Domestic spying and surveillance are rarely out of today’s headlines. How did a real-life totalitarian secret police go about watching citizens, shutting down dissent, and ensuring mass obedience? On July 24, Hoover fellow Mark Harrison brought historical records from the Hoover Archives together with modern social science to show how the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police,  upheld the communist monopoly of power during the Cold War.

What do secret policemen really do? Insights from history and social science


He began with a story about a town in Soviet Lithuania in 1972 in which a young man burned himself to death in a public square as a political protest. After days of demonstrations and protests, the KGB cleared the streets and put a few young people in jail. The response was forceful but not indiscriminate. After that, Lithuania went quiet again.

In that incident the KGB, notably, did not engage in mass killings or bloody reprisals. In fact, its main lines of the operation were to intensify its normal methods of zero-tolerance political policing: continual surveillance of young people accompanied by rapid intervention to caution those whom it saw as going off the rails and put them back on the right track. These methods were highly effective. Even though the events themselves were a secret police failure, they showed the secret police responding efficiently to an emergency situation and quickly restoring normality.

Harrison went on to discuss ideas from the social sciences that allow us to interpret what the KGB officers were doing when they did their job in this way. Three ideas constitute the secret policeman’s problem: Ronald Wintrobe shows that the dictator’s main problem is discovering his enemies: the more powerful the dictator, the more his subjects will submerge disloyal thoughts. Avner Greif and Steve Tadelis show that, in such a setting, parents often train their children to behave according to one set of values at home and another set at school and in public life, thus creating in young people a reservoir of hidden dissent. When some small act of dissent occurs, Timur Kuran has shown, that spark can become a prairie fire of revolt that consumes everything.

This may make the task of the secret policeman seem hopeless, but Mark Granovetter has shown that, although the sudden spread of dissent may seem uncontrollable, like a raging infection, it is possible to stop it in its tracks by quarantining the first to shown signs. Raymond Bauer and Alex Inkeles showed, many years ago, that the secret police were able to restabilize the communist order by persuading their citizens to pretend a loyalty that they did not necessarily feel, thus providing the secret policeman’s solution.

The KGB operation to restore stability in Soviet Lithuania in 1972 was successful. Lithuania quietened down and remained so for nearly two decades. Not until the end of the 1980s did a massive independence movement emerge, suddenly and irreversibly, overwhelming an increasingly hesitant communist regime.

overlay image