In one of the most heartening indications that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise of political openness in Russia was becoming a reality, committees in the Soviet legislature pass a bill allowing the publication of books, newspapers, and magazines without government approval. The law was a break with the Soviet past, in which government censorship of the press was a fact of life.
Throughout the post-World War II period, censorship in the Soviet Union grew even stronger than during the pre-war years. Under the cloak of “protecting” the Russian citizenry from “decadent” Western ideas and “reactionary” ideologies, the Soviet government routinely censored the press. Newspapers were merely organs of the Soviet Communist Party. Books and magazine articles had to be approved prior to publication. Authors like Boris Pasternak, whose novel Dr. Zhivago was banned in 1956, found it impossible to publish in the Soviet Union. Censorship also extended to the arts and music.
In 1985, however, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Russia, promising what he called “glasnost”–a freer political atmosphere in the Soviet Union. In the following years, he freed political prisoners and even permitted Pasternak to be posthumously readmitted to the Soviet writers’ union. In September 1989, a particularly important step was taken to restrict the government’s power of censorship. Important committees in the Soviet legislature approved a new law to which Gorbachev soon gave his own approval. It permitted Soviet citizens to publish books, newspapers, and magazines without prior government approval. Some restrictions still existed–all publishers had to register with the government, and their publications could be suspended if they were judged to “promote war or racism, advocate ethnic or religious intolerance, or appeal for the violent overthrow or change of the existing state and public order.”
Despite the restrictions, the 1989 law was evidence that Gorbachev was intent on making good his promise to open up the Soviet political system. Soviet journalists and writers celebrated the act, but Gorbachev’s reforms to the Soviet system may have been too little, too late. In a little more than two years, economic and political turmoil in the Soviet Union destroyed his power base. In December 1991, he resigned as president and the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a nation.