Gennadii Kurenkov, From conspiracy to secrecy: protecting party-state secrets at RKP(b)—VKP(b), 1918–1941

An unpublished translation of my review for Gennadii Aleksandrovich Kurenkov, Ot konspiratsii k sekretnosti: zashchita partiino-gosudarstvennoi tainy v RKP(b)—VKP(b), 1918–1941 gg. [From conspiracy to secrecy: protecting party-state secrets at RKP(b)—VKP(b), 1918–1941] (Moscow: AIRO-XXI, 2015).

The original review in Russian was published in Istoricheskaia ekspertiza no. 2 (2017), 258–262.

Total secrecy was an inherent feature of the Soviet system. The amount of information to be classified was so huge that a detailed analysis of it could be a subject for a separate research. Besides the state secrets as such, there was also information ‘for official use only’ (dlia sluzhebnogo pol’zovaniia), the access to libraries and archives was also restricted. The legacy of this system is alive even now, in spite of the ‘archival revolution’ in 1990s. A thirty-year term of secrecy was included into legislation in the post-Soviet years, but it does not work as even after this term is over, a document can be declassified only by approbation of the office of origin or of its legal successor. The widely announced declassification of the documents on history of the Second World War at the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense (TsAMO) several years ago had only a limited effect because the necessary technical work has delayed as usually and the documents of the Soviet High Command and many other collections still remain classified. Moreover, even in early 2000s at the same archive, there was a long list of information which the scholars did not have to copy out even from unclassified documents (for example, any information about violations of international humanitarian law by the Soviet troops, including unintentional violations), and all their notes were to be checked by the employees of the archive who had a right to black out whole paragraphs that did not correspond to the rules.

In some cases this surely absurd situation becomes obviously ridiculous: for instance, the collection of documents (fond) of the former Main Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff (GRU, now the Main Directorate of the General Staff) at the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA), completely classified of course, contains documents of late 19th century, as it can be seen from the list of the collections, and it is not a misprint. Under such conditions, students may get more information, for example, about the Soviet defense industry after World War II at American archives than at Russian ones. Nevertheless, many people in Russia, including many professional historians, not only those of the Soviet generation, still believe that the most important documents of Western secret services remain classified in spite of any official restrictions. One can also hear such an opinion that archival documents should not be declassified because names of NKVD officers and deep-cover agents are mentioned there, even if this is about documents of 1940s.

In such a situation, the history of the state secrets in the Soviet Union becomes exceptionally interesting. Suffice to say that a researcher who wants to analyze, for example, the Soviet strategic plans of 1940 and the first half of 1941, must take into account the rules of work with documents marked as osobo vazhno (‘particularly important’, the top level of secrecy) which were then in force, otherwise he or she may come to incorrect conclusions. So the study of those rules and their evolution is important for a historian not only from purely cognitive point of view, but also from an instrumental one.

What may help to a scholar trying to study the history of the state secrets in the USSR in 1920s—1930s is that many documents of that time are already declassified nevertheless. The monograph under review is surely an important achievement on this way. It deals with the regime of secrecy at the party structures of RKP(b)—VKP(b) in 1918–41. The author of the book, Gennadii Aleksandr­ovich Kurenkov, graduated from the Moscow State Institute for History and Archives (MGIAI) in 1989 and received his kandidat nauk degree in history at the Russian State University for the Humanities in 2010. He works at the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI, the former Central Party Archive of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism). The aim of his research is a systemic analysis of the goals, methods and mechanisms of information protection in RSFSR/USSR in the inter-war period, i.e. since the rise of the Bolsheviks to power, that meant their transformation from a half-underground organization into a legal ruling party, till the beginning of war with Nazi Germany in 1941 when extraordinary organs of state power were established and the regime of secrecy was significantly toughened that radically changed the area under investigation. The source base of the book make mostly declassified documents of the Politburo, Orgburo and Secretariat of the Central Committee from RGASPI.

The monograph has two chapters, the first one of them describes the establishment and evolution of secret party departments, the second chapter deals with their main areas of activity. The situation in the 1920s is analyzed in more detail than that in the 1930s, apparently because a great part of documents of the 1930s still remain secret. Unfortunately, the author almost do not examine one of the most interesting questions: which categories of information were officially classified as party and state secrets? The book contains only the general information about this.

According to Kurenkov, a centralized system of information protection began to form in early 1920s; this process had finished in the main by the end of the decade. It is in that period, in particular, that the necessary legislation was developed (further development of more detailed regulations went on in later years as well). The documents available now do not contain any exact information about when the first secret divisions were established at RKP(b). The author suggests that it took place in 1919, i.e. at the same time when the party apparatus as such began to form. Before that, all the Party decisions, including the secret ones, were realized by the state organs. In the documents of 1919–20, several divisions are mentioned that were engaged into secret records management. The Secret Department of the Central Committee Administration (Sekretnyi otdel Upravleniia delami TsK) was established in 1920. In 1921 it was transformed into the Bureau of the Secretariat of the Central Committee, than in 1926—into the Secret Department of the Central Committee (Sekretnyi otdel TsK), and finally in 1934—into the Special Sector (Osobyi sektor) of the Central Committee. Secret divisions were also established at the local Party organizations. They worked in cooperation with VChK/OGPU.

In early 1920s the Party organs followed the regulations on handling of confidential documents issued for the state institutions. In 1923 the first special inner-Party regulations were developed. In 1922 the so-called ‘closed letters’ (zakrytye pis’ma) are mentioned for the first time. It was a special category of secret correspondence between the central apparatus and local Party organizations that was used mostly for collecting information about the local situation. The ‘special folders’ (osobye papki) are first mentioned in 1923, they contained the top secret information on foreign policy, state security etc. Even a higher level of secrecy made the ‘out of record decisions’ (vneprotokol’nye resheniia) of the highest Party organs.

At the same time the system of Party archives was formed. The Central Party Archive mentioned above was established in 1935. According to Kurenkov, ‘the documents of the Party archives were closed for non-partisans and an access to the secret documents could only be provided to the members of the Party according to a special decision of the corresponding Party committee. The Kremlin archives of the Central Committee (archives of the Politburo, of the Orgburo, of the Secretariat), as well as the archives of the Special Department, of the other Central Committee departments, always remained closed, the access to them was highly restricted even for the Central Committee’s own staff’ (p. 79). After the collapse of the Soviet Union the documents of the Central Committee apparatus were transferred to the newly established Archive of the President of the Russian Federation.

The prevention of secret information leaks was the duty of many state institutions, including the censorship apparatus. The first list of information constituting state secrets was issued in the time of the Civil War. A new list issued in 1922 contained regulations not only for wartime, but also for peacetime. It was used as a base for the first all-Soviet Union list developed in 1923 and additionally revised in 1925. In peacetime, the amount of information to be classified was shortened, but according to the author, only formally. First, for many categories of non-classified information a special label was established, ne podlezhit oglasheniiu (‘not to be made public’). Second, some categories of information could only be published with the approval of the corresponding state agency. So the border between classified and non-classified information was rather relative, as it was in the case of the Party archives.

Since early 1930s the number of classified documents rose sharply and the scope of persons who had an access to them, on the contrary, decreased remarkably. This reflected not only the increase of international tensions, but also the final rejection of any inner-Party democracy. The main principles of organization of information protection remained constant over the whole period under review and included reasonableness of access to classified information, personal responsibility, material interest of persons who gained access to state secrets. The author comes to a conclusion that the protection of the Party’s secrets in the inter-war period was quite effective: ‘…Despite some negative features of the Soviet counterintelligence, the intelligence agencies of the states antagonistic to the Soviet Union recognized that it was very difficult for them to work in this country’ (p. 203–4).

The work as a whole makes a good impression, especially due to a great deal of factual material collected by the author. Unfortunately, this cannot be said about its analytical part or about the author’s conclusions. Kurenkov virtually tries to justify the system of total secrecy that formed in the Soviet Union in the period under review:

In response to a question to what extent the system of protection of party-state secrets at the Party organs was justifiable, one can certainly say that, in spite of the problems described in this work, the system of information protection at the structures of RKP(b)—VKP(b) in 1918–41 was in general corresponding to the conditions and requirements of the historical moment, taking into account the realities of that time, the socio-economic situation in the country and the international situation. While analyzing the changes in the politics in late 1920s or in the 1930s, Western historians sidestep the fact of systemic pressure of the Western world upon the USSR. The capitalist countries that regarded the Soviet Russia as a threat to their existence, did not allow the new regime to develop to an extent which could allow it to demonstrate clearly its advantages. (p. 219)

Total secrecy, according to him, can be justified, in particularly, by the fact that White secret services, and than the foreign ones, including those of Nazi Germany, were interested in an extremely wide range of issues, including the economy of the Soviet Union and biographies of its leaders. The author obviously does not take into account that it was because of the attempts of the Soviet leadership to classify almost every more or less significant information that such a task was given to the secret services. Nor does he take into account that, contrary to common belief, an excessive secrecy does not strengthen, but undermines the information protection. If a foreign intelligence service really wants to get a certain secret information, it will get it sooner or later; the task of the counterintelligence is that the secret should not be disclosed as long as possible. This requires in turn to concentrate efforts to protect a limited number of really important secrets, as it is the only way to close all or almost all the possible security holes that may allow the interested specialists to get the information they need in a roundabout way. The results of total secrecy are just the opposite so that in the Soviet Union many state secrets were really secret only for its own citizens.

Moreover, the author tries to justify even the refusal of the today’s Russian government to declassify completely at least the documents of Stalin years. He is citing Vladimir Kriuchkov, the former head of the KGB and one of the leaders of the August Coup in 1991, who wrote that ‘careless handling of the archives may cause irreparable damage…to the state as a whole’ (cit. ex p. 221). He gives no explanation, however, which eighty-years-old documents may cause today ‘irreparable damage to the state as a whole’…