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Subjects of interest: Preventative policing under the KGB

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Subjects of interest: Preventative policing under the KGB

In the Soviet Union, the KGB applied a form of low-intensity preventive policing, called profilaktika. Citizens found to be engaging in politically and socially disruptive misdemeanors were invited to discuss their behavior and to receive a warning. Using novel data from Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, in the late 1950s and the 1970s, Eugenia Nazrullaeva and Mark Harrison study the profile and behaviours of the citizens who became subjects of interest to the KGB.

The Soviet state was an enthusiastic practitioner of preventive policing. In the time of Lenin and Stalin, prevention took the form of mass arrests often based on social class or ethnicity or past record, followed by detention, deportation, or killing.

By the 1950s the Soviet secret police (KGB) had moved away from these extremes to more sophisticated and discriminating methods, which became a first line of defence against political crime. They developed what they thought of as a predictive methodology. Through mass surveillance they identified a potential 'state criminal' at early stages of low-level offending. Typical misdemeanours ranged from informal contacts with foreigners and sharing Western music and fashion to spreading ideas about individual freedom and national self-determination. Having found these people, the KGB called them in for 'preventive' discussion, normally ending in a warning and continued surveillance.

The effects were often instant: most subjects abandoned their offending behaviour and became obedient citizens. This was perhaps the largest and most effective programme for personally targeted behaviour modification anywhere in the world outside school and college at that time.

While Lithuania was a tiny fraction of the Soviet population, its surviving KGB records have yielded a sample of more than 700 individual offenders, described in 240,000 words. The result is a rich dataset that can help us understand the aims, methods, and results of everyday Soviet secret policing.

What kinds of people were targeted by the KGB? We find that most subjects of KGB intervention were young male Lithuanians, typically of less-educated status. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the fractions of women, Russians, and party members under treatment increased. The focus of preventive warnings also shifted from the countryside to the towns.

Operationally, KGB officers were interested not only in the young people themselves but in their networks, which spread “unhealthy” influences through society. In the 1950s the bad influences were seen to be their elders, whereas by the 1970s, foreign influences were of more concern. Over the same period, the KGB emphasis also shifted away from re-educating the subjects to controlling their behaviour by thinly veiled threats.

Looking at the evolution of KGB practices, we find that the KGB started to apply individually targeted preventive warnings as a way of managing specific threats or 'known risks' that were created by the process of postwar Sovietization. These threats included an organised Catholic church, prisoners and deportees returning from labour camps and places of resettlement, and others seeking reintegration into society after years of nationalist insurgency and underground existence.

Successful management of these 'known risks' by preventive warnings was followed by their application to the much larger number of 'unknown risks' – young people without a previous record of nonconformist deviation from social norms, who were susceptible to 'contagious' foreign influences and were drawn to 'unhealthy' ideas and behaviours. Because of this, the proportion of KGB interventions directed at 'unknown risks' increased through the postwar years.

Publication details

Eugenia Nazrullaeva and Mark Harrison, If You Do Not Change Your Behavior: Preventive Repression in Lithuania under Soviet Rule, CAGE working paper (no. 664)