Freedom was not something that was lost in Russia when the Soviets took power and established the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In fact, the government was zealously restrictive in Czarist Russia, as well. There was no freedom of speech, and certainly no freedom of the press. The Central Bureau of Censorship, known as the CBC, appointed a network of censors across the country, with subordinates in the local villages reporting to their superiors in the larger cities. Every newspaper, every publication, every book was checked prior to its circulation. If a censor chanced upon even a single sentence that struck him the wrong way, the media was condemned – never to see the light of day.
Censors were particularly strict with Jewish books. When it came to sacred Jewish books, even the lowest ranking censor was empowered to do as he pleased: to erase passages, tear out pages, or prohibit its publication altogether. If the author or publisher dared complain to the CBC, the unjust censor was not reprimanded. He received a promotion!
Who did the Bureau hire to examine s’farim written in Yiddish and lashon ha’kodesh? Meshumadim, of course – corrupt apostate Jews who had converted to Christianity. These traitors were ignoramuses who had gone to a cheder in childhood but had long ago discarded the yoke of Judaism.
One such censor in the city of Zhitomir was especially memorable for the uproar he caused. The episode happened under the reign of Czar Nicholas I, who succeeded his brother Alexander in 1825. Since the censor himself only vaguely remembered his Alef-Beis, he found a young fellow, a complete ignoramus, to read through the numerous s’farim he was given, and report on the contents. At first, the assistant nixed every sefer that passed through his hands – refusing to sanction a single holy book. After a time, the corrupt assistant discovered a wonderful source of income that stemmed from his daily occupation: accepting hefty bribes from authors and printers in exchange for his approval.
One day, a Zhitomir printer received an order to print a new edition of Tikun Leil Shavuos, the ancient sefer learned during the first night of Shavuos. This sefer has been around for centuries, and the printer thought nothing of filling the order. He assiduously laid the plates to print hundreds of copies. One copy was snatched off the press and submitted to the censor’s office. A few days later, the printer returned to obtain the permit for the book’s reprint. But his request was denied. The printer was told: Your book has been confiscated. The matter has been handed over to the authorities.
The man was shocked. An old, established sefer like Tikun Leil Shavuos, a sefer that g’dolim and simpletons alike read with much love and care, should have earned approval automatically. He hadn’t thought a bribe to the censor’s assistant was necessary. What could possibly be wrong with the ancient words recited on the night of Shavuos?
The printer raced to the home of the assistant. “I’m not in charge,” the man insisted stubbornly. “The censor did this on his own. I can do nothing for you. You will have to see the censor himself.”
The printer’s appeal to the censor was met with fury. “How dare you print a subversive book like that!” he shouted.
“What did you find objectionable in this book?” the printer queried cautiously.
“It’s a mixed-up book, with no beginning and no end – a scrap from here, a pinch from there, a concoction of dialects. It’s a book without continuity. In short: a crazy book!” The printer attempted to defend the book, explaining its meaningfulness for the Shavuos holiday. But the arrogant censor could not be swayed. He had overridden his assistant and was going to stop the Jews from saying their prayers on the holiday, no matter what it took. “I can tell that the book is treasonous. You Jews read it at night when everyone is sleeping. Don’t tell me that this book is safe!”
“Besides,” the censor added, “in the beginning of the book it says, ‘You have chosen us from all the nations.’ How dare you say such a thing? You look down on the Russian people? You think you are better, you are ‘chosen’? You’re lucky I don’t have you arrested just for that!”
Shaking from his encounter, the printer ran to the Zhitomir Rav zt”l to relate all that had transpired. That night, the Rav called a gathering of the leaders of the community, delineating the serious repercussions this affair could have for Russian Jewry at large if left unchecked. What would the censor disapprove of next? Two emissaries were quickly dispatched to the headquarters of the CBC in Kiev and St. Petersburg, requesting a shakeup of the Zhitomir office.
The arrogant censor soon discovered that he had gone too far. A senior Russian official named Grunbaum-Fyodorov was an apostate who nevertheless remained a supporter of Jewish causes. When he learned about the confiscated Tikun Leil Shavuos, he told the CBC authorities that the Zhitomir censor was clearly unfit for his job. The CBC immediately telegrammed Zhitomir, ordering the censor to approve the publication of Tikun Leil Shavuos – and the Jewish community breathed a sigh of relief.
(The Wicked Censor by Rabbi Dovid Meisels)