Nearly a century ago, Bolshevik revolutionaries toppled the legal Russian government and murdered the royal family, establishing the world’s first communist regime.
For the seven decades of the totalitarian system’s existence, the Soviet leadership faced off against a formidable array of forces that threatened their power and ideology. As the Red Army crushed or stood off against communism’s military enemies, securing control over the Soviet people itself was even more essential to the Kremlin’s designs. It is this task with which British professor Mark Harrison’s recent book, “One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Ordinary Lives Under the Soviet Police State,” is concerned.
In seven chapters of episodes gleaned from Soviet archives and “selected for their humanity and inhumanity,” Harrison, who works at the University of Warwick, presents an animated study of the Soviet state security committee—the infamous KGB.
Constructing and Exposing Hidden Enemies
While the world is preparing for or fighting World War II, another kind of struggle is taking place inside the Soviet Union. Having secured his place as Lenin’s heir, Josef Stalin is waging war against his own people, and his security personnel are eager to appease him. It’s a time when millions across the country are enslaved or shot on trumped-up charges of spying, dissent, or simply slacking.
In the Siberian Far East, along the Japanese-controlled Chinese border, local policemen have devised a nearly comical deception, an office masquerading as a foreign border post, complete with Asiatic Soviets playing the part of the Japanese. To meet their arrest quotas, the secret police spend over a decade recruiting hundreds of thousands to go on nonexistent intelligence missions across this equally fictitious border, where they are invariably outed by the “Japanese” as Soviet spies and encouraged to accept assignments (also fake) as double agents. Their return from this dark political theatre, ominously termed “the Mill” by its creators, ends with the Soviet police pretending to discover their crimes and punishing them accordingly. Ten thousand pay the ultimate price for their manufactured treachery.
The notion of an ever-present, eternally-elusive enemy hidden among the masses gripped the Soviet leaders for the entirety of their rule, and it is this that leads the author’s succinct assessment of the state security’s operational principles.
The main characters in these representative accounts are all people who we would otherwise never have heard of. A Pole scapegoated for the mere convenience of his suspicious ethnicity. Intellectuals too clever for the liking of the central authorities. The tragedy of a censorship bureau worker’s decision to neglect a subtly undesirable editorial piece.
An economic historian, Harrison artfully reconstructs ordinary citizens’ brushes with the Communist Party’s “sword and shield” from discrete reports and data. The writing is crisp and accessible, and the author’s willingness to trade in details does not derail the abstract lessons. The breadth and import of “Without Fear” affect the welcome impression of a book much weightier than its 234 pages, and a 30-page supplement of academic notes should satisfy those so inclined.
The Indispensable Appearance of Order
Describing his dystopian superstate, George Orwell wrote that “nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police.” In much the same way, the Soviet Union was leached of its strength and potential by a ruling cabal obsessed with control and security, and the secret police remained firm as a prime guarantor of the Communist Party’s power.
But as proved by World War II, this style of leadership also left the Soviet people, and by extension the country, thinned by hunger, dead in the millions from war and the gulag, and traumatized by endless political persecutions. The writing progressively reflects not just the evolution of the KGB’s methods, but also the gradual shifts in Soviet society at large as economic and demographic reality forced it to tone down the mass murder and ideological cult of Stalin.
The tasks of the KGB became more sensitive and more demanding. Scrutinize young people. Prevent laughter. Address even the smallest transgressions. If order cannot be created, it can at least be made to seem real.
A regime driven primarily by its desire to stay in power is not without its real effects. Even after the era of mass murder and famine, the secret police continue to tear apart lives. The investigation of a harmless, if overly curious man disciplined for taking a sensitive photograph drives him to alcoholism: “this was not a happy ending for either Vasily or society, but it was no longer the KGB’s problem.”
As the Marxist vision lost currency in the hearts and minds of the people, the Soviet leadership became desperate to maintain normalcy. In a pivotal chapter set in the Soviet Baltic state of Lithuania, the author introduces a tract discussing the Russian word “profilaktika.”
This piece of surveillance jargon comes from the medical world, and it is used to describe the prevention of contagious diseases. The term proves apt as Harrison showcases the KGB offering treatment to a host of restive individuals in the non-Russian Baltic state.
‘They Are Ahead of Us’
The inherent, genetic fear of the communist authorities is palpable. The henchmen of Lenin had destroyed old order, with its old morals and identities, only to find themselves hard-pressed in forging a new one.
A freak event, the self-immolation of a desperate Lithuanian man, sets off a nationalist disturbance even the police cannot cover up in time, and the people mobilize in the streets of Kaunas, capital of the small captive republic. The situation is untenable and requires backup. On a printed KGB report, the scribble of an unknown official concedes a dangerously subversive defeat. “They are ahead of us in Kaunas.”
The Soviet state worked to prevent these subversions with greater finesse. As the fundamental life force of the state, the people are too valuable to destroy, as Stalin the “woodcutter” once did, but they must be watched. The increasing number of citizens allowed to travel abroad were set up with informers amongst themselves in sometimes hilarious stories, as described in the latter half of the book; and at home the authorities practically beg, through the practice of harmless but ominous talks, their people to behave for the sake of what Chinese would at once recognize as measures to safeguard the “stability” of a “harmonious society.”
Harrison selects for his final vignette what must be an occurrence repeated ad infinitum: the surveillance of a family that poses no threat at all to the regime and its ideology. After all the buildup, from the harrowing Siberian “Mill,” through the high-level intrigues surrounding the evolution of the post-Stalin leadership, to the rapid reaction to the Lithuanian disturbance, “Without Fear” ends in a faintly postmodern, deliberately lame “spy thriller without a plot.”
For all its professional terror, the secret police was no greater or more significant than the vain concerns of its obsessive masters. The Soviet Union collapsed not because of a failure to enforce ideological compliance, but because socialism ran contrary to economic and human reality. The phrasing of scholar Alexei Yurchak comes to mind: “everything was forever, until it was no more;” the special conception of Soviet society the KGB labored to maintain was switched off by Gorbachev’s reforms.
Prof. Mark Harrison is a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. The reviewed volume, “One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Ordinary Lives Under the Soviet Police State,” can be purchased online in paper and electronic format.