Flat Earth: Forbidden fruits of the cherry orchard

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The Independent Online
ON an ordinary day, the Soviet censors would set about preventing people from reading about life and death in Stalin's labour camps, or from discovering that life in the West might be perfectly normal, even pleasant, rather than a non-stop capitalist nightmare. But sometimes the censors had real fun. It was their job to protect the reputation of the state's heroes, and that meant taking a blue pencil to the sexy bits.

A striking example has just come to light in the correspondence of the playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov, which was chopped and sliced by the keepers of the people's moral purity. The decision to excise the great man's observations on sex came right from the top - the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, as decreed by Instruction No 02030, dated 22 February 1968. We are just beginning to see these hidden directives now that scholars can dig through the files.

Thus, the four-line letter that Chekhov wrote to his friend Suvorin in 1880 was in fact a huge missive about out- of-bed sex. Some 600 words on the problems of making love on a sofa, on the floor or over a trunk, coping with all those petticoats and worrying about the servants coming in, were simply gutted. Out went all reference to Japanese women being better sexual partners than Russian ones - they 'take better care of you'.

Trying to do it with a Russian woman of 'decent standing' was usually not worth the effort. It was hard to find a suitable room; she wouldn't be seen entering a hotel during the day, and by the time you had got her into a hotel room at night, she had made such a song and dance about it that there was little pleasure left.

All the censors allowed was the following: 'Writers should be suspicious of any kind of chatter. If Zola (. . .) wrote, on the basis of rumours and stories from friends, then he was over- hasty and incautious.'

Even the three dots hid sex. The original read: 'If Zola did it himself, on tables, against fences, in dog kennels and in postillions, or if he saw with his own eyes, as it was being done, then you can believe his novels; but if he wrote on the basis of rumours and stories from friends, then he was over-hasty and incautious.'

Chekhov concludes that all these ways of doing it are nonsense. 'The simplest way is the bed. The other 33 are difficult, and can only easily be carried out in a single room in a hotel - or in a barn.'

But not even this vote for the missionary position was permitted by the party's moral police.

(Photograph omitted)