The Evolution of Censorship in the Revolution: How the October Revolution changed the censorship in Russia

The Evolution of Censorship in the Revolution: How the October Revolution changed the censorship in Russia


In this essay, the censorship in Russia in years after the October revolution is examined. First, the censorship in the 19th and in the early 20th century will be highlighted as a background for the censorship under the Soviet power. Then, the censorship in the years after the revolution is viewed. Then, the focus shifts on the Bolsheviks’ understanding of media and on Lenin’s Theory of the Press. Finally, the alterations and constancy in censorship under the Bolshevik power, during the first years of the October revolution, are summed up.

The censorship in Russia in the years before 1917

“Information wants to be free”, it is said, but in Russia it has never really been liberated. In the 19th century, the press in Russia was regulated by committees of censors set up by the Censorship Statutes of 1804, 1826 and 1828. In 1860, censorship was removed from the Ministry of Education, and a Directorate of Censorship was set up. In March 1862, the direction of all censorship was entrusted to the Ministry of Interior. The general line of policy was determined by the Council of Ministry and its detailed execution was the task of the Chairman of the St. Petersburg Censorship Committee. The press was freed from preventive censorship, but in practice the censorship remained strict. As the revolutionary movement grew at the end of the seventies, censorship became increasingly severe. (Seton-Watson 1952, 55; 1967, 358–359.) The circumstances affected the way the revolutionaries ­– some of them future leaders of the country ­– viewed censorship.

In early 1880s, of Russia’s most influential mass-circulation dailies began to make their mark: The Moscow Sheet and The Stock Market Gazette. During the 1880s, censorship became more rigorous, and the most influential daily, the liberal, nationally circulated The Voice (Golos) died in censor’s hands. From 1882 onwards, the newspapers which had been “warned” three times by the censor were thenceforth obliged to submit their texts to the censor one day before publication. This regulation was relaxed in 1901, when it was decreed that the duration on one “warning” could not exceed one year. In 1882 a Special Conference was created, with the power to suspend or suppress any periodical considered “especially harmful”, and to forbid an editor or publisher from carrying on his profession. In 1884 and 1888 special regulations were issued on public libraries and reading-rooms, particularly on those used by the poorer classes. In 1890, the opening of libraries or reading-rooms was made dependent on permission. Despite the harsher censorship, the number of newspapers in Russia rose between 1883 and 1913 from 90 to 1.158. (Seton-Watson 1952, 134–135; 1967, 480–481; McReynolds & Popkin 1998, 71.)

The epoch of Nicolas II (1894–1917) was a period of freedoms and also restrictions. On the one hand the declaration of the press freedom as a part of civil rights of Russian society; on the other hand enactment of preliminary military censorship. After 1905, tsarist censorship softened, so it was possible to print Bolshevik newspapers in Russia. Revolutionaries had to battle the censor, were in constant need of money and tirelessly polemized against each other. (Kenez 1985, 132–133.)

Even though the censorship was not so harsh, the years of 1905–1906 and those following were marked by the establishment of military courts in the field which were involved in mass executions. The situation was getting tenser with many pogroms towards the non-Russian population. “Chauvinistic emotions were stirring via the legal Tsarist press.” Therefore, “[i]t is not surprising that the Bolsheviks denounced the press itself as being openly hostile and protecting the ‘rotten’ regime of Nicolas II.” (Strovsky and Simons 2007, 4.)

The World War reintroduced (political) censorship in Russia. The military reserves in the spring of 1915 brought political tensions and raised critical questions, not only about the military leadership, but also about the political direction of the country. (Waldron 1997, 148–149.) On the one hand there were people who wanted Russia to go ‘forward’ to a more liberal direction. One the other there were the Marxists (both social democratic parties, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, of which the later took the name Communist Party in 1917) ­– and also Social Revolutionaries were becoming stronger. In addition there were those who wanted to keep things pretty much as they were, supporting the autocracy and the Tsarist regime. The Russian political left was already radical due to the tsarist regime and the war set the scene for even further radicalization. The winners in this process were the Bolsheviks.

1917: the Year of Two Revolutions

Radical forces struck in February 1917, and revolution began in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). The revolution spread to Moscow and to the key naval base of Kronstadt. Socialist intellectuals established the Duma committee and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The pressure from the Soviet was for a republic, and on March 1917 the Tsarist autocracy had ended and was replaced by an administration dominated by liberals. There were four successive Provisional Governments in the seven months following the Tsar’s abdication.

The Petrograd Soviet, at the same time joined by hundreds of Soviets that were formed across Russia, came to act in parallel to the administration, able to veto its decisions but unwilling to participate in the governments work. After the February revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks had supported the efforts of the Petrograd Soviet to close down reactionary-monarchist papers. In April, Lenin insisted in his April Theses that the Bolsheviks should refuse to support the Provisional Government and should aim at making a socialist revolution. Bolshevik influence in the cities grew. On 25 October, the Petrograd Soviet and the Red Guards seized the control of Petrograd and disbanded the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace, the ministries, the post and telegraph buildings, and the printing presses of Russkaia volia. On 25 October The following day, a resolution temporarily forbidding the publication of bourgeois papers and counterrevolutionary publications was issued. On 27 October the Council of Commissars published its Decree on the Press, which gave to the Council of Commissars the right to close down newspapers which advocated resistance to the new authorities or were “sowing confusion by the obvious distortion of facts”. (Waldron 1997, 158–159, 161; Kenez 1985, 137; Lenin [1917b].)

The Decree of the Press was promised to be a temporary measure and to be cancelled after normal social conditions are restored. Trying to destroy the private press financially, the Bolsheviks imposed a ban on printing advertising. It became a monopoly of the state. The impact was a considerable economic blow: very soon tens of newspapers ceased to exist in different cities (Strovsky and Simons 2007, 7–8).

In January 1918, the Constituent Assembly was suspended, non-Bolshevik political organizations were outlawed, and a strict censorship was imposed. (Kelly 1998, 238.) According to Peter Kenez (1985, 139), the new regime was forced, due to circumstances, to not to tolerate freedom of criticism, nor repudiate terrorist methods. Otherwise, the revolutionaries would have been condemned to defeat. The new government was firmly on its way to a long period of one-party control in Russia.

The Bolsheviks and Censorship

In the period 1917–1920, a completely new system of journalism was set up. The Bolsheviks’ concept was initially leading to many contradictions in the area of information. The journalists lacked journalistic culture and the infringement of ethics was frequent. The media stories never criticized the political system but could only touch current shortcomings. The audience was entirely dependent on the party’s political priorities and failed to express any views different from the party’s official line. (Strovsky and Simons 2007, 15.) In the Bolsheviks’ point of view, the press should be an instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

There are two “ideal” models of media power; dominant and pluralist. Mixed versions are more likely to be encountered. (McQuaill 1994, 69–70.) Under Soviet power, Russian media was in many aspects more clearly dominant than before. At the same time, however, also the number of readers and people engaged in making the media content increased. So the media ownership concentrated but the media consumption spread out.

As Strovsky and Simons put it,

On the one hand the media was regarded as a bulwark of the ideological system, on the other hand, they entirely satisfied the demands of most of the population in a particular type of information it needed.” Furthermore, it is also “worth remembering that under the Soviet power over 50 nationalities living in Russia received their first publications in their native languages which became a real breakthrough in printing business and provided massive trust in the Communists. Along with quick delivery of the media to very remote places of Russia the Bolsheviks were organizing reading-houses for illiterate people wishing to listen to the latest news.” (Strovsky and Simons 2007, 11.)

The information was not absolutely monolithic. Some critical voices were also heard. At least through the mid-1920s, the leaders were willing to argue publicly among themselves about certain topics, e.g. party democracy, the role of trade unions, the strategy of economic development and Soviet foreign policy. But they were always “arguments within the Bolshevik family”. (Brooks 1995, 165.)

Immediately after the revolution the Bolsheviks confiscated the paper supply, machinery and buildings of bourgeois papers. By late 1917 more than 30 enterprises had came to the ownership of the new power. In the course of 1918, the Bolsheviks increased the circulation of their papers tenfold, due to confiscated goods. In late 1918, the number of enterprises owned by the Bolshevik state was estimated at 90. (Kenez 1985, 143–144; Strovsky and Simons 2007, 14.)

In the second half of 1918, Bolshevik rule became more repressive. Now the Bolsheviks had more strength with which to suppress. The final closing down of all liberal and socialist newspapers in the middle of 1918 was a natural step in the process of ever-increasing suppression. (Kenez 1986, 143.)

By the time of the Bolsheviks’ revolution, all political parties printed and distributed their media products independently of the government politically and financially. In the early Soviet time almost all of them disappeared, and formal democracy was cancelled. (Strovsky and Simons 2007, 10.) The number of publications decreased rapidly. The production of pamphlets, books and newspaper dropped considerably. Even by 1928, the number of dailies had not reached half that of 1914. (Brooks 1985, 152.)

The Department of Agitation and Propaganda to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party was the main political center for distributing the party ideology throughout the country. It was mainly involved in making up instructions for editors. The political standard of the press was under control of instructors who were engaged in preparing and disseminating reviews destined to improve the content and layout of the press. The task of local papers was exclusively to appeal to a mass audience. (Strovsky and Simons 2007, 14; Kenez 1985, 146). According to Jeffrey Brooks, the most peculiar to the Bolshevik informational system

was its resistance to challenges and criticism from without. The Bolsheviks succeeded in centering their followers’ attention on progress toward what they considered desirable goals, but doing so they turned lens of public perception away not only from the atrocities they condoned and perpetrated but from unintentional disasters and failures as well. (Brooks, 1995, 171.)

Soviet Russia was a large-scale society, public was atomized, and at the same time the media was centralized. Transmission was basically one-way, even though the press recruited workers and peasants into the process of producing the content of newspapers and portrayed as their mouthpiece. People were depended on media for their identity and media was used for manipulation and control, even how well-intentioned the revolutionaries may have been. Even though the early 20th century Russia was in many ways “a backward” society, the mass society theory of media (McQuail 1994, 74–75) fits well to the Bolshevik example. The mass society theory rests much on the idea that the media offer a view of the world, a “pseudo-environment”, which is a potent means of manipulation of people, but also an aid to their psychic survival under difficult conditions. And during the first years of the Bolshevik revolution, the conditions really were difficult.

Lenin’s Theory of the Press

The “ultimate mastermind” behind the Bolsheviks’ power was Vladimir Ulyanov, better known by his nom de guerre, Lenin. For the future development of Russia, perhaps no-one has been as influential. For Lenin, the party press was an integral part of the party apparatus and firmly linked with its organizational and agitational function. In the famous passage in Where to Begin?, an article published in Iskra, Lenin stresses that a newspaper “is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, it is also a collective organizer.” (Lenin [1901].)

The Leninist theory of the press (as Lenin’s ideas considering the press were called later on) was not a unique theory. Lenin draws strongly on the model of the German Social Democratic Party (Sparks 1998, 46) and undoubtedly on the writings of Karl Kautsky, who, for Lenin, was for the long period of time a true teacher of how to read Marx’s works and how to build a revolutionary party.

The origins of Lenin’s theory of the press have to be seen as lying in general traditions of the socialist movement (Sparks 1998, 47). Lenin did not study only the works of German Marxists. Lenin’s media strategy was worked out on the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. In Lenin’s view, the leaders of the Commune did not undertake tough enough measures against the opposition press, and failed entirely at the time with their own counter-propaganda. Therefore, the Commune was defeated. Lenin envisaged the closure of alien publications as a priority for Bolsheviks after seizing power, to prevent a repetition of the situation which led to the collapse of the Paris Commune. (Strovsky and Simons 2007, 4.) The Bolsheviks headed firmly towards socialism and they did not want that anything would stop them. They had a revolution to make.

Revolutionaries were also journalists: they were experienced in writing articles, and editing and distribution small newspapers (Kenez 1985, 132). The Bolsheviks had fought against the tsarist censorship and did not advocate the institution of censorship after the revolution. According to Kenez (1985, 134–135), they assumed that the revolution would be carried out by the great majority of the people. Hence, the question of repression would not even arise.

Nevertheless, the real life circumstances were somewhat different from the ideal. The bourgeoisie had unquestionably far better means to spread and maintain its ideas and values than the working-class – which the Bolsheviks saw themselves to be representing. This made a justification for censorship. As Lenin argued in his article How to Guarantee the Success of the Constituent Assembly,

[f]reedom of the press’ in bourgeois society means freedom for the rich systematically, unremittingly, daily, in millions of copies, to deceive, corrupt and fool the exploited and oppressed mass of the people, the poor. (Lenin [1917].)


The Bolshevik censorship was clearly not an anti-thesis of its tsarist predecessor – even though it did exclude the social classes that used to control the means of communication, and introduced journalism for the poor and to many national minorities – but a synthesis of different historical elements which materialized in the Bolshevik regime. This made Bolsheviks’ censorship practices contradictory. The historical continuity was very strong. The conventions, customs, habits, practices, procedures did not disappear rapidly – if at all. “Everything changes”, yes, but even in revolutions, the change is slow. Bolsheviks could not escape the Russian history.

The influences affecting Bolsheviks attitudes and practices on censorship could be arranged in three underlying “elements” that the Bolshevik censorship laid its foundations on:

(1) First, the Russian, historical element: the censorship by the tsarist regime, the conventions, the structures Bolsheviks inherited from the old regime, and social traditions.

(2) The second element in Bolsheviks’ censorship was ideological, namely Socialist element. It presented a change towards the previous practices. Ideologically, the Bolsheviks were strongly influenced by the Social Democratic Party of Germany and its organizational practices and principles.

(3) The third element is circumstantial, the practices developed in the wartime, and the need to hold the power – the measures needed to save the revolution.

Many of the measures were very probably meant to be only temporary, and to be lifted when ”the time is right” and the society is more stable. The Bolshevik power relied on political censorship (which could be considered originating from the second and third “elements” described above). Political censorship can be considered the strongest form of censorship in a sense that political power can lay down restrictions which affect the society as a whole. Still, moral censorship (here manifesting itself as the first of the “elements”) is the one that really controls people’s minds. It is not so visible than the political form of censorship, however important. On the one hand, censorship is suppression: the control of official powers on content, release and distribution of printing products so that ominous ideas could not be accepted by society. On the other hand, censorship is one of institutionalization of human culture: an attribute of the relationship between the state and the public.

Overall, in many ways the censorship remained the same it had been for centuries. It was aimed differently, but many practices were very similar to those of the tsarist regime. The Bolsheviks wanted to change everything for good, but making a revolution is not that easy. Many purposes turned in their opposites. The history and the circumstances are hard to overcome.


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