The Soviet Union was one of the world’s more durable police states – and it is now one of the best documented. From Stalin’s bloody terror to the less violent but still rigidly authoritarian rule of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the Soviet police state underwent many changes. From this history emerge seven underlying habits that communist rulers cultivated in order to safeguard their rule.
1. Your enemy is hiding
A dictator is hated and feared because of those he has caused to suffer. The more he is feared, the more his enemies will hide their hostility. To stay safe, the enemies will try to blend in with the supporters. This sets up what the political scientist Ronald Wintrobe called the dictator’s dilemma: the ruler is afraid of enemies, but cannot easily know who they are.
From Lenin to Andropov, Soviet rulers saw hidden enemies as the greatest threat to their authority. Stalin called them “wolves in sheep’s clothing”: he noted that their best cover was to join the ruling party. A powerful secret police with plenty of undercover agents was the logical way to manage such hidden threats.
2. Start with the usual suspects
But if the enemies hide their hostility, how can the secret police sniff them out? Well, you can start with the things no one can hide: personal and family history.
The secret police can then list the groups most likely to be hostile, and focus on them.
In the Soviet Union the usual suspects fell into many categories – children of the old upper classes, those educated before the revolution, former critics, religious believers, foreigners and those with relatives abroad. Of course, these groups included many potential supporters but when organising the Great Terror in 1937, Stalin did not care:
Because it is not easy to recognise the enemy, the goal is achieved if only 5% of those killed are truly enemies.
Experienced conspirators don’t leave behind a trail of documents in their work.
After Stalin died, the usual suspects were no longer killed or imprisoned en masse, but they remained under scrutiny. And the police state still started with the usual suspects.
3. Study the young
More worrying than the usual suspects are young people generally. Sociable, excitable, and eager for novelty, they are natural rebels. A tally of those arrested in the Kaunas disturbances of 1972 shows what you would expect: they were nearly all young, nearly all in college or employment, mostly male, and many of them were party youth members.
Lithuania Special Archive
In the postwar Soviet Union, parents sometimes took the risk of teaching their children to mask dissenting moral or cultural identities at school or in work. In moments of crisis, however, the mask could slip, releasing hidden dissent. For the Soviet secret policeman, studying young people was a top priority.
4. Stop the laughter
What are capitalism and communism? “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man!” And communism? “The other way around.”
George Orwell maintained that “every joke is a tiny revolution”. Shared under the radar, the subversive joke creates an unofficial community. Through it we learn that we are not alone. That’s why the KGB listened out for jokes – and when it heard them, it wasn’t funny. In Stalin’s time, jokers could be imprisoned for anti-Soviet agitation. Later, they might be cautioned, which sounds innocuous but was scarily effective.
5. Rebellion spreads like wildfire
Revolution always comes as a surprise. “From a spark, a fire will blaze” was the motto of the Russian Marxists’ first underground newspaper The Spark. Fear of sparks is what keeps the secret policeman awake at night.
Why does rebellion flare up so suddenly? Under a dictator, people hide their true loyalties. The dictator is not the only one in the dark about what people really think. The people are in the dark, too.
According to the economist Timur Kuran, many people give loyalty to an oppressive ruler insincerely, believing everyone else must be a committed supporter. For these people, the first spark of rebellion opens their eyes. Suddenly they realise they are not alone. The realisation galvanises resistance. That’s why the history of communism was punctuated by mass uprisings, such as the 1972 demonstrations in Kaunas, that took the authorities by surprise.
6. Stamp out every spark
In the right conditions, a spark can become a wildfire with immense speed, but it does not get there instantly. It takes time. Continual alertness and a rapid response give the secret policemen time to control the fire.
No one can tell when or where the next spark will fly. But some places are more dangerous than others: for example, colleges and high-tech factories, where educated young people tend to be gathered. That was where the KGB concentrated its informers. The secret police also watched any large official meeting – and especially public meeting places such as Red Square in Moscow, where no unofficial demonstration lasted more than five minutes before it was disrupted.
7. Order is created by appearances
Sooner or later, the secret policeman will fall down on the job and disorder will break out. The priority is then to restore order as quickly as possible and at any cost. Public order is vital because it is the ultimate source of stable dictatorship. For the ruler, the way society looks is more important than how it is.
“The people and the party are united.” Why did every communist ruler continually proclaim this unity and require the people to act it out? So that dissenters would feel they were the only person to feel the urge to rebel. It’s dangerous to rebel when you expect to be on your own.
Keeping up appearances worked for decades. It made the collapse of communist rule unimaginable. Then, when order failed, it was bound to fail suddenly, catching everyone by surprise. In Alexei Yurchak’s words, “everything was forever, until it was no more”.