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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 5.2 (2004) 299-320

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An Intensification of Vigilance

Recent Perspectives on the Institutional History of the Soviet Security Apparatus in the 1920s

Introduction to the Humanities Program
Stanford University
Building 250, Room 251J
Stanford, CA 94305-2020 USA

Few aspects of the Soviet system have received as much scholarly (and popular) attention in the West as the secret police, and in particular its role in implementing the Terror, conducting espionage, and running the G ULAG. As awareness of the vast prison-camp system spread during the Cold War, from Khrushchev's secret speech to the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, even many formerly sympathetic commentators came to identify internal repression as a if not the fundamental feature of Soviet totalitarianism. While writing extensively on the Terror and G ULAG, however, Western historians have devoted significantly less attention to explicating the origins of the security apparatus after the Russian revolutions and Civil War. A notable exception was two scholarly monographs describing the establishment of the security apparatus in the early years of Soviet rule, both published several decades ago.1

A recent spate of research and the availability of previously inaccessible materials have made possible a more thorough analysis of how the security apparatus originated, developed, and came to occupy such a central place in the Soviet system. In reviewing these new resources, I focus on several important, interrelated issues. First, I look at how changes in the institutional structure of the secret police at the beginning of the New Economic Policy (NEP) solidified rather than diminished its role in the Soviet system. While the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage (Cheka), as its name indicated, was designated as an "extraordinary" and therefore presumably non-permanent body, its successors were considered standing organs, an elemental part of the new polity. Earlier scholars certainly remarked [End Page 299] on this,2 but how and why it occurred can now be much more extensively appreciated. In particular, A. L. Litvin, S. V. Leonov, and S. A. Krasil´nikov have convincingly argued that the ability of the State Political Administration (GPU, later OGPU) to retain or reacquire all the Cheka's powers (and then some) was neither predetermined nor insignificant.3 The consolidation of the wartime powers of the security apparatus in peacetime circumstances is a critically important but under-studied phenomenon—in part because it is presumed to need no explanation. This assumption imposes a post facto naturalization on the origins of the secret police and neglects the importance of a detailed history of its development. As Peter Holquist has argued, while most European states had extended mechanisms for mobilizing and watching over their populations during the Great War, Soviet Russia was unique in the way in which these techniques became institutionalized once overt hostilities had ceased. "One way of conceiving the Soviet Union," Holquist writes, "is as a polity whose revolution fixed, or froze, techniques of total war and total mobilization as enduring, rather than transient, features of its political order."4

Second, I trace how the institutional apparatus developed over the course of the 1920s, looking both at the internal structure of the GPU and at the duties it still shared with other institutions, in particular the Commissariat of Justice (Narkomiust) and the Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the Russian Republic (the RSFSR NKVD). It is evident that the Soviet party-state in the 1920s was characterized by what Michael David-Fox has in another context called "bureaucratic cacophony."5 Such bureaucratic, or institutional, cacophony was already present within the security apparatus, especially in the competition [End Page 300] between the GPU and these other policing institutions. S. A. Krasil´nikov and George Lin have both looked at the institutional rivalries that developed, particularly over who would control the burgeoning business of administrative exile. The process by which the GPU emerged triumphant is critical to understanding the origins of the system of...


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