Circling the Lion's Den

Nikita Petrov: The FSB has no concept of its own history

Nikita Petrov, Soviet Secret Services' historian and deputy head of the Human Rights Centre Memorial, has published the guide Who headed the State Security Agencies 1941-1954. It contains information about the structure and personnel who staffed the state security agencies of the USSR from February 1941 to March 1954, comprising short biographies and service records of the heads of the NKGB, NKVD, NKGB-MGB and MVD from Minister-Commissars to the section heads, service lists of the heads of local bureau from Minister-Commissars of State Security and Internal Affairs in the republics to regional heads of the RSFSR and Union Republics, as well as biographies and service lists for managers in the central apparatus and peripheral agencies of military counter-espionage. Nikita Petrov told Andrei Soldatov about his book, and about how working in the state security archives has changed since 2000.

- Nikita, when did you start writing this book?

- I started working on this subject, studying the structures and personnel of the soviet state security apparatus quite early on. I started getting interested in this in 1975 or 1976 back when I was a student at the Chemical Technological Institute in Moscow. But this interest would of course never have developed if there wasn't any information available. And then I located a rich seam of information: the Soviet press. Back in the Soviet era, even as early as the 1920s information about departmental heads, their deputies, colleagues, all that was published in local papers.

In articles dedicated to the Jubilee of the organization, published in local papers, for example in December 1927 practically all newspapers covered it, and local managers contributed articles to this coverage, the lives and careers of spies could be recounted and photographs or drawings, since back then newspapers didnt use so many photographs, were even printed. Then under Stalin, fulsome information was printed regarding awards given to those serving with these security services (NKVD, NKGB, MGB).

It was all out in the open, there were names, titles, full names, not just initials. Full CVs or mini-biographies may not have been printed, but as I delved deeper into this subject I learnt that even the least important head of department somewhere will be some kind of deputy, will have been elected to some commission or council, in the Party system. And these elections were interesting since local papers published these biographical details. If they were being elected to the Supreme Soviet, then regional papers would publish these details, if to a local Council, then I would look in local papers. In some senses it turned out that, if you study everything, from the central to the regional level, then it was possible to create some kind of directory, listing regional heads. Of course it was more difficult with the Central Apparatus. But in some cases the biographies for regional heads mentioned time spent working in the central apparatus, and that was already a start in terms of finding out more concrete information. Sometimes the directorate they worked in was even identified.

- So you sat in the periodicals section of the Lenin Library.

- Yes, I joined in January 1977 and of course, whenever I went there, I got the feeling that, although I hadn't read Orwell's 1984 at that point, I still got the feeling that, for example, newspapers containing pictures of or articles by Enemies of the People would somehow be missing from the stacks. But when I ordered up, for example, a newspaper from August 1936, I saw Beria's picture in it, as well as accounts of the procedures underway.

- And nothing had been blanked out?

- Nope, nothing. At least, I never came across anything that Orwellian. Today we see history differently, which is why we destroy old newspapers.

- Or rewritten and backdated...

- Or at the very least not released! But they were released from the stacks, I was given them to read. And this was something of a discovery for me and it was also what stimulated me to continue this work. Of course I started from the point that had always interested me. When the Beria Group was mentioned I always wondered who they were. I found newspaper articles about the proceeding brought against Beria, but the surnames Merkulov, Kobulov, Vlodzimirsky, Goglidze or Dekanov didn't mean anything to me. When I later found them listed among the members of the Supreme Soviet, I found their biographies and photographs, I understood that there was something here I could work on. By 1985 I had the full list of heads of regional department, although there were some lacunae. I already had a vast amount of material, there were more than 3,000 names in the directory section. And over 500 biographies were already ready. In addition I had taken photos from the newspapers.

- There are 1,308 biographies in your book?

- Yes, and the previous book (written by N. Petrov and K.V. Skorkina entitled Who headed the NKVD 1934-1941, published in Moscow, Zvenia, 1999) included about 580 people.

- So you had about a quarter of it ready by 1991?

- Broadly speaking, yes. And then, of course, as was only to have been expected, when you spend a long time being interested in state security, they get interested in you, and in August 1985 people from the KGB came and searched. But I didn't keep everything at home, so they got part of it but not all. I still continued my work. And I had to go in for questioning at Lefortovo, and let's just say it wasn't very pleasant. But that was back in May 1986 when it was clearly too late to take any preventive measures.

- How did those interrogation sessions go?

- They said that could not let such a concentration of material on the history of the organs of state security be held in private hands, and that therefore they had no intention of returning my materials. They could not arrest me since I had done nothing wrong, reading newspapers isn't breaking the law.

- But they could have warned you as part of what is now called preventive measures.

- No, no, back then people didn't think like that. They needed some kind of punishable act to have been committed, and none had. However they did understood that, when I did this, I knew that it would be impossible to publish this here, and focused on publishing it abroad. Especially since foreigners, for example, were not allowed in the periodical reading room in Khimki. That's why I concluded that there was an academic lacuna here that needed to be filled. I succeeded in that.

- Launching your book, you said that no former Eastern bloc country yet has a something like this. Why do you think that is?

- Yes, the book was the result of a confluence of luck. I started studying this, then the situation in the country changed and it became possible to delve deeper into the work, to carry it out on a more fundamental level, in the archives that were not open to me, those of both the party and the state. And the Memorial society was established, which also supported my work. I have been an academic aligned to Memorial's research program since December 1988.

And as for other countries, I can say that first they don't have the kind of history we have. So in many other countries, totalitarian regimes arose after the war and they were relatively closed. They lacked what I would cal the romantic openness that we had in the 20s and 30s. Stalin was scared of nothing, and so published all those announcements about awards going to top spies. It was his country and these were his spies. So there was never any image of those shady characters, any sense that our spies must remain in the shadows.

I remember vividly a conversation I had with people who know a lot about this, they said, skeptically, well, if they're working for state security they probably use assumed names. And I told him, no not at all, while they might use other names on missions, they get awards in their own, real, names and are elected to the Supreme Soviet under their own names. Take the regional council for Moscow, 1985; all the regional KGB heads attended that. Their biographies, their photographs, are there for all to see. Just copy them down, no problem.

- I was really surprised when I heard how the former spokesman of the FSB, Alexander Zdanovich, who was present at your book launch, complained that he wasn't allowed access to the archives. I don't understand who would deny him this access. Zdanovich is an FSB general, and currently holds a very senior position in the All-Russian State TV Corporation, and heads the society of secret service historians. Who is not letting him at the materials that he himself is responsible for keeping secret?

- In this case, incidentally, Alexander Zdanovich was taken by surprise, because he is now an historical researcher. And as such he comes to the Archive and discovers that the FSB archives are not ruled by any laws at all. The law, On Archives in the Russian Federation, goes largely unenforced. Everything is passed up the chain of command. It appears that they think that as an historian, as a researcher, Zdanovich should have limited rights. If he was head of a subsection within the Lubyanka, then he wouldn't have this kind of problem, he'd sit in there writing those dockets requesting any file that they have, because he needed it for urgent operational matters and noone would have the guts to doubt him. But as his office is not in Lubyanka Building Number 2 or any of the neighboring buildings then he has these problems. And it's not just him. Many others face similar problems getting into the FSB archives.

- Nikita, how has the situation changed in terms of access to the archives over the 2000's?

- Like the archives of any other agency, those of the FSB should be handed over to the safekeeping of the state, in state archives, but that was not done. When, in the early 2000s a campaign started to open a reading room here, indicating what giant leaps forward had been taken. But this would really have been a step forward if it had been under the law On Archives. But in reality there was a reading room, there was the management who decided who gets to look at what, and there were no files to search, researchers arriving in archives first need to request the search file: file numbers, shelf numbers, directory indexes, in order to find out what they actually need. There was nothing like that here. They would simply fill in the form saying they want to read about X or Y and the archivists would themselves decide who gets to see what, whether they would find something or not. Incidentally, in 2006 they came up with the instructions, regulations governing the release of archive material, which made it clear that there was no hope of getting access to any material without express permission from the individuals mentioned therein, to a 75-year mark. And so we have a situation where files from the years of persecution are not accessible, after all, how can one find the relatives of those who were executed?

- And what about researchers who want to study material related to the 70s and 80s?

- That's totally unrealistic. Because that raises the question of having them de-classified. Researchers can't rock up and say I want to look at those materials, and I will decide to release those materials for use. In this case they are dependent on the knowledge and experience of the FSB archivists, and they ask why does he need that, let's not give him anything, he doesn't know what we have after all. How is it possible to ask, but without knowing what for?

- So it works out that the law on declassification after 30 years doesn't actually work in practice here?

- It's applicable but it is not applied. Article 13 of the law On State Secrets expressly says that after a period of 30 years has passed virtually all material must be declassified. But now all documents that were signed in summer 1980 should be accessible. But they have developed such a process of de-classification that drags it out interminably. Experts need to consider it; a commission needs to take a decision... And that is only where the FSB is able to make the decision, rather than needing to turn to an inter-agency committee. And the situation is the same in other archives. The materials from the secretariat, Central Committee, Communist Party of the Soviet Union: 1952-1970s were marked for de-classification back in 1995-6 but have still not been made accessible. And it should not be forgotten that there is another document which is being totally ignored by the secret services: Yeltsin's decree from June 1992, removing all secret classification level from documents governing the mass persecutions and violating human rights. And in the law on state secrets, this is also the norm. It is not enforced and we can't rock up at the FSB and read documents dated 1937.

- To return to your book, where did you find most of the material, in the FSB archives or in other archives?

Of course, in percentage terms I got much more information from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union archives, where most of the personal details about elite party workers is held, which is exactly whom my directory was about, and all that information is available there. And it helped me a great deal, having the basic material on last names collated, and a portion of the personnel orders were kept in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, to which I have had access since 1990.

- Are you thinking of writing a third book, rather than drawing a line at 1954?

- The periodization of these books is very important, since it corresponds to institutional changes. The first directory runs through to the division of the NKVD, to 1941, and the second to the creation of the KGB.

- Do you want to study the KGB?

- Yes, in principle, it's a very interesting subject. But there are none of those dramatic events that I would say lend a certain charm to this kind of biographical material. Because when we're talking about the first directory, from 1934 to 41, it contains a huge number of people who were shot. And these were also murderers, torturers and sadistic investigators. There's more of this in the second directory. But the following period is, not exactly toothless, but more about political-semi-party functionaries, whose biographies are less than thrilling, much less interesting and often remain unfinished. There's nowhere to place that logical full stop, considering their biographies, since they lived to see the 90s, the party ceased to exist, and these party documents are what allowed us so much information about people, even once they'd retired or when they died (the date on which the party ticket was cancelled gives the latter date, and then you can dig their obituaries out of the newspapers).

- During your book launch, Zdanovich admitted that he didn't have anything like the documents that you did, and that they used them as reference guides. Surely it should be the other way round, you the lone worker, they- the massive organization, how do you explain this?

- It is quite understandable. The directory is the result of work in several archives.

- But the agency archivists would also have access to other archives!

- It's like this: if the FSB archive decides to publish a directory like this, then it hits a serious obstacle, yes, they can access their own documents, but they might not always be able to access material, even service lists, for some people. For the very simple reason that not all personal files are held in the central archive, they need to be dug out of the regional archives, and other archives. The only way of doing it is by gathering together a group of enthusiasts who are focused and dedicated to the task.

- Don't you think that the FSB has a problem lack of focus?

- It's something that has to be done by enthusiasts, who have a real interest in the subject. Whereas they can only draw on the services of, essentially, civil servants, bureaucrats. And they lack motivation: they turn up at work, work, get paid. The historian-researcher doesn't go there to work, and answer dull questions. They are free people who follow their own initiative. It's a fundamental conflict in how they approach life. In fact, it's hard for me to imagine that someone who works in the FSB archive, after all they are servicemen, could display a personal interest in what the archive contains. There's no such thing as efficient government. Because if you want to put together a serious compilation of documents those emanating from one agency alone do not suffice. And they don't really want to go trekking off to other archives. So the agency collection of materials has certain deficiencies, such as a less than complete subject range. Tunnel vision. A lack of any broad view.

It's the same when it comes to these directories. No one is stopping them from compiling directories on their structures, and I have seen some of their attempts at this work in the archives. They're very, very weak. These were internal documents compiled in the 60s and 70-s to ease their work. They themselves needed to know who did what where. But all the systems described are partial, lacking in any detail, because they needed to take in the entire mass of documents, and instead they skated along on the surface.

- From what I can make out, judging from our conversation, you did not feel that in the 2000s there was any increase in the numbers of these enthusiasts in the FSB.

- Quite the reverse. In the 1990s books were published, because then we experienced a revolution in interest in the archives, and there was massive public interest in what actually transpired in my history. That's why so many collections of documents, including material from the FSB archives appeared the bosses themselves wanted to publish. And then that interest dwindled.

- One version of the history of the KGB was formulated in the 1990s, including thanks to these books, and in the 2000s as you said their publication started to dwindle. So it works out that we're not seeing the FSB desire to present another version of history, but their desire not to present any version at all. After all otherwise they should have hired a group of enthusiasts and set them to work on it. But what you describe sounds more like a passive course.

- At the end of the day, the FSB is a secret service. Its archive is under no obligation to be involved in publishing documents. This is something that should be done by academic institutions, the FSB Academy, and unofficial structures, like the organization to study the work of the country's secret services, headed by Zdanovich, which publishes under the publishing house Kuchkovo Pole. These are the enthusiasts who have a hard time getting material out of the archives. And the organization itself, the FSB, might even want to put something else out, but is not able to because it lacks the personnel. They can of course put their side of the story across through using their press office, but that's nothing to do with history.

And if we're talking about history, then they can never present their history differently, provided all the sources are public. Yes they could think up some counterintuitive approach Beria was a lovely chap but as soon as it is published, another historian would come along, pointing to the lacunae in it, and challenge their version. It wouldn't work. Perhaps they could publish collections, as they did regarding the security services' role in the Great Patriotic War, something that is done by FSB Academy staff. I don't like that volume, because there are no archive numbers given to identify the documents. The documents are edited, shortened, and there are questions to be asked about the selection of documents itself. But we understand perfectly well that if we want to know something about the period, then we can take these collected documents, that were published for instance in the History of Stalinism series, in ROSSPEN or the massive tome by Yakovlev published by the Democracy Fund. This is not about the successes of the checkists during the war; this is about something very different. So in one sense, publications like that, I would say, these partisan tomes, bring them nothing but harm, and they collapse under serious objective academic scrutiny.

Agentura.Ru December 1, 2010