The Soviet police system cannot be properly understood without considering the evolution of the tsarist police, particularly as it related to Russia's political culture and governmental institutions. The Soviet KGB and the MVD had numerous predecessor organizations, dating back to the tsarist period. These organizations contributed significantly to the historical traditions of the modern Soviet police, which in several ways resembled those of its forerunners.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Russia was, by all accounts, a "police state," not in the modern sense of the term, which connotes all the evils of Nazi Germany and Stalinism, but in the more traditional sense as it applied to certain European states in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, e.g., France and Prussia. These states, which incorporated secret political police, spying, and encroachments on individual rights with both paternalism and enlightenment, were motivated by a desire to reform and modernize.
Russia's monarchical police state was similar to those in western Europe except that it lagged far behind in its political evolution and was much less efficient. The foundations of the tsarist police state were established in 1826, when Tsar Nicholas I formed the so-called Third Section, a political police whose purpose was to protect the state from internal subversion. The staff of the Third Section was small, numbering only forty full-time employees, who were burdened with information-gathering and welfare functions that extended well beyond the realm of political surveillance. As a result, its role was vague and poorly defined, and its efforts to combat political dissent, on the whole, were ineffective.
In 1880, as part of an effort to improve the effectiveness of the political police, the much-discredited Third Section was abolished and replaced by the central State Police Department under the Ministry of the Interior. Its chief responsibility was dealing with political crimes, and, although its staff consisted of only 161 fulltime employees, it had at its disposal the Corps of Gendarmes, numbering several thousand, and a large contingent of informers. In addition, the notorious " security sections" were established in several Russian cities following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881.
At and around M. Stolypin’s summer villa on August 25, 1906, were no less than thirty-five okhrana men, under the command of a major-general. Some posed as footmen and door-porters, others as petitioners waiting for an audience, and others carried parcels or mended roads leading to the villa. Yet disguised terrorists passed the scrutiny of all, penetrated to the door of the premier’s workingroom, and threw a bomb which killed and wounded over fifty persons, including the commander of the okhrana himself.
By 1908 some 30,000 Russians, men and women, were engaged in gathering interesting data as to the desires and intentions of the remaining 150,000000. That is a brief way of summing up the Russian system of secret political police, which for a century had been the most efficient mainstay of the now tottering autocracy, and which was indeed the most numerous, widespread, and hated organization of the kind that had ever existed.
The number thirty thousand was approximate only. Probably thrice thirty thousand from time to time assisted the authorities in detecting revolutionary and terrorist conspiracies, and in apprehending their authors. But the vast majority of these were not in the regular detective service; they either served for short periods, or sold single items of information, or give information free, for there is a large reactionary or “black gang” class who, for purely disinterested motives, informed on their malcontent neighbors.
The number thirty thousand was indefinite for two other reasons: The exact number, local distribution, and cost of the “okhrana,” as it is called, were known to no single official, and the little that is known was kept in impenetrable mystery. What is more, these three factors altered from year to year, and even from month to month, according to changing political conditions in each center of population.
Though the okhrana existed and flourished, it had no juridical existence. It was not sanctioned by Russian Constitutional law, it had practically no central organization, and its cost did not appear in the imperial budget. It was a vast but amorphous and invertebrate army of political spies and detectives who moved from place to place, took orders almost exclusively from local authorities, and turn their hands to anything from the detection of genuine conspiracies to provocative incitement of class against class — as in the case of the Jewish “pogroms” — and to provocative creation of fictitious plots for the inveigling of revolutionary-minded dupes.
Russians, with much amusement, still read occasionally in the foreign press of what is called the “dreaded Third Section” of the police, by which is implied the secret political police. As a matter of fact, however, the Third Section had not existed for twenty years. In the reign of Alexander III it was transformed into the prosaic Department of Police, and this department existed as one of the chief divisions of the Ministry of the Interior. The Ministry of the Interior, from an ugly stucco building on the Fontanka Canal, directed all the regular police forces, including the gendarmerie, whose function had become almost purely political.
But the okhrana, or political detective service, was entirely independent of both these bodies. It was nominally subject to the Ministry of the Interior, but in reality took its orders on the spot from prefects and governors of provinces, and, where martial law existed, from the military authorities. It had, in short, no general policy or plan of action, but works exclusively on immediate aims which depend upon the contingencies of the hour.
The okhrana’s strength and activity in any particular center depended entirely upon the strength and activity of local revolutionaries. Wherever revolutionary or terrorist acts became prevalent, the ordinary civil law was suspended in favor of a rule more or less approximating martial law. The mildest of these systems of governmental terrorism is what was known as “usilennaya” okhrana, or “increased security.” “Increased security” gave the local governor or prefect exceptional powers. Much more severe is “tchresvuitchainaya” okhrana, or “extraordinary security,” under which the prefect or governor could fine, imprison, or exile without trial, prohibit newspapers and meetings or do almost anything he pleases.
After “extraordinary security” came “martial law” (voermoe Polozhenie), and lastly the “state of siege” (osadnoe polozhenie), under both of which the military authorities had absolute control. The “state of siege,” which entails drum-head courts-martial for ordinary offenses, is not usually used as an antirevolutionary weapon, as martial law gives the military forces as much power as they can exercise.
Either “Increased security” or “extraordinary security” existed over almost all Russia to-day after 1905; and it was this fact which gave the secret political police its power and value. Once either state was declared, the prefect or governor could do almost anything he likes, by “administrative process”; and the object in thus suspending the ordinary law is to make it possible for the local administrator to get rid of, at once and without trial, all persons whose “hopefulness” — such is the govemmental word — is doubtful.
The first things done by every prefect invested with this exceptional power are to arrest summarily hundreds, and even thousands, of suspicious persons, to search houses, to seal up printingpresses, and to watch such persons as it is not advisable to arrest. To do this he must have at his disposal a multitude of spies and detectives. Therefore the first efiect of declaring “increased” or “extraordinary security” is to multiply the local detective service by importing men from more peaceful centers. When, after the dissolution of the Duma, the city of St. Petersburg was declared under “extraordinary security,” over three thousand men were imported from other towns; and still more were enlisted after the attempt to blow up the premier, M. Stolypin.
The primary functions of the okhrana are to spy on doubtful persons, to buy treason, to attend in disguise workingmen’s secret gatherings, to watch incoming trains, and to play the unlovely part of agents proz'ocateurs. Such is the everyday work of what may be called the floating okhrana. But in addition every city has a special-service okhrana, whose duty it is to protect the Tsar, the grand dukes, ministers whose lives are threatened, local governors, and even humble individuals who made themselves objectionable.
Occurrences like these, and the numerous murders of governors, all of whom are protected by the okhrana, only confirm the terrorist boast that no spy and protection system can outwit a resolute man willing to sacrifice his own life. The contrast between the security enjoyed by the Tsar and the unceasing “removal” of his ministers seems at first remarkable; but this security results entirely from the fact that Nicholas II leads the life of a recluse, and never announces his movements in advance, whereas ministers, generals, and governors must attend councils and receive their subordinates on days and in places known beforehand to everyone.
As the business of the okhrana was to prevent terrorist outrages and to check revolutionary propaganda, and as it fails signally in this, it may be concluded that it is not very efficient. Brain against brain, indeed, the average Russian detective is no match for his adversaries; and backed though he is by the whole machinery of government and by endless resources, he was more often than not evaded or foiled.
The cause was simple. The men who threw bombs and plotted military mutinies came from the ablest and best educated class in Russia. The universities turned out conspirators by the hundred; and well-educated, sharp-witted girls from the women’s high schools matched against government spies are as artists compared with artisans. The rank and file of the okhrana received from seventy to one hundred rubles a month, and the “shtatniye,” or permanent members of the force, were granted small pensions after twenty-five years’ service. This was high pay for Russia; but the brains of the empire were, and always woild be, in the revolution.
Despite the fact that its operations were strengthened, the political police was not successful in stemming the tide of the revolutionary movement, which helped to bring down the Russian monarchy in 1917. Police operations were hampered by the low quality of personnel and grave deficiencies in training.
One of the greatest impediments to an effective political police was the general reluctance on the part of the Russian state to use violence against political dissenters. Herein lies one of the crucial differences between the monarchical police state of tsarist Russia and the Soviet regime, which from the outset used violence to preserve its rule and gradually extended the violence to affect broad segments of the population.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|