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«Amir Weiner Forum: The Soviet Order at Home and Abroad, 1939–61 Getting to Know You The Soviet Surveillance System, 1939–57 Amir Weiner And Aigi ...»

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Getting to Know You

Domestic Surveillance in the Soviet Union

Amir Weiner

Forum: The Soviet Order at Home and Abroad, 1939–61

Getting to Know You

The Soviet Surveillance System, 1939–57

Amir Weiner And Aigi rAhi-TAmm

“Violence is the midwife of history,” observed Marx and Engels. One could

add that for their Bolshevik pupils, surveillance was the midwife’s guiding

hand. Never averse to violence, the Bolsheviks were brutes driven by an

idea, and a grandiose one at that. Matched by an entrenched conspiratorial political culture, a Manichean worldview, and a pervasive sense of isolation and siege mentality from within and from without, the drive to mold a new kind of society and individuals through the institutional triad of a nonmarket economy, single-party dictatorship, and mass state terror required a vast information-gathering apparatus. Serving the two fundamental tasks of rooting out and integrating real and imagined enemies of the regime, and molding the population into a new socialist society, Soviet surveillance assumed from the outset a distinctly pervasive, interventionist, and active mode that was translated into myriad institutions, policies, and initiatives.

Students of Soviet information systems have focused on two main features—denunciations and public mood reports—and for good reason.

Soviet law criminalized the failure to report “treason and counterrevolutionary crimes,” and denunciation was celebrated as the ultimate civic act.1 Whether a “weapon of the weak” used by the otherwise silenced population, a tool by the regime to check its bureaucracy, or a classic feature of the totalitarian state franchising itself to individuals via denunciations of their fellow citizens—and quite likely all three—denunciations were critical in shattering old and forming For their invaluable comments and suggestions we extend special thanks to Alain Blum, Catherine Gousseff, David Holloway, Hiroaki Kuromiya, Norman Naimark, Ben Nathans, Yuri Slezkine; the participants in the Russian–East European workshops at the University of California, Berkeley; the Hoover Archive at Stanford University; Humboldt Universität, Berlin; and the readers and editors of Kritika.

Simon Wolin and Robert M. Schlusser, eds., The Soviet Secret Police (New York: Praeger, 1957), 194.

Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 13, 1 (Winter 2012): 5–45.

6 AMIR WEINER AND AIGI RAHI-TAMM

new modes of socialization. Even the most astute studies of denunciations, however, profess that this was not the main source of information for the Soviet regime, if only because of their unpredictability and the fact that they were solicited by the regime at specific moments, especially during mobilization campaigns for certain policies or against targeted individuals and groups.2 Since the opening of the former Soviet archives, scholars have focused mainly on public opinion, deciphered from the voluminous reports on the political mood of the population gathered by the political police and submitted to party-state organizations and leaders, despite the absence of the term “popular opinion” from the Soviet political lexicon under Stalin.3 A handful of insightful studies situate Soviet police reports within a modern pan-European ethos of socio-political engineering and the evolution of the late imperial polity. They offer fresh interpretations of the essence of the system and its values, as well as invaluable comparative angles, albeit with the price tag of universalizing distinct socialist totalitarian features.4 This essay tackles an additional and new set of questions that help explain the oft, although unsurprisingly, ambiguous record of Soviet surveillance on the ground, which was torn between totalitarian aspirations and institutions and the corresponding quota system, collateral damage, and constant pressure for immediate results, on the one hand, and the aspiration to professional pride and ethos of its police officers, on the other. What did the Soviets initially know about populations on which they imposed their rule? What did they want to know? How did they obtain their information and recruit informants? How successful was the surveillance enterprise according to the On denunciations as a key feature in the initial phase of the totalitarian revolution, see the indispensable discussion by Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 114–22. For consideration of denunciations as “weapons of the weak,” see Sheila Fitzpatrick, “Signals from Below: Soviet Letters of Denunciation of the 1930s”; for denunciations as mainly a tool by the top leadership to rattle its bureaucracy, see Vladimir Kozlov, “Denunciation and Its Functions in Soviet Governance: A Study of Denunciations and Their Bureaucratic Handling from Soviet Police Archives, 1944–1953,” both in Accusatory Practices: Denunciations in Modern European History, 1789–1989, ed. Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 85–120 and 121–52, respectively.

For an insightful survey of these problems, see Jan Plamper, “Beyond Binaries: Popular Opinion in Stalinism,” in Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes: Fascism, Nazism, Communism, ed. Paul Corner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 64–80.





Peter Holquist’s pathbreaking studies of Soviet surveillance reports and their contemporary counterparts still remain an anomaly. See his Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914–1921 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); and “Information Is the Alpha and Omega of Our Work: Bolshevik Surveillance in Its Pan-European Context,” Journal of Modern History 69, 3 (1997): 415–50.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU 7

Soviets’ own goals and evaluation? Finally, what do the surveillance methods tell us about the nature, goals, and distinct features of the regime when compared with other systems?5 We analyze the manner in which domestic surveillance was used in the application of key Sovietization policies and in coping with ensuing problems on the Soviet western frontier—the territories between the Baltic and Black Seas, populated by some 23 million people—from their annexation in 1939– 40 to the aftermath of the eventful year of 1956. Confronted by populations that enjoyed a brief spell of sovereignty during the interwar years, were hostile to Soviet power to the point of launching mass armed resistance, and posed linguistic and religious difficulties for infiltration, the Soviets pressed on relentlessly, imposing at once the political and socio-economic order that they gradually, sometimes even imperceptibly enforced over two decades inside the pre-1939 borders. Lest anyone entertained the thought that regional features required distinct policies, it was dismissed out of hand. “We work for the entire Union. There is no such thing as Ukraine in our work,” snapped Vitalii Fedorchuk, the director of the Ukrainian KGB.6 This tight temporal and geographical framework offers a unique window into the functioning of the Soviet order as a whole, and into its surveillance system in particular.

Knowing Little, Knowing Much The birth of the Soviet surveillance system in the western borderlands was marked by a puzzle—the fantastic disparity between the limited knowledge of the local social scene and precise information on the political–military landscape by the intelligence agencies. The gap between Soviet servicemen’s and functionaries’ expectations and realities on the ground left one wondering what the Soviets actually knew about the territories they had just annexed.

An avalanche of servicemen’s letters, diaries, and memoirs, as well as their scrutiny by the party and police organs revealed a huge cohort that knew precious little about the neighboring populations who barely two decades Despite the passage of more than five decades and some outdated data, the Wolin and Schlusser volume cited above is still indispensable for studying the structure and functioning of the Soviet surveillance system. For a few exceptions in post-Soviet literature that address some of these issues, albeit with a different interpretation and temporal focus from that of this essay, see David Shearer, Policing Stalin’s Socialism: Repression and Social Order in the Soviet Union, 1924–1953 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009); Paul Hagenloh, Stalin’s Police: Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926–1941 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); and the special issue “La police politique en Union Soviétique, 1918–1953,” Cahiers du monde russe 42, 2–3–4 (2001).

Iakov Pogrebniak, Ne predam zabveniiu…: Zapiski professional´nogo partiinogo rabotnika (Kiev: Letopis´-XX, 1999), 173–74.

8 AMIR WEINER AND AIGI RAHI-TAMM

earlier had been part of the Russian Empire and thoroughly studied by the former regime.7 Did this matter? On one level, the totalitarian enterprise was not dependent on social realities but rather the opposite. If there was a gap between ideology and the social, political, and economic landscape, the latter had to adjust to the former. The more relevant questions were who knew what, what did they want to know, and how did they get their information. Here, the Soviets stood on firm ground. By their own admission, the security organs were still in a post-traumatic state when they took on the task of infiltrating the annexed populations in 1939–40. Having lost scores of seasoned agents and lacking genuine local intelligence networks, the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) had to rely on young, often unqualified employees from the Soviet interior who did not command indigenous languages—some 726 new agents in western Ukraine alone—and a handful of local communists who had spent most of the past decade behind bars. Despite these challenges, information gathering marshaled on.8 The Third Department of the NKVD, which was in charge of gathering information on the political and social theaters prior to the invasion, exhibited an impressive command of the situation. Assisted by the Foreign Ministry and the embassy in Warsaw, which were set to the task in early spring, the security services acquired detailed knowledge of the Polish domestic scene.

The 53-page report it composed prior to the invasion accurately mapped all political parties, civic associations, and military organizations across the ethnic divide in Poland, including leading personnel and membership.9 The task of dealing with these groups was relegated to special operational groups, whose small number was telling. Their assignments ranged from taking over communications and media, establishing temporary administrations in each area occupied by the Red Army, imposing political and ideological Vladimir Zenzinov, Vstrecha s Rossiei: Kak i chem zhivut v Sovetskom Soiuze. Pis´ma v Krasnuiu Armiiu 1939–1940 (New York: n.p., 1944), 332; Peter Gornev, “The Life of a Soviet Soldier,” in Thirteen Who Fled, ed. Louis Fischer (New York: Harper, 1949), 37; Natsyianal´ny arkhiu Respubliki Belarus´ (NARB) f. 4, op. 21, d. 1683, ll. 50–51, 57.

Viktor Chebrikov et al., eds. Istoriia Sovetskikh organov gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti (Moscow: KGB, 1977), 305–6, 308. Notably, this KGB internal textbook was prepared for the training of the agency’s officers.

Federal´naia sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiiskoi Federatsii and Ministerstwo spraw wewnętrznych i administracji Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej, Polskie podziemie na terenach Zachoniej Ukrainy i Zachodniej Białorusi w latach 1939–1941/Pol´skoe podpol´e na territorii Zapadnoi Ukraïny i Zapadnoi Belorussii, 1939–1941 gg. (Warsaw and Moscow: RYTM, 2001), 1:36– 106; Donal O’Sullivan, “Die Sowjetisierung Osteuropas 1939–1941,” Forum für osteuropäische Ideen- und Zeitgeschichte 2, 2 (1998): 118.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU 9

control, and arresting prominent government figures and leaders of Polish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian “counterrevolutionary” parties. The dismantling of the political and civilian leadership and potential opposition groups totaled over 13 million people and was handled by five operational groups of 50–70 agents on the Ukrainian front and four groups of 40–55 agents on the Belorussian front. Each operational group was assisted by a military battalion of 300 soldiers.10 The NKVD struck with lightening speed. Less than four weeks into the invasion, the Belorussian NKVD had already identified no fewer than 3,535 counterrevolutionary “elements,” and by late November 1939 the organization had already arrested nearly 12,000 people throughout the former eastern Polish territories.11 When the NKVD chief in Belorussia reported the arrest of some 581 Polish officers and army reservists in early December, he emphasized that they were targeted based on compromising materials.

Evidently, the system was already fully functioning.12 By the spring of 1940, the Polish underground, the NKVD’s main target, practically ceased to exist, with most of its members arrested and directed to the Soviet courts and prisons. A similar fate befell the resilient Ukrainian nationalist organizations following the arrest of over 4,400 activists.13 The three Baltic states were meticulously studied nine months before their annexation. The NKVD in Leningrad dispatched agents to the embassies and trade missions with detailed instructions on information-gathering methods in the political realm, the Russian émigré community, foreign intelligence activity, the region, and economic affairs. The prominence of the NKVD agents was underscored when shortly after the lead agent in Tallinn, Vladimir Botskarev, was appointed Soviet ambassador to Estonia and personally handled the formation of the new government in the summer of 1940.14 A Vasyl´ Danylenko and Serhii Kokin, eds., Radians´ki orhany derzhavnoï bezpeky u 1939– chervni 1941 r: Dokumenty HDA SB Ukraïny (Kiev: Kievo-Mohylians´ka Akademiia, 2009), 42–45.

This figure included 278 Polish officers; 1,181 White Guards and Petliurite officers; 3,544 gendarmes, policemen and police agents; and 2,103 members of counterrevolutionary parties and organizations (NARB f. 4, op. 21, d. 1683, l. 139; Pol´skoe podpol´e, 246–53).

NARB f. 4, op. 21, d. 1715, l. 127.



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