October 29, 2015

The KGB Ran the World's Largest Programme for Individual Behaviour Modification

Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/cage/manage/publications/247-2015_harrison.pdf

Just forty years ago this week, on 31 October 1975, KGB chairman Yurii Andropov made a “top secret” report to the members of the Central Committee of the ruling Soviet Communist Party. Andropov had a simple message: In the war on anti-Soviet activity, he said, we are winning.

Andropov began by pointing to a steep decline in the number of prosecutions for state crimes such as treason and anti-Soviet agitation—from more than 1,300 a year at the end of the 1950s to less than half that number in the early 1970s. But what factors were driving this success? Andropov proposed four explanations:

The further reinforcement of the moral-political unity of our society; the growth of political consciousness of Soviet people; the correct penal policy of the Soviet state; and the dominant role of preventive-warning work to deter criminality (my emphasis).

In Andropov’s analysis, behind the decline in crimes committed lay an increase in crimes prevented. Andropov went on to show that the KGB was issuing preventive warnings to tens of thousands of people each year. These warnings were issued to people who, failing to conform to the many requirements of an obedient, conformist Soviet citizen, had crossed the line in some small way. The warning was intended to be helpful: to stop them from going on to some more heinous violation that would end badly. Moreover, these warnings were outstandingly effective. Out of the 120,000 that received such a warning between 1967 and 1974, Andropov reported, just 150, or barely more than one per thousand, were subsequently brought to court charged with a state crime. In short, prevention worked.

The KGB programme of preventive warnings is the subject of a new paper I will present to a conference in November called If You Do Not Change Your Behaviour: Managing Threats to State Security in Lithuania under Soviet Rule. The paper is based on microfilm records held by the Hoover Institution's Library & Archives. In the paper, I report work in progress on preventive warnings and their history, application, scope, and effectiveness. I suggest that the KGB's use of preventive warnings was "the largest and most effective programme for personally targeted behaviour modification anywhere in the world at that time outside school and college."

(Note. I believe that must be the case. Stalin did not use preventive warnings; his remedy for enemies, including "potential" and "unconscious" enemies, was to remove them. The Chinese did not use the KGB method as far as I am aware, because they lacked the capacity it required, and they relied on mass struggle to align behaviour, not personal threats or suasion. And I cannot think that there was another large population on which a similar method was practised. Capitalist advertising does not count; at this time it was not personally targeted, and besides it did not threaten anyone with the consequences of failure to respond. If you know differently, however, contact me.)

What explains the effectiveness of a KGB preventive warning? In the paper I suggest that fear was the key. The tone of the preventive warning was intended to be friendly, even helpful. But the common element at the core of every warning discussion was an unambiguous threat: "If you do not change your behavioiur, there will be more serious consequences." Every person who received such a warning knew that the KGB had unlimited authority to translate these words into actions that could affect every aspect of the subject's life and their family members' lives, from residence and employment to education, promotion, the chance to travel abroad, and personal liberty.

At the same time, there is a puzzle. While the KGB issued preventive warnings to hundreds of thousands, the Soviet Union was a country of hundreds of millions. The KGB did not have the capacity to warn off more than a tiny minority. In the paper I consider how it was possible for the KGB's treatment of this tiny minority to exert a calming influence on the whole of society, and I show that KGB leaders consciously exploited the wider effect.

Just ten years after Andropov's victory speech, it all began to fall apart. After 1985, because of Gorbachev's new policies, people ceased to fear the KGB. For the tiny minority that would be first to express dissent, fear was the key. The removal of fear released their inhibitions, and this precipitated a tidal wave of change that overwhelmed the Soviet state.


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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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