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  • Getting to Know YouThe Soviet Surveillance System, 1939–57
  • Amir Weiner (bio) and Aigi Rahi-Tamm (bio)

“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 [End Page 5] 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 [End Page 6] 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...


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pp. 5-45
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