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Getting to know you: Stanford scholar examines domestic surveillance in the USSR

With new access to KGB files, Stanford's Amir Weiner explores the differences between the "mind control" techniques employed by the KGB and domestic surveillance in today's Western-style democracies.

October marks the 11th anniversary of the Patriot Act – legislation that continues to arouse suspicions among many Americans about the limits to government surveillance.

Stanford historian Amir Weiner's recent investigation of the notorious surveillance agency, the KGB, finds that unlike in the USSR, a system of checks and balances in today's Western-style democracies prevents agencies like the FBI from engaging in domestic surveillance at the same invasive scale as the KGB.

L.A. CiceroAmir Weiner portrait

Stanford historian Amir Weiner's work is drawn from a newly assembled collection of classified KGB files housed at the Hoover Institution.

Weiner's work rests on a newly assembled collection of classified KGB files housed at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Encompassing tens of thousands of documents – including informants' reports, interrogation minutes and official internal correspondence – it is by far the largest compilation of KGB files outside the former Soviet Union.

A close inspection of these files has uncovered what Weiner called a "distinct socialist pattern of surveillance" characteristic only to communist societies. Such files have been made accessible by the Baltic, Ukrainian and Moldovan governments after the USSR's collapse, and the Hoover Institution so far has acquired material from Estonia and Lithuania.

Identifying such a pattern not only facilitates a better understanding of the history of the communist experiment but also underscores how democratic mechanisms maintain crucial government boundaries.

Weiner, an associate professor of history, intends to publish his findings in a book entitled Getting to Know You: Domestic Surveillance in the USSR, in which he will draw explicit comparisons to the German, British, French and Israeli equivalents of the KGB.

Mind control

Secret service organizations are not created equal, argues Weiner. Crucial differences in purpose, method and function have historically separated organizations such as the KGB or the former East German Stasi from equivalent surveillance services in former colonial states and modern democracies.

To be sure, he notes, some similarities remain. For example, almost all secret services – whether in communist one-party systems or democratic societies – employ formidable armies of informants to infiltrate and monitor their populations.

Yet what has made an organization such as the KGB so invasive – and ultimately so deadly for thousands of people – was that it sought more than just passive conformity to the law. When KGB agents wanted to "get to know you," finds Weiner, they wanted more than your address, your occupation, your hobbies or the names of your friends.

They wanted to know what and how people were thinking. And, in almost all cases, they wanted to fundamentally change that way of thinking.

A striking example is that of Menachem Begin – one of the Soviet Union's most famous prisoners, who would become the prime minister of Israel.

Arrested in Vilnius, Lithuania, during the fall of 1940, Begin was charged by his Soviet captors with counter-revolutionary activities, an offense traditionally punishable by death.

Yet surprisingly, noted Weiner, Begin wasn't executed nor even tortured.

Instead, as Weiner found in the Lithuanian KGB records of Begin's interrogation, Begin was subjected to two months of intense ideological "re-education," a process entailing hours-long questioning and boastful lectures about Soviet achievements, combined with sleep deprivation and threats to the family of the interrogated.

"[Soviet] interrogations aimed at reducing their targets to a state of utter helplessness, to the point that they realized the aimlessness of their previous existence and submitted to Soviet power or, even better, converted to its cause," said Weiner.

It is this effort at completely transforming subjects – of controlling not only how they behaved in public but, crucially, how they acted and thought in private – that Weiner identifies as the most significant characteristic of a "socialist surveillance."

The KGB in comparison

Drawing on another set of KGB documents – including organizational records and official correspondence – Weiner suggests that socialist entities such as the USSR, in their hopes of forging a homogenous, supranational society, pursued the complete integration of every citizen into the broader political, social and ideological community.

Anything less would be considered a failure to complete the mission, pushing officials in the KGB to proceed with ever more invasive and brutal methods against the slightest perceived opposition.

Such a "universalizing ethos" – which all but saturates the KGB's entire paper trail – is noticeably lacking as the guiding force behind the domestic surveillance services of non-socialist and democratic nation-states, including the United States, said Weiner.

Instead, what governs these agencies is a system of checks and balances: "A vibrant and independent media, a multi-party system and an independent judiciary combine to prevent any single government body or political faction from becoming all-powerful."

Admittedly, such a system is not without its own downsides. Rigid racial, national and religious hierarchies remain a well-known trait of many democratic societies.

In the United States, domestic surveillance programs in the post-9/11 era have raised questions about personal liberties.

"Maligned as it has been over the past decade," Weiner said, "we have to keep in mind that the Patriot Act of 2001 was enacted in reaction to real threats and enemies. At the same time, it has continued to be subjected to legal and political challenges that test its efficacy and legitimacy.

"Simply put, this would never be possible within the context of socialist patterns of surveillance, which at best had some checks, but no balances," noted Weiner.

Preserving communist history

Unlike most documents traditionally studied by Soviet historians, the Hoover files did not originate in Russia but instead were acquired from two former Soviet republics along the Baltic Sea: Estonia and Lithuania.

For scholars, the collection has been a boon because it provides the opportunity to study the KGB in a foreign national environment. Since 2008, Weiner himself has helped to initiate the acquisitions.

He now plans to procure further documents from Latvia, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. "By purchasing portions of the vast quantities of files known to exist, we help the often under-financed home archives to digitize their collections," he said.

For many countries that emerged from decades of communist totalitarianism, Weiner said, "The Hoover Institution is a natural ally in the preservation of the historical documentation of communist movements and regimes."

Benjamin Hein is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu