Waltz with the censor
Jānis Borgs, Art Critic
This and that from my personal experiences within the fold of Soviet censorship
Stumbling on the hooks of the crooked cross

Adolf or, as some German kameraden used to say, “our Ady”, is to blame for it all. In setting about the titanic new construction of his Reich of the millennium with, however, rather unpleasant and even very criminal activities, he managed to fall out with the whole world, and at the same time also to befoul our once so fine and folkloric relation­ ship with the swastika, (or the ugunskrusts – ‘firecross’, as it is known in Latvian folk lore). That’s why, in the waltz with the censor, my foot also tripped over the hooks of this dynamic sign occasionally.
Fragment of Lielvarde belt. From magazine Māksla, 1985, No 3, p. 11
The first incident took place in the late 1970s, when I was still “directoring” at the Janis Rozentals Riga Secondary School of Art. That little job was a bit like a stroll in a mine field, as you could never know what kind of crazy antics the silly young pupils would get up to. And so it happened – one day all hell broke loose. The son of some prominent Latvian artist, now quite a prominent artist himself, had decided to while away some time in a nice pub on the outskirts of Rīga. The beers consumed began pressing for a way out, and he, driven by the call of nature, went off to the establishment’s pissoir. There, he had company – standing next to him was a Russian officer, also a fan of beer. The army man cast an appraising look over the newcomer, unexpectedly stopping at the lapel of the high school student’s jacket. This was decorated by a folksy silvery brooch from the Ulmanis period, perhaps it even had a bit of amber at its centre. But it wasn’t that which stopped the officer midstream. The edges of the brooch were decorated by tiny cute swastikas. The defender of the fatherland knew nothing about Latvian folk­ lore, but here it was, absolutely clear to him, that все латышы фашисты (all Latvians are Fascists). And that he had caught one of those недобитий [untranslatable derogatory term] here. Su­ perfluous to say what a carry­on he then caused. The militia got involved, and a дела (case) was initiated, even getting as far as the “Stūra māja” (“the house on the corner” – headquarters of the Cheka). The matter was then, of course, forwarded on to the teaching institution for young “fascists”, namely – the Rozentals School where I was in charge. The KGB curator, who kept an eye on all of these types of art schools, encouraged me by telephone “to institute dis­ ciplinary measures”. It was quite humane that our comrades didn’t attend to the matter themselves, but left the sorting out to me, the conscientious director of a Soviet institution. In such cases, the pro­ cess was virtually automatic – there had to be serious repercussions. I delegated some aspects of the repercussions to the female class teacher, but I myself had to do something, too. I had a chat with the little pupil, and through a historically Stalinist retrospective sketched out to him the possible consequences. He still tried to justify himself naively, saying that he’d taken the brooch from his mama’s jewellery box... A summoning of the parents could not be omitted, as an obliga­ tory component of the repercussions. As they say – a fish rots from the head down. The respected artist – papa arrived, we had a friend­ ly chat and agreed that it really wasn’t a good thing for a young lad to walk around with a woman’s brooch with swastikas on it, and that in future he should desist. With this unanimity the дела – affair – gradually faded away and was forgotten. But I breathed a sigh of re­ lief – see, how the humanism of “Leninist principles” had taken the upper hand. Because only a few decades previously, not only it would have been the poor student and his parents, but most likely I as well who’d be sitting in some troop train with a one­way ticket to the “health resorts” in polar bear country. And I remembered an educa­ tive gulag story from the collections of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that I’d heard in a BBC broadcast. In 1937, at the peak of the great terror, Joseph the Terrible had suddenly let slip a colourful, but in reality not very appropriate saying: “Life has improved, comrades. Life has become more joyous!” It quickly turned into a kind of main slogan for the All­Union, printed on banners in countless quantities at all institutions. And on a carefully made poster on some classroom wall in a little Russian school as well, together with the name of the man who was being quoted: J. Stalin. But one student, rather “unshod” politically, dared to make a little joke and added another letter to the name. Well, it then transformed into the slogan that life had become better and more joyous only for Comrade Stalin. This one letter cost all the students in the class, their parents and their teachers many long years in Siberian slave camps. Against this background, I felt like I’d just been lovingly caressed. As “our beloved” Nikita Sergeyev­ ich once said: “It’s a beautiful time we are living in, comrades!”

The abovementioned doesn’t perhaps apply to censorship di­ rectly. It was more an act of political supervision and vigilance. But I really began to feel the embrace of censorship when I started work­ ing in the editorial office of Māksla (‘Art’) magazine, both as picture or artistic editor, and author of articles as well. And you could never really tell where and how censorship might spring a surprise on you. Like a bandit, it was always hiding around a corner. Well, here’s an example, an incident from the early 1980s. We had hoped to supple­ ment some cultural­historic material in the magazine with a large – whole page – interior view of the writer Anna Brigadere’s interwar period apartment. Obviously it would be interesting to see how the eminent guardian of the Latvian spirit had once lived. Everything appeared to be wonderful, but a while later, the already laid­out pic­ ture was kicked back by the editor­in­chief – the carpet that could be seen in the interior had to be retouched. I took a look – the little rug had been decorated with little swastikas around its edges. Not even definite angled crosses, but ones lovingly crossed in S­type curves. All of these had to be blacked out, so that people wouldn’t get the wrong idea. As a young buck, my blood boiled, but arguing with the authorities would be like spitting against the wind. And I like a blessed one spent the whole evening carefully tinkering about with Brigadere’s little rug, until there wasn’t any trace of her “fascism” remaining. Thus I had become a falsifier of history. But in return, everybody was happy and could take joy in the “true” image of the writer’s room. In this case, the censor didn’t even get a chance to lay a finger on the editorial board. What happened demonstrates a classical case of self­censorship. The potential horrors of conflict had been already foreseen and with great vigilance averted in good time. This kind of censor dwelt in the “innards” of nearly every writing, editing or otherwise creative worker. Like an experienced chauffeur who is well aware of the slippery places on the road, and reacts pre­ ventively in good time against the possibility of mishap by braking or some other safety manoeuvre.
Riga Artist Group. From the left: Konrāds Ubāns, Valdemārs Tone, Jēkabs Kazaks, Oto Skulme. In the foreground: Romans Suta. 1919
Riga Artist Group. From the left: Konrāds Ubāns, Valdemārs Tone, Jēkabs Kazaks, Oto Skulme. In the foreground Niklāvs Strunke and Romans Suta. 1919
It’s paradoxical that, with the flow of time, the regime and the censor reacted differently, even in a diametrically opposite way, to one and the same thing. And among the society of the time, the more enterprising representatives of the arts persistently tested the changeable boundary between what was allowed and not allowed in their dialogue with the regime. An example of this is another swas­ tika incident which happened to me in the latter part of the mid 1980s, that is to say, in the run­up to perestroika. I’d gathered to­ gether a great deal of material by the Estonian artist and cultural re­ searcher Tonis Vint about the famous Lielvarde belt. To this I added my own text as well. As the “infusion” (as I used to call magazine lay­ out) matters were also in my hands, I decided to do one test piece here – to place that part of the Lielvārde belt which is teeming with swastikas in the opening image of the article. Quite a provocative undertaking, the responsibility for which I’d hoped to pass on to the net of censorship. They surely won’t allow it. Unbelievably, after I’d already prepared some reserve options, the whole intended under­ taking went roaring through, without a hitch. The censors let the ma­ terial through without any delays or comments, and it was published and distributed complete with all the Lielvarde belt swastikas. The obvious – the unbelievable came to fruition. The old inertia of public opinion, however, still hadn’t been overcome. I came to understand this when, while on editorial duty, I was suddenly telephoned by a KGB representative who told me: look, there have been complaints from the working people that you’re publishing swastikas and such­ like. Who’s responsible for this? Can you explain? I felt an unpleasant stabbing below my ribs – now we’ll be in the s..t! I murmured some­ thing about me being responsible, that the Lielvārde belt, that eth­ nography... Having heard this word, the “house on the corner” clerk disappointedly snapped back – oh, ethnography? Well, that doesn’t interest us in the slightest! Then everything is in order! And he put down the phone while I, perspiring slightly, remained sitting with my mouth agape. Well, you can’t say that times don’t change! But now we complain how terribly persecuted freedom of thought was in the Soviet era. However, here one should really always distinguish quite clearly – which and what kind of Soviet times? One time con­ flicts with another.

Finally, the period of Awakening arrived and another strictly forbidden Latvian symbol – the auseklītis (morning star), was reha­ bilitated. This was also considered to be “fascistic”, as the aizsargi (Guards Organization) of Ulmanis had used it in pre­war Latvia. When the tsunami of Gorby’s perestroika destroyed Soviet censor­ ship in 1986, the legalized morning star dawned anew all over the place among Latvians as a kind of special symbol of freedom. In this wave of euphoria, I, too, ecstatically and insistently designed a morn­ ing star as the new logo for the magazine Māksla. But the morning star just kept on multiplying. I finally realized what a dramatic de­ valuation of the morning star had taken place at the instant when I noticed it even on the lapel of a well­known Interfront member! Thus this symbol’s patriotic trajectory ended, and it quietly joined the ranks of other Latvian ornaments...

Maps and cards

But there was a song and dance not just about swastikas alone. At least there the motivation was somehow clearly founded. Yet often enough the attacks of censorship took on signs of paranoia. The most comic incident in my experience was connected with an article on Riga’s historic city plan. It was accompanied by 19th century carto­ graphic images. The magazine’s lay out passed through the editorial filters, and was even accepted by the main censorship office Glav- lit, and could now go through for publication. Suddenly things were brought to a halt by the military censorship: there, in a hundred­ year­old Tsarist era Rīga map with the Saulkrasti railway line on it, one could see a branch line leading to the port. That had to be re­ touched. It was a secret. I laughed to myself – because otherwise the Americans would find out that we have this terribly secret thing which every dog on any street corner can’t be bothered to discuss any more. They, those НАТОвцы (NATO members), looking down from their satellites, all this time had no idea about what was hap­ pening here at Brasa, about that branch line. But now they’ll take a look at an antique map – oh, my goodness, it turns out that the Port of Rīga is connected by railway! Who would have thought, the shock of it! But due to my retouching efforts, this highly secret information would remain safe for another fifteen years or so.

Generally, there was a particular attitude towards maps of the city. They simply didn’t exist, because any such map was deemed to be secret. Sometimes you could get decoratively infantile diagrams meant for tourists. Errors were knowingly inserted even in the more serious maps of the Latvian SSR. For example, if there was a road with a lake to the left of it, then on the map the lake was shown as being on the right. Due to their approximate nature, maps reminded one of some kind of kingdom of crooked mirrors. Those who had in­ herited or otherwise acquired pre­war Ulmanis­period maps were lucky. Some had obtained very accurate wartime military maps, even though they were totally out of date and didn’t have much to do with reality, but if you used your imagination you could get by. On occa­ sion, some genuine and detailed maps were brought in on the quiet by those returning from abroad, or by sailors.

Mariners considered charts to be a bit too intellectual, and they preferred instead cards with pictures of naked women on them, as there was also a great shortage of all kinds of nakedness. The pre­ vailing view, cultivated by the leading party’s ideologists, was that such bourgeois debauchery was unbecoming of the Soviet person, as it could completely ruin their morals and divert them from the class struggle and the building of communism. This juncture is the right place to once again recall an amusing incident from 1984, when to­ gether with a group of artists I was returning to Riga from Finland. We’d all disembarked from the ship in Tallinn harbour and were un­ dergoing checks and searches, under a cloud of suspicion. The Rus­ sian customs were giving everyone a proper going­over. I was the very last in line. Next to my suitcase on the long screening table there was also a large shoulder bag packed to the maximum with printed matter obtained from Finland, it was perfidiously squeezing itself out through a gap. This drew the attention of the customs officer like a magnet. He seized my poor bag, pulled the zipper open, and, catch­ ing sight of the thick package of foreign newspapers and booklets, froze in anticipation of a great haul of contraband and porno, vibrat­ ing lightly like a cat prior to pouncing on its prey. His reddish fat face became even pinker. He was just about slobbering. Wanting to savour his triumph, he called out to his supervisor who was standing some way away: “Vasily Ivanovich, come here! Have a look at what I’ve found.” The начальник (supervisor), wobbling slowly, waddled up like a traffic policeman about to impose a fine for exceeding the speed limit. By now, three or four more customs officers, all craning their necks, had gathered around my bag. This was followed by a swift grab and the whole heap of papers was pulled out and thrown down on the table with a splat. A nervously hectic sorting through then took place – art museum catalogues, the Finnish academic news­ paper Helsingin Sanomat cultural supplements, and all sorts of other similar really uninteresting “pulp literature”. How the blokes’ faces dropped was a sight to behold. The hoped for mutual sampling of fresh sexy photos and vodka wouldn’t be happening this evening. I even thought I heard: во зараза, гнилой интелигентик б..гь... Ну ладно, идите...(the bastard, rotten intellectual, f...Oh well, get go­ ing...). After the half hour of activity, I was sulkily and mercifully re­ leased with all of my art papers. What a let down!


And here’s another strange activity brought on by censorship. In the late 1970s, I was involved in the Riga Cinema Studio team which was making a short poetic documentary­type film about the famous Red Rifleman and Soviet artist, constructivist Gustavs Klucis. For this reason we went off to Moscow, where we buried ourselves in the depths of archives and libraries. Among other things, I was intro­duced to Klucis’s wife, Valentina Kulagina, also an outstanding artist, a woman of great and noble soul. She had a fantastic archive in her keeping, both about Klucis as well as other famous Russian avant­ garde grand masters of the time (1920s–1930s). We became friends, and Valentina revealed ever new and more intimate levels of her ar­ chive – diaries, Klucis’s letters... One time, while digging around in the printed pile of posters, I came across something quite strange and scary. It was a row of Gustavs Klucis’s photomontage posters, picturing the Bolshevik politburo at some party congress. As is ap­ propriate for such an agitprop (propaganda agitation materials) product, everything radiated sunny optimism, only in place of the sun there was the face of the partly satisfied “father of the people” and “teacher”. But that’s exactly why even more dramatically acute was the contrast looming from many of the other participants in the event, with their heads painted out with black ink. It looked like the radiant Comrade Stalin was under siege, surrounded by some kind of black­hooded Ku Klux Klan members. I asked what it all meant. Valentina Kulagina explained: it was 1937, of course, and imagine – each morning you would open up Pravda and read that so and so had turned out to be a spy and traitor... So then you would hurry over to the pile of posters with your little ink bottle, and yet again paint out one of the faces. Because, how could it be otherwise – who would risk keeping at home a portrait of an enemy of the people, furthermore one which you yourself had placed in your own poster? So, if a house search took place, it was obvious to everyone that you had distanced yourself promptly from such a saboteur and criminal. You had nothing in common with him. You didn’t even know him, because you didn’t know who was hiding behind the black blot. This, however, did not save the upright Bolshevik, Gustavs Klucis, from arrest and being shot, because he too joined the ranks of the inked over ones as a possible Japanese spy...

Valentina generously beqeathed one such inked in placard for my collection. And she was also the one who introduced me to a quite Soviet artistic censorship technique – пальмирование (“palming”). Artists in all kinds of editorial offices at an assortment of publishing houses often had to do some quick “palming”, which meant that they had to retouch undesirable persons in photographs that couldn’t be replaced, usually by painting a palm in their place. And so it came to be that in a group photograph people suddenly were squeezed around a rubber plant, fir tree or some other botanical creation.

A more brutal version of this technique I experienced right here in Riga, at the turn of the 1960s–70s when I was collaborating with art historian Tatjana Suta. In a book, I saw a unique group photo­ graph of members of the Rīga Artists Group. There was Skulme, Tone, Ubāns... huddled around a mysterious black hole. It was only years afterwards, when Latvia had been restored, that I finally saw the original version of this photograph. The black hole turned out to be (the artist) Niklāvs Strunke. During the Soviet era, he for some un­ known reason was the banned and the bad, evidently because he’d gone into exile at the end of the war and villainously spurned the great Soviet fatherland. That’s why he’d been properly “blacked­out” in that photograph.

Here we had another oddity. You could never be sure who, out of those who’d fled, was the “good” one, and who was the bad. Accord­ ing to Soviet standards of the time, Vilhelms Purvītis could possibly have been labelled a German fascist collaborator, a worker in the ad­ ministrative apparatus of the occupying power, friend and teacher of Hitler’s main ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, who with his assistance fled from the liberators to the nest of the enemy. You couldn’t think of anything more evil. Even just one of these illicit actions would be enough to warrant an extended cooling off period in the expanses of Siberia, if not a “final solution”. But no – Purvītis was described as an old person deceived by propaganda, who in his heart was “red” and, being an idealist, didn’t understand what he was doing, but the Soviet fatherland never forgot him. Whereas for someone else it was enough just to glance the wrong way to be included in the line­up of enemies.

Destiny also forced me to work with palming. In the 1970s, an international textile art symposium was taking place in Riga. This was marked by a catalogue, and a photo of the entire group of artists was published in the introduction. One of our Artists’ Union work­ ers, an active and important organizer of the event, was right in the middle of the photo. Nowadays you’d say – the curator. But unfortu­ nately, the young lady had hatched out a horrible plan of “treachery against the fatherland”, and had suddenly left for Israel, as at the time was exclusively conceded only for Jews. And so the Soviet people, with contempt, deleted her from their memories. As there was no other group photo, only the one that included this saboteur, then I, as artistic designer for the event, had to take on the palming mission. So suddenly, amidst the group of about fifty people, there was some­ thing weird sprouting up. And that’s the way it was printed.

It wouldn’t be fair to demonize every individual censor, some of whom I personally knew (quite normal people) while I was work­ ing in the Press Building. So to say – nothing personal. Everybody followed instructions, or the “holy scriptures”, a lot of which had become quite out of date and had acquired the status of being gro­ tesque nonsense. I once got to the Aswan Dam in Egypt. There, dat­ ing from the period of Soviet aid, still remained the menacing warn­ ings that the taking of photographs was strictly forbidden. Even so, crowds of tourists unobtrusively and cheerfully clicked their mobile telephone photo and video devices. Nobody was up there making a statement with a camera on a tripod. Modern technology and the means of communication are the death knell of any totalitarianism. Let’s just recall, for example, the role and significance of the internet in the tempestuous spread of the Arab Spring.

Here I’ve reached down a little into the depths of Soviet censor­ ship from the angle of my own experiences. Many might perhaps di­ rectly assign censorship to be the most characteristic feature of the Soviet system. And so here I have to play the role of Devil’s Advocate for the regime, as censorship has been well known even from an­ cient times. But we have to thank the Christians for the development of its contemporary form. Censorship was invented in the 15th cen­ tury by the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Sixtus IV came up with an earlier concept of censorship in 1471. But the practical censorship of books began in Germany in 1475. The first censor was the rector of Cologne University. In the 16th century, censorship spread to other Catholic countries. Secular rulers, too, followed the Pope’s example. Supposedly, they could quietly afford to do so as, you see, in the Ten Commandments with all their instructions of “Thou shalt not...”, or in the moral code of the builders of communism there was nothing said about censorship. However, you’ll always have to hold your tongue and reckon with Big Brother – the censor. An internal or ex­ ternal one, or one that’s hidden under the table. Amen.

Translation into English: Uldis Brūns
go back