them, and refused to sell them to children. Additionally, libraries could withdraw books from their shelves, and parents could write denunciations to publishers.

Illustrations by Anya Leonova / Mediazona

“And then came the self-censorship,” Orlova adds. “When something is erased from a book, a fragment cut out, gay characters remade into ‘friends’, or some funny-looking image is removed. This part isn’t regulated by the law. The censor isn’t a real person, like the head of state. The phenomenon emerges precisely because of the unpleasantness of the imagined consequences. Rather than waiting for a million-ruble fine, everyone went along enthusiastically with self-censorship.”

However, Orlova believes a handful of arbitrary cases were what really scared publishers. In April 2015, for example, ahead of the annual Victory Day celebration on May 9, a Moscow book store removed copies of the graphic novel Maus, which details the Holocaust. According to one account, the removal was due to the swastika on the book cover. BBC Russian service reported that decision was linked to the prohibition of Nazi symbols on public display. 

“No one gave an order to destroy these books. There was no ‘censorship group’. The Prosecutor’s office didn’t start an investigation. But still, the shops removed the books from their shelves. Financially, it’s the same as slapping the publishing house with a fine,” Orlova explains.

That’s what happened with the children’s book Flags of the World for Kids («Флаги мира для детей») in 2013, ignited by State Duma member and initiator of the current bill Alexander Khinshtein. In a tweet, he expressed outrage that the flag for Lithuania indicated that the red stripe referred to blood shed “by the Lithuanian people in the fight against Russian and German conquerors”. As a result, the entire print run was returned by stores to the publishing house.

Maria Orlova recalls an earlier controversy with a Swedish children’s book Tzatziki Goes to School, published by Samokat press, where Orlova was working at the time. Parents were outraged because the book contained a scene with children pretending to be a married couple and climbing into a bed together. At the time, some libraries were even forced to remove the book from their shelves.

“That is, censorship is carried out not just by Khinshtein, but also by hypervigilant citizens,” Orlova says. “That is why Samokat has had instances where we cut out the word “dick” so as not to name it. Imagine a scene: a girl and a boy, they swim for a long time, begin to get cold, they get into this little shed to warm up… Oh, what a funny little thing! But no sex at all. In one of the books the problem was with gay characters, who are more or less prohibited: we removed a kiss between the brother of the main character and his boyfriend.”

A few years ago, the Russian translation of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls omitted a story of a transgender girl, included in the original. The publishing house Bombora explained at the time that, “publication of the full version is, unfortunately, not possible in Russia.” In 2019, it was revealed that the first Russian edition of the Jonathan Little novel The Kindly Ones had whole pieces of text omitted. They were returned in a second printing.

Meanwhile, Boris Kupriyanov, a publisher and founder of an independent Moscow book store Phalanstére expressed certainty that, “there is still no censorship in Russia.” And the story involving The Kindly Ones, which was first reported on by Gorky, an book review outlet run by Kupriyanov, can’t really be attributed to censorship.

“There is feeble-mindedness and voluntarism from mid-level management, who are eager to notice something wrong. There are some members of civil society who go into shops, who have an axe to grind with some books. And there is self-censorship. That is, there are no true censorship issues when publishing books on historical themes,” Kupriyanov claims, adding nevertheless that he sees, “a very unpleasant and alarming approach to this question.”

The main problem for publishers, as he sees it, is the monopolisation of the book market. He does believe self-censorship to be more dangerous than overt censorship, “a thousand times over… because people aren’t afraid of real repression, as much as imagined repression.”

On the other hand, while many are afraid of the not-yet-adopted law banning “LGBT propaganda,” large publishing houses aren’t hesitating to publish books that fall under this law, including Summer in a Scouting Kerchief.

Criminalization of “LGBT Propaganda” and Literary Censorship

This past summer, deputies in the Russian state Duma proposed further criminalizing “denial of family values, and propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” equating these “crimes” with propaganda of national, racial, or religious hatred. Deputy Khinstein proposed adding articles to the Russian administrative code warranting fines of up to 5 million rubles, as well as expulsion from the country for foreign nationals and arrests for up to 15 days for Russians.

If passed, the law will be detrimental to the modern book industry. According to Vladimir Kharitonov, director of the Association for Internet Publishers, “it will become completely unclear how to operate.”

“We need to remember that queerness is present in huge amounts of both classical and contemporary literature. And who will be the biggest extremists in their judgements? Most likely the booksellers, because they are held responsible for distribution,” he says.

Speaking at the annual Moscow International Book Fair on September 5, Khinshtein assured the audience that he was aware of the concerns of book publishers. He explained the logic of the new bill as follows: “It must be prohibited for propaganda to, at the very least, emphasise the equivalence of homosexual relations with traditional relations. At most, our preference for the latter must be emphasised… Literature or any further information must not be aimed at relaying: “Those people are not simply like us, they’re even better.”

Illustrations by Anya Leonova / Mediazona

Khinstein clarified that he considers Summer in a Scouting Kerchief to be propaganda, and Nabokov’s Lolita not, because, “in the end, the main character Humbert has a bad end.” “Lolita is an attempt by the main character to confess, yes, and even Lolita herself ends up badly, having a stillbirth at the end of the novel. Anyone who has read Lolita has no desire to be in Humbert’s shoes,” Khinstein says with certainty.

The law has not been fully adopted yet, but publishers have already begun to implement new practices to play it safe.

Max Falk, the author of Shattered, recalls that a specialist from his publishing house “analyzed the text and said that if I print with these paragraphs, I fall under the new law. In fact, they recommended removing almost all the erotic descriptions from the book.” In the end, his publisher LikeBook decided to paint over 3% of the text so that it would not be affected by the new law. The author notes himself that “in itself, the idea of propaganda based on orientation” seems absurd to him.

Falk agreed to the option proposed by the publisher to paint over some scenes, because he doesn’t think it will mislead readers. In his view, it shows that “the text simply does not correspond to modern realities, and these realities are monstrous.”

“I left Russia a while ago now, but I still have some queer friends who live there, and for them life is getting scarier every day. And this censorship, painting whole pieces of the text black, it’s also happening in real life. It’s a nice little metaphor,” he says. “And we, together with the publishing house, are unanimous in choosing this stance. We get to show, ‘here’s what you can read and here’s what you cannot.’ And it turns into a statement on its own, it’s a protest, something like a strike.”

Immediately after the bill was introduced, a panic swept across the publishing community. Vladimir Kharitonov, director of the Association for Internet Publishers, saw this firsthand. “Right now, a publishing house will distribute a press run, spend the money, and then bam. A fresh new law may come out, and that run will be sent back. What if this law says that from now on, for example, propaganda of LGBT relationships is punishable by imprisonment? That’s why presses are playing it safe, and blackening pages.”

According to Kharitonov, who was a pioneer in publishing radical non-fiction, this is why some publishers are more liberal than others in using the 18+ advisory on book covers. While the law on the protection of children from harmful information specifies that it does not apply to works with high cultural value, some publishers will still print the 18+ label on pieces of classical literature, “because they understand how our legal system works.”

At the same time, he expects it will be extremely difficult to implement this new law. “Relatively speaking, it’s possible to watch 1,000 films—this is being done already by the Ministry of Culture before license distribution. But who will re-read 300,000 books from the assortment currently on sale? It’s impossible to imagine. It would bring not just additional costs, but a production shutdown” Kharitonov says.

Kharitonov believes authors will agree to delete entire chapters. He wonders, “how else can you be safe, given what happened to Gozman?” In August, the politician Leonid Gozman was arrested for 15 days for criticizing a new law banning comparisons of the USSR with Nazi Germany. On Facebook, Gozman wrote that Stalin was worse than Hitler. The law bans “equating the goals and actions of the USSR and Nazi Germany in World War II” and was adopted last year.

Sasha Shadrina is the founder of No Kidding Press, an independent publishing house focusing on feminist non-fiction books. She says that “financially-motivated self-censorship” is impossible, otherwise they would have to black out the text of entire books, starting with the main idea. “Many of our publications are queer books, they cover the lives of gay people,” Shadrina explains. She admits that it is increasingly difficult for independent publishers to avoid self-censorship, and probably soon these decisions will be less financially motivated, and have more to do with the principle of publishing a particular book.

On the other hand, Shadrina also notes the success of Popcorn Books, a “young adult literature” publishing house. They caught the attention of monopolistic publishers who saw the commercial potential of the genre. “This is the paradox. On the one hand, there are these helpless laws, but on the other, there is the reader, voting with their hard-earned rubles. And the monopolistic publishers, of course, have never failed to follow the reader’s demand. Well, now they’ve bought Popcorn Books, and it’s unclear what they’ll do if this law is adopted” Shadrina says.

In her view, the authorities weren’t always interested in books, and controls over them wasn’t so strong. But with the outbreak of the war, attention to publishers became more noticeable, especially after the scandal surrounding Summer in a Scouting Kercheif.

“There was also this surrounding media campaign, there were some articles or posts about publishers who signed a letter against the war. This is not some kind of targeted initiative,” she says. “This law, it seems to me, mostly puts pressure on the booksellers. Well, if they say this is an ideological war with the western “values”, this is how it manifests: we don’t need gender freedoms, and certainly don’t need these books.”

On October 17, the Russian Book Union sent an appeal to Khinstein requesting to clarify whether some of the plots in the works from lists of classic literature and school curriculum are “propaganda of the denial of family values”. As examples, the authors cited excerpts from a dozen classical works, including The Storm by Alexander Ostrovsky, The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky, And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov, Morphine by Mikhail Bulgakov, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, and The Iliad by Homer.

War and more bans

There is, of course, another sensitive topic for Russia this year: war. Earlier this summer, libraries in Yekaterinburg received a secret warning to take the book The Wormwood Christmas Tree («Полынная елка») by Olga Kolpakova off their shelves. The children’s story spotlights an ethnic German family who were forcibly resettled from the Volga region to Siberia during the World War II.

The ban was all the more surprising, because when it was published in 2019, the book received the Pyotr Ershov International Literary Award for the best patriotic work for children and youth. It was included in a list for extracurricular reading, and a workbook was created based on it. It was then translated into German and used to help children learning German in Russia. Nevertheless, it began to be withdrawn from the local libraries and labeled 18+, although earlier it was placed in the 12+ book category.

A group of Russian writers opposed to this secret shelving of Kolpakova’s book penned a letter in her support, addressing the Sverdlovsk region’s Minister of Culture, Svetlana Uchaykina. “For a children’s book, this kind of boycott will put it in its grave, because it can no longer reach its reader,” the letter states.

Illustrations by Anya Leonova / Mediazona

The ban was ordered based on the opinion of Ivan Popp, a vice-rector for education work and projects at the Ural State Pedagogical University.

“When I read the excerpts from this so-called expert examination, which claim that I tried to justify the fascist offensive in my story, my first thought was that this ‘expert’ simply hadn’t read my book,” Olga Kolpakova explains. “He literally pulls phrases out of context and doesn’t even read the sentences as they follow one another. For example, he quotes a phrase from a part where Russian-Germans whispered to each other: they say, ‘we are Germans and they are Germans, so maybe we can somehow come to an agreement.’ Here, according to the expert, I sympathise with the fascists. But immediately after this scene we learn that they not only failed to reach an agreement with the Germans, but they even began to be taken prisoner and were shot. That is, we see that this plan was an immediate failure.”

Also, Popp reaches the conclusion that Kolpakova tries indirectly to make it clear that “emigration is the only way to get rid of everyday problems.” And this, according to the author of the study, refutes the main positions of modern Russia, which values “the preservation of the people of Russia and the development of human potential.”

The writer says that although the heroine of the story eventually does move to Germany in her old age, she still has “the same questions to God that she had in childhood.” That is, emigration did not save her. “It turns out that the expert simply does not know how to read fiction,” she says. “He didn’t care about the text. His only goal was to find the enemy.”

Popp’s investigation says that “an attempt to instill in the reader a disrespectful attitude to the authorities, not only to Comrade Stalin, but also the local leaders, suggests the destructive influence of this work on the minds of the younger generation.” The expert claims that he could not find in the text “a single story with a positive opinion about the representatives of the Soviet elite.”

The Russian Academy of Science’s Center for Research on Children’s Literature conducted its own examination of The Wormwood Christmas Tree, and came to the conclusion that the 12+ marking was fair. In mid-August, the governor of the Sverdlovsk region Evgeny Kuyvashev publicly called for leaving the book in schools and children’s libraries.

Unfortunately, Kolpakova explains, this was not enough to bring the book back to library shelves. “Their examination is not reason enough for the book to return to the library, because there should be exactly the same decree, again from the ministry, which cancels their marking 18+ and returns the book to the children’s level.”

The writer believes that interest in her book rose so suddenly because the values of the state have changed, and, according to her, the main idea of all her books is that “there is nothing more precious than human life.”

“Probably, this doesn’t coincide with the ideas of this state. Instead, propaganda and political information lessons are returning to schools. Now the authorities have become completely uninterested in the personality and fate of one person or one family, as in my book. We need some terrible feat that unites everyone. I think that my story goes against the current policy. And the whole story with censorship, under which my book fell, it’s not about the artistic value of the work, but only about politics,” Kolpakova claims.

According to the writer, she had to deal with censorship before. For example, in one of her books beer was replaced with the valerian extract drops, and in another the publisher commented on one character, saying that he “should not express himself in a certain way” because it would “raise questions.”

“But now a completely new turn has begun, when they begin to forbid not just details, for example—once again not to mention cigarettes to a child!—but forbid talking about whole topics. And this, of course, is very dangerous. It seemed like children’s literature in Russia was just re-ignited. We became bolder, more interesting, more modern. Our books found a new breath, and that Soviet-era fear of talking to children about certain topics had gone. And now there’s this recoil,” the writer laments.

As of yet, there is no organised censorship apparatus in Russia comparable to the one of the USSR, Vladimir Kharitonov believes. And, according to him, the authorities do not have the capacity to build such an apparatus. “Our state is different now—it’s not about literature. Oddly enough, it seems to me that it is not really about propaganda, because it has no ideology. In the USSR, the ideology was clear, you could write it down and work with it, as if by textbook. And now there are no clear ideas about what is possible and what is not. And what’s more, our officials don’t read books at all,” he is sure.

Editor: Maria Klimova

Translation: Jack McClelland

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