There is a widespread but baseless myth that ‘Stalin banned Hamlet’ in the USSR.
Shakespeare researcher Michelle Assay writes about it in “What Did Hamlet (Not) Do to Offend Stalin?” published in Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare, 35, 2017.
THE MYTH IS SPREAD EVERYWHERE, EVEN BY ‘RESPECTED’ SCHOLARS
“there is no official documentation that could provide a factual backbone for his so-called Hamlet ban.” (p. 1)
However, anti-communist propagandists have never needed sources or fact:
“Yet it has become received wisdom that Stalin not only hated Hamlet and its hero but accordingly banned any production in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s animus towards Hamlet features in almost every study dealing with Shakespeare and Soviet political/cultural life. The myth of the ban in fact takes various shapes: at best it is nuanced by such modifiers as “tacit” or “virtual”; at its worst the myth takes the form of highly exaggerated claims, which usually disregard the historical facts, including actual productions of Hamlet during Stalin era.” (p. 1)
The myth was spread even in so-called academically ‘respectable’ publications:
“Here are two examples from quite respectable publications: “Theatrical performances of Hamlet were subsequently [to Mikhail Chekhov’s 1924-5 production] banned until after Stalin’s death in 1953”, and “[in the 1940s] the play [Hamlet] had not been produced in the Soviet Union since Nikolai Akimov’s zany version of 1932.”Such statements can quickly be disproved. They disregard not only the provincial productions of Hamlet in the 1940s (for instance two in Belorussia directed by Valeri [also known as Valerian] Bebutov, one in 1941 at the Voronezh State Dramatic Theatre, and one in 1946 at the Iakub Kolas Theatre in Vitebsk) but also Sergei Radlov’s rather wellknown 1938 staging, which due to its great success toured widely beyond Leningrad and Moscow, as far as the Urals, Sochi and Belorussia, to almost unanimously positive reviews… More ideologically motivated are over-exaggerations of the kind found in Solomon Volkov’s widely debated concoction of Shostakovich’s supposed memoirs.” (p. 1)
According to Joseph Macleod, Hamlet was performed 23 times in the USSR in 1935-38 and its popularity only increased afterwards, being performed 50 times in 1938-41 (Macleod, The New Soviet Theatre, p. 212). His book The New Soviet Theatre (which I recommend to those interested in the topic) has an interesting chapter called “Shakespeare on the Soviet stage”.
HOW WAS THE MYTH INVENTED?
Assay suggests that the myth could have originated from Stalin’s statement (real or invented) that during WWII the nation needed an active optimistic hero, and not someone as passive and tragic as Hamlet. But as Assay writes, Hamlet was still performed during this period: “this in itself does not imply the complete absence of Hamlet… from the Soviet stage.” (p. 2)
Assay cites Dimitri Urnov’s article “How did Stalin ban Hamlet?” where Urnov suggests that the myth could have originated from the Moscow Art Theatre production of Hamlet from 1940, which was never completed. But “Urnov, however, goes on to argue – convincingly – that the production of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre was halted not by Stalin but rather by many unfortunate circumstances and much internal tension within the Theatre itself.” (p. 3)
“There was at least one other contributing factor to the longevity of the myth of Hamlet and Stalin: the Hamlet fever that took over Soviet theatres following Stalin’s death” (p. 8)
However, this fever is hard to pinpoint. There had never been a Hamlet ban—Hamlet had simply been continuously produced. So when exactly did the fever begin? It is clear that Hamlet’s popularity increased over time and in the late 60s there was even a film. It seems clear that in the late 40s and early 50s there were other large projects and other topics which received most attention.
IN REALITY SHAKESPEARE AND HAMLET WERE CELEBRATED IN THE USSR
Assay writes that in reality Hamlet and Shakespeare plays were not only performed but:
“Bearing the seal of approval of Marx, Engels and Lenin, Shakespeare was indeed an attractive subject for schools and research institutes and provided “an ideal classic to reach the widest strata of readers and audiences and thus to bridge the gap which had frequently developed between modern art and the people.”” (p. 6)
In the late 40s when the Cold War intensified, the USSR became more and more critical of western capitalist propaganda in the form of culture. About this, Assay writes that Shakespeare was never under attack, only capitalist methods of Shakespeare criticism. Shakespeare’s works were translated and printed:
“During this critical period, it was not Shakespeare but supposed Western-style attitudes towards his scholarship that came under attack, including works of Mikhail Morozov that were deemed to be under Western influence… It was not the subject matter or the mere fact of writing about a foreign author that came under criticism, but Morozov’s [bourgeois] approach to Shakespeare scholarship… Following these attacks, and while politically correct “Soviet Shakespearology” was being supplanted by commentaries by Pushkin and Vissarion Belinski, there were also translations, often reprinted in anthologies.” (p. 7)
WHY THE MYTH WAS CREATED
Assay is a bourgeois scholar writing for a bourgeois publication. They only hint that there were political motives behind creating this myth—this fabrication—without delving any deeper into it.
Of course western academia used every opportunity to invent lies about the USSR, Stalin and Communism, including this totally non-existent ‘Hamlet ban’.