February 26th 2005 · Novoye vremya / Arlene Blum · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

How They Hunted the Chechen Books

In the Soviet period a frightening technique was invented: first total genocide was declared, and then this was followed by “bibliocide” – the mass removal and subsequent destruction of whole editions of books and other national printed material.

Arlene Blum

"Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings," wrote Heinrich Heine.

The poet’s maxim can be applied with justice to any totalitarian regime. As a matter of fact, these two processes often run parallel, and sometimes the second precedes the first: first the human being is destroyed, and then all traces of his existence, left in printed and written sources, are erased.

In the Soviet period a frightening technique was invented: first total genocide was declared, and then this was followed by “bibliocide” – the mass removal and subsequent destruction of whole editions of books and other national printed material.

An eloquent testimony to this is provided by the contents of the restricted access collections of the major libraries, which were given the name “spetskhran”, and attained colossal dimensions – up to half a million volumes. They mostly contained the books of forbidden authors – those who were declared to be “unpersons” and were subject to “vaporization”, if one recalls the terms used by the civil servants of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

The Soviet spetskhrany, like the regime as a whole, were also distinguished by another feature: not only people, but also peoples, were subject to “vaporization”. As a result, all books bearing any relation to such “unnations” must be struck from memory. They were subject to destruction, with the exception of numbered copies left for the restricted access collections of the major book repositories.

Avtorkhanov and Dudayev Banned

When I was studying the archive documents of the USSR’s Glavlit, its proscriptive lists, and the surviving catalogues of the restricted access collections of the St Petersburg libraries, dissolved in the early 1990s, I repeatedly came across the mention of dozens, if not hundreds of books connected in one way or another with the history, culture and literature of the peoples of the Northern Caucasus and Crimea deported in February 1944 on the orders of Stalin.

The turn of the removal of books came in 1946, moreover on an initiative “from below”, emanating from the managerial board of the country’s main library – the Lenin State Library. It inquired of Glavlit: what was to be done with books about deported peoples and the corresponding national literary production? Glavlit’s reply is dated March 8, 1946, stamped “Secret” (the censorship did not rest even on International Women’s Day): “Reply to Inquiry of Managerial Board of the Lenin State Library”:

“Catalogues and books about the Checheno-Ingush, Crimean, Karachay and Kalmyk ASSRs are to be transferred to the restricted access collection (spetskhran). Deputy Representative of the SNK (Soviet of People’s Commissars) of the USSR for the Protection of Military Secrets M. Ovsyannikova.”

There followed the release by Glavlit of a special circular on this topic, sent around the “provinces”, according to which all such books were subject to removal “in the bookselling network and the mass libraries”, with subsequent immediate destruction. Among the books consigned to extinction was a large number of works by national poets and prose-writers, published both in the original and in Russian translation. They included books by the first professional Chechen writers and collectors of folklore – A. Nazhayev (1895-1937), A. Dudayev (1895-1937) and Sh. Ayskhanov (1907-1937), whose “guilt” was twofold: not only did they belong to an “erased” nation, but, in addition, during the years of the Great Terror they had been declared “enemies of the people” and shot, which had led to the removal of their books even before 1944. This was also the pretext for the banning of the books by the founder of Ingush prose Z. Malsagov, the poems of the Balkarian poet Kaysyn Kuliyev, and many others.

Books, journals and almanachs in the Russian language which in one way or another touched on dangerous themes were subject to a total ban. In this connection anthologies and other publications which reproduced translations of the national epics and poetry by Chechen, Ingush, Kalmyk and other poets were sequestrated: in particular, these included the magnificent translations by S. I. Lipkin. Sent to the spetskhran in this connection were Literary-Artistic Almanach (Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkarian Publishing House, 1936), Poetry of Checheno-Ingushetia. Translated by S. Lipkin, (Moscow, GIKhLm 1938. Also: Grozny. Chechenizdat, 1938) and many other collections that had been published in the North Caucasus. There were also five books by A. Avtokhranov on the history of Chechnya, published between 1930 and 1934, including Revolution and Counter-revolution in Chechnya. On the History of the Civil War in the Terek Regional Krai. Essays. (Grozny, 1933), On the Fundamental Questions of Chechen History (Grozny 1930). In fact, here once again we see a “double guilt”: the author fled abroad, where he published his famous book The Technology of Power, which circulated widely in samizdat during the years of stagnation.

At the same time, a “purge” took place of a number of books by Russian writers who had always taken an interest in the theme of the Caucasus and had depicted the Caucasus in many works of poetry and prose. The restricted access collections contained a slim volume of poems by Yevgeny Vensky, entitled To the People of the Free Mountains, published in Rostov-on-Don in 1919. In this case, all was clear: in the first place, the cycle of poems had been created and published in Rostov, which at that time was under the control of the “Whites”. It was obviously written in imitation of Lermontov’s “Argument” (Spor), and contains an appeal to the peoples of the Caucasus “to rise up to fight to the red filth”:

The peoples of the blue mountains
Lived more carefree than the falcon,
Above free, proud Chechnya
The thief did not strut;
The trash of the prisons
Did not rule Daghestan,
The sailor-commissar
Did not sit with his camp of brigands…
And to the mountains suddenly came
A sinister disaster:
From the mist appeared
The Red horde…

In the second place, under the pseudonym Yevgeny Vensky hid Yevgeny Osipovich Pyatkin (1884-1943) – the satirical poet and parodist who before the revolution had been an active contributor to the journals Satirikon and Novyi Satirikon, and later, in the Soviet period, in the journals Begemot, Krokodil, and others. In 1938 the poet had been arrested, and had perished in the Gulag. Naturally, all his books were banned.

Pasternak’s pro-Chechen Lines

The motives for the removal of a number of other books by Russian writers are more complex. Such actions reflected the next turning-point in the evaluation by official ideologists of a problem that has not ceased to be topical in our own time.

In the first years after the revolution, the events in Caucasus in the nineteenth century were declared to be “justified movements of national liberation”. It was even considered that in the Caucasus of the mid-nineteenth century a state had been created which conducted a prolonged and sustained struggle with “the big feudalists and tsarist autocracy”.

However, in the 1930s and 40s, in connection with the turn towards power politics and the deportation of “rebellious” people, the ideocratic regime made a 180 degree change of course: orders were given that those same events should be dealt with as “Russia’s civilizing mission” – as a phenomenon that was, on the whole, a historically progressive one.

In just the same way, Imam Shamil, the leader of the mountain peoples, was initially called a legendary hero, and then a “reactionary”, a “Turkish agent” and a “British spy”.

The regime’s historical amoralism, its cynical replacement of ideological norms, its following of the political stockmarket – all that is fully reflected in the contents of the spetskhrany. Here are some examples.

A collection of poetry by Boris Pasternak – Second Birth [Vtoroye rozhdenie] (Moscow, Sovetskiy Pisatel’, 1932) was subjected to removal. A number of poems in the book were considered to be “ideologically alien” – above all, the cycle “Waves”, inspired by a journey to the Caucasus in 1931 and first published in the journal Krasnaya novc (1932, No. 1). In the section of the cycle dedicated to events in the North Caucasus in the past, there is one particularly “suspicious” stanza:

War is not a tale about Ivan,
And we shall not gild it.
The bestial face of conquest
Is given by Lermontov and Tolstoy

In the early 1930s it was still possible to write in a tone such as this, but times changed… In later editions of the cycle it was this stanza in particular that was subjected to cutting, and it is even absent from the main text of the reliable two-volume edition Izbrannoye (Selected Works) that was published in 1985. Although it is given in the notes to Volume I (p. 582), the commentators for some reason call it an “additional stanza”: they had evidently decided not to draw the readers’ attention to the fact of the 1934 ban on publication and the “pruning” of this stanza in later editions.

The same reasons lay behind the banning of the “13th Tale About Lermontov” by Pyotr Pavlenko, published in the same year of 1932 by the Moscow “Federatsiya” publishing house. In the late 1920s and early 1930s a number of literary works about the poet appeared: Boris Pilnyak’s Shtoss v zhizn’ [Shtoss in Life] (1928), S. Sergeyev-Tsensky’s Michel Lermontov (1933), and others. The plot of the tale is Lermontov’s encounter in the Caucasus with the female writer and traveller Hommaire de Hell in the autumn of 1840. For this purpose, Pavlenko made use of her mythical Letters and Notes, which were published by P. P. Vyazemsky in 1887 (as it turned out later, this was a mystification – they were written by the publisher himself). By now one was not supposed to write about “the bestial face of conquest”…

The reason given for the removal was the tale’s depiction of a scene of cruelty and violence during the Caucasus wars. Tossing a coin, the soldiers “raffle” a 12 year-old Chechen girl, taken prisoner in a shoot-out together with her father who has been wounded in the leg. The sergeant-major “offers” her to the hero of the tale: ‘Perhaps we should untie her, your honour? You can see, she’s a little, clean girl…’ The lieutenant waved his hand.” Colonel Budanov, as we know, did not refuse such an offer.

The ban also extended to a number of books by Vera Panova, who in the late 1920s and early 1930s lived in Rostov-on-Don and appeared in print under the pseudonym Vera Veltman. In that city she published several books, including a collection of essays entitled Na vyshkakh Groznogo [On the Watchtowers of Grozny] (Rostov-on-Don: North Caucasus, 1933). It is noteworthy that they were banned not by Glavlit, but by the local Rostov censor’s office, which sent a circular letter with information about this around all the major towns.

In 1954 the Leningrad censors wrote to the State Public Library with a request: ‘…to ascertain whether the name Veltman V. is really a pseudonym of the writer Panova V.”

The works of the author Veltman Vera were all removed from the general shelves of the library in accordance with a decree from the Rostov obkrailit (regional literary directorate). The following reply was dispatched with the signature of the library’s director: “An official of the reatricted access collection [spetskhran] spoke with Panova by telephone and ascertained that Veltman Vera is her pseudonym, under which she wrote several short stories and essays during a period of work in Rostov-on-Don in the 1920s. A list of the works of Veltman Vera is appended.” (Archive of the Russian National Library's spetskhran).

The fact was that in 1935 Panova’s husband, the journalist Boris Bakhtin, had been arrested. A few years later, he died in a labour camp (the exact date of his death is unknown), and Panova was forced to leave Rostov immediately with her three children and move to Ukraine. This explains the “interest” shown by the Rostov censors.

The very content of the short stories and essays (which were mainly for children) was able to incur the censor’s sanctions. Extremely “dubious” in the censor’s eyes was, in particular, a passage in a chapter called “The Riches of the Chechen Land”, which was included in the book On the Watchtowers of Grozny: “At the end of the last century the Russian tsar subjugated the Caucasus and made it a colony of Russia. The best land was taken away from the Chechens and given to the Cossacks. The Chechens were driven into the mountains, where the land is infertile, and where arable farming and culture are impossible.”

Another book “renounced” by the Soviet censors was the “cine-narrative” [kinopovest’] by N. Tikhonov and L. Arnshtam entitled Druz’ya [Friends] (Moscow, Sovetskiy pisatel’, 1937), dedicated to events in the Caucasus at the beginning of the century and in the years of the Civil War – because they believed it showed a “romanticization” of the struggle of Chechens, Ingush and Ossetians for their freedom and independence in pre-revolutionary times.

The list of books which relate in one way or another to the history and culture of the peoples claimed to be non-existent and therefore subjected to ostracism could be extended: their numbers cannot be counted… To one’s great regret, the study of this complex of materials is at present not only of narrow academic interest. In recent years our country, which has recognized the debts and obligations of the vanished USSR, is increasingly inheriting its traditions, especially in the area of total censorship. Evidence of this provided by certain facts which bear witness to an information blockade created as a result of the ten-year war in the North Caucasus which is modestly called a “counter-terrorist operation”.

The original Russian version of this article appeared in the Novoye Vremya magazine on February 13, 2005 (see). The magazine kindly gave us permission to reprint it and publish our own English translation.

The text was translated by David McDuff.




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