Remembrances of the Mysterious, Maligned Soviet Censor

Maybe finding out after 40 years who your masked torturer was might be something like this. But let me first start at the beginning.

As a CBS correspondent in Moscow in the mid-1950s, I worked under official censorship, a hangover from Stalin days. This meant that anything we Western reporters wanted to cable or broadcast had to be brought in three copies to a counter at the Central Telegraph Office. A functionary logged it and passed it through a slit in the wall to the room where the invisible censor worked.

The copy came back sooner or later, or not at all. When it did come back, it was usually with words, sentences, or whole paragraphs crossed out in heavy black pencil.

Many were the hours we spent, daytime and nighttime, waiting for copy and cursing the censor. A radio reporter had the special difficulty of not knowing whether his script would come back in time for a scheduled broadcast, or with excisions that would make it incomprehensible when read into the microphone.

(For a while I vented my frustration by saying in my broadcast, "Fifteen words deleted here." However, the Foreign Ministry warned that an allusion to the existence of censorship was not allowed.)

You can't imagine the frustration of having a big story - like the secret speech of Nikita Krushchev denouncing Joseph Stalin before the Communist Party congress - and not being allowed to breathe a word of it to America. For weeks we tried every which way to sneak word of it past the censor, with no success.

We hated the censor with a consuming passion. We spent hours speculating on what he might look like - a jackbooted KGB thug, a sadistic mastermind. On leaving the Soviet Union, I wrote a long article for The New York Times denouncing Soviet censorship.

SO, imagine my feelings when I got a telephone call the other day from a journalist in Moscow working for a Russian news magazine.

She wanted my reminiscences of working in Moscow 40 years ago. I asked how she knew about me.

"Well, it was this way: My grandmother was the censor who worked on your copy. And she would come home and tell us about it."

"Your grandmother? Those heavy black lines were made by a woman?"

"Yes, and sometimes she said she regretted having to butcher your copy because some of the things you said she agreed with. But she had to follow KGB guidelines or call the KGB if in doubt."

"Is your grandmother still alive?"

"Yes, and working as a translator. If you come to Moscow sometime, you can meet her. She is a very nice old lady."

I'm not sure I can face that. Forty years of pent-up rage at a depersonalized monster. Do I want now to meet this nice old lady to whom killing my best lines was just a job to be done?

"No, just say hello for me. And tell your grandmother the rest of my message is ... deleted."

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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