WHAT THE SOVIET EXPERIENCE TELLS AMERICANS WHO WORRY ABOUT THEIR PRIVACY
The debates in the USA about the activities of the NSA cannot help but draw public interest to Soviet history, and the ways in which the Soviet regime supervised the lives of their citizens. Implicitly or explicitly, those who condemn the American government and its agencies see the installation of Prism as a move which, if it is not shut down immediately and completely, could lead America to an Orwellian society. The offered text provides the reader with a broad description of the Soviet system of surveillance, which was probably the most highly developed program of its kind in history. However, the author came to the rather unexpected conclusion that this system of collecting information about its citizens only played a minor role in the repressions of the USSR. The political leadership made the decisions about the scope of repressions, and even the individuals who had to be eliminated from society, under the impact of a variety of circumstances; the information collected by KGB agents, and by the millions of people involved in the process, was mostly ignored. The preservation of political freedoms, especially privacy, depends on the devotion of the major political institutions to democracy; on the observations and adherence to honesty in the election process; and on the independence of the legislature, the judiciary system and the media from the executive branch. Information about people can only be used against them if the government and its agencies start to pursue their own goals, as happened in the Soviet era. Otherwise, the reasonable restriction of privacy in order to enhance the security of the citizens and the nation cannot damage society.
Hovering over the debates in the USA about the surveillance of Americans, which have inflamed so many of its citizens, are the specters of Soviet society, with its KGB and Gulag. In fact, those who furiously denounce the administration for its desire to know what Americans said on the phone and what they text to one another almost always warn that this intrusion into privacy by Big Brother can only be a first step toward the transformation of America into a country similar to the USSR, with all its terrible political institutions. Those who applaud Snowden as the great defender of freedom are sure that the whole system of totalitarianism only emerged because the Russians allowed their government to collect information about their life. This diagnosis is so wrong! Without a doubt, critics of the NSA’s activities are absolutely right in drawing attention to the violations of privacy, which always impairs the mechanisms and preservation of democracy. The absolute protection of privacy rights, if it were possible, would be extremely beneficial to democratic ideals. However, the price that society has to pay for collecting data to fight terrorism and foreign intervention—some infractions on privacy—is minimal, and the true threat to democracy lies elsewhere. The history of the Soviet Union, as well as of any other totalitarian society, proves it. Collecting information about individuals only became perilous in the Soviet regime under special conditions.
With my 50-years-experience of life in the Soviet Union—I did not miss out on Stalin’s period—I know what it means to live in a society under the watchful eye of Big Brother. As academics, I, and everyone around me, assumed that the political police, the KGB (prior to that, the NKVD-GPU/Cheka), were trying to collect all of the information they could about us; this was true of all of the members of the intelligentsia, who were better able to resist falling for the official propaganda than less educated people. We understood that the main target of the KGB’s attentions were our thoughts and feelings; our “politically incorrect minds.” We knew that “material” resistance to the Soviet authorities was negligible, and that attempts to change the regime had been practically unknown since the middle of the 1920s, when the political police spent the lion’s share of their resources on discovering those who could be accused of “anti-Soviet thinking.” The notorious Article 58 in the Penal Code guaranteed 10 years of the Gulag for even making a joke with a bad political flavor, which could easily be interpreted as having been “directed at the denigration of the authorities.” The KGB agents were interested in our behavior because it could help them to penetrate our brains and fish out our hidden animosity toward the system. It was only in the late ’60s and later that the KGB started to deal with a small group of people who were ready to not only think “incorrectly” but to participate in some public protest actions.
The Americans today who are fixated on the issue of the government listening in on telephones and reading texts in social networks as the source of information about their private lives can hardly imagine how vast and diverse the system was for collecting data about Soviet citizens like me and my friends.
The KGB kept you under permanent monitoring if they had the slightest suspicion about your Soviet political correctness; they watched your spouses, lovers, friends, and friends of your friends, as well as those colleagues, teachers and neighbors whom you preferred to others. They all came up as the “surrogates” of the individual of interest (you) to the “organs,” the term used in the USSR for the KGB. A negative opinion of the “surrogates” as not being loyal people was automatically extended to you. Your children could perform the same function. If vigilant teachers, young Komsomol activists or any of your child’s buddies who aspired to a career detected political elements in the blabbering of your children in school or college, it was also fodder for reflection by the guys in the local KGB office who monitored you, and who assumed—not without grounds—that the mentality of children reflected the ideological climate in the family quite well (I, for instance, was always terribly afraid, and very reasonably so as my experiences showed, that my teenage son might blurt out some critical thoughts about the regime in school. Indeed, I was summoned to the director of the school in the Novosibirsk Academic city because my son, Dmitry, praised the poet Evhenii Evtushenko in a composition; Evtushenko was being lambasted by the party media during this period). Even children of kindergarten age could be useful “surrogates” for their parents if they disclosed some traces of respect for religion in the family.
The conversations people had with each other have been always an important subject of curiosity for the political police. Of course, first among them are telephone conversations. With much less advanced technology than we have today, the Soviet political police were quite adept at listening and recording telephone conversations. The interlocutors in phone conversations would warn each other that they would not discuss one issue or another because “it is not for telephone conversation”; this was as typical as greeting each other. The KGB did not neglect listening to conversations in the lobbies of a library or its smoking room, at concerts during intermissions, at conferences, or even in the public baths either (I always preferred a table at any corner of a restaurant, minimizing the number of people who could hear our conversations). In several cases, the KGB used various devices, installed in an apartment or in a car, to monitor conversations held during private gatherings, as was the case with our apartment in Academic city, which was a sort of “salon” in the 1960s, attended by many prominent people, even from abroad.
You could lose self-control and tell a partner something that could enrich your KGB file during all sorts of events. It was particularly productive, from the KGB point-of-view, to watch how you reacted to a game between Soviet and foreign teams, whether in a stadium or on TV, or to know your reaction to a chess match between a Soviet grand master, e.g., Boris Spassky, and his foreign rival, Bobby Fischer. If you were unable to hide a wish for the foreigners to be victorious during an interaction with somebody who turned out to be a friend of the KGB, then your genuine political dispositions toward the motherland were obvious. In any case, it was highly recommended that you only watch international sport games in the presence of trusted people.
The KGB not only coveted conversations, they wanted texts that could shed light on the thinking and intentions of their authors. Of course, texting was decades in the future, but, even 50 years ago, the Soviet people generated multitudes of examples of their writing skills. Students’ and scholarly papers, and published books could reveal anti-Soviet feelings in either their budding or matured forms. Unfortunately for the KGB scouts, the most perfect source of penetration into the human mind—diaries, which were in vogue before the revolution—almost fully disappeared from the lives of Russians who did not want to prepare their own files for the KGB.
Of course, since the installation of the Soviet order, no Russians trusted their political views to letters. As a young officer, Solzhenitsyn once violated this rule and was cruelly punished for it. Even in complaint letters sent to the Central Committee or to newspaper editors, the Soviet people tried to show restraint and not give the impression that they blamed the Soviet system in general for their troubles so much as the local administrators. And if the authors of these letters were not cagey enough, and revealed their animosity toward “the system,” then they paid dearly for not hiding their emotions. As a sociologist, I worked with the Soviet national newspapers in the 1960-70s. I learned that letters to the editors were regularly perused by the KGB in order to fish out hidden dissidents.
Soviet people regularly found themselves in situations that could reveal their true feelings about political matters, which they generally tried to hide. The trained eye of a KGB informer could catch people’s true attitudes toward the regime. Take, for instance, the public meetings held during the phony election campaigns, or college classes devoted to ideological matters. It was one thing if you attentively listened to the propagandistic baloney flowing from the podium, but if you read a book or journal, talked to your neighbors or exchanged notes with unknown content in them, or even, perhaps, played chess by heart…well, it goes without saying that showing a lack of enthusiasm or even the slightest reservation in supporting the official line at a public meeting—which may well have been arranged to call for the denunciation of a Soviet personality guilty of some un-loyal action (such as participating in a protest action, publishing the wrong book, expressing his or her desire to emigrate, or refusing to condemn American aggression in one or another corner of the world)—was very damaging to your political reputation, and this fact would find its way into your dossier.
If you were so valiant as to refuse to drop a ballot containing only one candidate on it into the ballot box, or would not even come to the election station, you would have big negative scores put into your personal file in the local or national KGB office, depending on your status among the real or potential enemies of the regime. In the minds of the KGB operators, your negative status increased enormously if you refused their offer to be a secret informer, a test which millions of Soviet people passed favorably for their recruiters, but whose actual results we are not likely to know anytime soon.
There were also several other actions that could reveal the Soviet people’s latent attitudes toward the regime to the KGB “psychologists.” First, reading Samizdat, anti Soviet literary works, and illegal political bulletins would cause a serious blow to your political reputation, even if you did not participate in their dissemination, which promised you incarceration. Reading the writings of former Soviet leaders like Trotsky or Bukharin was a crime of the same magnitude. Reading foreign authors labeled as hostile toward the Soviet system and its ideology, like Orwell, Koestler, Djilas, and even Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, was an action that could bring you trouble even during the “mild” times of Brezhnev’s rule. Listening to foreign radio was also regarded as an anti-Soviet act. Soviet authorities energetically jammed the airwaves that permitted people to listen to Voice of America or Freedom. Those who were regular listeners of foreign radio—one way or another, their names became known in their milieu—were stigmatized by the local party committees, and by some ordinary people. Even an interest in foreign language study, particularly during Stalin’s reign, was definitely not a sign of your deep love of their socialist motherland. (My obsession with foreign languages accounted for a lot of my bad reputation when I was a student at Kiev University in the second half of the ’40s. I was even mocked with obvious ideological insinuations for this “hobby” in the wall newspaper that the party-loyal students published in one copy, like a poster or like the famous Dazibao of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.)
The investigative eye of the KGB was not indifferent to people’s interest in the cultural products that passed Soviet censorship either. The adulation of foreign movies endorsed by the censors and shown in Soviet theatres raised the brows of the party and the KGB purists.
In the post-Stalin period, in addition to completely hack periodicals, the Kremlin allowed the publication of a few relatively liberal journals. The authorities could use these to separate “true Soviet patriots” who read the journals with a steady party line, like October (in the ’60s), from those who preferred the rotten publications, like Novy Mir (the New World), a journal published by Solzhenitsyn and several other authors, and despised by the party apparatchiks. (As a sociologist, in fact, I used this same methodology that I hated in the KGB’s hands: studying the audience of the Soviet newspapers in the 1960-70s; I separated the readers who sympathized with the former journals, the Stalinists, from those who preferred the second one, the liberals. Alas, the paths of sociologists and KGB watchers in a totalitarian society sometimes overlapped. Fortunately, it did not happen very often because of the Soviet system’s innate hatred of sociology).
In addition to the individual subscriptions to Soviet periodicals that could attract the KGB’s attention, the list of books borrowed from a library was an important source of information when the KGB fellows needed additional proof of deeply rooted anti-Soviet views. If a suspected person regularly checked out Dostoyevsky, and at the same time ignored Soviet writers with an impeccable ideological reputation, like Bubennyi or Kochetov, these were grounds for tipping the balance in favor of a negative judgment of the poor guy suspected of being wrong-minded.
We should not forget the monitoring of the contacts of people under surveillance. First and foremost, contact with foreigners was a priority of the KGB sleuths. The Lenin library in Moscow highlights a funny example of this. The Western graduate students were allowed to utilize a special room reserved for professors, which, being relatively small, made it easy for the KGB guys, who were always there, to watch the Soviets with whom the guests from the USA or France would communicate. (As a visitor to the professorial room, I could detect the presence of the KGB minders without any difficulty: the books they pretended to read were always authored by Marx or Lenin.) For the KGB, finding out who made contact with dissidents, or even people who had declared their intentions to emigrate, was of great importance. Everybody knew this fact, and people adjusted their behavior according to their courage and moral principles.
The size and assortment of people who provided information to the KGB was enormous and astounding. Of course, the primary sources used by the KGB were the people who personally knew those who were the object of their interest. Those who came up as surrogates for the people under supervision also, in some cases, played an important role as secret informers—regular or casual; volunteer or coerced.
Following the Soviet collapse, the Russian authorities did not follow the examples of their former East European vassals; they did not perform per lustration, nor did they open the archives of their political police. If they had, the Russians would have learned who among their relatives, friends, graduate students, colleagues and neighbors in the communal apartments was being used, voluntarily or under threat, as a source of information about the behavior and thoughts of those to whom they had declared their love, devotion, gratitude or, at the very least, friendship.
Certainly, the people close to those who were the object of political monitoring were only a part of the wide network of informers who served the KGB. Millions of Soviet citizens were enrolled—under various circumstances, with various degrees of willingness, and with various motives that could be as simple as a dream of annexing their neighbor’s room in the communal apartment—in the network that provided the KGB with information about the people around them. (Of course, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and its police units had their own network of agents, who were mostly used to fight criminals.)
The KGB had a special interest in the creation of a network in the milieu of the so-called creative intelligentsia (scholars, writers, actors, film figures, and artists). As we now know from disclosures from Hungary, the famous liberal film director Istwan Szabóo was implicated in having cooperated with the political police. In 2006, the Hungarian newspaper Life and Literature revealed that Szabó, an internationally famous film director, writer of the movie Mephisto (1981) (who, by the way, had denounced the cooperation of intellectuals with the Communist regime), had been an informant of the Communist regime’s secret police. Between 1957 and 1961, he submitted forty-eight reports on seventy-two people, mostly classmates and teachers at the Academy of Theatrical and Cinematic Arts. The revelation caused a widespread sensation in the country. We can only speculate that Soviet intellectuals, with pasts that were much more horrendous than their Hungarian colleagues, did not stand up any better to the intimidation of the KGB officers during the process of recruiting, and yielded to their blackmail even faster. The author of one article published in the ’60s, in the journal Kontinent, asserted that no less than one-third of the members of the Union of Painters collaborated with the KGB; of course, he could not provide any empirical corroboration for this number.
In no way was the Soviet mechanism for monitoring citizens based only on the network run by the KGB. The party apparatus had its own network of informers, and the party leaders could compare information about individuals from both sources. (For information about the mood of the masses, though not individuals, the KGB and party leadership also used the information collected for them by the police, the courts and newspapers.) It is especially significant that, after Stalin, the KGB was restrained in watching party officials of high status.
The Soviet system was built in such a creative way that any person holding a managerial position, even a modest one such as the head of a department in a college or a small hospital, was obliged to inform his or her superior about statements made by subordinates that were not “politically correct.” The same actions were included in the job descriptions of any public activist, be they the secretary of a small Komsomol cell or the chairman of a trade union branch. Teachers, of course, were responsible for the soundness of their pupils’ political views, and were supposedly obliged to immediately dispatch information on political deviations in their classes to the principal. If not, she risked an accusation of collusion with the carrier of the anti-Soviet bacteria in her class, or even of being the primordial cause of wrong views being spread in the class. Teachers who did not report the “wrong” opinions of their students were later proclaimed as heroes (among them was my late friend, Felix Raskolnikov, a teacher in the famous mathematical school No.2 in Moscow).
The creation of the massive network of spies from/for their own citizens was one of the greatest innovations of the Soviet system (along with Gosplan, the State Committee of Planning, or the apparatus of the ideological indoctrination of the population). Perhaps the Soviet people, with their long history of terror, were close to paranoia, but the idea that “squealers” were everywhere was widespread. Many of us in the Novosibirsk Academic City in 1960-70 believed that we had to suppose there were informers in each university class, in each laboratory, or in every research institute or department of the university. We expected that snitches were present at each meeting of our famous club “Under Intergral,” at each birthday party, at each banquet accompanying the defense of a dissertation, and, of course, in each group of people permitted to travel abroad. It is only natural that in each encounter with a new person we tried to make an approximate estimate of his trustworthiness and of the probability of his reporting to the KGB, and always preferred friends from our childhood and youth, as they were thought to be less likely to inform on us.
A long cultural tradition, perhaps universal in nature, demands that we hold squealers, snitches or rats in contempt. For this reason, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was almost impossible to expect that people who had betrayed their friends, their colleagues, and even their relatives, would admit to their deeds after the demise of the USSR , even if they recanted them. The attempts of some post-Soviet researchers to ask former Soviet scholars about their cooperation with the KGB failed almost completely. If somebody confessed that their mission abroad was imposed by the KGB (usually explained as a condition for a travel to the West) none even remotely hinted that he or she “ratted” on colleagues, either during the trips or at home. Of course, there is nothing to be found on this topic in the memoirs of former Soviet intellectuals or in studies about them.
It was only by chance that I learned that one of those whom I considered a friend had spoken with the KGB about me in the late 1960s. I do not know of any such unpleasant KGB meetings by other people whom I liked. Perhaps this is for the best because I never could restore my relationship with the gentleman, who had “objectively,” as he later insisted, discussed my political views. Still, ten years later, I found myself making excuses for him: he was a brave officer during the war; he was terribly afraid of the authorities. I always found an excuse for his extra-conformity.
Even now, statistics about the KGB network are one of the strictest state secrets in Russia. We have no data about the number of people involved in gathering information on Soviet citizens but it has become obvious that no less than one quarter of the Russian population was engaged in this process in one capacity or another. The gigantic amount of resources, labor and material that could have been used by the Soviet leadership for activities that were really useful for society, were, instead, directed toward obtaining information about its citizens. There is no doubt that the ruling elite’s obsession with collecting data about their subjects is a necessary part of the landscape of any totalitarian society. But was collecting these data, which was at the root of Soviet society, a necessary condition for maintaining the “dictatorship of the proletariat”? Definitely not. The megabits of information that flew to the KGB played a minimal role in the terror designed into the system eve if it implanted fear in the hearts of Russians.
Indeed, the major repressive campaigns that occurred in Soviet history had very little to do with collecting information about its citizens. The number of people who were sent to the Gulag after the October revolution was determined by two major factors: first by objective social demographic variables, and then by public behavior.
The first cohorts of the Soviet victims from 1918 through the 1920s included all of the people of “bad social origins,” and their family members—nobles, bourgeoisie, tsarist officers and bureaucracy, as well as the members of the bourgeois and socialist non-Bolshevik parties. No information on individuals was necessary for the Cheka and the GPU to make a decision to arrest, execute or send the people who belonged to these groups to a camp. The deportation of millions of rich peasants in the late ’20s and early ’30s did not require special individualized information about the ideas in the heads of the “Kulaks” either. The number of cattle owned or hired hands who worked for them provided an excellent basis for the verdict about expropriation and exile to Siberia. The next wave of deportation, in the middle 1930s, could also be executed without going to the trouble of collecting information: Germans, Poles, Koreans, and then, in the mid-1940s, Crimean Tartars, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and several other ethnic groups. All of them were given 24 hours to prepare, and were then placed on freight trains to be sent to the East. The KGB did not show any interest in the individual files of the deported, and even people who returned from the front with chests full of medals were made to join in the deportation of their own ethnic groups.
The mass political terror that started after 1934 looked a little different. People were arrested and met with their fate–execution or the Gulag–on an individual basis. However, “the socio-demographic factor” still prevailed. The probability of arrest was extremely high, no matter what was in the agents’ reports about you, if you were one of the old Bolsheviks, a high party or state official, a leading general of the army, or if you even briefly supported Trotsky in the past, were a member of a Zionist organization or had spent so much as a short period of time abroad. However, Stalin wanted those arrested to appear to be guilty. However, again investigators did not need objective data about their victims compiled the necessary information for themselves, attributing the most fantastical crimes to them. The victims were then forced under torture to sign affadavits confirming the veracity of their crimes. Stalin’s “great” attorney general put forth the notorious Vyshinsky’s Law. According to this, the confession of “the defendant” was sufficient to sentence him to death. Additional “information” about the “culprit” was extracted under torture from other victims, who provided their butchers with lies about each other. No sophisticated methods of surveillance were necessary for Stalin’s thugs to do their assigned work.
Both techniques were used after the war, with full contempt for surveillance data: those who were German war prisoners were automatically sent to the Gulag on “wholesale principle”; also sent were participants of the so-called “Leningrad affaire,” who had the absurd goal of separating Russia from the Soviet Union; and the Jews accused of being the spies for the USA, and of planning to kill the Soviet leadership, were treated “on an individual basis,” where, once again, the prosecutors made up “the evidence.”
In the post-Stalin period, when the mass repressions were halted, it is possible to suppose that an individual’s file began, at last, to play a decisive role in shaping the destiny of the person under surveillance by the KGB. It is evident that, in the absolute majority of cases, repressions were directed against those who publicly performed acts against the Soviet system and its ideology. The political leadership of the country made the decisions to arrest or exile people. They could choose to punish people for even mild oppositional activity. We do not know of even one time when people were persecuted based only on private data. Without a doubt, the population was aware that Big Brother watched them, even if he did not always use the collected information. Along with the cult of secrecy, the atmosphere of fear is an important ingredient for authoritarian and, even more so, totalitarian societies. While the scope of terror was always determined by the political leadership, and was in no way influenced by the information obtained by the political police, the decision about who specifically should be arrested, who should be promoted, and who should be allowed to go abroad was, to some degree, influenced by the KGB’s files. But the leadership made the specific decisions, often ignoring the files and taking several other factors into consideration.
As the history of the Soviet Union shows, including the Stalin and post-Stalin periods, the major threat to people’s freedom and security does not stem from the secret surveillance of their lives but from the ability of the political institutions to persecute people, to create obstacles to their careers and travel, and, finally, to deprive them of physical freedom.
The American experience has confirmed the same ironclad law—it is not information about citizens but rather institutions pursuing their own goals that is responsible for the persecution of innocent people. The American experience of the 1950s confirms this conclusion. The anti-Communist campaign after the war, including the period of McCarthyism, created a societal climate that had some elements similar to Soviet society. Of course, the scope of repressions was much lower than in the Soviet Union, and only a small part of the population was the target of governmental attention. However, the search for information linking various types of people with the Communist Party was intensive, and prompted by real incidents of Soviet agents penetrating American society with the help of the American Communist Party. The FBI, the Department of Justice, and other organizations enlarged the scope of their investigations enormously, embroiling innocent people and creating an atmosphere of fear in various milieu. However, the information collected about innocent people or about any people who enjoyed their freedoms was often false. It could only be damaging, though, because the House Un-American Activities Committee—along with Hoover’s FBI—had tremendous power over the fate of people suspected of disloyal behavior. As soon as the activities of the McCarthy committee were effectively stopped by Congress and the Supreme Court in 1957, the value of the information collected about suspected people was reduced almost to zero. Of course, the damage that McCarthyism brought to American society was quite long-lasting. The history of the period proves, once again, that the danger of intrusion by the government in our private lives really only exists when governmental agencies can exploit it in pursuing their own political goals, as did Hoover’s FBI or McCarthy’s committee.
The harsh critique of the NSA’s activities did not bring one fact to light showing how an innocent American citizen suffered from the government’s listening to his or her telephone conversations. The argument that “it is only the first step” is not valid by itself. If they want to worry about the fate of their democracy, Americans should be concerned with the democratic controls over all these institutions, which can really intrude in their lives and in their freedoms. The true independence of the courts and the media, the honesty of elections, and control over the activities of the government and its agencies should be the major concerns of the American public. Indeed, as various polls show, the American public takes a balanced view in the trade-off between the protection of privacy and security interests. There is no doubt that society should closely watch any actions that curtail privacy, a cherished American value, and protest if it finds that this reduction in privacy is not necessary.