When William Benton, vice-president of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, visited Moscow in 1955 he called at the offices of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (Bolshaia Sovetskaia Entsiklopedia) on Pokrovskii Boulevard. From this meeting of cultural opposite numbers, rare insight into the editorial operations which determine the form and content for published scholarship for the entire Communist world may be gained.
At the time of Benton's visit, this encyclopedic arbiter of ideas for over 800,000,000 people was being directed by a staff headed by Editor-in-chief B. A. Vvedensky, a scholarly radio technician and physicist, and S. I. Viskov, the executive secretary of the editorial board and a specialist in modern history. With disarming candor the editors frankly admitted that the new second edition of their encyclopedia, the first edition having been published during the period 1927-1947, was being constructed in conformity with a Party decree of 1949, and that in the field of history and social movements, the articles were necessarily keyed to Marxism-Leninism. While admittedly under the yoke of politics and censorship, the editors professed to enlist the collective ability of a wide circle of the most eminent Russian authorities. In theory the editorial board is responsible for the selection of individual authors, but in practice the actual choice is made by staff specialists in consultation with institutions of higher learning. Once articles are received from assigned authors, the manuscripts are subjected to "public discussions" before being enshrined in the colossal entombment of all dogma and knowledge as revealed to the disciples of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. [See Benton illuminating article, Great Soviet Encyclopedia, in the Yale Review, 47:552-568 (June, 1958).]
The plight of the Soviet historian and encyclopedist who labors under a flexible standard of truth may be graphically demonstrated by the dilemma posed by the liquidation in 1953 of Lavrenti P. Beria, who had been accorded an extensive and fulsome biographical sketch in one of the early volumes of the new edition of the Bolshaia [vol. 5, pp. 22-23]. The Encyclopedia, ostensibly in response to the overwhelming demand of its 250,000 subscribers, produced a special section expanding the adjacent articles on F. W. Bergholz (an eighteenth-century courtier), the Bering Sea, and Bishop Berkeley and supplied instructions for scissoring out the Beria sketch and replacing it with the new section. Thus were the offending traitor and his biography flushed down the Orwellian "memory hole."
The year following Benton's visit, volume 39 of the Bolshaia was published containing an article on the United States of America [pp. 557 to 654], a . . .