July 28, 2010

You Have Been Warned

Writing about web page http://www.agentura.ru/timeline/2010/profilactika/

A draft law before the Russian Parliament gives new powers to the FSB (Federal Security Service), the successor to the KGB. It allows the FSB to issue binding warnings to citizens suspected of creating conditions, through negligence, passivity, or incitement, in which crimes might be committed or facilitated. A warning that is ignored can be followed by an unspecified penalty, even though the actions that led to the warning may not be offenses in themselves.

This provision of the draft law restores the legal basis of a function once widely exercised by the KGB. This function was known in Russian as profilaktika, which translates directly as "prophylaxis" or "prevention."

Across the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, the KGB subjected around 15,000 people a year to profilaktika, more than half of them for displaying some sort of overt political unreliability, or having connections with foreigners leading to suspicion of disloyalty (see Rudol'ph Pikhoia, Sovetskii Soiuz: istoriia vlasti, 1945–1991: Moscow 1998, pp. 365-366.) In proportion to the population, this would be about one in 10,000 adult Soviet citizens in each year.

What did profilaktika mean? Evidence of many, many individual cases can be found, for example, in the Lithuania KGB collection of the archive at the Hoover Institution, where I'm working now. How did they work? You could imagine it like this. Out of the blue, you get a call to come into your local KGB office. You really don't know what it's about, but you're on your best behaviour. Sitting behind his desk is a KGB colonel. He asks you what you think of the Soviet Union. Wonderful! You declare. Good, he says.

But in that case, he goes on: How come you told this anti-Soviet joke to your colleagues in the office on Thursday? And on Friday in the bar you repeated the news you heard the day before on Radio Liberty? And on Saturday you were heard cursing your Soviet-made automobile and wishing you had a BMW?

At first you bluster and deny everything. Inside, however, your world is collapsing. You're realizing just how much trouble you're in; your job and your home depend on the state and both are on the line. But that is only the start. Worse, it's dawning on you that your colleagues, your friends, maybe even your family members have been telling tales about you to the KGB. You're on your own.

You crumble. You start to make excuses: You were tired and under stress, you've always been a bit of an ignorant big mouth, you've been promoted above your competence and this has put you under pressure. You didn't realize how wrong it was. But you do now. Yes, you do, you do.

You promise you will never, ever do such things again. And you really mean it because, short of being physically beaten or locked in a cell, nothing is worse than the state of mind that this profilaktika has put you in. You've been exposed, hurt, humiliated, compromised, and isolated from society: From now on you will trust nobody, not even yourself. In fact, the only honest person in the room is the man in front of you.

The colonel listens as you stammer out your explanations. He is calm and nods a lot. He accepts what you say. When you've done, he closes the file. Go away, he says, and change your ways. We'll keep the information but, as long as you do the right thing from now on, we'll never have to look at it again. As you leave, you thank him for putting you back on the right track.

After you've gone, he makes a note to keep a special watch on you for a few months or a year, just to be sure that you meant it.

Profilaktika was applied to all sorts of cases, from loose morals and rowdy behaviour to indiscreet or unauthorized contacts with foreigners, petty smuggling or currency violations, and to adolescents who, in a place like Lithuania, might get caught up in the romance of anti-Soviet fly-posting or dreams of emigration. In such cases profilaktika was applied to the parents as well as the children.

More than half of all the cases of profilaktika were carried out in the privacy of the KGB offices, but there was also another version of the drama. This was enacted in public meetings. In this case the psychological beating was administered by your own colleagues, your student peers, or the pillars of your neighbourhood community.

For a police state, profilaktika was relatively humane. For hundreds of thousands of people it took the place of arrest and imprisonment, which would have been their fate in Stalin's time. It was also very effective in causing people to change their behaviour. In eight years, according to Pikhoia, out of more than 120,000 people subjected to such treatment, only 150 were subsequently taken to court for an actual offense. That's one eighth of one percent, a recidivism rate that western penal systems can only dream about.

A durable police state cannot be built out of bricks alone. There are building blocks like the security police and civilian police, border controls, the control of public assets, the distribution of taxes and resource rents, and media monopolies. In addition, binding agents are needed to assemble the blocks and glue them in place by controlling and coordinating the everyday behaviour of citizens at work, at home, and in the streets. Profilaktika was part of the mortar that held the bricks of the KGB state in position. Looks like it will do so again.


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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