The greatest secret of the Soviet Union: What we can learn about today’s most secretive states
Twenty-five years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, an academic at the University of Warwick began work in the Russian archives to map the sophisticated regime that made the Soviet Union the most secretive state that ever existed.
A new book, based on decades of research, describes the complex layers of secrecy within the Soviet Union, what secrecy hid, what the state gained and lost because of it, and what we can learn about how secrecy is used in Russia today.
Emeritus Professor of Economics Mark Harrison at the University of Warwick and author of Secret Leviathan: Secrecy and State Capacity under Soviet Communism says: “The Soviet Union’s archives hold many millions of secret documents. Their volume is far greater than the government information that was released into the public sphere. But the biggest secret was the huge gap between the appearance and reality of the communist party dictatorship. To all appearances, the Soviet state was decisive, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Behind the scenes, the state was ruled by procrastination, indecision, groupthink, mistrust, fear, and disinformation. This gap was hidden by secrecy.
“The communists were the most diligent state-builders of the twentieth century. The political leaders valued secrecy because it bought them security of tenure. But secrecy was extremely costly. The price they paid was in a state machine that was far less capable than the one they pretended to deploy. There was a secrecy/capacity trade-off.
“Ordinary people who had no direct connection to power also paid the price of secrecy. Not only were they denied the freedoms of an open society. In addition, they knew that the secret police held information about their background and lives. You didn’t know what that information was or how it affected your life. A promotion might be mysteriously blocked, or an application to travel abroad that was refused without reason. You would never know why. You could only suspect that there was something in your past that the state knew about. And there was no appeal process.”
A measure of the scale of the Soviet Union’s secret state compares the number of US and Soviet secret informants at the height of the Cold War:
“In 1976 the FBI had around 1500 undercover informants. In a slightly earlier year, 1968, the KGB had 165,000 informants. Given that the Soviet population was slightly larger than the American population at the time, the difference was 1:100.”
What we can learn about Russia’s secrecy today
The digital age we are now living in is more adapted to disinformation than to censorship. Yet, the secrecy /capacity trade-off continues to operate, explains Professor Harrison:
“President Putin chose to plan and launch the invasion of Ukraine in complete secrecy, to preserve his freedom of action and achieve surprise. But in doing so he sacrificed a large part of his invasion force. With more transparent decision making, Russia’s soldiers would not have invaded Ukraine thinking they were on an exercise, and President Putin would not have sent them into battle believing that he could win the war in three days.”
Secret Leviathan: Secrecy and State Capacity under Soviet Communism by Mark Harrison, published by Stanford University Press (2023), is out now.
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