February 28, 2016

First, Suspect Your Friends

Writing about web page http://www.amazon.co.uk/One-Will-Live-Without-Fear/dp/0817919147/

In 1983 Sharon Tennison, a US citizen, launched the Center for Citizen Initiatives, an NGO dedicated to improving US-Soviet relations from below. Her work is now in its fourth decade. In support of that work she has spoken up for more understanding of Russia in the West. Recently she has expressed sympathy for President Putin, and criticism of US and NATO policies towards Russia.

On a recent visit to Volgograd, as reported in Russian media and by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Sharon Tennison and her American interpreter were arrested. They were taken to court and fined for visa violations because, although travelling as tourists, in Volgograd they met with local citizens and discussed relaunching an NGO programme. Pro-government media commentators went further than the court. They described the two Americans as agents of the US state department, and promoters of Western values.

When authoritarian regimes behave like this, many Westerners are baffled. The Russian government faces so many hostile critics abroad; why does it attack its friends at home? What explanation can there be, other than irrationality and paranoia? I am reminded of the puzzlement of Western audiences in the 1930s when, facing active threats from Germany and Japan, Stalin chose to purge his closest associates, sending many to the execution cellar as they protested their loyalty.

In the first chapter of my new book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear, released today on Amazon UK, I address this and related puzzles. The puzzle originates in what the political scientist Ronald Wintrobe called “the dictator’s dilemma”: the more feared is the ruler, the harder it is for him to discover his subjects’ true loyalties.

(My economist colleagues will recognize this as an extreme case of what Timur Kuran described as “preference falsification”: sometimes people acquire incentives to conform with others; regardless of their true loyalties, they cheer with the crowd, or remain silent, hiding any inner reservations. An authoritarian regime like Putin’s provides an extreme case because preference falsification can be found in many contexts, including open, democratic societies. If you are on facebook or twitter, ask how many times you have bitten your tongue rather than enter a controversy and say what you really think. And that is when retribution will merely take the form of a bit of trolling and a few harsh words. The problem becomes more acute, however, when the dictator is listening in, so that a dissenting expression can have real consequences: loss of work, of passport, of liberty, even of life. Then fear spreads.)

For the ruler who inspires dread, the problem is to tell real friends from real enemies. The real enemies have gone under cover. In fact, what is the best cover for an enemy? It is to look like a friend.

In turn the ruler who wants to preserve his power must follow the implications. First, he needs agents who will go under cover to search out the hidden enemies: a secret police. Second, where should the secret police focus? This is a more difficult question, because everyone is a suspect. It suggests an impossible task. The task is made easier, however, by various rules of thumb (in my book there are seven of them). A reasonably obvious rule is to suspect anyone who has had to make special efforts to overcome their past associations or social origins so as to fit in.

Examples abound. Depending on the time and place, the secret police might focus on former heretics who recant, former aristocrats who throw in their lot with the lower orders, Jews who assimilate, abandoning their religion and foreign-sounding names, or anyone who has wormed their way into a confidential relationship with the ruler.

As for Sharon Tennison, she is a foreigner, an American who has spent her life promoting international cultural and friendship exchanges with the people of Russia. For her, the secret policeman’s questions follow naturally. Why does she want to be a friend? Who is behind her, and who is paying her way? On whose authority is she building networks of influence that transcend international frontiers? What is she really doing when she meets with Russians behind closed doors and tries to win their trust? These questions are not irrational or paranoid. They are a rational response to the dictator’s dilemma, which is that your bitterest enemy will try to look like your closest friend.

The reader will understand that I see a parallel with Russia today in the Soviet times that I have written about in my book. The sceptic will press the question: Is Russia today really like the old Soviet Union? Yes and no. The answer is partly “no”: Russia is not a totalitarian society in which the state aspires to monopolize everything. As I wrote just over a year ago:

Even while Russians look to the past, Russia today is absolutely not the Soviet Union … Russians in 2015 lead very different lives from Soviet citizens in 1985. They are richer, live longer, are able to visit, study, phone, and write abroad. Even today they are relatively free to search for and find information and discuss it among themselves.

In those ways Russia today is not so like the Soviet Union. But in other ways the answer is also “yes.” For a start, there is a direct line from the Soviet secret police to Russia’s rulers today, and notoriously to President Putin in person.

There are other similarities too. In Russia today there is rule by decree, to which the Parliament and the courts submit passively, not rule by law, contested in elections and applied by independent courts. In Russia today government is secretive and unaccountable; the regime clings to power and shuts down opposition. In Russia today, to be economically privileged is to be politically privileged, and conversely, not in an approximate, average sort of way, as in Western Europe or North America, but in a strictly deterministic one-to-one relationship: in Russia, lose one, and you will lose the other.

Finally, in Russia today there is increasing fear of the consequences of speaking out. Public opinion is chilled by the concerted abuse of oppositionists and the murder of outspoken reporters and leading critics. The consequences are pervasive. A recent Levada Centre opinion survey found that one quarter of 1,603 Russians surveyed (26 per cent) agreed that they were afraid to give truthful answers to opinion pollsters about the conduct of national affairs (23 percent felt inhibited among colleagues and 17 per cent even in the family).

I am not aware of comparable data from any other time or place so it is hard to set the figure of one quarter in any kind of context. But below this headline figure the Levada Centre survey provided some critical detail. When asked about other people (“Do you agree that most Russians willingly give their opinions in surveys?”) the same survey divided respondents into self-confessed regime supporters and critics. Amongst the small number of open critics the proportion answering “No” was just 22 percent. Among the supporters, it went up to 34 percent. Thus, the chilling atmosphere is felt more strongly by the regime’s apparent supporters than by its critics.

The story of Sharon Tennison illustrates one of the lessons of my book: the distrust and suspicion that characterize authoritarian regimes flow from the top, because the ruler must first of all suspect those who would like to be his friends.

About my book

One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State, by Mark Harrison, published by The Hoover Institution Press, is released in Europe on 28 Feb 2016.

What was life in the Soviet Union really like? Through a series of true stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear describes what people's day-to-day life was like under the regime of the Soviet police state. Drawing on events from the 1930s through the 1970s, Mark Harrison shows how, by accident or design, people became entangled in the workings of Soviet rule. The author outlines the seven principles on which that police state operated during its history, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and illustrates them throughout the book. Well-known people appear in the stories, but the central characters are those who will have been remembered only within their families: a budding artist, an engineer, a pensioner, a government office worker, a teacher, a group of tourists. Those tales, based on historical records in the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, shine a light on the many tragic, funny, and bizarre aspects of Soviet life.

If you would like to read an excerpt from my book, part of Chapter 1, “The Mill,” is now available online as Enemy of the State.

For those with a special interest in scholarly aspects such as source criticism, my book has an Afterword, “Fact and Fantasy in Soviet Records,” available as a CAGE working paper.


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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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