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Abolishing Ambiguity: Soviet Censorship Practices in the 1930s

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  • Linguistics


Abolishing Ambiguity: Soviet Censorship Practices in the 1930s Abolishing Ambiguity: Soviet Censorship Practices in the 1930s JJJJJAN PLAMPERAN PLAMPERAN PLAMPERAN PLAMPERAN PLAMPER After reading Andrei Platonov’s 1929 story Usomnivshiisia Makar, Joseph Stalin re- portedly reacted by calling it “an ambiguous work” (dvusmyslennoe proizvedenie). Leopold Averbakh later wrote about Platonov’s story: “There is ambiguity (dvusmyslennost’) in it. ... But our era does not tolerate any ambiguity.”1 Both reactions point to an obsession with reducing signs to a single meaning, an undercurrent of Soviet culture in the 1930s.2 Cen- sorship practices offer a rare glimpse at how the Soviet regime attempted to achieve “one- meaningness” (odnoznachnost’). While it is true that throughout the Soviet era censorship was primarily concerned with excising what was deemed heretical, during the 1930s, with outright heresy effectively effaced from public discourse, the abolition of ambiguity be- came an important secondary mode. Much of the available literature on European and especially Russian censorship has defined censorship as the repression of the inherently and essentially free word.3 The binary pairing of censorship and cultural production has generated further binaries of writers vs. censors and is ultimately embedded in a dichotomy of state vs. society. While the state/ society dichotomy has been questioned in other areas of historical research, the binary I wish to thank Greg Castillo, Carla Hesse, Peter Holquist, Brian Kassof, Malte Rolf, Yuri Slezkine, Reginald Zelnik, and my audiences at AAASS in Boston (1996), at Berkeley and Stanford, and at Erlangen, Humboldt, and Tübingen Universities for their helpful comments. 1L. Averbakh, “O tselostnykh masshtabakh i chastnykh Makarakh,” Na literaturnom postu, no. 21–22 (1929): 164 (quoted in Viktor Chalmaev’s foreword to Andrei Platonov, Gosudarstvennyi zhitel’: Proza, pis’ma [Moscow, 1988], 23). Stalin’s reaction is recorded only in second

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