Zealots, bureaucrats or ordinary people? Looking for the Soviet censor.

By Samantha Sherry

More often than not, the language of censorship employs tropes of conflict and struggle. One wages a battle with censorship, or struggles against it. Writers are ‘victims’ of an absolute evil. What emerges time and time again is the idea of censorship as an almost abstract force. In my work on the censorship of the post-Stalin period, I am concerned with shifting this view, with finding the individual and examining his or her position within the ‘totalitarian’ system.

In the Soviet Union, the main arm of the extensive censorship system was Glavlit – the main administration for the maintenance of state secrets in the press (its full name

Cover of the pamphlet, ‘List of persons, all of the work of whom is to be removed in accordance with Glavlit decree for the period 1938-1950′

would change several times from its foundation in 1922). Staffed mainly by individuals recruited for their ideological outlook and political correctness in the Stalin period, Glavlit became an increasingly professional outfit in the years following Stalin’s death. Censors were now educated, literate people, drawn from the ranks of publishing and journalism graduates, scientists and engineers.

The unintended consequence of this professionalization was that censors developed an increasingly strong literary and cultural sense. Some authors have recalled how censors tried to interfere in the literary process, making suggestions about how they might ‘improve’ their works, and in certain cases, particularly in the late Soviet period, where the censor became more willing to intervene and be part of publication debates.

They even, surprising as it might seem, tried to promote books they thought suitable, or push forward their own individual agenda. For instance, economist and co-editor of the magazine Russia, Igor’ Birman, remembered mobilising his contacts with the censor attached to the Ekonomika publishing house in order to expedite the publication of his own works with other major Moscow-based publishers.[1]

A number of censors even worked as novelists or poets – many after they left the institution, but some published their own original works while they censored the work of colleagues. For some, regulating literature was the next best thing to producing it. A telling statement is made by Vladimir Solodin, who led Glavlit in the 1980s, in an interview conducted after the collapse of the Soviet Union: ‘Naturally, I did not dream of [becoming a censor] from childhood. And I consulted for a long time with my friends. But the fact was, I wanted to write. And the route via censorship into the writing community was shorter than the route from the street’.[2] The links between the literary and political worlds, always close in the Soviet Union, are particularly striking where the censor is concerned.

At the lower level, a number of censors also worked as authors or poets. Glavlit’s files show that rather than being mutually exclusive, the roles of author, editor and censor could be combined. One interesting case is that of Nina Matveevna Berkova (1925-2003). Berkova entered Glavlit after graduating from the history faculty of MGU in 1952, the same year she joined the Communist Party.

Berkova moved between the literary and governmental spheres throughout her life and in the late 1960s lived in a building for KGB employees. During her time working for Glavlit, she wrote sci-fi novels under a pseudonym – perhaps a sign that the authorial role was not officially approved of – and after she left the censorship agency was a prolific author, editor and patron of sci-fi and fantasy and mystery literature and maintained close links with authors such as the liberal Strugatskii brothers, who had experienced their own struggles with censorship.

The traditional view of what the novelist and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn looks out from a train, Vladivostok 1994. Photo by Mikhail Efstaviev (full attrib. below)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn termed the ‘literarily illiterate people’ therefore bears some reconsideration. [3] Scholarship on Soviet censorship, by positing the censor as a monstrous kind of ‘Other’, antithetical to an oppressed creator of ‘pure’ literary production has hitherto obscured the complexity of censorial practices and the reality of the existence of the censor as a social actor, with complicated and contradictory motivations. In doing so, it obscures the close links between censorial practices and literary practices and the overlap between the intellectual and censorial spheres.

Where censors produced poetry and novels, we cannot simply think of them as anti-intellectuals or destroyers of literature. I will conclude by quoting the Lithuanian author Tomas Venclova, who railed against literary censorship: ‘For after all, the censor, too, is human. Like Homer, he might have to take a nap now and then. […] Although the censor is usually faceless, and never communicates with the author eye to eye, once in a great while one can play on his emotions, on his desire to spite someone, on his secret dissatisfaction with his life and profession, on virtually anything at all’.[4]


Samantha Sherry holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. From 2013 to 2016 she was Leverhulme Career Fellow in Russian at the University of Oxford. She currently works at the University of Reading. Her book, Discourses of Regulation and Resistance: Censoring Translation in the Stalin and Khrushchev Era Soviet Union is published by Edinburgh University Press.


[1] ‘Soviet Censorship: Discussion’, in The Red Pencil: Artists, Scholars, and Censors in the USSR, ed. by Marianna Tax Choldin and Maurice Friedberg (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), pp. 53–67 (p. 65).

[2] ‘Tsenzory: Inter’viu S Byvshim Zamestitelem Nachal’nika Upvravleniia Glavlita (1984-1989 Gg.) Iuriem Otreshko’, Kommersant” Vlast’, 1997.

[3] Cited in T. M. Goriaeva, Politicheskaia Tsenzura v SSSR. 1917-1991 Gg., Kul’tura I Vlast’ Ot Stalina Do Gorbacheva. Issledovaniia (Moscow: Rosspen, 2002), p. 330.

[4] Tomas Venclova, Forms of Hope : Essays (Riverdale-On-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1999), p. 187.

Image Attributions:

Image 1: By George Shuklin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: I, Evstafiev [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Redefining the national community during the Spanish Civil War: Queipo de Llano’s radio propaganda broadcasts

by Joel Baker

On 18 July 1936, the army in mainland Spain followed the colonial troops in Morocco and rebelled against the government of the Second Spanish Republic. The coup was only partially successful, and the resulting division of the country marked the start of the Spanish Civil War.

The leader of the uprising in Seville was General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, commander of the Carabineros (border guards). Queipo’s success in Seville was key to the Nationalists’ rapid advances in the early stages of the war – providing a base for the airlift of Franco’s Army of Africa from Morocco – and is notable for the horrendous scale of violence unleashed in the city and the areas of southern Spain under Queipo’s command.[i]

Queipo is also noted for his vulgar propaganda broadcasts from Radio Sevilla – a nightly occurrence until Franco forced him off air in February 1938. While few recordings of these speeches survive, they were reproduced every day in newspapers published in Seville and elsewhere in the Nationalist zone.

Queipo de Llano (centre) during commemorations in Seville’s Plaza de Triunfo marking the first anniversary of the Nationalist rebellion, 18 July 1937 (Source: GGnaomi, Wikicommons)

Aptly, certain fragments from these speeches have often been used to demonstrate the brutality of the Nationalist war effort and repression. However, their regularity and wide coverage in the press, as well as the fact that the Seville transmitter was capable of broadcasting to most of mainland Spain, mean we should see them as an important part of wartime culture and discourse in the Nationalist zone.[ii]

Indeed, one junior Nationalist officer, Domingo Pérez Morán, refers on a number of occasions in his memoirs to troops regularly listening to and discussing the General’s broadcasts. At one point, Pérez Morán refers to Queipo de Llano as ‘Don Gonzalo’; despite the honorific title Don, this reflects a feeling of familiarity one would not necessarily expect for a junior officer referring to a senior commander, suggesting that Queipo’s broadcasts made him a figure with whom the rank-and-file felt they could identify.[iii]

Queipo’s broadcasts can therefore be considered an important element in the formation of a Francoist discourse during the civil war, and so are clearly worthy of more detailed study. This reveals broader themes within them, beyond the familiar and frequent incitements to gratuitous violence. One way in which we can see Queipo’s broadcasts fitting into the broader development of a Francoist discourse is in the redefinition of what Spanish nationality and identity meant.

One of Queipo’s charlas, reproduced in the local press. (Source: La Union (Seville), 21/1/1938, held by the Hemeroteca Municipal de Madrid)

In one particularly notable instance, Queipo praised the foreign legionaries and Moroccan regular troops fighting among the Nationalist forces, telling his listeners that ‘despite their being foreigners, they have much more love for Spain than all the Marxist scum, and they’d give their lives for us rather than defect to that rabble.’[iv] His rhetoric later elevated the general population of Morocco to a higher level of ‘Spanishness’ than the Nationalists’ opponents:

Very many of them are more Spanish at heart than all the Marxist scum put together … They are incapable of betraying Spain and … if we wanted to remove even the last soldier from Morocco, they would guard it themselves, with exemplary fidelity.[v]

Leaving aside the implausibility of this final claim – it was only ten years since the Spanish and French armies had concluded a bloody and unpopular counterinsurgency campaign in the Protectorate – these examples demonstrate an attempt to reframe Spanish national identity as being determined by one’s politics above all else. In Queipo de Llano’s view, left-wing Spaniards lost any right to claim that national identity, while foreigners who shared the military rebels’ values could consider themselves Spanish.

This logic for excluding political enemies from the national community had been forming in right-wing Spanish circles for some time. During the 1934 Asturias rebellion, the Falangist leader José Antonio Primo de Rivera wrote to General Franco that ‘a socialist victory constitutes a foreign invasion … because the essence of socialism, from top to bottom, contradicts the permanent spirit of Spain.’[vi]

Queipo de Llano during a visit to Berlin in 1939 (Source: Wikicommons)

The broadcasting of such opinions to a mass audience during the civil war was an attempt to legitimise Nationalist violence by excluding its victims from a shared identity with its perpetrators. Similar notions can be seen in later Francoist legislation, particularly the February 1939 ‘Law of Political Responsibilities’ (Ley de Responsabilidades Políticas).

This statute provided the pseudo-legal basis for Francoist post-war repression by retroactively criminalising membership of the Popular Front parties as far back as 1 October 1934. The law carried through the logic evidenced in the examples above by establishing penalties for those who fell foul of it, including not only the forfeiture of property but also of Spanish citizenship.

Another attempt by Queipo to impose his understanding of Spanish identity can be seen in one broadcast in which he ‘apologised’ for having previously suggested that Catalans were all cowards. ‘If I said that’, explained the General, ‘it was in reference to the cowards who serve Marxism in Catalonia’. He insisted that ‘I cannot call the Catalans cowards, because they are Spaniards, and no Spaniard worthy of the name can be a coward.’[vii]

Queipo’s logic here is less circular than labyrinthine, but what is perhaps most striking about it is the unambiguous claim that ‘Catalans … are Spaniards’. Given the Nationalists’ implacable hostility to any kind of regional nationalism within Spain, this can be read as an attempt to impose a national identity which some Catalans may not have wanted – alongside an implication that those who refused it were Marxists, and thus beyond the national community.

Queipo’s speeches were thus part of a wider Nationalist effort to redefine the Spanish nation at the same time as building a new state. They also demonstrate a function of wartime propaganda that is, perhaps, specific to civil wars. Whereas propaganda in a war between two nation states may focus on promoting the essential justice of the relevant party’s cause,[viii] a deeply political civil conflict like the Spanish Civil War can also lead to attempts to cast the enemy rhetorically beyond the pale of the national community in order to legitimise, in this case, a military rebellion and shocking violence behind the lines. Nationalist propaganda such as Queipo’s, which arrogated the right to define Spanish identity, helped lay the ideological foundations for exclusionary and repressive practices for decades to come.

Joel Baker is currently studying an MA in Historical Research at the University of Sheffield, where he will be conducting PhD research on public works and welfarism in Spain under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930) from September 2017. He previously graduated with a BA in Modern Languages (Spanish, Dutch, French) from the same University in 2014, and has also worked as a translator at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. He tweets on and off at @joelrbaker.

[i] See Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (London, 2012), pp. 131-178.

[ii] Alan Davies, ‘The First Radio War: Broadcasting in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 19.4 (1999), p. 474.

[iii] Domingo Pérez Morán, ¡A estos, que los fusilen al amanecer! (Madrid, 1973), pp. 36, 45, 47, 163-164, 189-190.

[iv] ‘… no obstante su condición de extranjeros, tienen mucho más amor a España que toda la canalla marxista, y dan su vida por nosotros antes de pasarse a esa chusma.’ La Unión de Sevilla, 25/08/1936, pp. 9-10. Translations are my own.

[v] ‘… muchísimos de ellos son mucho más españoles a corazón que toda la canalla marxista junta; […] son incapaces de hacer traición a España, y […] si quisiéramos sacar de Marruecos hasta el último soldado, lo guardarían ellos solos, con ejemplar fidelidad.’ La Unión de Sevilla, 28/08/1936, pp. 9-10.

[vi] ‘Una victoria socialista tiene el valor de invasión extranjera […] porque las esencias del socialismo, de arriba abajo, contradicen el espíritu permanente de España.’ Quoted in Sheelagh Ellwood, Historia de Falange Española, trans. Antonio Desmonts (Barcelona, 2001). p. 57.

[vii] ‘Yo no puedo llamar cobardes a los catalanes, porque son españoles, y todo español digno no puede ser cobarde. Conste, pues, que si eso dije, era refiriéndome a los cobardes que en Cataluña sirven al marxismo …’ La Unión de Sevilla, 24/08/1936, pp. 5-7.

[viii] See, for example, David Welch and Jo Fox (eds), Justifying War: Propaganda, Politics and the Modern Age (New York, 2012).