Inside The Soviet KGB’s Secret War On Western Books


By Eduard Andryushchenko and Robert Coalson

(RFE/RL) — In November 1979, Vital Fedorchuk, head of the Ukraine branch of the Soviet KGB, wrote a top-secret memo to the head of the republic’s Central Committee, warning of a grave plot by Western security agencies to undermine the Soviet Union.

The country’s enemies, Fedorchuk warned, “are actively using the [1975] Helsinki agreements on the exchange of books” to carry out “an ideological diversionary attack against the U.S.S.R.”

Fedorchuk’s memo came to light after the Ukrainian government opened up the country’s KGB archives in April 2015, giving researchers unprecedented insight into the Soviet side of the Cold War.

To back up his claim of an anti-Soviet plot, Fedorchuk cites “the discovery by our operatives of a whole slew of foreign publications received by Kievknigotorg that contain malicious slander against the Soviet government and our social order.” The suspect books also “propagandize cruelty, violence, and pornography,” Fedorchuk wrote.

The influx of foreign literature to the Soviet Union — although always meager — ticked upward after the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Among other things, the agreements included broad commitments to East-West cultural exchanges.

Among the books that worried Fedorchuk’s operatives was Anthony Burgess’s 1962 dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange. Ten English-language copies of the novel were found in Kyiv bookstores in 1979.

Fedorchuk’s memo describes the book as fundamentally anti-communist, mostly because the roaming gang of ruffians in the book speaks in “a semi-Russian language.” The memo offers no other evidence of the book’s “malicious satire of communist ideals.”

When filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the novel came out in 1971, Soviet ideologists found the work less offensive. The magazine Yunost published a laudatory review that argued the film reflected the decay of contemporary Western society.

Nonetheless, the film was not shown in Soviet theaters and remained a rare treat for students at the state cinematography academy.

Fedorchuk also expressed concern about John Steinbeck’s autobiographical Journal Of A Novel: The East Of Eden Letters. The Soviet Union heralded Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes Of Wrath, which was published in several Soviet editions as an anti-capitalist masterpiece.

Steinbeck traveled to the Soviet Union twice as an honored guest, although documents uncovered in the Kyiv KGB archives last year revealed that Soviet operatives suspected him of spying.

The little-known Journal Of A Novel was cobbled together out of Steinbeck’s correspondence and published in 1969, a year after the writer’s death. One hundred English-language copies were sent to Kyiv under a cultural exchange despite what Fedorchuk described as “malicious attacks on the Soviet Union.”

Steinbeck wrote that the Soviet Union was doomed to collapse and would likely disintegrate into several mutually antagonistic ethnic states.

“In the author’s opinion,” Fedorchuk wrote, “Western countries must remember that ‘the Kremlin regime, sensing danger, might launch a world war in a bid to save itself.'”

A third Western book that attracted the KGB’s attention was English writer Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 The Day Of The Jackal, which was also controversial in the West.

“It is a practical handbook for any maniac wishing to carry out a terrorist act,” Fedorchuk complained.

The Day Of The Jackal was published in Russian by the Soviet journal Prostor (based in Alma-Ata, now Almaty, Kazakhstan) in 1974, shortly after which the editor was removed. In 1977, it was officially banned by Soviet censors. Nonetheless, 70 copies in English appeared in Kyiv through the book exchange.

Fedorchuk also mentioned the autobiographical essay Sun And Steel by Japanese author Yukio Mishima. That work by the noted anti-Marxist author supposedly “promotes so-called neo-samuraiism,” although Fedorchuk does not define that neologism.

Some of the Western books mentioned in Fedorchuk’s memo were not offensive in themselves, but rather because of subversive advertising among their pages.

He claims that a volume of poetry by English poet William Blake contained an insert promoting a book by Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who was driven from the Soviet Union in 1972. A novel by John Cheever contained an advertisement for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Lenin In Zurich.

Fedochuk’s KGB operatives also found in Kyiv bookstores several volumes published in Eastern Bloc countries that merited criticism. The spies found two copies in Polish of the book The Art Of Love by Polish gynecologist and sexologist Michalina Wislocka. Written in 1974 and published in Poland only in 1978, the guide to sex has been in print ever since, selling at least 7 million copies.

Fedorchuk’s memo dryly described the book as “a manual on the technology of sex with corresponding illustrations.”

The KGB also flagged a 1977 Polish anthology of Ukrainian poetry in translation that included works by “people of serious known nationalist tendencies.”

Fedorchuk noted that “several of them…10 or 15 years ago published some amateurish verses but who now have no relationship to the literary process.” Nonetheless, he added, the Polish volume presents them as “unrecognized geniuses” and “victims of party terror in literature.”

All of the books mentioned in Fedorchuk’s memo were seized by the KGB, except for the volumes by Steinbeck and Blake. No explanation is given for the Steinbeck exception, even though that book contains the most direct and clear criticism of the Soviet Union.

The Blake volume ultimately passed muster because KGB operatives were able to remove the Brodsky advertisement without damaging the book.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by Current Time correspondent Eduard Andryushchenko


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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