“Bedikes khomets.” Cartoon from Der bezim (The Broom), a supplement to the Yiddish newspaper Dos leben (Life), Odessa, 10 April 1906. It depicts tsarist police conducting a raid looking for contraband literature. The title refers to the evening before Passover, when Jews are obligated to search their homes to rid them of any trace of leavened goods. (YIVO)

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Censorship in the Russian Empire

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State censorship of Jewish publications in the Russian Empire began 25 years after Jews became Russian subjects in 1772. From then until 1796, books in Jewish languages were published in Russia (and were imported from abroad) without restriction. Catherine the Great’s 1763 decree on censorship of imported works did not apply to such materials. Officials in charge of maintaining public order—who according to the 1783 Decree on Independent Printing Houses were responsible for monitoring the content of domestic publications—were unable to scrutinize books in Hebrew and Yiddish due to their ignorance of those languages. Moses Hezekil and Ezekiel David Levi were the first state censors of Jewish works; they were assigned to the censorship committee of the customs house in Riga and were appointed on 30 December 1797. Nevertheless, the monitoring of Jewish works, both imported and domestic, remained sporadic and ineffective.

This situation changed only after a new statute on censorship and the press was issued in 1826. In 1827, Wolf Tugendhold, the maskil and a graduate of Breslau University, was appointed censor of Jewish-language publications in the reestablished Vilna censorship committee. Tugendhold played a significant role both in formulating principles governing state censorship of Jewish-language publications and in creating government policies regarding the “Jewish Question” as a whole. His brother, Jakub Tugendhold, served for many years as censor of Jewish-language publications in Warsaw.

In 1835, a major press owned by the Shapira family in Slavuta was closed; its owners were arrested and charged with murdering an employee who had allegedly denounced them for publishing uncensored books. In response to this and other denunciations, new laws governing Jewish printing houses were promulgated in 1837. In addition to the Vilna committee, censorship of Jewish publications was now administered by the newly founded Kiev censorship committee. Overall responsibility for this supervision was granted to the maskil Iosif Zeiberling (who later served in Saint Petersburg) and, after him, to Vasilii Fedorov (Tsevi Hirsh Grinbaum), a convert to Christianity.

In the 1850s and 1860s, the Ministry of Education’s Committee for the Supervision of Jewish Textbooks essentially became the central authority for censorship of Jewish materials across the empire. The most important chairman of this committee was Avraam Norov; among its officials, Vasilii Levison and Zeiberling were especially notable. From 1862 to 1873 censorship of Jewish-language publications was also carried out in Zhitomir at the reestablished printing house of the Shapira family (the censor was Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski).

Beginning in the 1860s, the number of censors of Jewish-language publications increased, with committees established in Saint Petersburg and Odessa. The most significant among these during the final third of the nineteenth century were Zeiberling in the imperial capital, Ovsei Shteinberg in Vilna, and Herman Barats in Kiev. In the 1870s, a position of supervisor of Jewish-language book publishing was established in the government’s main office for printing. The converts who occupied this position—including Iakov Brafman, Peter Margolin, and Yisra’el Landau—acted as informal supervisors of provincial censors of Jewish-language works. They also directed the censorship of such publications in the Saint Petersburg censorship committee.

For much of the nineteenth century, Jewish censors focused almost exclusively on religious materials. Conflicts arose principally with Hasidic printing houses and publishers of mystical works. As a consequence of changes in official policy regarding Jews, during the last third of the nineteenth century the main object of censorship shifted to secular Jewish literature, much of it liberal or leftist. The Jewish reading public always took a sharply negative attitude toward censorship. Orthodox Jews regarded it as a blasphemous encroachment on sacred or traditional texts, while for the liberal Jewish intelligentsia it represented an attempt to quash criticism of official antisemitism and the beginnings of free speech.

The role of censors of Jewish-language publications was then modified as a consequence of changes in publishing and censorship occasioned by the manifesto of 17 October 1905. Censors lost their former influence within the government and relinquished control over Jewish printing houses. For the most part, their responsibilities were reduced to assembling summaries for local authorities of the content and orientation of printed materials in Hebrew and Yiddish. Among the censors active during this period was Aleksandr Greis in Saint Petersburg. During World War I, responsibility for censorship of Jewish-language publications was placed in the hands of the military. As a result of the general wartime prohibition against publications using the Jewish alphabet, the only active censor was Abram Erenberg—the first and last censor of Jewish-language publications based in Moscow, to which he had been evacuated from Warsaw.

The role and significance of censors of Jewish-language publications changed over time. During the first half of the nineteenth century, maskilic censors (above all Leon Elkan, Tugendhold, and Zeiberling) were essentially the only Jews in proximity to state power. De facto they functioned as the state’s key informants on issues related to Jewish life. In an active but highly subjective manner they influenced the formation of official policy regarding state-sponsored enlightenment of the Jewish population. At the same time, Jewish censors used their position to defend traditional Jewish culture against excessively radical interventions by the authorities. In later periods, this particular role practically disappeared. On the whole, however, Jewish censors made a significant contribution to the modernization of Jewish society in the Russian Empire.

Suggested Reading

Dmitrii Arkad’evich Eliashevich, Pravitel’stvennaia politika i evreiskaia pechat’ v Rossii, 1797–1917: Ocherki istorii tsenzury (St. Petersburg and Jerusalem, 1999); Ben-Tsion Kats, “Le-Toldot ha-tsenzurah shel ha-sifrut ha-yisra’elit: Reshamim ve-zikhronot,” Ha-Toren 9 (1923): 41–48, 10 (1923): 43–51, 12 (1923): 48–60; John D. Klier, “1855–1894: Censorship of the Press in Russian and the Jewish Question,” Jewish Social Studies 48.3–4 (1986): 257–268.



Translated from Russian by Benjamin Nathans