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Mark Harrison: Current Research

About my research

Work in progress

The informer network was a part of the human capital of the communist police state, which had the property of dissolving the freestanding social capital of ordinary citizens. How was it built, and what was the agency of the informers in the process? A few documents from the archives of the Soviet security police allow us to see good practices as the KGB saw them. They show some of the routes by which informers came to the attention of the KGB, their varied motivations, and their social and psychological strengths and weaknesses. The pivot of the process was a contract for counter-intelligence services. The contract itself was partly written, partly verbal or implied, and highly incomplete. Before the contract, searching and due diligence were required to identify potential recruits. After the contract, to turn a recruit into a productive informer involved a further period of training and monitoring, often extending to renegotiation and further investments by both sides in the capabilities of the informer and the relationship of trust with the handler. Trust and deception were two sides of the informer’s coin.

  • Harrison, Mark. 2017. Secrecy and State Capacity: a Look Behind the Iron Curtain. CAGE Working Paper no. 312, University of Warwick. First draft: 21 December 2016. This version: 1 June 2017. Presented at the World Conference of Comparative Economics, St Petersburg, 15-17 June 2017. Earlier versions were presented to the WEast (Workshop of the Eastern European Economic History Initiative) meeting, London, 3 April 2017, the International Workshop on Cultures of Secrecy in Soviet Life, Zurich, 25 January 2017, and, much abbreviated and under another title, to a Roundtable on Secrecy and Fact in Soviet Life at the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Convention, Philadelphia, 20 November 2015.

The paper reviews two decades of research on the political economy of secrecy, based on the records of former Soviet state and party archives. Secrecy was an element of Soviet state capacity, particularly its capacity for decisiveness, free of the pressures and demands for accountability that might have arisen from a better informed citizenry. But secrecy was double-edged. Its uses also incurred substantial costs that weakened the capacity of the Soviet state to direct and decide. The paper details the costs of secrecy associated with “conspirative” government business processes, adverse selection of management personnel, everyday abuses of authority, and an uninformed leadership.

  • Harrison, Mark. 2015. If You Do Not Change Your Behaviour: Managing Threats to State Security in Lithuania under Soviet Rule. CAGE Working Paper no. 247, University of Warwick. First draft 25 October 2015. This is a paper to a panel on “Identifying the Enemy: Secret Policing and Censorship in a Frontline Soviet Republic” at the annual convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, Philadelphia, 20 November 2015. Preliminary versions were presented (under a slightly different title) to the Department of Economic History of the London School of Economics on 19 March 2015, the History Faculty of the University of Vilnius on 15 May 2015, and the CAGE Conference on Institutions and Social Norms in Economic Development at the University of Warwick on 11 July 2015.

In Soviet Lithuania (and elsewhere) from the 1950s to the 1980s, the KGB applied a form of "zero-tolerance" policing, or profilaktika, to incipient threats to state security. Petty deviation from socio-political norms was regarded as a person's first step towards more serious state crimes, and as a bad example for others. As long as petty violators could be classed as confused or misled rather than motivated by anti-Soviet conviction, their mistakes would be corrected by a KGB warning or "preventive discussion." Successful prevention avoided the costly removal of the subject from society. This represented a complete contrast to the Stalin years, when prevention relied largely on eliminating the subject from society. Preventive discussions were widely practised in many different circumstances. KGB internal evaluations concluded that these discussions were extremely effective in preventing further violations. This was the front line of the Soviet police state; it was perhaps the largest programme for personally targeted behaviour modification anywhere in the world at that time outside the education sector. It was also a front line of the Cold War because the foreign adversary was seen as the most important source of misleading or confusing influence. My work in progress aims to understand the origins and operation of profilaktika, including how and to whom it was applied, how it worked on the individual subject, and its wider influence on the Soviet Union’s social and political order.

Mark Harrison

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