Every totalitarian state has a distinct character, which may change over time. Nazi Germany was characterized by competitive fiefdoms, with division of domains adroitly juggled by Hitler to prevent combination against him. In this sense, privileged individuals had considerable latitude of personal choice, as do oligarchs. Private lives also existed, with some finding sanctuary in the churches. See Conversation: Growing Up in Nazi Germany, with Frederic C. Tubach, and Willy Schumann’s Being Present: Growing Up in Hitler’s Germany.
In Germany, immediate total control was opposed by a Germany that was one of the centers of western civilization. The compact density and interconnectedness of German society required an approach with concealment as one of the core attributes. And much extant human development in Germany required preservation for the benefit of the new state. Perhaps if it had gone on longer, Nazi Germany would have reached the pervasive control that the Soviets achieved in short order.
Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Soviet Union was a vast, primitive place. Serfdom, officially abolished in 1861, was replaced by something like indenture. So there was nothing to keep but the soil to grow the “New Soviet Man.” The organizations of control, of which the KGB was one in succession, have always been instruments of the Party.
After the Bolsheviks consolidated power, and Trotsky was exiled, there was never again a center of power outside the Communist Party. After Stalin consolidated power around 1924, the fiefdoms that existed within the party were weak and fragile. They were limited by the deliberate strategy of the purges, which was to elevate leadership from the party cadres, use them for a few years, and then liquidate them. An interesting research question would be whether Stalin’s purges were motivated more by a psychological disorder, or as a rational strategy to maintain his hold on power. Some Kremlin visitors were informed that it was a conscious strategy with affordable costs. Pavel Sudoplatov, in Special Tasks, p298- , gives the Doctors’ Plot a chessboard quality that contrasts with the perception in the West of a simple antisemitic pogrom. In Sudoplatov’s account, Stalin used antisemitism as a mere tool to implicate the actual targets of his purge within the Party.
So the Cheka, MGB, NKGB, SMERSH, KGB, etc., were no more than the oppressive instruments of the “will of the Party”, which changed over time. Lenin is generally considered to have been a better human being than Stalin. Nobody knows how many died in the Red Terror, perhaps as many as 1.5 million. but this was a fraction of the Purges. But this is enough to divide the character of the Soviet security services into three big periods:
- The “Little Terror”, my term, for the Red Terror, motivated by the practical goal of obliteration of a recalcitrant culture.
- The “Big Terror”, also my term, inclusive of Stalin’s Purges, which was many times worse. To illustrate the character of the times, the MGB had the “informal” autonomous authority to execute ordinary Soviet citizens without even a “make-believe” hearing. Sudoplatov offers a darkly amusing anecdote. This is the source of the image of the “commissar with a pistol”, not James Bond’s SMERSH, which existed for only a few years.
- The “Post Terror” period, which began with Khrushchev and continued until 1991, with implementation of nonlethal methods of social control.
Little, Big, and Post are terms motivated by the need to simplify, to step back from the point of view of the ideologue, who could write volumes about it. Social control in today’s Russia borrows elements from the above, used in a very occasional and “judicious” fashion. The occasional nature of it can be a strong argument in Putin’s Apology. You can’t compare twenty million dead with a Kremlin critic, Kara-Murza, who is poisoned twice and then permitted to seek treatment in the west.
Before Glasnost, Russia had one other reformation. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev gave the “Secret Speech”, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”. This repudiation of Stalin marked the beginning of the Khrushchev Thaw. It had a limitation inherent in Khrushchev’s former role as one of Stalin’s implementors. But it was genuine. In our rush to vilification, we might miss that Khrushchev had seen too much killing. Perhaps he didn’t want to go out that way.
With the alternatives of letting people speak their minds (a little), and harsh repression, Khrushchev chose a little conversation. Perhaps if more gentle (meaning nonlethal) methods of control were available, he would have chosen them, or been pushed to use them by other members of the Politburo. (In deference to his son Sergei, who lives on Long Island, let’s give Nikita the benefit of the doubt.) But in the U.S.S.R. of 1954, nothing was known of alternatives.
Like so many other fine technologies, the answer had to be imported. The import came from East Germany.
Next: The Stasi; Innovations in Modern Social Control.