- One Day We Will Live without Fear: Everyday Lives under the Police State by Mark Harrison
Mark Harrison’s rich, thoughtful, and important book chronicles everyday lives in the Soviet police state and illuminates the many comic, sad, and bizarre aspects of Soviet life in the 1930s through the 1970s. Harrison culled these stories from Soviet Lithuania’s State Security Committee (KGB) files as a corrective to the human tendency to glamorize the past. Too many Russians regard the Soviet government as “caring” and “comfortable.” The stories Harrison brings to light are a reminder that life was pretty miserable in the empire and that memory cannot be relied on to tell the truth.
To make sense of the crazy, convoluted, and time-consuming spying that these chapters describe, Harrison helpfully provides seven working principles that any police state must observe if it is to stop its subjects from straying: (1) Your enemy is hiding; (2) Start from the usual suspects; (3); Study the young; (4) Stop the laughing; (5) Rebellion spreads like wildfire; (6) Stamp out every spark; and (7) Order is created by [End Page 217] appearance. These principles help to explain the immense and costly amount of spying the KGB felt was necessary to keep order in the empire.
The book’s first story, “The Mill,” introduces the KGB’s most far-fetched scheme. In 1941 near Khabarovsk, the local NKVD built an open-air stage made to look like a real border between the USSR and Manchuria. There they staged a “play” they called “the Mill” to trick Soviet citizens into “crossing” the phony border and betraying themselves to NKVD agents posing as Japanese border police. Although this sounds like a bizarre one-off sketch on a comedy show, the Mill continued for nine years. The scheme illustrates a fundamental problem of all dictatorships; that is, of the unending search for hidden opposition (principle 1) that could at any moment blossom into an anti-regime rebellion (principle 6). The Mill was an elaborate construction to root out enemies who hid behind a mask of loyalty, by definition a non-falsifiable presumption.
One of the strengths of the book is Harrison’s clear, succinct description of Soviet reality and practices. In chapter two, “Truth Hurts,” he explains how Soviet censorship worked and what Glavlit (the office of censorship) was capable of doing. He introduces Katya, a Glavlit censor whose job in 1937 was to examine the local press to prevent any secrets from being let out that might help the enemy. Journalists and writers were assumed to be hiding behind a mask of loyalty (principle 1), so every written word had to be scrutinized. This proved to be no easy task and involved a huge number of people. When an odd cartoon with a seeming double meaning comes across the censors’ desks, we see three days of foot dragging among those unable to decide whether to ban it. Katya preliminarily signs off on it, hoping somebody else will ban the cartoon, but somehow it is passed on and appears in print. Katya’s boss then decides to suppress it and punish those who let it pass, but many newspapers have already run it. Soon Glavlit’s administration is purged, and its new chief reports to Vyacheslav Molotov: “The Glavlit organs have been choked by Trotskyist-Bukharinist, bourgeois-nationalist spies and traitors” (p. 61).
Chapter 3, “Heretics,” examines the scholar-state relationship. To provide context, Harrison recaps Iosif Stalin’s dabblings in genetics research involving Ivan Michurin, Trofim Lysenko, and others who denied modern science. An academic named Demidenko was the subject of an anonymous denunciation that stated, among other things, that he had failed to include Stalin (!) in a list of leading scholars in agricultural science. The Party Control Committee pursued every angle, no matter how insane, to catch Demidenko in a crime and expose “a hidden enemy,” but in the end they had to conclude that although he had made an error he had not committed a crime. Harrison...