Where Books Go to Die by Marianna Tax Choldin

Marianna Tax Choldin

I’m writing a memoir about my more than fifty years of engagement with Russia, nearly forty of which I’ve devoted to the study of censorship in three eras: imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia.  The Soviet period has been the most difficult to document, because the Soviet authorities always denied that censorship existed in their country.  Until the glasnost period, starting in 1986, there was no such thing as Soviet censorship. Period.  Of course there was indeed Soviet censorship, a fierce and pervasive censorship, and scholars like myself and others did our best to describe it.  We couldn’t talk to people involved, or do research in the archives, but we were able to learn quite a bit anyway, from emigres, from some published sources available outside the Soviet Union, and by the time-honored method of reading between the lines.  



Starting as a doctoral student, I explored imperial Russian censorship. In the course of my research I often saw physical signs of censorship, especially in foreign works that had entered the empire from other countries.  The official censorship evaluated all of these publications for their suitability for Russian audiences.  Look at this page, for example, from a German history of the world: the legend under the portrait of Empress Elizabeth I of Russia has been covered over with “caviar,” as the imperial censors called the black ink they used, because the text referred to the empress’s lovers, and it was illegal to write disrespectfully about Russian rulers. [Photo 1]

It was harder to find obvious examples of Soviet censorship.  Occasionally we scholars found items like this page in an issue of the 1949 national bibliography [Photo 2] with black ink obliterating a name.  The unfortunate author, one Ivanov, had probably been declared a “non-person” in 1949, one of the worst years of Stalin’s rule, and his name had to be removed from the bibliography.  His book, no doubt, was ordered to be removed from library shelves. He himself was, very likely, sent to the gulag or shot in an unknown cellar somewhere.  

What happened to Ivanov’s book after it disappeared from the libraries?  Librarians reading this who worked in libraries in the former Soviet Union will be familiar with the term spetskhran, short for spetsial’noe khranilische, “special repository.”  An innocent enough term, unless you understand its real Soviet meaning, which is “the place where books go to die.”  I expect Ivanov’s book ended up in a spetskhran, along with countless others—millions and millions of volumes.
I had first heard the term spetskhran in the late1970s, from someone, perhaps an emigre librarian friend, but I didn’t have any idea of what it really meant.  In the summer of 1978 I visited a librarian, scholar, and teacher of librarians in what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again). This woman, with whom I had corresponded for a couple of years, became my close friend.  She was horrified when she learned that I had changed the direction of my research from the history of Russian bibliography to the history of censorship in imperial Russia.  I recall our conversation so clearly:  it took place, as all serious conversations did in those days, outdoors in a lovely garden, where we wouldn’t be overheard.  “Censorship!  Why?  I won’t be able to help you; no one will!  The topic is absolutely verboten.  It doesn’t matter that you’ll work on imperial Russia.  They don’t want comparisons with Soviet censorship, so they won’t let you see anything, even about the situation before the Revolution.  Too dangerous!”
Her daughter, also a librarian, worked in one of the great old libraries of Leningrad.  When I asked her to describe the spetskhran in her institution she shook her head.  “I’ve never been there—I don’t know where it is, and I don’t want to know.  It’s not a good idea to know.  The library is huge.  Somewhere, along some corridor, there’s an unmarked door.  The people who work there know where it is.  They aren’t like me.  They’re KGB [secret police] employees.  I stay away from people like that.”  
Later, while trying to learn about censorship in the Soviet Union, I read a research paper by Boris Korsch, a librarian who emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union, called “The Permanent Purge of Soviet Libraries,” published in1983 by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  Korsch describes in great detail, and with many examples, the practices the Soviet state implemented to remove “dangerous” publications from library shelves.  
What was deemed “dangerous” depended on the specific period, Stalin’s reign being the most brutal, as it was in so many other spheres of Soviet life.  In all periods, works by Communists who had fallen from favor, as well as publications of foreign writers deemed unsuitable for Soviet readers, were removed.  The shelves were cleansed continually.  No one knows precisely how many items were purged, but clearly the number is a very large one indeed.  There were something on the order of 380,000 libraries in the Soviet Union, ranging from huge scholarly and scientific institutions and federal-level public libraries to tiny rural libraries.  All of their collections were purged continuously.  
What happened to all these discarded publications?  Many were scrapped, pulped, burned.  Others were transferred to the spetskhrany that had been established in large libraries throughout the country, primarily academic and research institutions.  There they remained for decades, guarded by trusted staff members who reported to, or were themselves, members of the state security apparatus.  A few individuals were permitted to enter a spetskhran to examine a specific item that he or she could demonstrate was necessary for research—the completion of a doctoral dissertation, for example.  But for most Soviet citizens these publications, from works by non-persons to The New York Times, were buried on the authority of the State, like many of their authors.  
At the behest of Mikhail Gorbachev, who ushered in the age of glasnost, these gulags for books were acknowledged and opened quite suddenly.  I remember being in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities in the late 1980s when every library had an exhibit called “From the Spetskhran” or something similar.  Librarian colleagues with whom I had never dared to talk about my research told me that of course the library owned my 1985 book on imperial Russian censorship: it had been in the spetskhran.  In 1991, when I began what became a lifelong partnership with Ekaterina (Katya) Genieva, director of the Library for Foreign Literature, Katya and her staff gleefully took me to a room in the library that had been the spetskhran and had been converted to a very pleasant reading room for children! [Photo 3] 

Beginning in 1992, in the new Russia, I began working with Katya on a historic exhibition on the censorship of foreign works in imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.  Now the doors to archives and the buried treasures of the spetskhrany were open to us—even to me, an American!  These were heady days for me.  I even had a chance to enter the spetschast'  (special section) in Katya's library, a tiny, cramped room in the basement, unmarked, dimly lit, where the "Talmud" was housed.  The Talmud!  Not the sacred book of my Jewish ancestors, giving us detailed instructions on how to live, but, rather, detailed instructions prepared by the Soviet authorities to keep all published works in line with Soviet thinking.  Just as the imperial Russian censors liked to joke about the black ink they used to blot out objectionable passages, calling it "caviar,"  their Soviet counterparts joked too, hence the Talmud.
Such treasures my Russian colleagues and I found in the spetschast' and the archives for our exhibition!  Documents ordering the removal of this or that book from the library shelves: the tool of Boris Korsch's "permanent purge."  Volumes, hundreds of them, of Western books, specially translated into Russian and published by a major publishing house in a secret series available only to approved officials.  And the Talmud, of course.  Volumes of short reviews of Western books about Russia, evaluating their danger level for the general population.  (It was a unique pleasure to read the review of one of my own books!)
The spetskhrany are gone now.  The books have been shelved in general library stacks, the rooms converted to more innocent uses.  Many of the card catalogs remain, though, dusty monuments to the Soviet past.