Amir Weiner, “Getting to Know the KGB”


Amir Weiner gave a lecture, “Getting to Know You: The KGB and the Soviet Surveillance State,” at the Havighurst Colloquium Series, “Secrecy, Sovereignty, and Power” organized by Neringa Klumbytė, Associate Professor of Anthropology, on November 10, 2014. Dennis Kontorovich, a Miami University REES major, interviewed him about his research on the KGB, the Soviet surveillance state, and secrecy regimes in totalitarian and democratic societies. 

Amir Weiner is Professor of History at Stanford University. He is the author of Making Sense of War:  The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution (2001); Landscaping the Human Garden:  Twentieth-Century Population Management in a Comparative Framework (2003); and numerous articles and edited volumes on the impact of WWII on the Soviet polity, social history of the WWII, and Soviet frontier politics. His books, The KGB: Ruthless Sword, Imperfect Shield and At Home with the KGB: Interviews with KGB Veterans will be published next year. He is currently working on another monograph, “Wild West, Window to the West: The Soviet Western Frontier, 1939–1991.”

Dennis Kontorovich: How did you get interested in the topics of surveillance and the KGB?

Amir Weiner: Well, I have been working with KGB material for almost 15 years. Mainly using this material for other projects, whether it be studying politics and society after the war or the impact of the unrest in Eastern Europe on local societies on the Soviet frontier. From this emerged the idea, as a sort of spin from a bigger project on the Soviet west, to write a book on the KGB itself, the KGB in its own words, the KGB on its own terms, the KGB as it viewed itself, and the KGB as it viewed Soviet society and politics. Surprisingly enough, we actually don’t have a single monograph in English on the KGB in terms of it as an institution, its operations, and its worldview. Since the opening of the archives, we have one or two monographs before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which are pretty good, but nevertheless, now is a high time to do this. As we know today, Russian politics, as well as several other former Soviet Republics is dominated by veterans of the KGB and the impact and presence of the former KGB is quite noticeable. But this was not the ultimate reason that I became interested in this topic, this is a sort of bonus that emerged along the way.

Dennis Kontorovich: The KGB faced various challenges in the newly occupied territories (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) after WWII. What were they? Was the surveillance regime in the Baltics different from the surveillance regime in Ukraine or Russia itself? How has surveillance evolved in the late Soviet period?

Amir Weiner: There were, of course, several key distinctions that set these locations apart. The newly acquired Baltic States, as well as several other newly occupied territories actually experienced a temporary sovereignty before WWII. So, just the fact that these states had experienced independence prior to Soviet rule presented the Soviets with certain challenges. Moreover, these places were the sites of armed opposition, the most formidable that the Soviet power had encountered after the civil war of 1917-1921. The presence of opposition required the Soviets to use armed forces and different resources than in other Soviet countries. Third, and equally important, the Soviets viewed the western frontier as their near abroad, their window to the West. Across the border Finland and Sweden were liberal democracies and Poland was socialist satellite constantly rocked by waves of reforms that were very problematic from the Soviet point of view. All exerted influence on popular and political perceptions inside the Soviet western republics via radio and television broadcasts, print media and tourism. These kinds of challenges did not exist elsewhere in the Soviet Union if only because other regions did not have geographic access to such neighbors. This said, the state security system in the Soviet western frontier itself was not different from the rest of the Soviet Union. As elsewhere, the KGB main task was the suppression of dissent and monitoring the population. Like its predecessors, was an all-union organization that did not operate with separate rules for different regions. Each locality presented distinct challenges, but the structure of the organization, its decrees, instructions, and mode of operation were just the same as they were in the Soviet interior. And that did not change until the very end. Moreover, there was a noticeable continuity of personnel during the formative years. Often, the officers who established the security system in the Baltic regions, western Ukraine and Belarus, were veterans of the security services who cut their teeth and were baptized by the Soviet experience in the interwar and war time years.

How all of this evolved? This is a big story, this is the gist of my book and the topic that I will be talking about tomorrow at the colloquium. Of course it evolved and became much less violent, which was was by design. I view the Soviet system as a totalitarian enterprise with three core institutional pillars: a political order of a single party dictatorship, an economic order of a non-market economy and of non-private property, and some kind of mass state terror. The latter was renounced after Stalin’s death, even though it continued in less violent channels, such as psychiatric clinics, detention, incarceration, and certainly the threat of violence remained. But, by and large, mass state terror in the forms of mass deportations, executions and arrests was over after 1953. This propelled the newly established KGB into a different direction of preventive measures, popular pressure and indoctrination. And it worked pretty well for a regime that was not necessarily popular and had less and less to offer its citizens but still managed to stay in power for quite a long time. The secessionist movements that started propelling independence, democracy and a market economy, came onto the stage very, very late in the life of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, something that we should keep in mind in discussing the KGB, the threat of violence and the option of resorting to brutality were always there no matter what. Moreover, the era of mass violence, especially in the Baltic States and western Ukraine where the brutal suppression of armed resistance and deportations throughout the 1940s cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of thousands of young men and women was still a living memory for most people. It was rarely talked about in public, but was deeply engrained in the living memories of families and people. And this served the KGB rather well if only because of the uncertainty regarding the return of violence. Nevertheless, the KGB was changing, it became much less violent, more amorphous, and with the onset of political and legal reforms, it also lost its edge. This, however, took place only towards the very end of the Soviet era. The point is that when people started understanding that this KGB is a different animal than before they started acting differently towards it. But this came so close to the end when the system was unraveling from inside that you wonder if how they acted at that point even mattered.

Dennis Kontorovich: We know from other studies that surveillance and secrecy is common in democratic societies as well. What are, in your opinion, the key differences between surveillance in the USSR and surveillance in today’s western democracies?

Amir Weiner: I would start with actually what was common. The Soviet regime was obsessed with gathering information, endless, vast amount of information that was accumulated constantly by a variety of sources. All Soviet institutions submitted reports to higher instances, just as citizens participated with letters to the authorities, informing and denouncing each other. The KGB was one of the agencies that were in charge of gathering information, albeit the main one. Its agents and informants were planted in all key positions and it was in charge of the formal analysis of information. Not the least, they are the guys with the guns. But there was a catch with the gathering of volumes and volumes of information. At a certain point they had to ask themselves: when is too much? When is there so much information that you begin to drown in it and lose your focus? Alas, the KGB never posed this question, nor could it, and it paid the price. And this, I would argue, is a troublesome lesson for other security services, the more so in the age of fight against international terrorism. This fight is real, the enemy is brutal, it is not an imaginable threat and it is not some kind of fantasy of American administrations and intelligence community. The problem, however, is the misguided belief that with the help of electronic technology you can amass and analyze efficiently endless amounts of information without losing focus. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily work and this is a huge problem that the security sector is running into now. This is the one thing that is in common.

The key difference, which we must keep in mind despite the trendy temptation to equate NSA, the CIA, and the FBI with the KGB, is that we live in systems of checks and balances. So, yes the NSA goes astray and the CIA probably does the same and yes we do have deviations from our systems of checks and balances. Still, it is useful to remember that we have functional and independent media, legal system, and legislatures that keep us on track. The fact that we can sit openly and debate these issues in the media and in Congress means something, and this, of course, was not the story in the Soviet Union and its socialist satellites. They did not have these autonomous institutions, the institutions with integrity, not to mention their inherent violence. However, just because we have these functioning institutions and ethos, doesn’t mean that we can just relax and assume that it will always work out. It is an ongoing struggle to maintain the system of checks and balances. But we do have it. It is something that by definition totalitarian systems did not have because they wiped out all institutions that constituted civil society. This is a huge difference. Hence, trendy equation of  “NSA equals the KGB equals the Stasi” is sheer nonsense.

Dennis Kontorovich: Could you introduce your book Wild West, Window to the West? How will it contribute to our understanding of Soviet history?

Amir Weiner: It is a project that I have been working on for nearly a decade. The main idea behind the book is to examine in depth the territory between the Baltic and the Black Seas, which on one hand witnessed and served as a litmus test for the Stalinist system. These territories and population of 23-25 million people were subjected to a crash course in Sovietization, forced to squeeze over two decades of Sovietization in the Soviet interior into less than two years. It reached the climax of terror, with mass deportations and the suppression of resistance. It was a test for the Soviet state about its power. Could it swallow and digest sovereign states, as was the case of the Baltic States? And this was not like Eastern Europe, the Soviet Bloc, which was kept as sort of an outlier of the empire. These were independent countries that were annexed and integrated into the Soviet Union per se. On the other hand, the geopolitics of the region offers another, and even more intriguing story. I have already mentioned earlier the issue of exposure to western influence through radio broadcasts, namely Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and others. These radio broadcasts were hugely problematic for the Soviet regime as they made inroads into the local populations and offered locals alternative sources of information and points for comparison. To be sure, these were issues that, from the Soviet point of view, they could handle. It was not a problem to use force there, they had done it before and they were very good at it. The point that intrigues me is that they kept places like Estonia and Lithuania in the 1960’s and the 1970’s as sites of experiments in cultural liberalization and economic reforms. This was sort of a case study that they could handle. At any point during all of this they could have turned off the tap, but they did not, which is why there were more liberal freedoms in the Baltic Republics than elsewhere. You could buy whiskey and listen to music written by Bach and watch plays that were still not allowed in the Soviet interior. Maybe they kept these areas as sort of an outlet to let the steam out, as these spots were the highest attractions of internal tourism in the entire Soviet territory. People could go to these areas and experience a different environment. It was not accidental that in the 1960’s these regions were the hotspots for the youth. For me, it was always very interesting to try to understand how the Soviet’s coped with these challenges and why they tolerated and even encouraged them. Finally, these places were certainly the forefront of the disintegration of the Soviet Union with the national secessionist movements. While they did come very late onto the stage, they were there nevertheless as genuine mass movements, and this is intriguing indeed because one must ask why there and at that moment? Where did they come from? What was the attitude of the regime? Why did the regime think at first that it could handle the situation when it became clear so quickly that it could not? How does it pair with the view that the Soviet Union collapsed in the Kremlin in Moscow, not in Vilnius, Tallinn or L’viv because the authorities could have clamped down at any point and had at their disposal the forces to do it. When and how did the authorities reach the conclusion that it was all over? These are some of the questions I pose and hope to answer.

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