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5 Russian Books That Were Banned in the Soviet Union—Part II Posted by on Sep 30, 2019 in Literature

Last time, we looked at several Russian books that, for various reasons, never saw the light of day in the Soviet Union or sometimes in their author’s lifetime. Some of these books were initially snuck out and published abroad and only came out in Russia in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

bookshelf with books

Photo by Ugur Akdemir on Unsplash

4. Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita)

The author, Mikhail Bulgakov (Михаил Булгаков), never saw “Мастер и Маргарита” published in his lifetime. At the time of Bulgakov’s death, the novel (роман) was unfinished, and his widow (вдова) edited and compiled it.

This novel features two parallel stories. In the first one, the devil (дьявол) with his entourage (свита) visits Soviet Moscow to see if humans have improved and to punish them for their follies. In that same universe, a lonely writer (писатель) meets an unhappy married woman named Margarita (Маргарита, a nod to Gretchen from Faust).

The second story is the plot of a novel the master is writing about Jesus (normally Иисус, Иешуа in the novel) and his interactions with Pontius Pilate (Понтий Пилат). At the end of the novel, the timelines converge, and the characters’ (персонажи) paths cross.

locked fence

Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

5. Архипелаг ГУЛАГ (The Gulag Archipelago)

The author of this book, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Александр Солженицын), based his work in part on his own experiences in the Soviet labor camps (трудовые лагеря), which came to be known as gulags from the Russian acronym ГУЛАГ (Main Directorate of Camps). The Gulag Archipelago has a “patchwork” structure, with different parts looking at the establishment of the system, the recruitment of inmates and guards, daily life in the camps, and the fates of specific inmates. The book covers the period between 1918, after the Russian Revolution (революция), and 1956, when Nikita Kruschev (Никита Хрущёв) delivered a secret speech denouncing the cult of personality (культ личности) towards his predecessor Joseph Stalin (Иосиф Сталин).

The book was written in secret between 1958 and 1968 and smuggled out to Paris. After existing copies were seized by state security forces in 1973, Solzhenitsyn gave the green light to have the book published abroad. The Gulag Archipelago was not published in Russia until 1990. Currently, the book is studied in Russian secondary schools.

Have you read any of the books on this list? Are you aware of any other books that were banned?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


  1. samonen:

    I must add a piece of information about Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Namely, in the early 1970’s in Finland, the book was sort of untouchable: major publishers refused to publish the it because of foreign policy reasons, fearing they might harm our friendly relations with the Soviet Union. I really don’t know how or why a privately owned company’s decisions could possibly harm a state’s relations with another state. But I can imagine that the pro-Moscow minority Communists in Finland wielded disproportionate lobbying power and influence on whatever they possibly could. Finally, the work was published in three parts, the first one in Sweden and the rest by a small far-right, anti-communist publisher in Finland. This, in my opinion, was a preposterous and shameful episode in our history.

    • Peter Groves:

      @samonen Very interesting information about the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in Finland. I can well imagine that in those times a private publisher would be very conscious of the Soviet Union’s probable reaction to its publication. Incidentally The Gualg Archipelago is certainly not a novel, Maria: it is very much a work of non-fiction, and also an extraordinary feat of memory as (of course) Solzhenitsyn had no way of making notes while he was himself in the Gulag.

      • Maria:

        @Peter Groves Thank you, Peter! My desire to avoid repetition got the best of me in terms of genre precision. It was my hope that a brief description of the book would hint at the fact that it is non-fiction.

    • Maria:

      @samonen Interesting; I did not know that! The fact that these once untouchable books were eventually published gives me hope.