Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



Suppression of truth is a common event in the literary history of empires. In the literary theory of the Polish-South African author John Maxwell Coetzee, censorship arises directly from the insecurity and paranoia of tyrants: “It is precisely at the point at which an intention to offend is detected behind every action giving offense that the gates of paranoia are opened” (Coetzee 1997, 20). Using the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union as a model, he describes the effects on the populace of the state's perverse rationalization for suppression. Authorities encourage citizens to spy on dissidents and to report suspicious words and deeds, particularly artistic expression, a situation Coetzee characterized in his allegory Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). He explains that control renders “society fragmented into tens of millions of individuals living on individual islets of mutual suspicions” (1997, 34).

During the consolidation of the Roman Empire, storytellers faced a wall of official menace. The slave fabulist PHAEDRUS annoyed Sejanus, the palace prefect of Emperor Tiberius, and stood trial for ridiculing the regime. Out of spite, Tiberius shelved the satiric quips in the storyteller's Fabulae Aesopiae (Aesopic fables, ca. A.D. 31).

The audacity of the Kurdish poet-theologian Ahmed-i Hani turned MEM-U ZIN (Mem and Zin, 1695) into a popular oral text for the stateless tribes of Kurdistan by bypassing literary Persian and the Arabic of Islam. The text remained unprinted until its appearance in Istanbul in 1919.

Russian fabulist IVAN ANDREYEVICH KRYLOV had similar problems issuing cutting SATIRES of Catherine II the Great and the ruling class. After imperial police rifled his print shop, he retreated to Latvia for 12 years to tutor at Riga. Only after his death did government officials embrace his witty beast stories as vernacular treasures. Similarly ostracized, ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN endured exile to Odessa in 1826. LEO TOLSTOY suffered the suppression of his pacifist treatise The Kingdom of God Is within You (1894) and antiwar novel Hadji Murdd (1904). Even worse, he witnessed the rewriting of a vignette, “Sevastopol in May” (1855), into pro-war propaganda for dissemination in the September issue of Pushkin's magazine Sovremennik (The Contemporary). Ukrainian author NIKOLAY GOGOL required the intervention of Czar Nicholas I in the staging of The Government Inspector (1836), a three-act send-up of government corruption on the Russian frontier that reached print in a second edition in 1842. A less damaging suppression of Gogol's picaresque novel Dead Souls (1842) required a lessening of impact by changing the title to The Adventures of Chichikov; or, Dead Souls.

Suppressed publication in world empires epitomizes disregard for civil rights, the extenuation of SLAVERY, and capricious jailing and torture of freedom fighters, the subject of the French author VOLTAIRE'S satire Candide (1759) and the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka's prison memoir The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka (1973). In Cuba, the melodramatic novella Sab (1841), the tragic romance of a mulatto slave in love with his white master's daughter Carlota, created a backlash against its author, Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda. In Spain, miscegenation so outraged readers that censorship denied the novel publication until 1914. In 1957, the smuggling of BORIS PASTERNAK'S anti-Soviet saga Doctor Zhivago (1956) brought to worldwide acclaim a novel that infuriated Kremlin censors for its honest depiction of a family man and his mistress. Another quandary, the negative response of Polish Catholics to Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosinski's surreal fairy tale The Painted Bird (1965), derives from the book's anti-peasant subtext that charges ostensibly charitable families with sadism, sexual deviance, and ongoing torment of a lone boy fleeing the chaos of the Holocaust. Clouding the issue of blame is the obscurity of time, place, and the boy's ethnic identity, whom some consider a Jewish stray and others a gypsy bastard. Polish authorities suppressed the book until 1989, when it emerged to controversy and mixed charges of plagiarism and lies. In South Africa, humanist author NADINE GORDIMER met similar opposition to her antiapartheid views in The Late Bourgeois World (1976), Burger’s Daughter (1979), and July’s People (1981).

Limiting Russian Readership

Post-czarist Russia resulted in one of the most repressive regimes in terms of literature, especially for freethinkers, libertarians, and anti-Marxists. The Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” (1924), which builds tension with cannibalistic behaviors and poisoned darts, brought about the banning of all of Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S stories in Russia. Another unusual candidate for suppression, SIGRID UNDSET'S Tillbake til Fremtiden (Return to the Future, 1942), a wartime memoir, angered Joseph Stalin by depicting Siberians forced into beggary, starvation, and imprisonment. During the Stalinist tyranny, the poet ANNA AKHMATOVA'S Requiem (written 1935— 40) charged the dictator with lawlessness and the truncation of Russian civil rights, particularly as they applied to the arts. With “In 1940,” she denounced the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany and lamented the Luftwaffe's bombardment of London and the occupation of Paris by the German SS. Labeled a traitor in the Soviet media, she realized her work was one of the reasons her son, Lev Gumilev, served a term at hard labor in a northern gulag. Fans of her verse resorted to samizdat (private publication) by memorizing, hand-copying, or typing forbidden poems for clandestine circulation.

Akhmatova's disciple, Russian-Jewish poet JOSEPH BRODSKY, fought the censorship of Nikita Khrushchev's administration. In an action that was all too common at the time, the secret police kidnapped the poet from the street and seized his writings and books. In So Forth (1996), he recounts his testimony before a female judge on February 14, 1964, and subsequent jailing at the Kashchenko insane asylum in Moscow and later at Kresty Prison in Leningrad as well as hard labor in Archangelsk on an inlet of the White Sea. The protests of Akhmatova and the poet YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO persuaded General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to free Brodsky, but his canon remained impounded. Without the samizdat, readers would have missed his collected works until their publication in the United States after he emigrated to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Another victim of Soviet censorship, Nina Lugovskaya (1918-93) suffered the seizure of her diary by the Soviet secret police in 1937. She, her mother, and her sisters faced sentences of five years' hard labor. Her journal was published in 2006 as I Want to Live: The Diary of a Young Girl in Stalin’s Russia. Similar in measured style and desperation to Holocaust victim Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) (see CHILDREN'S LITERATURE), Lugovskaya's work offers a damning view of Communist repression of eyewitness accounts detailing unforeseen arrest, interrogation, and jailing, as well as the imperial paranoia, sadism, and hypocrisy taking place from 1932 to 1937. Labeled counterrevolutionary, the diary concludes with Lugovskaya's confinement in the Kolyma gulag, the beginning of 12 years in exile.


Coetzee, J. M. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Lugovskaya, Nina. I Want to Live: The Diary of a Young Girl in Stalin’s Russia. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.