The Concept and Reality of a Prolonged Self-Censorship and Its Effects: Alexander Nekrich’s Germinal Insights in the 1970s

Dr. Robert Hickson

29 September 2020

Saint Michael the Archangel


“The censor’s sway is felt most acutely in the social sciences, especially in the sphere of history. Soviet censorship begins in the head of the historian.” (Alexander Nekrich, “Rewriting History” (1980)—my emphasis added)


“For the conscientious researcher, work loses all point if the censor asks him not only to delete this or that fact, but also to reach conclusions that are acceptable in the current political scene. And this is where self-censorship comes into play, the most important forms of censorship in socialist society. Self-censorship exerts a profound influence not only on the quality of the research done, but also on the researcher himself. If censorship is an essential element of the structure of the USSR,…then self-censorship is an essential quality of Homo Sovieticus—especially the sub-species of writer[s?] specialising in history and social and political sciences…. Usually the author is governed by self-censorship and the censors.” (Alexander Nekrich, “Rewriting History” (1980)—my emphasis added)


It was from Alexander Nekrich, a Russian emigre and former Soviet historian—who once was an esteemed member in the Soviet Academy of Sciences and History—that I first heard of the word and special concept of “self-censorship.” And then, with his further brief help, I more gradually came to understand some of the atrophying consequences of any protracted self-censorship, as distinct from more obvious and forthright public censorship.

An analogy might be helpful here. If an arm-muscle is inside of a plaster cast for too long, it starts to shrink or shrivel up due to the lack of exercise and of nourishment. So too comes the diminishment or attenuation of the higher range of human faculties when they, too, are deprived of sufficient exercise and nourishment.

One of my most precious forms of admiration and gratitude for Aristotle is to be seen especially in one of his definitions of happiness: “happiness is the exercise of the full range of human faculties along lines of excellence [i.e., virtue].” (I cannot now find the source of those words I once read and memorized at once.)

In the latter part of the 1970s, Professor Alexandr Nekrich visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and gave a learned talk. After this talk I had occasion to speak with him, just the two of us. In my callowness I asked this solemnly earnest man what it was like to be an historian in the Soviet Academy of Science when the past is, as it were, always changing in accordance with the Dialectic—dialectical materialism and historical materialism, with its varying and desirably safe temporary interpretations. How, I added, did you enduringly live with such censorship? Professor Nekrich looked at me gravely and said : “You are naive. The greatest censorship is self-censorship.” And he told me more. I do not know why he opened up to me. Perhaps because he knew that I was a military officer.

We discussed the elements of fear and trust and how they shaped the protective resort to self-censorship. I then remarked that such self-censorship would also likely lead to the atrophy of human faculties.

Professor Nekrich then became interested in my word “atrophy” in this context of censorship, although he knew at once of the Greek roots and etymological meaning of that vivid word. I then used a more arcane expression—“atrophying self-censorship”—and he was pleased with it, and said that he would make use of it. Thus we started to consider how that concept could—and should—be applied effectively. We agreed that one of the ill fruits of prolonged self-censorship was the subtle atrophy of one’s indispensable human faculties, leading to a kind of paralysis and debilitation.

I was never to see Alexander Nekrich again, but I shall always remember his earnest and contemplative face and searching questions and insights, to include his mention of the important “SECOND Nazi-Soviet Pact,” which got him into trouble with the censors and supporters of Stalin. I later learned that he (with Mikhail Heller) wrote a lengthy book entitled Utopia in Power (1985) about the 1917-1985 history of the Soviet Union. Only recently, however, was I to discover that Nekrich also wrote an earlier 5-6 page essay on censorship, in 1980, and entitled “Rewriting History” (as translated by Marjorie Farquharson in Index on Censorship 4/1980) which is still to be found on the Internet. It would be of worth to read and discuss that essay still. But a few words now might be apt given the spreading autocratic and enforced rules about protective masks and social distancing and confusing “lockdowns” and all that. Fear and distrust abound, it seems, and so does increasing self-censorship.

One may recall that one test of real power—as distinct from mere formal power—is who controls what may be said, and what may not be said, in public.

As in the former Soviet Union, some things are so taboo that one may not even say that they are taboo.

François Furet, for example, once said that “modern democracy is dependent upon a hidden oligarchy which is contrary to its principles, but indispensable to its function.” That is to say, modern democracy is based on a deception. However, who would be able and allowed to discuss that matter in depth and openly? What would the oligarchs permit? And, specifically, who are they?

Solzhenitsyn urged us “not to live the lie” and also warned us “not to participate in the lie.”

Nekrich warns us to be careful about the destructive and abiding effects of too much and deceitful “self-censorship.” It is a form of living the lie. And the greatest effect of the lie is the breaking of trust—even the most intimate trusts. And once they are broken, they are so hard to repair and re-build.

For sure, Dr. Alexandr Moiseyevich Nekrich (1920-1993) has incipiently inspired us to consider more deeply the phenomenon of “atrophying self-censorship” and some of its formidable ramifications.

What is happening today, not just in the United States but throughout the world, even the manifestations of chaos and censorious “democratic despotism,” may be correctively helped along a little by Nekrich’s own illuminating experiences in the Soviet Union and his later insightful, articulate writings as a 1976 Russian emigre. He is a sobering guide for us, as his 1980 essay on “Rewriting History” will confirm.1 We should study and savor that compact 1980 essay further, and in the light of current and recurring events.


© 2020 Robert D. Hickson


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