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“It Could Be A Lot Worse”: Imperial Russia’s Performing Arts Censorship in Comparative Perspective

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Histories of the Russian Empire’s cultural life have long dwelled on the role of censorship in its stage culture. Long thought to be an oppressive arm of the tsarist state, its theatrical censorship usually appears as another villain in a political universe that made revolution inevitable. A careful consideration of the tsarist censorship in a comparative international context, however, reveals that it was neither meaningfully different in structure nor dramatically harsher than other theatrical censorship regimes functioning in Russia’s late imperial era and beyond. Like the other national censorships, which policed culture throughout the developed world, Russia’s censorship regime overwhelmingly approved works submitted for performance in a system of preliminary review. Unlike them, Russia’s censors had few enforcement mechanisms at their disposal and only weakly policed its own decisions. In a number of striking cases, moreover, Russian censors delivered more favorable verdicts on internationally well known but controversial works than did their Western counterparts, including even British censors and American police authorities.

Affiliations: 1: American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon, Email:, URL:


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