Conferences, Coronavirus, and the KGB The Webinar Series on “The Political Police and the Soviet System: Insights from Newly Opened KGB Archives in the Former Soviet States”

This article was originally published in the June 2020 NewsNet.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, I had been working for well over a year to organize an international conference in early April at Georgetown University on the “Political Police and the Soviet System: Insights from Newly Opened KGB Archives in the Former Soviet States.” I had applied for grants, raising a total of $45,000 from six sources. In late spring 2019, a call for papers went out to scholars working “on the Soviet secret police, the penal system, forced labor, and intelligence history” in archives “including the SBU (former KGB) archive in Kyiv and repositories in the Baltics, Georgia, Moldova, and other former Soviet republics.” The proposal struck a chord among historians and other scholars. The “opportunity to showcase and explore how the hitherto classified materials change our understandings of Soviet system, its operations, and its place in the broader world” generated almost a hundred paper proposals.

With two Georgetown colleagues, Phil Kiffer and Mikhail Nemtsev, I worked in the summer of 2019 to craft panels. There were far more excellent proposals than could be accommodated. By September 2019, we had invited 25 visitors from 12 countries to the Georgetown campus. Plane tickets were bought, hotel rooms reserved. After weeks of uncertainty and growing epidemiological calamity in February 2020, the email to cancel the event finally went out to participants on March 11. “No one,” I wrote, “regrets this more than I do.”

Regret, however, turned into sentiments of hope, determination, relief, and, finally, a degree of pride. One colleague who had helped disseminate the call for papers was ASEEES Communications Coordinator Mary Arnstein. During a chance encounter at the ASEEES annual convention in San Francisco in November 2019, Mary and I had discussed a possible podcast of the conference proceedings. With the conference canceled, we moved together to organize five webinars, each with three or four paper-givers and a commentator, drawn from the six panels originally planned.
The following webinars took place between April 15 and April 20:
Webinar I: Culture, Non-Conformism, Normativity
Webinar II: Entering and Exiting the Gulag
Webinar III: Identifying Enemies: Surveillance, Classification, and Information 
Webinar IV: The Secret Police as an Institution: Internal History and Practices 
Webinar V: Operations Abroad and Foreign Intelligence 

Recordings can be accessed on the ASEEES webinar page. Several additional papers recorded individually outside the webinars can be accessed at the website of the conference’s main sponsor, the Jacques Rossi Memorial Gulag Research Fund at Georgetown University.
The secret police, as opposed to the party and the state, is the one pillar of Soviet power which we know least about. The reason for that, of course, is chiefly because of inaccessible archives. True, many secret police documents have shown up in other repositories. Moreover, the archival publications sanctioned in Moscow in the “roaring 1990s” opened a significant window into the history of the secret police. Generations of experts have deduced a great deal. Nevertheless, compared to other areas, that knowledge was fragmentary and lacking depth. Above all, it did not allow integration—with all the texture and nuance that internal primary sources allow—into broader treatments on a large array of topics now beginning to be addressed.

That project of integrating a key part of the Soviet system into our grand narratives is precisely what newly accessible repositories in places such as Ukraine and Estonia (and, as the conference made clear, East European archives such as those of the Securitate and the Stasi) allow us to begin to do. It makes the opening of these repositories, arguably, into the last phase of the “archival revolution” begun in the 1990s. This idea of integration was the primary motivation behind the conference.

In the remarks that follow, I am not going to discuss each webinar in turn. Relating the individual papers within each panel to one another was already the task of five commentators, whose incisive commentaries can be heard on the recordings. Instead, I am going to survey the entire set of 17 presentations, each based on a written text, taking into account the five commentaries. I will distill five thematic areas to which the conference taken as a whole contributed. That discussion will be followed by some lessons learned about online conferences and webinars. It is not merely conditions of the current global pandemic preventing conventional scholarly gatherings that may make these remarks useful to others thinking about such events, but also the advantages and drawbacks of the webinar format itself as a vehicle for future conferences in the post-vaccine world of the future.

The “organs” of state security built up a fearsome reputation that was deliberately bolstered by extensive image-making in the public sphere. At the same time, they were beset by perennial problems of funding, personnel, qualifications, technology, and the same local-level chaos that went hand in hand with centralization in other parts of the party-state. A red thread running through many of the conference papers, providing a new wrinkle on venerable debates, concerns the effectiveness of the political police.
For example, Molly Pucci (Trinity College Dublin), in “The Soviets Abroad: Intelligence, State-Building, and the Security Forces in East Europe, 1948-1953,” emphasized how the Soviet informational ecosystem in East Europe was distorted by “its agents’ assumptions about ideology, loyalty, and state-building.” By incentivizing locals to hide damaging information, Moscow suppressed “spontaneous channels of communication” in its new outer empire. In another paper on the Moscow-East European relationship, Corina Snitar (Glasgow) discussed how Stalinist terror, the ultimate source of the secret police’s fearsome image, in fact produced poor intelligence for the Securitate. A typically Soviet insistence on quantitative over qualitative metrics of policing was only turned around after the protests of 1956, when new methods of surveillance were put in place.

By contrast, Douglas Selvage (Humboldt University, Berlin), in his investigation of KGB “active measures” on the basis of the Stasi archives (“Operation ‘Wedge’: KGB Active Measures, U.S. Journalists, and the Suppression of Soviet ‘Helsinki’ Activism, 1976-78”) explored the motivations behind a KGB disinformation campaign by excavating all the concrete actions and effects accompanying it. This prompted the commentator on Webinar V, Greg Afinogenov (Georgetown), to ask about seeming disagreements on whether the postwar state-socialist security state was effective in fighting internal or external enemies (which, of course, it played a major role in defining and creating in the first place). How, he asked, can studying the postwar context reframe the perennial debate about whether state socialism was a brutally efficient totalitarian apparatus or a ramshackle arrangement of ad hoc power relationships?

A second theme, closely connected to these issues of institutional efficacy and capacity in the transition from Stalinism to post-Stalinism, concerns reconstructing the internal history of the secret police—perhaps the single topic most facilitated by newly opened archives. In “Delegated Repression: The MGB’s Mass Informant Network and its Collapse,” Phil Kiffer (Georgetown) took a close look at several regions of the Ukrainian SSR in which often coerced “agent” and “resident” informants outside the ranks of MGB operatives supervised a secret informant network far larger than the MGB itself could handle. Kiffer called this a “partial deputization” model of policing. By 1950, this led to to a comprehensive internal critique of the flaws of “mass informing” and a drastic purge of Ukraine’s agent-informant networks in 1951.

Two different papers in two separate webinars—Edward Cohn (Grinnell College), “Recidivism, Prophylaxis, and the KGB,” and Tomas Sniegon (Lund University), “Researching the Roots of Soviet Dissent in the Era of Vladimir Semichastnyi”—explored the Thaw-era innovation of profilaktika, or prophylaxis. This involved warning potential or minor offenders through “conversations” and other interventions rather arresting them. Cohn, drawing on Baltic KGB repositories and especially those in Lithuania, showed that prophylaxis often did not change the beliefs or behavior of those warned, except to make them more secretive. Sniegon’s interest in the new archival treasures is unique: he taped 130 hours of interviews with KGB chairman Vladimir Semichastnyi in 1993-99. He is now not just fact-checking that oral history but leveraging interviews and archives together synergistically. While Semichastnyi presented himself in a positive light as committed to moving away from Stalinist-style terror, Sniegon interprets the policy of prophylaxis as applied to intellectuals as contributing to the creation of dissidents avant la lettre in the early 1960s.

A third group of papers integrated secret police archival materials into broader topics in cultural history. Angelina Lucento (HSE Moscow), in “The NKVD and the Political Origins of Socialist Realism: The Persecution of the Boichukisty in Ukraine as Case Study,” used two sets of secret police documents from circa 1931 and circa 1937 on prominent Ukrainian painter Mykhailo Boichuk and his disciples. In her hands, the documents illuminate broader party-state agendas in the rise of Socialist Realism. Here the NKVD figures as a neglected but key player in defining and implementing the new doctrine in the visual arts.

Another novel take on cultural history came from Sherzod Muminov (University of East Anglia). In his “Transnational Gulag: Jacques Rossi, Uchimura Gōsuke, and Researching the ‘Gulagians of the World,’ 1937-1956,” he built on the chance 1949 encounter between the Japanese POW and literary scholar Gōsuke and the Franco-Polish Comintern intellectual and future author of the Gulag Handbook, Rossi. Excavating their longstanding relationship, he argued, illuminates a little-known dimension of the Soviet camp system—a transnational world of cross-cultural encounters among overlapping groups and hierarchies of foreign inmates.

Two other papers can be connected to the conference’s cultural thread. Erik Scott (University of Kansas), in “The Black Sea Coast as a Landscape of Cold War Intelligence,” explored how the KGB saw the region as a unified border zone “landscape” to be developed and surveilled as part of Cold War intelligence. He argued that this border area was not only a bridge for transnational flows, but a regulated zone of crossings that filtered and channeled “the movement of people, goods, and culture in increasingly sophisticated ways in response to globalization.”

A different kind of cultural insight came from Aigi Rahi-Tamm (Tartu University) in her re-examination of the nature of Sovietization, “Fueling and Prolonging Conflicts: The Example of the Talinn State Conservatory.” Using interrogation records in conjunction with many other sources on the conservatory and Estonian choral composers, she examines tactics of splintering of the “creative” intelligentsia along with the long-lasting trauma and stigma resulting from Stalinist practices of criticism and self-criticism. As discussed in the webinar, this raises the notion of a secret police role in establishing new behavioral and ethical norms, or “normativity.” This is a challenge for a next-generation cultural history in the broadest sense of that term.

Fourth, a series of papers put secret police use of technologies—photography, film, computers—into considerations of policing and power. In “KGB Photography: Turning Religion into Crime,” Tatiana Vagramenko (University of Cork) examined methodologies of curating photographs in practices such as photomontage and albums. Her paper suggested how visual material played a special role in shaping the image of the enemy and in prosecuting the notion that “organized political subversion lurked behind the mask of religion.” In a related and equally fascinating paper by Cristina Vatulescu (NYU), “The Mug Shot and the Close-Up: Visual Identification in Secret Police Film and Photography,” a never-screened 1960 Securitate propaganda film about a bank heist was interpreted in light of 27 archival volumes about the case and its reenactment. Vatulescu called this cache “quite simply the richest multimedia case I’ve encountered in over 15 years of researching in these archives.”

Joshua Sanborn (Lafayette College) addressed a topic almost completely untreated in previous scholarship. In “Cybernetics and Surveillance: The Secret Police Enter the Computer Age,” he told a tale of “haranguing and foot-dragging” in a first phase of secret police computerization before around 1985, when databases were “largely directed toward using computers to do tasks that these agencies had done before, just (ideally) more quickly and efficiently.” This was followed by a “hacking” era of computer-based espionage and, he argued, our current age of “cybernetic control,” in which humans can be enticed “to start carrying out computer directions in addition to the other way round.”

A final, fifth group of papers revisited classic preoccupations in the study of Stalinism—the Great Terror, the GULAG, and the political organization of the party-state—in light of archival research into the secret police.
This category included the wide-ranging paper by Timothy Blauvelt (Ilia State University and American Councils, Tbilisi) and Davit Jishkariani (Soviet Past Research Lab [SOVLAB], Tbilisi), “Contextualizing the Stalinist Perpetrators: The Case of Georgian NKVD Investigators Khazan, Savitsky and Krimyan.” Examining Beria’s patronage network in the Georgian NKVD during the Great Terror, they showed that among the motivations for two of these three later-indicted figures to “excel” at torture was that they were concealing dubious pasts. In “Below the Radar of Legal Code: The Birth of a Specific Soviet Extra-Judicial State Body and the Great Terror,” Marc Junge (University of Erlangen) used Ukrainian militia files to look at the TsIK “special assembly” formed in 1922. In practice under the heavy influence of the secret police, this body operated outside the boundaries of the criminal code to prosecute “socially dangerous elements” such as “hooligans.” Junge argued that the longstanding secret police preoccupation with social deviants, as it morphed into securing the results of collectivization and “combating epidemic social problems” in the 1930s, challenges the dominant explanation for the Great Terror as a prophylactic strike against a “fifth column” in an upcoming war.

Two additional papers revisited other major issues in the literature. Igor Cașu (State University of Modova), in “The Interplay between Party-State Institutions and Political-Civil Police during Late Stalinism in Soviet Moldavia, 1944-1953,” examined the dominant role of the political police inside party-state structures in the postwar Moldavian SSR, which contrasted, notably, with the newly sovietized Baltic republics. Mikhail Nakonechnyi (Oxford), in “‘Dead Souls’: Mortality, Disability and Early Release on Medical Grounds from GULAG, 1930-1955,” addressed the growing conviction in GULAG studies that official mortality rates were significantly lowered by the practice of releasing prisoners on the verge of death. The paper compared local and central data on mortality rates, first and foremost empirically to “prove the reality of released invalids’ mortality as a historical phenomenon with statistical evidence.”

Webinars will never replace the adventures and conversations, the socializing and debates of in-person conferences. These are, after all, among the greatest joys of academic life. As a practical matter, the webinar platform used by ASEEES, GoToWebinar, much like Zoom, does allow for paper presentations only slightly more cumbersome than non-virtual conference papers. The questions, written in the “chat” function by members of the audience, need to be read and gathered by a commentator or facilitator. Whatever the skill of that person in scanning the written questions and, for example, gathering similar questions together, participants cannot easily build on or respond to one another as in a live discussion.

Many of the factors leading to the success of a webinar conference—framing a topic that commands broad interest, presenting a line-up of compelling speakers, incentivizing paper-givers to present their best work with the expectation of publication, not to mention the other mundane, time-consuming tasks of good organization—are the very same ones that make for a successful conventional conference. Webinars will benefit specifically from advance training sessions and technical support from an organizer; we were fortunate to have Mary Arnstein of ASEEES, without whom this series would never have happened. In addition, the co-sponsors of this conference—the Kennan Institute, Georgetown CEERES, and the Russian History Seminar of Washington, DC—all advertised these webinars on their lists and social media, as did ASEEES and the participants themselves.

Webinars do have two major advantages over conventional conferences. First, the potential audiences are considerably larger than the biggest conference panels. Some of these webinars attracted almost 400 registered participants; the number of those who will click on links to the recordings will make their audiences even larger. Second, these webinars required technical and institutional support, as opposed to funding. While this might be attractive at a time when academia faces budget deficits as far as the eye can see, virtual conferences in the end cannot replace face-to-face gatherings. But they are also more than merely a viable replacement for events that cannot take place during a pandemic. For certain events, such as those that need to be done without large amounts of funding and those that can garner significant audiences, they represent a genuinely valuable alternative.

Michael David-Fox is a Professor of History at Georgetown University. His current book project, “Crucibles of Power: Smolensk Under Nazi and Soviet Rule,’’ is under contract with Harvard University Press.