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  • A Soviet Theory of Broken WindowsProphylactic Policing and the KGB’s Struggle with Political Unrest in the Baltic Republics
  • Edward Cohn (bio)

On 7 June 1972, a 21-year-old mechanic named Vytautas Matulaitis was “invited” to the KGB’s office in the Lithuanian city of Šiauliai for a supposedly informal “chat” (beseda). Matulaitis had missed work on 15 May, and he got into trouble when two informers told the KGB how he explained his absence to coworkers: he had announced that while visiting relatives in the nearby city of Kaunas, he “saw, with his own eyes,” a young man who “doused himself with gasoline and burned himself to death,” as a crowd of “long-haired ‘hippies’ ” looked on. Matulaitis added that the hippies soon started brandishing knives and throwing rocks at the police, who delayed his trip home by monitoring all the bus passengers leaving Kaunas. Matulaitis had referred to one of the Brezhnev-era USSR’s highest-profile protests—the self-immolation of a student named Romas Kalanta—and earned the KGB’s wrath for spreading “anti-Soviet rumors.”1 He changed his story during his “chat” with the [End Page 769] KGB, saying that he had not actually seen the events he described and had really missed work because he got home late and overslept. The KGB released Matulaitis when he promised to end his rumor mongering, warning him that he would be severely punished if he did not change his ways.2

Although the broad outlines of this story would sound familiar to residents of most authoritarian states, Matulaitis was the target of a distinctive KGB tactic known as profilaktika, or “prophylaxis.” This tactic was designed to prevent minor political transgressors from turning into habitual critics of the regime by summoning them to “prophylactic chats” and other police-led interventions, where KGB officers (sometimes joined by other citizens) questioned their targets, lectured them about Soviet values, elicited a confession, and warned about tough measures against recidivists. Profilaktika was frequently used against people who publicly criticized the regime, spread anti-Soviet jokes or rumors, drunkenly confronted Communists or local officials, associated with foreigners, and formed anti-Soviet youth groups.3

Matulaitis’s case highlights an often-underemphasized fact about profilaktika. KGB rhetoric typically justified the tactic by focusing on how it re-shaped the behavior of individuals; for example, Iurii Andropov wrote (using the KGB’s euphemistic rhetoric) that each prophylactic chat helped its target “recognize his misconceptions and find his place in life.”4 Dissident sources usually mirrored the KGB’s emphasis on individual citizens, but with a more sinister emphasis, portraying profilaktika as a form of intimidation intended to prevent further anti-Soviet activities by its victims.5 Nevertheless, Mark [End Page 770] Harrison and several other historians have pointed out the medical connotations of the term “prophylaxis,” which suggest that the KGB believed that unrest could spread contagiously, and Harrison has noted that although the tactic’s primary goal was to influence individual targets, it had a secondary goal of exerting influence on “the subject’s contacts, and through this more generally on society as a whole.”6 This article builds on those insights, emphasizing that profilaktika’s effects were meant to go well beyond its direct targets. Like Matulaitis, many profilaktika victims were unlikely to go further down the road of dissent, even without an encounter with the KGB; rather, their actions were worrisome because they might shape other people’s behavior. Profilaktika was not merely a means of individual intimidation or reeducation but a far-reaching effort to forestall protests, riots, and other unrest by containing disorderly or “antisocial” behavior.

In fact, the theory behind profilaktika resembles the logic underlying the American model of broken windows policing, proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982.7 Wilson and Kelling based their model on a famous metaphor, arguing that “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken”; leaving a window unrepaired, they added, “is a signal that no one cares.”8 Wilson and Kelling argued not only...


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pp. 769-792
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