'One Day We Will Live Without Fear'Wednesday 3 Feb 2016
A new book by CAGE Research Fellow Mark Harrison examines the extraordinary role the world’s most effective and durable police states took on the lives of ordinary people. ‘One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State’, chronicles the tragic, funny and bizarre aspects of Soviet life through the lens of seven individual cases studies.
Harrison encountered the cases while investigating other issues at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he was one of the first western economists to work with the Russian archives that became available after the Soviet Union’s demise.
‘I did not choose the stories by following a research design’, Prof. Harrison explains. ‘Rather, they chose me; they grabbed me and would not let me go’.
The central characters – a budding artist, engineer, pensioner, government office worker, teacher, and a group of tourists – surface in stories that take place from the 1930s to the 1970s. Though the Soviet police state changed and became increasingly sophisticated, its underlying missions remained fixed. Harrison uses these tales to illustrate the basic principles on which the police state operated during its history, from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Encompassing a broad swathe of the Soviet Union geographical landscape, from the Chinese border to the western borderlands along the Baltic region, the stories share a common theme. In each instance, something happens that triggers an investigation, and from there everything escalates.
Among the stories:
*A censor, returning to work after an illness, rushes into a decision regarding a political cartoon that has repercussions for many people – and, in all likelihood. for more people than are recorded in the archives because the events unfold in 1937, the year of Stalin’s Great Terror.
*A group of Soviet tourists are granted permission to travel to North America in 1970, and the trip takes place under the watchful monitoring of the KGB – who pose as tourists themselves.
*An Israeli citizen return to Soviet Lithuania for a family reunion, leading the KGB to mobilize, calling up post records, intercepting letters, tapping phones, following her on the streets, interrogating neighbours, and calling up informants.
By shining a light on these incidents from the annals of history, Prof. Harrison aims to inform our present.
‘The chapters of my book have a common target: the human tendency to see the past as more comfortable than the present’, Prof. Harrison said. ‘Memory has been kind to the Soviet state and other states like it’.
As recently as December 2012 an absolute majority of the Russian electorate continued to lament the Soviet Union’s abrupt end, and the regret is shared by President Vlaimir Putin, who has described the collapse of the USSR as ‘the greatest geopolitical disaster of the (twentieth) century’, Prof. Harrison notes.
‘It is far from unusual to look back on the past with nostalgia’, he said. ‘In this respect, Russians are no different from the rest of us. The consequences of Russians’ nostalgia may be more severe, however, if they end up mistaking the actual qualities of dictatorship and totalitarianism. In Russia, it appears, many people now look back on Stalin as an effective national leader and the Soviet Union as a caring community that somehow, accidentally, acquire a secret police, thermonuclear weapons, and other countries. The records of the time tell a different story’.
CAGE Working Paper No. 263, ‘Fact and Fantasy in Soviet Records: The Documentation of Soviet Party and Secret Police Investigations as Historical Evidence’ by Mark Harrison.