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April 25, 2019

Do You Know Who I Really Am?

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/cage/manage/publications/408-2019_harrison.pdf

Here's a Soviet joke (translated from Misha Mel’nichenko's Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov), Moscow 2014).

Parked at the embassy is an American automobile of an expensive make and the latest model. Two pedestrians walk up from opposite directions and stop involuntarily. One of them exclaims: “An amazing foreign car!” Then he panics and tries to correct his gaffe: “An amazing Soviet car. I think it’s Soviet. Yes, yes, it must be. Of course!” “What, you can’t tell an American automobile from a Soviet one at first glance?” “At first glance I can’t tell an informer from a decent person.”

This joke nicely captures two things. One is that the KGB recruited "undercover helpers" to keep Soviet society under continual surveillance by KGB informers. The other is that the existence of informers was an open secret, but no one knew who they were, so Soviet society was also permeated by the fear that anyone, known or unknown, might turn out to be an informer.

Recently I wrote a paper about KGB informers. As I wrote the paper, I developed its economic motivation: to understand how the informers were recruited and managed, which takes us into the economics of human capital and contracting. The paper also goes into the roles of trust and mistrust in the Soviet system of rule, which are more complicated than might appear. But the reason I was drawn to the subject in the first place was more direct: I was captivated by the stories I found, and I wanted to tell them.

My paper is based on twenty-one stories of the recruitment and development of KGB informers in Soviet Lithuania in the 1960s and 1970s. My paper focuses on their common features, but in their specifics these tales are extraordinarily varied. Their tone ranges from light to dark and from humorous to utterly grim. All of them are told in my paper, either in the text or in an appendix. In the hope that I can make you want more, here are two of them, which turned out to be one story. If you want the others, read my paper.

The story of KGB agents "Korabel'nik" and "Komandulis" grabbed me more than any other, because it is also a story of fathers and son. The fathers make a dreadful mistake, one that threatens to tear their families apart. It is beyond their powers to fix it by themselves. The KGB lends a hand; the families are saved. What price did the families pay? You decide.

One of the channels of Baltic migration in the interwar period led to South America. Among these were families from Lithuania. They had left their homeland to escape persecution, because they were Jews or socialists. Separated from the old country by a generation and an ocean, they still thought of it as home. It was the 1950s; the war was over, and Stalin was dead. From the other side of the ocean, the emigrants looked back at the old country now under Soviet rule and made a fateful choice: they decided to return.

In returning home, they made a terrible mistake. They brought their teenage children. Arriving in the old country, the young generation took a close look and realized immediately what they wanted more than anything: to leave as quickly as possible. But this was the one thing that the Soviet authorities could not permit under any circumstances.

On first refusal, the young people did not give up. They banded together and shared and nurtured what the KGB called their “emigrationist inclinations.” They made contacts with the diplomats representing the countries from which they had come. They travelled to Moscow and tried to obtain access to the embassies. They wrote petitions, demanding the right to leave. They wrote articles for publication abroad, protesting their situation. These things were worse than individual misdemeanours, for they were coordinated and took on the character of conspiracy. They drew the attention of the KGB, which began to watch them and open their letters.

Up to a point, the KGB’s attention was solicitous. These young people were ripe for exploitation by foreign powers intent on disrupting the Soviet political and social order. They were heading straight for a collision with authority, from which they could not emerge unscathed. Could a damaging confrontation be averted? Could their course be corrected in time? The KGB looked for ways to bring its influence to bear.

One idea was to infiltrate an “undercover helper” into the group. The outsider was rebuffed. The group remained solid and its course did not change.

The KGB approached the problem from another angle. They looked again at the group and singled out two of its members as weaker links. The common denominator was the parents: the KGB classed both fathers as politically reliable because of their personal records of engagement with communist politics in their former lives in Latin America. And who but a parent would share more sincerely the KGB’s interest in stopping these young men from destroying themselves over a childish dream?

The documentation tells the two stories separately. Martin (not his real name), from a Jewish family, was identified as being more suggestible than others (“it was established that his anti-Soviet judgements were the result of an incorrect understanding of Soviet actuality”) and the KGB began preparations to call him in for a warning (“preventive discussion”).

Before talking directly to Martin, the KGB applied pressure indirectly. The pressure came from two angles. One angle was Martin’s father, whom surveillance had identified as a potential ally. In preparation for addressing Martin directly, the KGB decided to recruit his father as an informer. The father proved a willing collaborator, talking freely to his handler about Martin’s activities. The handling officer set about training the father how to talk more persuasively to his son – in particular, using examples drawn from life to prove the superiority of the Soviet system to his son.

Another angle for KGB pressure was found at Martin’s workplace, a local newspaper. It turned out that the young man’s direct superior was also a KGB agent. Through this agent, Martin’s managers were given details of his anti-Soviet activities and were asked to use their influence on him to bring him back into line.

Finally, the timing was favourable. A few days before the KGB interviewed him, Martin had been given an apartment in a new building.

The interview went as well as could be hoped. Martin proved to be receptive to the KGB message. He was open about his connections and past behaviour, including contacts with foreigners and attempts to send documents abroad. He put the blame on his own lack of knowledge and thoughtlessness. Why had he changed his mind? Because of his father’s influence, he said, and the influence of his colleagues at work, and because he now better understood how working people lived in the Soviet Union. In short, the KGB approach had worked.

Moreover, Martin appeared more and more to be a suitable candidate for recruitment himself. He spoke Spanish, Russian, Lithuanian, and Hebrew. He had a large network of friends and excellent opportunities to be of value to KGB counter-intelligence. When the subject was raised, Martin consented to recruitment, choosing the codename “Korabel’nik” (shipwright). (This was in 1960, when Martin was 22.)

Not only was Martin willing in principle; he immediately began to give information about other young men of South American origin who were seeking a way out of the country. One of these had served in the armed forces of his country of birth and was allegedly supplying information via the country’s Moscow embassy. Another was currently serving in the Soviet Army in the western borderland of Kaliningrad province; it turned out that military counter-intelligence already had him under surveillance. Later, agent “Korabel’nik” visited him in Kaliningrad; his mission was monitored by a KGB officer who reported back that the new informer had behaved properly while on the assignment.

During his meetings the KGB handler continued the re-education of “Korabel’nik” that his father had begun. The two talked over the Soviet Union’s internal affairs and international relations as well as the KGB’s assignments for the young man. The KGB’s conclusion was that they had made a successful investment: the young man, it was reported, “can be used for the investigation of persons suspected of participation in the agent networks of American and Israeli intelligence.”

The other weaker link was Nicolas (again, not his real name, which we don’t know), the only son of a father who again had a history of close links with one of the South American communist parties. Approached by a KGB informer outside the family, the father was open about the family predicament, blamed his son’s behaviour on the influence of his friends and their lack of understanding of “Soviet actuality,” and expressed deep fears for Nicolas’s future, which seemed set on a criminal course.

The KGB again set out to train the father in how to manage his child. On the handler’s instruction, the informer counselled the father to explain to Nicolas various examples of the virtues and advantages of the Soviet system. The informer also evidently made acquaintance with Nicolas and got him to share some documents (perhaps these were writings of some kind that showed the Soviet Union in a good light) with his friends.

At this point Nicolas too became a potential candidate for recruitment as a KGB informer. Over two months, the KGB evaluated him. At this time, Nicolas received an instruction to report to the local military unit for a medical examination – a disturbing occurrence, one must suppose, for a young man who was doubtful about living in the Soviet Union, let alone accepting compulsory military service. Now the KGB handler took a direct hand, meeting Nicolas face to face at the military unit, at first maintaining his cover, then openly. Nicolas responded well, talked freely about his friends, and afterwards made no attempt to disclose the KGB approach to others. He became a willing and productive informer on the group, choosing the codename “Komandulis” (commander), and working with “Korabel’nik.”

In this story an accident of family ties had made two young people into active resisters to one of the core principles of Soviet rule – the closed border. To resolve the situation the KGB successfully exploited the same family ties. The fathers were willing to help if it would keep their children out of trouble – and who could blame them when the KGB was holding a gun to the heads of their sons? But first the handling officers had to teach the fathers to talk to their sons, and also to become more persuasive advocates of communist rule. The fathers became informers on the sons. This was productive not only in terms of information passed; it also helped to build the agent network. In turn, the sons also became undercover helpers, informing on their friends.

What happened to the other young people in the group of would-be re-emigrants? Frustratingly, we have no idea.


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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