Book bans and literary censorship: how US is following in footsteps of Russia

Book bans and literary censorship: how US is following in footsteps of Russia

by Suswati Basu
Russia seeks to remove works related to the LGBTQ community in latest book bans proposal

In an eerie echo of history, the Russian literary landscape is undergoing a chilling transformation reminiscent of the Soviet era, as books are quietly being removed from shelves and the freedom to publish dissenting voices is steadily eroded. Since February 24, 2022, the Russian book market has been grappling with an array of challenges, including rising costs, new laws curbing LGBTQ+ expression and foreign influence, and a growing reluctance of international authors and publishers to engage with the nation. This wave of censorship and self-censorship has given rise to an atmosphere worryingly akin to that of the Soviet Union, where access to certain works required ingenuity and resourcefulness. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US has its own history of book bans, which has been revived under this Trumpian era, suggestive of that of Russia.

Soviet-style book bans in Russia

The Russian literary world has found itself ensnared in a web of restrictions and taboos. Officially, authorities may not overtly yank books from store shelves, but the spectre of self-censorship hangs heavy in the air. Publishing houses, bowing to unwritten dictates, sidestep works by ‘undesirable’ authors, and bookstores quietly withdraw titles by these writers from their inventory. It’s a chilling reminder of the Soviet era when free expression was suppressed under the weight of ideology.

Back then, books that challenged the dominant narrative faced outright bans in the USSR. Anti-Soviet sentiments, discussions of sex, LGBT themes, religious criticism, and various other topics were promptly consigned to the shadows. Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” faced the axe for its independent stance on the 1917 Revolution. The author’s clandestine manoeuvring led to its publication abroad and eventual recognition with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Hailey Paige, an Eastern Illinois University history graduate student, stated in her dissertation that the author was critical of Stalinism and blamed the “death of idealism” on the Communist regime. Literature was often equated to the rich and opulent classes ie. the Bourgeoisie, hence it served little purpose to the government if it was not used to relay their own message.

Similar tales of ingenuity abound, as exemplified by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s secret crafting of “The Gulag Archipelago” and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We,” both of which evaded Soviet censorship through clever methods.

Tales of circumventing censorship

Soviet citizens, resourceful and resilient, found ways to circumvent the suppressive regime. Stories of individuals acquiring contraband literature through personal connections, covert channels, and underground markets are emblematic of a populace determined to seek knowledge beyond the official narrative. In some cases, those with connections abroad acted as conduits for banned works, their privileged status affording them access to a wider world of literature. These tales mirror the tenacity of Ludmila Kovtun, who reminisced about her father’s clandestine procurement of prohibited works to The Moscow Times, or Alexander Nesterchuk’s recollections of seeking out “sheets of paper with text” rather than published books.

As the Soviet era waned, some banned authors were cautiously granted limited reprieve, albeit in small print runs. For instance, YMCA-Press, an exiled publishing house, continued to disseminate the voices of banned writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Anna Akhmatova from abroad. This diasporic literary phenomenon, though constrained, persisted as a beacon of intellectual and artistic resistance against oppression.

Russia’s contemporary publishing struggle

Today, Russian literary dissent is undergoing a modern revival reminiscent of the past. The Moscow Times, which is blocked in Russia, reports that literary journals and publishing houses are cropping up outside the country, striving to provide a haven for voices stifled at home. Amsterdam’s “The Fifth Wave,” a literary journal curated by Maxim Osipov, beckons readers with its bilingual offerings, while the Novaya Riga bookstore in Riga aims to continue its success in defying suppression. One of the most notable newcomers is Freedom Letters, a publishing house born in 2023, dedicated to amplifying Russian-speaking authors’ voices abroad. CEO Georgy Urushadze’s journey is marked by the publication of works shunned in Russia, such as Sergei Davydov’s “Springfield,” an LGBTQ-themed novel.

The 5th Wave: Russian Writers in Exile

Urushadze’s account of pro-Putin activists inadvertently aiding his cause by denouncing his anti-war literature underscores the paradoxical nature of resistance. As the publishing house thrives internationally, it rehashes a time when Russian literary dissidents found sanctuary beyond their homeland’s borders.

Russia’s new law against ‘denying family values’

A year to six months before book ban policies began cropping up vociferously across the US, the Russian government proposed their own bill (government website now taken down) that would put “denying family values and promoting non-traditional sexual orientations” on par with “inciting ethnic hatred and propagating pornography.” According to Latvian-based Russian news organisation Meduza, who have broken ties with the Kremlin, the jointly proposed bill was authored by deputies from Russia’s Communist Party and the A Just Russia party. This was recommended by the State Duma, which is the lower house of the Federal Assembly of the national legislature – the equivalent of the US Congress.

Read: ‘Criminalise librarians’: judge blocks controversial law in Arkansas

Translation: A draft law on a complete ban on “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” has been submitted to the State Duma. Previously, it only applied to minors.

This proposed legislation seeks to draw an unsettling parallel, placing the portrayal, endorsement, and even compassionate portrayal of LGBTQ+ individuals on the same plane as materials that endorse war, extremism, narcotics, and suicide. While the bill’s accompanying documentation particularly underscores its focus on cinematic and online content, the ripple effects of its passage could prove just as ominous for Russia’s literary landscape.

“When people start censoring themselves, then the problems start.”

Marina KadetovA, the Kompas-Gid publishing house

Russian publishers at a leading Moscow bookfair told the AFP in December they were “all very worried” by the new restrictions and feared the return of Soviet-like censorship. At the Non/Fiction fair, Marina Kadetova of the Kompas-Gid publishing house, warned that the restrictions are fuelling “self-censorship.” Leading novelists such as science fiction writer Dmitry Glukhovsky and historical fiction novelist Boris Akunin have been slapped with the label “foreign agent,” given to Kremlin critics and activists, but also to a growing number of writers.

Glukhovsky, who is also a rapper known under the name Oxxxymiron, was handed an eight-year prison term in absentia for criticising the government’s policies in Ukraine earlier on August 8th. It comes as a law in the state of Arkansas was about to go in effect that would criminalise librarians and booksellers who provided “harmful” materials to minors. Consequently there are suggestions that this could be a precursor of things to come.

Russia vs. US book bans

Comparing the narrative of book bans in Russia with the US experience reveals intriguing and yet concerning similarities. In the US, there have been federal laws creeping into the system that can enforce book bans, with parallels to Russia’s stance on LGBT rights. In July of 2021, Texas adopted House Bill 3979, colloquially referred to as the “critical race theory law.” This legislation, named after an academic discipline that has drawn significant conservative scrutiny, places limitations on the methods and scope by which students can engage with topics related to race, racism, sex, sexism, and the historical and cultural implications of these concepts within the context of American society.

Read: Top librarian fired by board as book ban compared with Nazi Germany

Meanwhile, Joe Harding, a former representative from Florida, introduced House Bill 1557, more widely known as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, which centred around parental rights in education. This legislative proposal found its way to the desk of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who added his signature on March 28, 2022. Consequently, the bill officially came into force on July 1, 2022.

The 100-year-old widow of a WWII veteran compared her Florida county’s efforts to ban certain books to Nazi Germany

In the past the US experience has often hinged on local school boards or library districts’ discretion, while in Russia, a federal law against “extremist” materials provides a broad net for suppression. Moreover, the motivations used to diverge: US bans tended to arise from concerns over obscenity, offensive language, or religious viewpoints, whereas Russian bans frequently stem from ideological or political considerations. However, the tides are turning. Whilst, the legal framework in Russia looks at the nation state as a whole, US continues to work on a federal level. That doesn’t mean these laws haven’t been introduced to the top tier courts before. The bottom line continues to be that book bans in the US are supposedly to “protect the young” – for now they say – while it’s more wholesale in Russia, targeting everyone.

The US Supreme Court’s forgotten book bans case

Only one previous case of a library book ban has ended up before the US Supreme Court: Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico. In 1982, a New York school district’s board of education had made the decision to remove certain books from the school library’s shelves, citing concerns about the content being inappropriate or objectionable. Among the books removed were works by authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes, as well as other works addressing themes like sex, race, and social issues. Steve Pico led a fellow group of students against this challenge, asserting that their First Amendment rights were violated by the removal of these books.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the students. The Court held that while public school officials have some authority to make curricular decisions and regulate the content of school libraries, they cannot do so in a way that infringes upon students’ constitutional rights. It remains to be seen whether students will take action, as authors, parents, free speech organisation PEN America and Penguin Random House have already filed a comparable lawsuit.

Notable banned books in the US include “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, both of which tackle LGBTQ+ themes. In Russia, classics like George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” were banned during the Soviet Union, though it can be found in bookstores now. Contemporary works such as “Apocalypse Culture” by Adam Parfrey and “Summer in a Pioneer Tie” by co-authors Elena Malisova and Katerina Silvanova have been targeted for their potential to challenge official narratives or norms.

A world of uncertainty

As the global literary landscape evolves, the struggle against censorship persists. In Russia, a resolute band of writers, publishers, and readers continues to navigate a treacherous terrain reminiscent of Soviet suppression. Their efforts to ensure voices once stifled find resonance and freedom abroad echo with a courageous resilience that history will not soon forget. Meanwhile, the United States grapples with its own battles over intellectual freedom, balancing cultural diversity and individual expression in an ongoing dialogue that shapes the future of literary discourse, as we see the ugly face of McCarthyism return. As the pages of history turn, the stories of these two nations highlight the eternal struggle for the right to write, read, and think freely.

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