What My Soviet Life Has Taught Me About Censorship and Why It Makes Us Dumb
A few years into my American life, I took a class on western thought. The only philosopher on the syllabus familiar to me was Karl Marx, and he wasn’t why I’d signed up: I’d had enough of him in the USSR. Over the next two semesters, I read Adam Smith and Frederick Douglass, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, and Arthur Koestler. I read American feminists whom the Soviet propaganda had mocked mercilessly, and black writers whom it had ignored completely. One day, as I walked out of class in possession of yet another eye-opening piece of knowledge, I caught myself thinking: how dare they have hidden all this from me! If I’d encountered these ideas earlier in life, I would have been a different person.
They, of course, were the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its armies of censors, brainwashers, and propagandists—at work in the media, in schools, in publishing houses—who simultaneously vaunted Soviet education and left us, Soviet citizens, devastatingly ignorant. I spent my first years as an American caught up on everything that generations of faceless bureaucrats had purged from our lives, deeming it harmful to the Soviet people’s communist consciousness (and to the Party’s hold on power).
It wasn’t only massive chunks of philosophy, literature, religion, history, and the social sciences, but half a century of western popular culture that had been erased from our lives: arriving in the US in 1990 as a 20-year old, I for the first time began to encounter Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Billy Holiday, Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen. I spent countless evenings at a small independent movie theatre, watching retrospectives on Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Wells, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa and the French New Wave. Then there was American television to catch up on: The Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, Star Trek, The Cosby Show, The Wheel of Fortune, soap operas—lower brow fare, to be sure, but crucial to understanding my new American friends’ and colleagues’ jokes.
Of course, plenty of Americans never engage with the giants of philosophy and literature, and few lose sleep over their inability to list Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpieces: what infuriated me was that I hadn’t had any choice in the matter. Instead, others had decided which pages of world literature I would read, what music I would listen to, what style of clothes I would wear. Anything not on the approved list remained unpublished or was buried, destroyed, or ridiculed. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
Over the past year, as I have watched instances of American censorship multiply, and extend to speech, books, movies, opinions, and plain facts, memories from those early years of my American life when I first began to grapple with the consequences of living under censorship, have resurfaced. I have been flabbergasted to watch the staff of publishing houses become enraged over the publication of authors they disagree with, designate those works as harmful and demand that they be “canceled.” I have been utterly perplexed to discover that some California schools have banned venerable classics such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, because of concerns about their use of racial slurs and stereotypes. Of course, we don’t want children to read racist literature. But believing that these particular works propagate racial hatred requires the same mental contortions that Soviet censors exercised when they labored so hard to imagine all the ways a work of art might lead citizens astray.
America has always had its share of people who call for censorship of what they see as offensive content, but until last year it was still possible for me to believe that such people were generally considered marginal, and certainly that they were over there, on the other side of the aisle—perhaps driven by extreme religious, political and social conservatism. People on my side of the spectrum—liberals like myself—were not afraid to encounter ideas that challenged their prior assumptions. But that changed last year. As a new, dogmatic, far-left ideology poured rapidly into our cultural mainstream, calls for censorship were now coming from my end of the spectrum. Academics who failed to align with the most radical far-left ideas suddenly feared for their academic freedom. Newsrooms found themselves in upheaval as previously legitimate if provocative, opinions now became unpublishable. The liberal media establishment went full Pravda on some of the crucial stories of the year, such as electoral politics, the handling of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests—to the point where David Satter and Matt Taibbi, long-time observers of the Soviet Union, drew parallels with that country’s ideologically captured, propagandistic press.
I watch these developments in disbelief. As a member of the last Soviet generation, having come of age in the era of perestroika, I remember what it was like when censorship began to lift. Literary journals competed to publish Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—books were written decades earlier that we’re only now reaching us, their intended readers. Soviet rock music emerged from the underground with songs that we hadn’t known we needed to hear, songs that nailed the state of our souls. The truth was perestroika’s drug, and we were getting high on it.
But this drug caused painful side effects, too. The extensive information bans had left us unprepared to fully absorb the reality of our history and current events. Suddenly, we were having to face the consequences of our country’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and of the nine-year war it had waged there: zinc-lined coffins bringing back teenage boys who had been sent to defend a foreign communist coup that no one we knew had understood or cared about; crippled 20-year-old veterans coming home with psychic wounds and poignant songs that none of us could relate to. Decades of platitudes about socialist internationalism had left us unable to mentally and emotionally process the ethnic violence that was currently exploding at the edges of the Soviet empire. One couldn’t help but ask oneself: How could I not have known? How could they have hidden all this from me? In the harsh light of truth, whatever shreds of faith in the system that were still there vanished. And the Soviet Union soon vanished too.
It feels weird to be explaining the perils of censorship to Americans. It was they who taught me about the absolute value of free speech. It was their readiness—so cool, so confident—to entertain the most heterodox ideas that had made me understand why the Soviet Union never stood a chance against their country. Do I really need to be telling Americans that censorship makes us dumb? That it limits our ability to assess reality and to make the decisions that are best for us, both as individuals and as a society? Do I really need to be telling progressives that progress is impossible without the freedom to think, speak and argue? And do I really need to be telling social justice warriors that social justice is a mere pipe dream in any society that hews to a single, rigid ideological narrative—or that unfreedom of expression oppresses the oppressed and empowers the powerful?
Of course, America is not the Soviet Union, and American governmental bodies aren’t the ones doing the censoring. Nor have the clampdowns on dissent been all-encompassing. But they are still enormously effective, partly because so many groups and individuals now depend heavily on privately owned internet platforms to reach their audiences. The conservative social media platform Parler was effectively silenced when Big Tech wiped it off the internet. The New York Post’s audience was massively curtailed when Twitter froze its account in response to its publication of a damaging story about Hunter Biden on the eve of the US presidential election. (Twitter then tagged the story as “harmful” and joined Facebook in preventing people from sharing it.) For a year and a half, people were ridiculed and kicked out of the polite company for suggesting that Covid-19 may have originated in a lab in Wuhan as social media muzzled debate on this crucial subject. Today we are learning that this is a highly realistic hypothesis.
Actions like these have far-reaching consequences. Suppressing stories of national significance doesn’t stop them from continuing to develop and affect people’s lives. Soviet censorship didn’t stop Soviet troops from being maimed, murdered, and defeated in Afghanistan. The untold stories of Stalin’s repressions came back to haunt us decades later—and still, haunt many of us today. American activist journalists and politicians who are now engaged in shaping narratives to benefit their end of the political spectrum should worry that their reading public will later get blindsided, suddenly finding things out that they had previously been prevented from learning. For example, how does it serve the Democrats if those who voted for their candidates continue to believe that last year’s Black Lives Matter protests were “mostly peaceful”—the received dogma that by far outweighed scant reporting on how badly they affected immigrants and minorities? How does it benefit their party to ignore the fact that it is minorities again that are most likely to suffer from the thinning police presence in some cities as a result of those protests? How does it help the Democrats to fail to say out loud that their party’s racialized messages don’t necessarily resonate with members of racial and ethnic minorities? Have they considered that these stories might come to light at a politically inconvenient moment, such as the eve of some future election?
A culture of censorship does more than bury certain facts and opinions and prohibit some forms of speech: it often also requires people to accept particular ideas as true, hold particular opinions and engage in particular forms of speech.
A couple of weeks into last summer’s protests, I got a message on Twitter from someone I followed but had never interacted with. She summarized her (incorrect) assumptions about my political beliefs, then told me that she had scrolled through several weeks of my Twitter feed and noticed that I had failed “to voice outrage about police brutality or the death of yet another unarmed Black individual.” (“Please correct me if I’m wrong,” she added.) She concluded with a brief lecture on the politics of the moment and exhorted me to join her in condemning white supremacy.
This message stunned me. It was the first time since I’d left the USSR that someone had demanded that I engage in ritualistic political expression. In its author’s brash and invasive tone I heard the voice of Soviet communist league activists who believed they had a right to demand that everyone around them march to the same tune. But there was more to it than that. The message felt intimidating. All around me, people were losing jobs, careers, and reputations for what was characterized as voicing wrong opinions, sharing wrong content, or failing to convey enough enthusiasm for the new, still nameless ideology that was now sweeping through our lives. A long-forgotten fear crept up my spine. My great-grandfather had been murdered by the NKVD in 1941 because of four short phrases he’d used over the course of eight months, which a friend reported to the police. I knew how easy it was to weave together a destructive narrative about a person using disparate pieces of information.
Standing in the middle of my living room, staring into my phone screen, I suddenly felt an urge to explain myself: to clarify that I only tweet on a limited set of subjects; to note that I’m a Jew and that I condemn white supremacy every time I write about the Holocaust; to point out that there had been many other burning issues I hadn’t tweeted about during those same weeks, such as friends and a loved one who had just died from Covid. I felt as if I was standing in front of some American version of a troika, trying to defend my character. When I finally composed myself (I had to remind myself that I’m not in the Soviet Union anymore and that the KGB is not coming after me), I made myself a promise: I’m not going to let myself live in fear. Not anymore; not here in America.
But fear—of public humiliation, of ostracism, of losing one’s career—is a powerful force, even for those who don’t suffer from transgenerational trauma and post-totalitarian PTSD. Fear may be one reason why a whopping 62 percent of Americans report keeping their opinions to themselves. And I am convinced that this fear has also pushed Americans to say things they don’t mean.
Consider, for instance, the petition against Steven Pinker that began circulating last summer. Signed by 550 academics (there are more signatures today), it demanded that the Linguistic Society of America remove Pinker from its list of distinguished fellows. The proffered reason? Pinker’s supposed “history of speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices” and “drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence.” The petition built its case around six tweets that this prolific public intellectual had posted years earlier. It was absurd—yet it felt so familiar to me. It was so like the behavior of the woman who examined my tweets for right and wrong formulations—and of the NKVD interrogator who sieved through likely copious police informant reporting about my great-grandfather to pull out four offending quotes. Pinker’s critics cast a net into the ocean of words he had emitted over the years, seized on the few they thought he could be hanged for, and used those few words to construct a Soviet-style collective denunciation.
In 2020, such petitions were starting to become routine: 116 professors were targeted for punishment for speech violations—four and a half times more than in 2015, and fifty percent more than in 2019. But, in response to the Pinker petition, something unusual happened: a New York Times reporter showed up and began to ask questions. He approached ten of the signatories, including some fairly prominent ones, but found no one willing to comment on the record, nor was he able to find out who had initiated the petition.
The silence of these signatories says more about them than words ever could. It paints them, not as social justice warriors acting on the courage of their convictions, but as conformists who are probably shaking in their boots. I imagine that, like the Soviet academics, writers, and other assorted members of the intelligentsia who lent their names to state-driven witch hunts against talented and accomplished colleagues, the vast majority who signed the petition against Pinker did so out of fear: fear of saying no to colleagues who had asked them to sign; fear of displaying insufficient enthusiasm for the cause—and potentially becoming the next target of a petition for removal; fear of being excommunicated from the Church of All Good People.
A war, waged through petitions and open letters, has been unleashed over the past year. Many of these are slander couched in the language of self-righteousness. How many people have felt compelled to sign those letters out of conformism rather than conviction? How many are putting signatures to petitions they don’t fully understand, whose origins they never probed? In today’s censorious climate, how many are not only suppressing their opinions but also saying things they don’t mean—or would simply prefer not to say just then, in those words, under pressure? How many have started playing the game we used to play in the USSR: we’ll pretend to support your nutty theories, if you’ll pretend you think we mean it?
Having lived through the demise of one ideologically driven censorship system, I am certain that the current censorship culture will end as well. Electrifying slogans can galvanize people for only so long before they turn into platitudes. And—because America is not the Soviet Union, and Americans are neither used to living in fear of reprisals for wrong speech nor under the thumb of an ideologically unified press—I expect they won’t suffer this foolishness for long. But we shouldn’t simply wait for this culture to end on its own accord. Censorship obscures our view of reality and impedes our society’s ability to function. The longer the next generation spends growing up in this culture, the more it will imbibe it. It takes a long time, and a lot of effort, to go from intellectual slavery to freedom. So it is on all of us to do what we can to resist this culture, no matter how pervasive and intimidating it feels.
How can you do this? Master your fear: if you are reading this from the US or elsewhere in the democratic west, remember that you are a free person living in a free country. Become well informed: read across the aisle. Question everything—especially if it comes from a source whose ideology is close to your heart. Assume that the other side holds grains of truth—and look for them. Add shades of grey to your thinking on every issue. Align your speech with your true self: resist falling into lockstep. Refuse to speak in slogans. Do not say things you don’t mean. Say only things that are true for you at the moment. Do not let others dictate what you should think or feel. And, for heaven’s sake, sign only those group letters that you are ready to defend personally, and on the record.
This article originally appeared on Areo Features.