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Abandoned Soviet bunker | © 547877 / Pixabay
Abandoned Soviet bunker | © 547877 / Pixabay

10 Books That Were Banned in the Soviet Union

Picture of Anastasiia Ilina
Updated: 5 January 2018

The control of the Soviet government stretched long and far. Literature, being one of the most powerful forms of conversing ideas, was under the close watchful eye of censors. While some books were edited, some were completely banned. Here are ten works that were banned in the Soviet Union. 

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

The novel Doctor Zhivago had a very unfortunate fate. The manuscript was first approved by the government publishing house, but some time later they retracted their decision. The reason was the anti-revolutionary sentiment in the book. Luckily, Pasternak had also sent a copy to an Italian publisher who refused to return his copy and went ahead to publish the book in Europe. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel, but under the pressure from the Soviet government, declined it.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The novel was never published during Mikhail Bulgakov‘s lifetime, and the journey to completing it was a difficult one. The first finished version Bulgakov burned himself and when he returned to the work, trying to complete it again, he was on his deathbed. The publication of the work, in a censored  and abridged state, happened only 26 years after Bulgakov’s death. The complete version of the book was self-published and secretly passed along from one avid reader to another. In fear of getting caught, rebellious youths would read it in one night and hurriedly rid themselves of the forbidden literature. Officially the novel saw publication in its entirety in 1973, 33 years after Bulgakov’s death.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

A one of a kind dystopian novel, such literature was unheard of in the Soviet Union. In the eyes of the government and the people, We mocked the communist regime and presented an unlikable image of the communist future that the country was eagerly fighting for. The novel is filled with allusions to Zamyatin’s own experience of Soviet life and references the Russian Civil War, which ended with the victory of communists.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

A seemingly innocent book about a traveller stuck on a deserted island, nevertheless this book made the list of foreign books unwelcome in the USSR. The main fault of Robinson Crusoe is the idea that one man can carry out so many heroic acts. In the views of the Soviet government, history is made by a collective effort, not by the acts of separate people. As a result the book was basically rewritten, skipping most of the time Robinson Crusoe spent alone and placing more emphasis on ideas of the importance of human society.

The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn’s famous accounts of Soviet labour camps are not just works of fiction, but novels based on his own experience. The writer was accused of spreading anti-Soviet propaganda during World War II. After his return, he began putting his memories of the camps on paper. For a while the books were published and even studied in Soviet schools. But after the government leadership changed, his works were not welcome anymore. He was expelled from the Union of Writers and was not able to receive his Noble Prize for Literature in 1970. Soon after, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union along with all his works.

The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon by Boris Pilnyak

In an allegedly fictional novel, three leaders order a Red Army officer to undergo an operation, which he is very reluctant to comply with. The officer dies on the operating table. Although Pilnyak wrote in a note to the story that there are no genuine facts used in the novel, there is a staggering similarity with the story of Mikhail Frunze, once head of the Red Army, who also died after being advised by Stalin to undergo an operation, despite feeling healthy. The novel caused a scandal and was immediately taken out from print. Pilyak’s name was renounced in literary circles and the novel proclaimed an anti-revolutionary attack against the government.

Russia in the Shadows by H.G.Wells

The American writer H.G.Wells had the opportunity to visit Russia twice: in 1914, a few years before the February revolution of 1917 and then during the years of the Civil War. In his book he reflected on the visit and openly criticised Marxism, resulting in the book being quickly forbidden in the USSR. It was published once, years later in 1958, but with an introduction aimed that aimed to completely discredit the author and his views.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This story about the love of an adult man towards a young girl was frowned upon not only in the Soviet Union – among countries who also banned the novel were the UK, New Zealand, and France, and the manuscript was turned down by many publishers. Opinions of critics differed on the matter, but the Soviet government remained firm on its decision, even when Nabokov translated the novel into Russian himself (he originally published it in English).

Animal Farm by George Orwell

This story tells of farm animals that have had enough of being overpowered by their owners, and instigate a coup. New rules are installed to make sure that everybody is equal, but eventually some were more equal that others. The comparison to the 1917 Russian Revolution was evident and to no surprise the novel was forbidden by the Soviet government who didn’t appreciate the author’s irony. Animal Farm along with other writings of Orwell were forbidden in Russia until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Life and Fate is one of the most prominent novels about World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Grossman completed his work on the novel after the death of Stalin, allowing himself to criticise the dictator’s regime. Yet the novel was refused publication as it was seen as a politically dangerous and the writer was requested to make sure the copies are not in any way circulated. Soon after, Grossman’s apartment was searched and any form of recording equipment confiscated.