Hoover Fellow Mark Harrison discusses the secret police

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
From left: Hoover fellows Paul Gregory, Eric Wakin, and Mark Harrison.
From left: Hoover fellows Paul Gregory, Eric Wakin, and Mark Harrison.

Mark Harrison, a Hoover fellow Warwick University professor, spoke Monday on his research in the Hoover Archives Lithuanian KGB Collection before an audience of international scholars, Hoover fellows, and Stanford faculty, attending the 11th annual Hoover Archives Workshop on Totalitarian Regimes. The 1.5 million pages of documents on microfilm and in electronic format of the Lithuanian KGB Collection are the result of past six years' of cooperation between the Hoover Institution and the State Archives of Lithuania. Hoover has similar programs in Estonia and Georgia. His talk was entitled: “What Do Secret Policemen Really Do: Preventive Surveillance; Evidence from the Archives of the Lithuanian KGB.”

Harrison described the economic functions of KGB counterintelligence (an important gap in textbook accounts of how the Soviet command system worked). According to Harrison, the KGB adopted the preventive surveillance of economic installations on assumptions about the aims of Western intelligence. The agents of the West, the KGB believed, were not only trying to gather secret information but also exerting ideological and material influences over Soviet citizens in an effort to disrupt the smooth working of the planned economy. The aim of the KGB was therefore not just to capture spies (in fact very few were caught), but, more important, to suppress disruption before it happened, by spotting signals of such disruption before it could materialize into actual events. This required mass surveillance—much easier in a society with closed borders and a single state provider of mail and telephone services (and no intercity or international dial-up links). It also required that the KGB investigate anything that disturbed the plan, such as industrial accidents and fires, railway timetable disruptions, and work disputes, to see if the hand of the foreign enemy was at work. The KGB maintained informer networks in key factories and offices, listed thousands of people as security risks because of family ties abroad or past violations, and controlled appointment to tens of thousands of sensitive management positions. In a striking contrast to market regulators in Western market economies, who are usually charged with increasing market transparency and ensuring equal market access,, the role of the KGB was to enforce secrecy and political discrimination.