Social history of Imperial Russia: Censorship and the rise of the press before 1905 in Russia

Censorship is the repression of communication or removal of material intended to pass information from one party to the other. This material is mainly offensive, dangerous or susceptible, as established by a censor. In the political arena, censorship is practiced when regimes hold back secretive information from the general public. Censorship involves alteration of a piece of writing or repressing utterances that are deemed to be insubordinate in the public sphere. It has been the role of governments to ensure that their citizens are not misguided by individual opinions through writing or spreading of revolutionary information that could cause rebellion amongst the citizens. However, individual rights need to be observed to an extent that access to useful information is not denied to the public. Continued awareness of the rights of individuals by the public makes them view censorship as an offensive measure towards their liberty.

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When states go to war, censorship becomes an important tool for putting a stop to distribution of information that the aggressors or opponents might use to learn the secrets of the state. Release of such secrets weakens army squadron since their tactics may be known. Leaders in wars ensure that intricate information about arsenal; camp locations as well as attack and defense plans are kept secret. This helps in reducing the number of victims in the battle as well as contributing to the overall triumph in the overall combat. In certain cases, armies used secret investigators in to the opponents’ forces to ensure that any crucial or helpful; information is acquired. Censorship therefore played a significant role in ensuring that all information getting out is evaluated and established that its release is not a threat before any access is allowed to the public or people outside the army


Censorship in Russia from 1800 to 1905

Censorship took many forms in Russia between 1800 and 1905. It involved restriction of the press from publishing material that was likely to cause havoc as well as taking strict measures against the people who published objectionable information including severe punishment. Censorship in Russia encompassed all activities as well as secretive literature distributed by subversive movements who largely opposed censorship. The reason for this was mainly to thwart chances of open expression required to cause a rebellion. Any exposure of the underground movements to information about the administration was considered to be a weak spot that the enemy could use to attack the incumbent. Secrecy was deemed to be the tool for a successful regime. Assassinations that occurred during the time were as a result of exposure of secret information about the security of leaders hence giving the assassins an easy time in their unscrupulous acts.

Russia had a tendency to severe censorship aimed at minimizing revolutionary acts. The Tsars believed that passing unnecessary information to the public would lead to instability and would trigger rebellions. They therefore viewed censorship as a service to the public as well as protection of the state against rebellion whose consequences would be lethal to the citizens. Most of the European countries had embraced the freedom of the press while Russia remained attached to the traditional censorship for almost a century later.

According to Mette Newth (2008), “Censorship reforms were started in a single decade of tolerance, from 1855 to 1865 during the reign of Tsar Alexander II”. During this period, a disciplinary system was established based on officially authorized accountability.   In ten years, freedom of the press was observed. This led to expanded freedom and advancement in free expression of far-reaching ideas. This saw the re-emergence of censorship laws in 1866 to control the rising and presumed damage caused by a free press which hampered the reform process. Failure of the press to adhere to the requirements of the regime would further reduce the liberty. This is because once allowed the essential liberty, the publishers would go a further step to start publishing offensive material against the same government that allowed the acquired liberty. In other words, publishers provoked the government to impose rules to regulate their work in Russia.

Private press was re-established by Alexander I in the early 1800s together with an introductory scheme of censorship. Alexander I set the rules of this scheme in 1804 in Russia’s earliest, censorship decree. This was a significant development that was intended to ensure that the State Authority was more convectional and reason based. After Napoleon invaded Russia, Alexander 1 tightened the censorship. This was a necessary step in this time because it helped in avoidance of leakage of information to the enemies.

After assassination of his father, Alexander III responded by putting more emphasis on censorship. This is because it was most likely that the assassins would rely on secretive information about the Tsar’s security agents and use the avenue to strike him. At the same time, he revitalized religious censorship. This was because publishers of religious material would spread treacherous information in disguise.

During the 1890s, censorship was reviewed and the press was allowed some extent of liberty. This caused the materialization of Marxist publications that were against the overall policy of the Tsars. The outcome was the emergence of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Party in 1898. The result was another period of censorship that was quite severe. There followed a period of instability caused by decreasing economic optimism, as well as lack of social and political liberties.
In 1825, there occurred a conspiracy amongst the Decembrist. Their plot was known before they could cause much harm. Nicholas I imposed severe censorship and also put more emphasis to his police spies. Their impact was quite difficult for the press who felt denied of their rights. This censorship continued several years after 1825 but slowly reduced in the late 1830s. The Decemmblist plot led to the arrest of Fyodor Dostoesvsky who was given a death penalty. However, he was not killed but rather was jailed in Siberia. This is a clear indication of how serious censorship was. It also served as a warning to the rest of the press whose works were treacherous and aimed at causing havoc within the political system. No one was to be spared for spreading such dangerous information either through video, newspapers or articles.

The secular censorship law of June 1826 was developed by Nicholas I. The law on censorship was meant to align judgment into approve the present political state of affairs and the opinion of the government (Carrey Jackson, 1976). The law made the writer take the responsibility if a censored writing was proved to be unnecessary to the public once published. Carrey Jackson further states that, “An overseas restriction working group had to make known monthly, a record of the foreign publications it had proscribed”. A newly established ecclesiastical censorship was formed. This was an act that established the right of the Holy Synod. This was achieved with the use of censors selected from other ecclesiastical academies. It banned any writing of the press, composition, or presentation that proofed to be differing to the principles of the Orthodox Church.

Censors of the newly established political police of Nicholas were also established. In order to counteract subversive publishing of unlawful articles and inattentive censorship of officially acceptable ones, Nicholas clandestinely prearranged his unique police to search for and provide information about Atheism progress (Morris Jefferson, 1998). The police were supposed to report anything that was disposed to extend Atheism or anything that reproduce in the author, infringement of the requirement of faithful followers.

Alexander II took over power in the end of the mortifying Crimean War in 1861. He was dedicated to the reorganization of censorship. In March, 1862, Alexander II ended the first round of censorship for all technical, educational, and administrative publications. In April 1865, there was a system reform that brought some liberation and expediency to the press. The system included admonitions for unrestricted writings which could lead to unwarranted suspension and prohibition due to signs of treacherous views.

Liberation of the press once again came under the leadership of Alexander II in 1861. He was dedicated to the reorganization of censorship. He mainly targeted the materials that were meant to be educative, positively informative or official publications. Scientific and academic publications were viewed to aid in technological advancement that was largely needed. In the first round of 1862, there was removal of censorship in the academic, official and scientific publication. In 1964, there was a judicial reform that declared freedom and expediency of the press national wide. However, the freedom from censorship had an aspect of tough warnings against publications that had a potential to cause harm or criticize the governments. Many parts of the country adhered to these reforms apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg where small reading materials were not freed from censorship.

In 1882, Alexander III formed the highest Commission on press dealings. This was a calculated move to suppress treacherous information as well as its source through impermanent exile. Initially, the censors were used to take away the material assumed to be treasonable before the publishers were able to leave the Railway. The presumed material was destroyed instantly. The police mainly targeted the magazines which were mainly satirical to the administration. According to Leon Trotsky (2008), “Invoking the authoritative description once made by Alexander III, the cartoonists never failed to depict the Home Minister’s stupid head as attached to the body of a pig”. These magazines were a disguise to the regime because of their criticism. In some cases censorship was triggered by writers who published articles that criticized the absolutist government. They did this while challenging the government to expand their political rights.

During this period, the number of journals and newspapers declined due to the severe punishment that was administered to the convicted publishers, which included closure. Censorship was also imposed because of the war of the war with the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires. A free press was realized after the internal instability that brought Imperial Russia to an end.

A wide censorship organization was formed in order to exercise restrictions to individual expression through cultural and artistic material. The organization was known as glavlit (Lenny McDonald, 2002). The glavlit was the principal administrator for safeguarding state secrets. Only official foundations printed newspapers. Internal writings of any kind that generated issues within the state were censored by the glavlit. They concentrated even on the very minor aspects of information such as tags on products such as alcoholic beverages. They were found in all newspapers and other publishing houses that were publishing in large numbers. This was important to ensure minute materials were not sneaked and used to spread objectionable information.

There were more than 70,000 personnel of the glavlit employed to examine the publications ahead of its dissemination by publishers, editors, and dissemination studios (Lenny McDonald, 2002). The control of the agency was intense such that no information escaped the glavlit’s scrutiny. Every journalist organization, broadcasting and television stations had glavlit personnel within their staffs. The Communist Party was one of the official administrators who published. Every publisher was answerable to the State Committee for writing, Printing, and the selling the materials. All the publishers and editors of all forms of information were permitted by party authorities.

Rise of the press

The State Council declared that judicial decisions were to control the freedom to publish. There followed a series of terrorism related attacks in the decade that followed. The opinion of the public became a matter of concern to the tsar. This led the government to abandon the trials that involved the press. The government settled on tough actions against the press in order to curb the impact that was posed by their publications. Profit-cutting restrictions on street vending and money-making advertisements were amongst the measures that were taken by the government.

The restrictions towards journals and periodicals reduced in the early 1890s due to the reduction of terrorism. In 1905, rebellion, social defiance in publishing plants successfully ended state management which censorship was part of. In October 1905, there was a government declaration that no publishing plant was supposed to function if it avoided press rules. According to Muller Kenneth (2001), “The St. Petersburg Soviet of Workmen’s Deputies ordered members of the Printers’ Union to refuse to work for plant owners who complied”. This was a major blow to censorship in St. Petersburg.

Review of censorship came under the leadership of Nicholas II. He issued his scheme that promised forthcoming liberty of expression and additional improvements. He as well authorized the prime minister to organize laws to manage these modifications. This culminated in the formation of new rules for publications. The government assumed that this step was a whole shift towards judicial controls and hence the basic freedoms had been granted. The press was promised more hospitable rules. Publication of books took off, and the public was reached by many books which the government had allowed (Feldman Kelly, 2002). The works of fewer than seventeen pages had to be approved by censors at least two days ahead of publication. Works from seventeen to eighty pages had to be screened by censors one week in advance. Officials could therefore with the new rules lock a suspicious publication as they awaited prolonged arbitration.

Trials connected to publishing were high in early 1900s. Feldman further states that, “trials connected to Books in 1906 accumulated to a high number of up to 223”. Authors established to be unlawfully accountable for providing or trying to disperse publications declared unlawful got fined. Imprisonment was rare since the major intention of the government was to identify intelligently any illegal content and ensure it did not get to the public. With high growth in the publishing industry, the tsarist government could not limit published opinion. This was the beginning of press freedom.

In 1905 regime censorship stopped to apply distinctive principles to Jewish publications contrasting to the ones from other cultural and spiritual minorities, which included the traditional Russians who were the largest minority. Due to this change of principles, the Jewish press associations were advantaged in the same way from the removal of prepublication censorship. This had massive outcomes for the rapidly increasing public sphere of Jews. A sufficiently free press decreased the motivation to operate in disguise hence it helped in shifting the equilibrium of authority involving lawful and unlawful political parties amongst the Jews.

Workers’ unions felt that freedom of the press was essential to every one politically and economically. There was the feeling that if journalism was not tied up from the clamp of censorship, there would be improvements in trade and other connected businesses in the industry. This would assist in providing livelihoods to a substantial number of people working in the publishing environment. Reduction of censorship culminated in massive publishing of newspapers and other materials in literature as well as artistic fiction and videos. The public had a soft spot for these publications and a lot of information was conveyed in the process.

Deputies of the Soviet had resolved that only the newspapers whose authors disregarded the censorship committee would be in print. They would be considered to have declined to present their matters for censorship. Due to these grounds, authors and other employees of the press were to publish with the consent of editors who had the power to put the liberty of the press in to practice. The newspaper publishing personnel continued striking but the Soviet deputies continued to pay their wages (Mark Thaw, 1996). The publishers who failed to adhere to the present decision had their newspapers taken away from them. The strike culminated in all the publishers declaring to work without censorship.

In October 22 1905, the Russian newspapers were published without the repression of censorship. The freedom of the press was received differently in different quarters. The situation varied from one area to another, depending on the impact of the revolution. In areas where the revolution was pronounced, censorship was minimal. It even stopped completely in Moscow. In other areas of the country, it continued, although the newspapers originating from Moscow agitated the local press in the provinces. These differences were a major drawback to the administration in trying to ensure a control mechanism that could be applied across the board. The police were unable to implement confiscation orders.


Censorship in Russia was exercised uniquely by different Tsars. It was practiced as a tool to curb spread of information that was deemed as treacherous in the public sphere. It was used during war time to ensure that the enemies did not acquire information that could assist them in strategizing an attack to the Russian Army. The press played a role in causing censorship due to the misuse of their freedom. This happened when treacherous materials would be sneaked to the public together with legitimate publications. Strikes by the press demanding their freedom played an important role in their liberation as well as reduction of censorship.

The role of the press can not be ignored in community civilization concerning political and non political matters such as religion, health and education. However much freedom the press desires, it is important for persons outside the press community to examine their publications rather that them being assumed to exercise ethics in their work, hence be given maximum independence. This is because some may take advantage of this freedom to advance their individual interests, and this may cause unnecessary havoc in the community.





  1. Carrey J. 1976. A Historical Survey of the Press in Imperial Russia, Oxford University Press, p. 26-32.
  2. Mette N. 2008. Beacon for the Freedom of Expression: Forbidden books and newspapers

< /russia.html>. 12 Nov 2008, (Accessed 20.11.08)

  1. Leon T. 2008. Storming the Censorship Bastilles: Invoking Authoritative Decision.

<> 19 Jun 2007. (Accessed 20.11.08)

  1. Feldman K. 2002. A Historical Background of Censorship, New York: Routledge, p.17-26
  2. Mark T. 1996. Censorship in the Contemporary Regimes, California University Press, p.16
  3. McDonald L. 2002. Rise of the Press: Censorship and its Consequences, New York: Routledge, p. 26-34
  4. Morris J.1998. Press Freedom: Analysis of Press Evolution, Oxford University Press, p. 37






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