Nõukogude tsensuuri mehhanismid, stateegiad ja tabuteemad Eesti teatris [Abstract: Mechanisms, strategies and taboo topics of Soviet censorship in Estonian theatre]

  • Anneli Saro
Keywords: Estonian theatre, Censorship, Soviet censorship, Taboo topics


Abstract: Mechanisms, strategies and taboo topics of Soviet censorship in Estonian theatre

Since theatre in the Soviet Union had to be first of all a propaganda and educational institution, the activity, repertoire and every single production of the theatre was subject to certain ideological and artistic prescriptions. Theatre artists were not subject to any official regulations regarding forbidden topics or ways of representation, thus the nature of censorship manifested itself to them in practice. Lists of forbidden authors and works greatly affected politics related to repertoire until the mid-1950s but much less afterwards. Research on censorship is hampered by the fact that it was predominately oral, based on phone or face-to-face conversations, and corresponding documentation has been systematically destroyed.

This article is primarily based on memoirs and research conducted by people who were active in the Soviet theatre system. It systematises the empirical material into four parts: 1) mechanisms of censorship, 2) forms and strategies, 3) counter-strategies against censorship and 4) taboo topics. Despite the attempt to map theatre censorship in Estonia after the Second World War (1945–1990), most of the material concerns the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. This can be explained by the age of the respondents, but it can also be related to the fact that the Soviet control system became more liberal or ambiguous after the Khrushchev thaw encouraged theatre artists and officials to test the limits of freedom.

The mechanisms of theatre censorship were multifaceted. Ideological correctness and the artistic maturity of repertoire and single productions were officially controlled by the Arts Administration (1940–1975) and afterwards by the Theatre Administration (1975–1990) under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. Performing rights for new texts were allocated by the Main Administration for Literary and Publishing Affairs (Glavlit): texts by foreign authors were approved by the central office in Moscow, and texts by local authors were approved by local offices. The third censorship agency was the artistic committee that operated in every single theatre. Nevertheless, the most powerful institution was the Department of Culture of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Estonia, whose influence on artistic issues had to be kept confidential by the parties involved. On top of all this, there was the hidden power and omnipresent network of agents of the Committee for State Security (KGB). Some audience members also acted as self-appointed censors. The network and system of censorship made the control system almost total and permanent, also enforcing self-censorship.

Forms of censorship can be divided into preventive and punitive censorship, and strategies into direct and indirect censorship. Soviet censorship institutions mostly applied preventive censorship to plays or parts of productions, but hardly any production was cancelled before its premiere because that would have had undesirable financial consequences. Punitive censorship after the premiere was meant for correcting mistakes when the political climate changed or if a censor had been too reckless/lenient/clever, or if actors/audiences had started emphasising implicit meanings. Preventive censorship was predominantly direct and punitive censorship indirect (compelling directors to change mise en scènes or prescribing the number of performances). Indirect censorship can be characterised by ambiguity and allusions. A distinction can be made between preventive and punitive censorship in the context of single productions, but when forbidden authors, works or topics were involved, these two forms often merged.

The plurality of censorship institutions or mechanisms, and shared responsibility led to a playful situation where parties on both sides of the front line were constantly changing, enabling theatre artists to use different counter-strategies against censorship. Two main battlefields were the mass media and meetings of the artistic committees, where new productions were introduced. The most common counter-strategies were the empowerment of productions and directors with opinions from experts and public figures (used also as a tool of censorship), providing ideologically correct interpretations of productions, overstated/insincere self-criticism on the part of theatre artists, concealing dangerous information (names of authors, original titles of texts, etc.), establishing relationships based on mutual trust with representatives of censorship institutions for greater artistic freedom, applying for help from central institutions of the Soviet Union against local authorities, and delating on censors. At the same time, a censor could fight for freedom of expression or a critic could work ambivalently as support or protection.

In addition to forbidden authors whose biography, world view or works were unacceptable to Soviet authorities, there was an implicit list of dangerous topics: criticism of the Soviet Union as a state and a representative of the socialist way of life, positive representations of capitalist countries and their lifestyles, national independence and symbols of the independent Republic of Estonia (incl. blue-black-white colour combinations), idealisation of the past and the bourgeoisie, derogation of the Russian language and nation, violence and harassment by Soviet authorities, pessimism and lack of positive character, religious propaganda, sexuality and intimacy. When comparing the list of forbidden topics with analogous ones in other countries, for example in the United Kingdom where censorship was abolished in 1968, it appears that at a general level the topics are quite similar, but priorities are reversed: Western censorship was dealing with moral issues while its Eastern counterpart was engaged with political issues.

It can be concluded that all censorship systems are somehow similar, embracing both the areas of restrictions and the areas of freedom and role play, providing individuals on both sides of the front line with opportunities to interpret and embody their roles according their world view and ethics. Censorship of arts is still an issue nowadays, even when it is hidden or neglected.


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Author Biography

Anneli Saro

Professor of Theatre Research at the Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu.