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The Art of Escaping Censorship

Three recent documentaries track the ingenious ways that banned literature, films, and music circulated in the Soviet Union.

Vernon Films

In 1985, Donald Shanor, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, published a slim book called Behind the Lines: The Private War Against Soviet Censorship. In it, Shanor outlined a problem that was emerging in Gorbachev’s USSR: It was becoming increasingly obvious that the Soviet Union needed to embrace new technologies in order to stay competitive among advanced nations. Yet, should its leaders do so, they risked losing control of a system of censorship that had been in place for more than 60 years. 

That system was longstanding but not static. From 1922 until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, state-sponsored censorship varied from country to country, waxing and waning under different regimes. Over the years, it evolved from a Stalinist approach wherein all mentions of domestic food shortages, foreign accomplishments, or anything deemed “counter-revolutionary” were expunged; to the comparatively relaxed censorship of Khrushchev’s “thaw”; back to a hardline approach under Brezhnev; and finally to Gorbachev, who implemented the reforms that ultimately pulled down the Iron Curtain.

The relaxation of the Krushchev years perhaps made this opening up inevitable. The circulation of underground goods had boomed in the wake of the thaw. Brezhnev’s crackdown in the 1960s and 1970s had the opposite of its intended effect: It resulted in an explosion of homemade pamphlets, books, and audiotapes. Kruschchev’s reforms had meant that there were now more educated urban Soviets than ever before, and with the reduction of the working week from six days to five, they had leisure time at their disposal to read and share banned materials. This isn’t to say people were open about it—samizdat books and journals were often read at night, so as to be passed on in the mornings, and people were still being surveilled, jailed, and brutally interrogated for underground activities. Nevertheless, by the time Gorbachev came to power, veins of distribution were running throughout the USSR and the Eastern bloc, bringing foreign films, banned literature and American music to receptive Soviet citizens.  

The transmission of Western culture into the communist East is the broad subject of three offbeat documentaries that have come out in the recent years: Disco and Atomic War (2009), Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015), and now X-Ray Audio, a short documentary currently on the festival circuit. While the world Svetlana Alexievich chronicled in Secondhand Time, her oral history of “the last of the Soviets,” seems distant, the samizdat that this era produced continues to surface. Pirated records, bootlegged videotapes, and photocopied novels still appear at flea markets in St. Petersburg and Tbilisi, fuzzy replicas of Western originals. Their sheer prevalence is a testament to the demand for them at one time, and the ingenuity involved in creating them.

By the end of the 1980s, the challenge of staying competitive had acquired a twist: When capitalism did arrive, the East’s younger inhabitants were better equipped to adapt, in part because they’d already seen what it looked like.  

On June 24, 1987, cars from all over Estonia were jammed for miles on roads entering the northern capital of Tallinn. People had driven for hours to watch Emmanuelle, a softcore French film that was screening that evening on Finnish TV. Documentarian Jaak Kilmi recalls that the streets of Tallinn were eerily quiet as everyone in the city prepared their antennas and stayed home to tune in. It was an unprecedented glimpse into a uniquely Western phenomenon, and the sheer fact of the screening was at the time unimaginable to many Soviet Estonians, even if they regularly watched foreign TV. There were no Nielsen numbers, of course, but Kilmi’s Disco and Atomic War claims there was a better barometer to measure the film’s popularity—nine months later the Estonian birth rate jumped to a record high.

It takes three and a half hours to get from Helsinki to Tallinn by ferry across the Gulf of Finland. The cities face each other across the water, and on a clear day it’s possible to see Finland from one of Tallinn’s medieval stone towers. Finland was never part of the USSR—though it went out of its way to maintain friendly relations with the Soviets during the Cold War—and it had access to Western TV, which it beamed across the gulf to its southern neighbor. This began in the 1950s, but during the ’70s and ’80s, Kilmi recalls that enterprising Finns and Estonians did brisk business shuttling microchips into Tallinn and fabricating “Finnish blocks” that could be installed in Soviet TVs as a way to circumvent censorship. This was the era of Nightrider and disco, of Star Wars and Dallas, the plots of which were recounted in letters to relatives in other parts of the country. While the shelves of Estonian markets were empty, Finnish TV carried ads of a portly chef prodding succulent cuts of veal and lamb. 

As more and more makeshift copper antennas sprouted on Estonian roofs, Party officials made halfhearted attempts to stop the transmissions, arresting violators and occasionally threatening to build a giant net in the ocean to jam the signal. After an Estonian engineer figured out how to use mercury to improve TV antennae, officials blamed the run on thermometers on an invented flu outbreak. By the mid-’80s, efforts to police TV in Estonia were given up altogether. This was also tactical, Kilmi claims: “Later studies have shown that for 20 years Soviet Estonia was a secret laboratory for the KGB to research what would happen to the Soviet citizen in the flood of hostile propaganda.” In other words, the Soviet Union could have easily jammed Finnish TV all along.

Several hundred miles south, in Romania, censorship was far more severe under the Eastern Bloc dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu ruled the county through a cult of personality, tightly controlling the national TV station and newspaper, and overseeing a sprawling network of secret police. Even so, by the 1980s, Romania had developed a dynamic bootleg movie culture. Dubbed videocassettes of Western movies were trafficked across the country, and ticketed underground film screenings were held in family living rooms. Between 1985 and Ceausescu’s overthrow in 1989 (he and his wife were tried and executed on Christmas Day) over 3,000 films were dubbed by one woman, Irina Margareta Nistor, a translator for Romanian state TV. In Chuck Norris vs. Communism, filmmaker Ilinca Calugareanu traces the impact of Nistor’s work on generations of young Romanians, who came to identify her voice—the most famous in the country after Ceausescu himself—with Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Woody Allen. From a dubbing studio in the basement of a Bucharest apartment, Nistor dubbed as many as four movies a day on the fly, which were illegally imported from Hungary by a shadowy businessman with links to the Stasi.  

And then there was censorship in Russia itself. Stephen Coates got the idea for his documentary X-Ray Audio over a decade ago at a flea market in St. Petersburg. There he discovered a stall selling old X-rays that had been repurposed so that they could play music. Smugglers would carve grooves into discarded X-rays with recording lathes, and then cut them out so they could be played on record players. X-ray plates were the preferred material because they were both pliable and widely available at local hospitals. A black market quickly developed, and Soviets would buy banned records—which ranged from American jazz, mambo, and rock to Russian émigré musicians—from back alley dealers, the most famous of which was Leningrad’s Golden Dog Gang. On the X-Ray Audio project’s blog, Coates writes that the recordings “perhaps had a status something like that enjoyed by illegal drugs today—looked down on as being low culture but secretly enjoyed by a bohemian class.” In the early ’60s, the records became especially popular with Soviet hipsters known as stilyagi (the subject of yet another documentary) although owning them could lead to expulsion from the Communist Party.

From a distance of several decades, one could argue that the irony of these underground markets was that they established an intense demand for Beatles records and Solzhenitsyn novels that would later harden and be channeled under capitalism. It is perhaps a crueler irony that under communism, people had more time in which to make music and literature central to their lives. In Secondhand Time, several of Alexievich’s interviewees recall the literary culture that flourished under Communism—the zeal with which people read books, and the working hours that enabled them to do so while still being able to support their families. Censorship is an imperfect practice, and an effective way of stifling the flow of information is not just to cut off the supply of books, tapes, or records, but to deny people the resources—both time and money—they would need to consume them. In this way, Putin’s Russia, in which the wealthiest 10 percent of citizens control 87 percent of the country’s money, is increasingly catering to the needs of the state.

In the years after 1991, much of the physical infrastructure of the USSR was dismantled and sold for parts. As the ruble crashed, the black market boomed, and street vendors scandalized former Party apparatchiks by selling Soviet military medallions and uniforms. The transition to capitalism bankrupted millions and produced a handful of billionaires—a new oligarchic class, built on the back of the old power structure. Neither Chuck Norris nor Dallas catalyzed this collapse, but the way people had traded these cultural goods did give them a foretaste of how they might act under capitalism. While most of the samizdat materials were authored or composed by Soviet writers, Western media opened a window to an outside world, and helped reinforce the idea that the “homo Sovieticus” was already a thing of the past.