Russia’s Hybrid Book Censorship and Propagandistic Agenda

May 15, 2024
Publisher Vladimir Kharitonov looks at rising book censorship in Russia, describing the tools used to get rid of “bad” books and explaining how current practices differ from Soviet times.
In modern Russia – i.e., since the annexation of Crimea – hybridity seems to have penetrated all spheres of social and political life. Were there Russian troops in Crimea? “No,” said the government. “Of course there are,” official propaganda said with a wink, “but you cannot prove anything!” And then the same government awarded these propagandists orders and medals for “returning Crimea home to its native harbor.”
Redacted pages in the published translation of Roberto Carnero**'s biography of** Pasolini. Source: VK
In the years leading up to the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, “not us” (ikh tam nyet) was Russia’s official response to allegations that Russian troops were involved in fighting on Ukrainian territory. This phrase even became a meme. No one really tried to deny the fact, but the implication was “you cannot prove anything.” And now Russia continues to insist, albeit less stubbornly than before, that it is not waging a war but conducting a “special military operation.”

No censorship, but more and more banned books

In Russia, censorship is prohibited by the Constitution. This does not in the least prevent books from being banned both de facto and de jure, however. In the past month – on the recommendation of the expert council of the Russian Book Union – the publishing house that published Vladimir Sorokin’s Nasledie [Heritage], as well as translations of Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham, took them off the shelves.

The books The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara were also pulled following a letter from the Prosecutor General and sent for “expert examination” by that expert council. Meanwhile, the biography Pasolini: Dying for One’s Own Ideas by Roberto Carnero went on sale with big chunks redacted.

All these books are suspected of spreading “LGBT propaganda.”
The law on the prohibition of LGBT propaganda provides for very strict penalties for legal entities – i.e., publishing houses – including hefty fines and a suspension of operations for an extended period.
Boris Akunin, one of the most successful Russian writers , whose books have been printed in the tens of millions, have been labeled an "extremist" by the state. Source: Wiki Commons
At the end of 2023, Russia’s Supreme Court declared the nonexistent “international LGBT movement” an extremist organization, so now if “propaganda of extremist LGBT activities” is found in a book, the publisher risks not only a big financial hit but also criminal prosecution.

Publishers know very well how accusations of abetting extremism can end. The state tarred as an extremist Boris Akunin (the pseudonym of Grigory Chkhartishvili) – perhaps the most successful Russian writer of the last two decades, whose books have been printed in the tens of millions – and, to send a message, searched the editorial office of the Zakharov publishing house, one of those that published Akunin’s books. His immediately disappeared from stores and even libraries.

Yet no Glavlit (as the censorship department was called during the USSR) was needed for this. The mechanism for banning books in modern Russia differs from the Soviet (or tsarist) one: now, the country does not have an institution where professional censors, following instructions and looking out for sedition, study manuscripts and stamp “Approved by Censors” on books deemed trustworthy.

The current censorship machine has been built over the past few decades, and not only for the book industry, but for the entire political space. It consists of several parts, two of which are organic to any autocratic regime: servile courts, which do not represent an independent branch of government, and a servile law enforcement apparatus, which exists mainly to produce reports on uncovered crimes.

Both institutions embody bureaucracy, which must constantly justify the necessity of its existence. Law enforcement officers regularly uncover crimes (if there are none, they are created, such as, for example, membership in the “international LGBT movement”), while the courts invariably convict all the accused, because, otherwise, law enforcement officers or the judges themselves might be suspected of incompetence.
The third component of the censorship machine is a set of legislative prohibitions, not directly related to books, that have accumulated historically, as well as their interpretation in practice.
None of the prohibitions provide for censorship; rather, they prohibit one activity or another, with the result, however, being censorship. Moreover, each such prohibition is formulated deliberately vaguely and allows for the broadest possible interpretation.

How does it work?

The Russian state tested its censorship machine on the issue that causes the most moral panic and the least resistance among the public: drugs. At the beginning of the 2000s, on the basis of old, Soviet legislation on drug control, several books by the publishing houses Ultra.Kultura and Factoria were banned: Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine by Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar (YaleUniversity Press), Inside Clubbing by Phil Jackson (Berg Publishers) and Apocalypse Culture (edited) by Adam Parfrey (Feral House).

After this, books on drug policy and the anthropology of drugs were practically never published in Russia. Self-censorship works well when it is accompanied by tangible financial losses – by court decision, the books were not only banned, but the remaining copies held in the printing house’s warehouse were also destroyed.

There is no law in Russia prohibiting criticism of the authorities, but there is a 2002 law on “extremist activities” – essentially the first censorship norm of the Putin regime. It prohibits “insulting” government officials. Likewise, criticism of the police is not banned, but the state has made it a crime to incite “hatred toward a social group,” which may include police officers.

The state did not prohibit studying the history of World War II, but it did prohibit “comparing” the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Publishing houses duly began to take out entire chapters from books on the history of Russia in the 20th century (this, for example, happened to the book Unmodern Country by Vladislav Inozemtsev – in the electronic version of the book this chapter was removed, with the above legislation cited as the reason).

Another ban concerns “disrespect shown toward those involved in the defense of the country,” as well as “insulting the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland” and “degrading the honor and dignity” of veterans of the Great Patriotic War.

Campaigns instead of institutions

Legalism, which the authorities have been using for years to cover up the tightening of the authoritarian screws, makes it possible not to introduce censorship directly. On the other hand, the current regime is unlikely to be able to build a systematic and effective censorship apparatus, as rising authoritarianism fundamentally contradicts the building of institutions.

The current regime demands unconditional submission and servility, with the usual response of the bureaucracy being campaigns, i.e., demonstrative measures against something or someone that can be reported to superiors as success – a practice well developed in Soviet times.

As a result, the state system operates not so much through special institutions, but rather through the gradual expansion of a set of increasingly repressive tools, which are used as needed and with varying degrees of cruelty toward different participants in the public space.

A set of prohibitive laws, law enforcement agencies working to meet targets on uncovered crimes and an absolutely obedient court – together they represent an effective machine for controlling the publishing market. This machine keeps publishers on their toes and ultimately forces them to engage in self-censorship.
A censorship committee is not needed when everyone gets it and tries not to say or publish anything the state does not want to hear.
The publishing house that published Vladimir Sorokin’s Nasledie (Heritage) was forced to take it off the shelves. Source: Corpus
Censorship is unconstitutional, but it is not needed if self-censorship takes its place.

Updating censorship methods

In 2024, the censorship arsenal was replenished with new tools. The state still does not explicitly ban homosexuality, but equates any sign of queerness to “extremism,” like wearing rainbow earrings. Books are frequent victims of this vogue censorship practice.

Russian ultra-conservatives have largely copied this agenda from their right-wing-Republican American mentors. However, unlike the latter, the former face virtually no obstacles in the form of liberal legislation, an independent judiciary or an active civil society.

Unlike tsarist and Soviet times, preventive censorship is not on the menu today. Instead, the state keeps publishers on their toes, encouraging self-censorship.
To do this, the state has feedback at its disposal – it gets “signals” from members of the public, i.e., friendly informants and state-affiliated pranksters and activists. These “signals” lead to cases, expert examinations and the right decisions by courts.
It was denunciations – formal and informal – that set off the biggest recent censorship scandals, with books by the most popular authors, such as Dmitri Bykov, Boris Akunin, Vladimir Sorokin and others, being taken off the shelves.
Sergei Stepashin, the president of the Russian Book Union. Source: Wiki Commons
Demonstrating loyalty

This is not to say that publishers are not putting up resistance to this repressive machine. Businesses, especially large ones, such as the EKSMO-AST holding owned by Oleg Novikov, incur direct losses when they remove books from sale, and, according to the laws “on LGBT propaganda” and extremism, they risk their operations being suspended in the event of noncompliance.

This makes the holding play defense while still publicly demonstrating loyalty. The establishment of the abovementioned expert council at the Russian Book Union (RBU) is such a performance of submission.

The RBU, which brings together the largest publishing houses in the country, including the de facto state publishing house Prosveshcheniye – which has a monopoly in the school textbook market – simultaneously looks after the interests of the state, keeping an eye on the book industry, and represents its interests before the state.

The president of the RBU for many years has been Sergei Stepashin, an extremely experienced bureaucrat (having served as deputy head of the FSB, minister of justice, minister of internal affairs, prime minister, chairman of the Accounts Chamber, chairman of the Association of Lawyers, chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Society, etc.)
Stepashin’s connections and influence are still sufficient to more or less successfully protect the industry from excessive government pressure.
The industry’s strategy is mainly to keep its head down in the bureaucratic arena – in other words, self-censor the planned publishing portfolio while responding only to explicit and clear repressive signals in relation to already published books.

If there is a denunciation, the RBU sends the book for expert examination (to the expert council convened by it) and puts away copies until better times. If there is no denunciation, nothing is done. Meanwhile, a feeling of general concern lingers. In a recent interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Novikov, on behalf of the RBU, talks about Russia as “the most reading country in the world” and discusses problems with children’s libraries, mentioning, among other things, that three million books in Russian have been delivered to libraries in “the new regions [in Ukraine].”

Will book publishers face deprivatization?

Of course, this does not mean that the number of denunciations and thus the number of books withdrawn from distribution based on these denunciations and sent for expert examination for “LGBT propaganda” will decrease in the near term.

On the contrary, until some other repressive agenda appears (the fight against separatism, foreign influence, or something else like that), “LGBT propaganda” is a convenient and universal grounds for repression, be it at the political or public level. But the book industry – or at least its largest holding – will likely fight back, reacting to specific threats.

It is also possible that the flywheel of repression will not stop at banning the wrong books by the wrong writers and that publishers will be required to produce the right books by the right writers, as was the case in the USSR.

Immediately after starting his latest presidential term, Vladimir Putin issued a decree “on the fundamentals of state policy in the field of historical education,” which calls for an even more standardized history course in Russian schools. Putin’s aide Vladimir Medinsky has already managed to rewrite history textbooks about the 20th century – now, it seems the entire history course for high schoolers is next.

The decree will most likely spawn new books about the hostility of the “collective West,” the “Russian World” and the strengthening of traditional values as opposed to those of the immoral West.

The current political regime is based on constant readiness to respond to signals from above.
Unlike Soviet times, the Kremlin today does not so much strive to support and promote a clear and coherent ideology, but rather is guided by a propagandistic agenda.
If the authorities nevertheless feel that the existing censorship tools are not enough, they still have a lot of means both to strengthen censorship and instill “correct thoughts.” The Duma is already discussing bringing back the practice of licensing book publishing, which the state abandoned in the early 2000s.

Having such a lever, they would not have to resort to noisy campaigns against individual books – it would be enough to just demand that the publishers reduce the number of translations from “wrong” languages, without question publish certain philosophers, etc. – it is not difficult to imagine the initiatives that might arise.

In addition, the state has a deprivatization mechanism that has already been tested in other industries (see Russia.Post about it here and here). The owner of the EKSMO-AST holding has obviously set himself the goal of controlling the entire production chain, from printing to book sales. Today, the holding, which enjoys a monopoly position in the fiction market, includes not only a dozen publishers, the country’s only national chain of bookstores (Chitai Gorod) and stakes in the largest online stores, but, most recently, also privatized printing houses.

However, if “mistakes” in the privatization process were to be suddenly uncovered, as has happened to several companies in other industries recently, then the state could gain almost complete control over most of the Russian book industry.
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