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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8.4 (2007) 789-815

Informers and the State under Late Stalinism
Informant Networks and Crimes against "Socialist Property," 1940–53
James Heinzen
Dept. of History
Rowan University
201 Mullica Hill Rd.
Robinson Hall
Glassboro, NJ 08028 USA

Every Soviet citizen has the moral duty to inform the organs of power about all known instances of the theft of state and socialist property.

—B. A. Kurinov

The talebearer shall defile his own soul, and be hated by all.

—Ecclesiasticus 21:31

In the years between the start of the Great Patriotic War and the death of Stalin, the Soviet regime used informant networks in the Party's efforts to eradicate a veritable epidemic of crimes against state property, bribery, and profiteering in scarce goods.1 The focus of this article is the recruitment and deployment of average Soviet people as informants to expose or prevent a variety of "non-political" crimes, mainly the theft of state property. Little is known about the informant network charged with unearthing these transgressions during and after the Great Patriotic War. Scholars have not yet noted the degree to which the nationalization of the economy, together with an ideology that urged the population to defend state property as "the people's wealth," required a large informer network. The historian Robert [End Page 789] Gellately has noted, "No police force in modern European history has been able to function without the cooperation or participation of the population in its efforts."2 In the Soviet Union after World War II, the Stalinist regime regarded the matter of marshaling that popular cooperation as both critical and quite problematic.

This study has emerged from a larger project on corruption and anti-corruption campaigns in the Soviet 1940s–60s. Despite robust interest in official corruption and "shadow" markets in the former Soviet Union, scholars have not paid much attention to the phenomenon as it existed in this period, with some important exceptions.3 Although the present article is not a detailed study of the forms of corruption or the regime's attempts to combat it, it is clear that in many ways people used their official positions or the resources at their disposal to enrich themselves or gain material benefit at public expense (the classic definition of corruption).4

Apart from regular police work, the primary tool for uncovering crimes against state property and official crime was the deployment of secret informants (osvedomiteli, rezidenty, and agenty, known collectively as agentura). After examining police strategies for using informants, this study explores [End Page 790] what the police regarded as the strengths and weaknesses of this network, in addition to their explanations for its limitations. Finally, the study considers why the network was less effective than its organizers intended, and why its actions provoked certain unexpected outcomes.

A critical part of the Stalinist law-enforcement system after the war, this network of informants has not yet been analyzed in detail by scholars, largely because records describing its activities have not been available. Due to the understandable lack of memoirs by admitted informants, and the reluctance of the regime to acknowledge their existence, the historian is dependent on available archival materials produced by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the police, particularly those units that supervised informants. The present study uses materials produced by OBKhSS (Otdel bor´by s khishcheniem sotsialisticheskoi sobstvennosti i spekuliatsiei), the Ministry of Internal Affairs' "Department for Combating the Theft of Socialist Property" within the regular police force (GUM). This MVD agency was charged with unearthing a variety of "crimes against socialist property." The major primary source for this study is material and data produced by OBKhSS. Unfortunately, access to much archival material, including all files of individual informants or particular cases, is still restricted. We do have, however, multiple internal reports discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the networks. In addition, archival material from the collections of the USSR...