Fragments from a War Diary, Part #64
One distinguishing feature of the Soviet Union that has left a cultural curse upon the region to the present day was an all-pervasive paranoia about your colleagues and your neighbours. This was used as a form of social control. It existed throughout the Soviet era and was a key tenet of the Bolshevik method of political control, but it really took off under Stalin. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, records were kept on a huge proportion of the population. By the time of his death, it was estimated that 50% of the entire population of the Soviet Union had an NKVD file documented their suspected or imagined counter-revolutionary activities. These files were not just records of where you worked, had been educated, the social clubs you were a member of, and the like.
The greater majority of these files consisted of secret denunciations by people you knew, including your neighbours, your co-workers and even your own family. There was no due process; you never had an opportunity to challenge what these denunciations said. People could just make up the details of these reports. On the basis of the files kept about you, once there was sufficiently derogatory material about you, you could expect a visit from the NKVD (later KGB, now in Putin’s Russia known as the FSB) who would arrest you, torture you and then ultimately shoot you, all without a trial or any sort of procedure. The system was (and remains) an appalling one. And remnants of the horrific cultural changes it inflicted upon entire societies exist until the present day.
Why did people go round denouncing each other? There were several reasons. The system was institutionalised. Every workplace, every department, every social club, even every residential building, would have an NKVD (later KGB) informant. It would be widely known who these informants were, and they became petty tyrants. They would routinely go around the residents in the tenement block or the workers in a workplace, and ask whether people knew of any rumours or suspicions of counter-revolutionary activities on the part of other people in the building or the workplace. If you said that you did not, or gave this answer too many times, then suspicion would fall upon you and then the KGB official would start asking other people if they had any information about you. So what you did was you made it up. “I saw Mr X having a cup of coffee with a mysterious person the other day on a bench outside Lenin Square”; “two unusual visitors speaking with foreign accents came to their apartment the other evening”; “I saw him return from the bookshop with a Bible and a book questioning the ideas of Karl Marx”; and so on and so forth. And the KGB would collect all this information.
Eventually, if your file got too large, you would be arrested, summoned, imprisoned, tortured or, in Stalin’s era, shot. The execution of political prisoners for all these silly reasons generally stopped after the execution of Laventry Beria, Stalin’s feared chief of the secret police, in December 1953. Nevertheless the culture of suspicion, denunciation and arbitrary detention and questioning continued right through until the end of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost (openness) was in large part an announcement to the people of the Soviet Union that this sort of KGB surveillance, supervision and harassment of people’s every day lies was to stop, although in the West we did not appreciate the fundamental significance that Glasnost had for the Soviet people: it entailed the end of the all-pervasive fear of petty harassment and worse by the KGB. In fact everyone who lived through a communist society knows what this was like.
Because this sort of thing continued until the late 1980’s, and because it was the primary method of social control, it entailed dramatic changes in the way people lived their lives and related to one another. It caused the growth of the habit of talking in euphemisms: discussing a subject without actually referring to it directly, in case someone overheard you and denounced you; or in case even the person you were talking to - who might even be a family member - denounced you as discussing a “counter-revolutionary” subject. The whole system was bananas, and it meant that all sorts of subject from political dissatisfaction to material privation to poverty to adultery and family problems were effectively off-limits even amongst friends and family and were referred to only by allusion. It is one of the reasons now why people from the former Soviet Union can be so direct, to the extent that Westerners sometimes consider them rude: because they or their parents lived in a society in which you could not be direct about anything. It also created a culture in which casual lying became habitual, because at any time you might be asked if you had derogatory information about another person and you just had to make it up on the spot. You were always careful about what you might say other than in hushed whispers to your most trusted confidants late at night, and this generated an environment in which wanton lying - or talking about one subject when you intended to talk about another - became normalised.
It was a terrible system. I could expand but for the interested reader, I can recommend no better work than British historian Orlando Figes’s masterpiece, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. The culture of denunciation and the effects it had upon people’s private interactions was not confined only to Russia; it was if anything even more pervasive in Ukraine, in particular in those parts of southern and eastern Ukraine that had been depopulated during the massive and tragic loss of life in Ukraine during World War II and substantially repopulated with Russian-speaking people. Those Russians were often invited to join the ranks of the KGB and to spy upon their fellow Ukrainian neighbours and co-workers, in case those Ukrainians might display any nationalist, separatist or anti-communist sympathies about all of which the Soviet leaders in Moscow were themselves paranoid in respect of Ukraine. The culture of paranoia in Ukraine subsided somewhat during the reign of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev from 1958 to 1964, Ukraine remained a hotbed of communist paranoia and the culture of denunciation.
Post-independence Ukraine was initially slow to shake off this terrible curse, in large part because the Russian KGB retained links with the Ukrainian Security Services and the political break with Russia was not nearly so clean and straightforward as one might imagine. For a number of years after Ukraine formally became independent in 1991, a number of Ukrainian government functions remained under the heavy influence of Moscow and internal security was one of them. This level of influence was increased after the accession to power of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2000, himself an FSB officer who saw the key to an effective Russian renaissance to reinvigorating the influence of the FSB both in Russia and in her so-called “near abroad”, that is to say in the countries that formerly comprised the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s formal independence would be undermined by FSB intrusion into its politics and government, and ultimately after a twenty-two year process this was one of the causes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians have been remarkable in shaking off this Soviet culture of denunciation and suspicion and uniting as a single people, irrespective of their first language, to join in pursuit of the Ukrainian national interest. This in itself is an extraordinary achievement and now Ukrainian people will speak freely about politics, corruption, their contempt for the Oligarchs who once dominated their country and their hopes for and concerns about the war. The President of Ukraine now speaks to his people on a daily basis, via social media and in a televised address; he tells people how the war is progressing; and people listen and discuss it. Ukrainian political culture has opened up and had new life breathed into it, and in time we all hope that the conspiracy culture that characterised life under Soviet rule will evaporate entirely from every corner of Ukrainian society. By contrast Russia, sadly, is heading in the opposite direction.
It is important that the foreigners who come here to help Ukrainians understand this aspect of Ukrainian history, and that they do not fall into the same trap of suspicion and denunciation themselves. I have not met a single foreigner present in wartime Ukraine with bad intentions, even if I have not agreed with everything they say or do. That is normal in a free society, and it is incumbent upon all foreigners present in Ukraine to engage in civilised debate over different ideas as an indication of the western values to which all Ukrainian people now aspire.