Soviet special services regularly reinforced Politburo’s view of the world, archives in Ukraine show

 

History

Throughout the Soviet period, that country’s special services provided daily reports to the political leadership that sometimes provided accurate information but often simply reinforced the ideological position of the CPSU and the specific requirements of the leadership at any particular moment, Eduard Andryushenko says.

These reports, the Ukrainian journalist says, provided a substitute distorted or not for the absence of a free media and often were the only source of information the top Soviet leadership had about the situation in the USSR and in the world, to judge by newly opened KGB archives in Ukraine.

The archive contains some 1300 folders with the first reports being from the 1920s and the last from the final days of the Soviet Union in 1991. Almost the entire period is covered except for the first half of the 1950s where for one reason or another, these daily reports are not included, Adryushenko says.

From Monday to Friday, the special services sent from one to three documents, typically fewer than ten pages each although on occasion including photographs and seized documents that provided support for the conclusions contained in the reports.

Among the subjects covered are foreigners in the USSR, diaspora politics, Soviet citizens abroad, anti-Soviet actions, dissent, religion, ideologically harmful products and the influence of West on Soviet people. Sometimes these reports contain sociological assessments by the organs of conditions in Ukraine and other non-Russian republics.

These reports also included information about any threats to party and government leaders, evidence of unhappiness among workers including small labor actions – the KGB did not use the word “strikes” – and accidents and natural disasters ranging from Chernobyl to floods and droughts.

Anyone who reads these documents, the journalist says, will see that they were written in a special style, with all “the euphemisms characteristic both for the Soviet bureaucratic culture as a whole and also for the ideologized special services themselves.” Often the documents were almost as emotional as propaganda articles in the media.

It is wrong to think that these reports were always accurate. In fact, they are full of mistakes reflecting lack of information or simple incompetence, or a desire to please those above the organs themselves. Describing the world as the KGB imagined the leadership wanted to protect them but meant that the Politburo often did not know the truth.

“Any phenomenon the regime viewed as negative, be it efforts by miners to create unions or the attraction of Western movies among the young was explained not by objective causes but the efforts of the CIA, Radio Liberty and the nationalists.” Only on rare occasions did the organs report on what were the real causes of these and other phenomena.

Sometimes one encounters the notion that the KGB was “’a state within a state,’” but this is true only in part. It may have known the truth itself, but it remained very much in fear of the political leadership and did not challenge that leadership’s views. Instead, it reinforced them, and ultimately acquired them itself, at least when it reported to the top.

And it tracked how the Politburo viewed things closely shifting its own reports rapidly if the Soviet leaders changed theirs. On August 20, for example, it reported that Ukrainians almost universally supported the attempted coup in Moscow. Two days later, however, the security services reported upward that the Ukrainians were almost totally opposed to it.

For those of a certain age, the phrase “when the archives are opened” meant that the possibility of examining Soviet archives would provide a glimpse of reality. That has turned out to be true. But the reality they show is that the leaders of the Soviet political system were often flying blind precisely because the special services were telling them what they wanted to hear.

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