Jonathan W. Daly. Autocracy Under Siege: Security Police and Opposition in Russia, 1866-1905. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1998. xi + 260 pp. $38.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87580-243-5.
Reviewed by Z. Ronald Bialkowski (History Department, University of California at Berkeley)
Published on H-Russia (April, 2001)
Russia and Conspiracy as a Way of Life
Russia and Conspiracy as a Way of Life
During the Cold War it was not uncommon for historians to trace the antecedents of the Soviet police state back to its Imperial predecessor. Most arguments in this vein viewed the "totalitarian" system's political centralization and invasion of the private sphere as a continuation of the Russian autocratic tradition. The Soviet regime's distrust and suspicion was often compared with the bunker mentality of tsarist security forces. There is little doubt that the political culture of an underground revolutionary movement and Bolshevik ideology contributed to the surveillance society of Soviet Russia. Yet the most recent historiography of Imperial Russia's security organs suggests that the contribution of the tsarist police practices to the Soviet political system should not be taken so easily for granted.
Among the recent works on the Imperial secret police, Jonathan Daly's Autocracy Under Siege: Security Police and Opposition in Russia, 1866-1905 merits attention for its considerable emphasis on the police's role in Russia's halting (and unsuccessful) evolution towards a liberal-constitutional order. Unlike other works, such as Frederic Zuckerman's The Tsarist Secret Police in Russian Society, 1880-1917 and Charles Ruud's and Sergei Stepanov's Fontanka 16: The Tsars' Secret Police, Daly draws on a wide scope of archival materials. He challenges the Russian liberal stereotype of the secret police as the epitome of the autocracy's arbitrary statescraft and disregard for its own laws. Although Daly concurs with the argument of the aforementioned works that the Russian secret police adopted practices already employed in Western Europe, he takes this thought one step further by probing the ways in which the secret police might have contributed to the rule-of-law in Imperial Russia.
Daly traces the history of the secret police from 1866 through 1905 (a subsequent work should follow the history of the security police from 1905 to 1917). His account begins with a brief description of the Third Section, the secret police-gendarme organization established by Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) and its aboliton following Dmitrii Karakozov's assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II (1855-1881). In the ensuing reorganization of internal security (1871), the responsibilities of the secret police were separated from those of the Corps of Gendarmes (although inter-ministerial disputes over jurisdiction would persist up through the revolution of 1917). The book is divided into six chapters addressing the origins of the security police, its organizational structure, the development of police methods, the struggle between the political underground and the police, Sergei Zubatov's attempts to reform the police, and the chaos generated by the revolution of 1905.
If the tsarist secret police exercised extra-legal powers, its methods by no means differed from practices already established in Western Europe. Daly portrays the secret police not as a force essential to social control (as was the case with the KGB and its widespread network of informers), but as a tool employed by the autocracy primarily against a small revolutionary underground. In this sense, the secret police was notexpected to compensate for the autocracy's poor statescraft and pervasive social discontent. In fact, Daly suggests that the autocracy's opponents initially enjoyed tremendous leeway and often successfully evaded the police. Revolutionaries in part owed their early successes in the 1870s due to the gendarmes' inability to counter conspiratorial activity. The gendarmes possessed few effective prophylactic measures against political radicals and were easily marked on the street as police officers. Nevertheless, the gendarmes remained the state's most prominent symbol of political authority through 1917 while the secret police went mostly unnoticed until brought to the public's attention after the notorious secret agent Azef was unmasked in 1908-1909.
The Ministry of the Interior assumed administration of the secret police in 1870. Daly concurs with the view of Zuckerman, Ruud, and Stepanov that the professionalization of police methods and training under its purview dramatically improved the autocracy's ability to contain the political underground. By 1895, for example, most secret police officials possessed legal training, experience as prosecutors, and an intimate familiarity with European security practices. But the secret police owed its greatest debt to conspiratorial innovators such as Aleksandr Mikhailov of the People's Will who devised sophisticated evasion techniques which would transform conspiracy into a way of life for both communities. This applied to all police agents and even more so to informers. The most notorious informer, Evno Azef, rose to head the Battle Organization of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in the 1900s.
The improvement of police methods enabled the autocracy to contain most revolutionary sentiment in the 1890s. However, Daly stresses that the police's professionalization fell short of Western standards since most officers continued to rely on patronage and politics to advance their careers. Extraordinary officers such as Sergei Zubatov and Aleksandr Spiridovich were the exception rather than the rule. In his brief discussion of Azef affair, for example, Daly notes that many agents relied on their relationship with informers to advance their career. And informers,as Daly observes, came mostly from outside the police establishment and lived a very precarious life.
If any individual should be considered the protagonist of Daly's work, it is the police reformer Sergei Zubatov. While it might be odd for a monarchist to assume the mantle of the tragic hero, Daly suggests that Zubatov unwittingly advanced the rule-of-law in Russia. Zubatov sought to differentiate between the regime's violent and non-violent opponents and inculcated all his subordinates with strong monarchist idealism. Although best remembered for his ambitious plans to co-opt the labor movement with monarchist unions, Zubatov's most telling contributions to Russia's security organs were administrative. Zubatov transferred the jurisdiction over political cases from provincial gendarmes to new security bureaus in order to respond more effectively to political agitation and provide greater career opportunities for talented police officials.
Most explanations for the failure of Zubatov's labor program refer to Nicholas II's indifference and the opposition of "patriotic" industrialists to it. But as Daly observes, much of the onus must also be laid on the sluggishness, conservatism, and unresponsiveness of the Imperial bureaucracy. The labor program, as Zubatov's critics aptly perceived, could not function without him and was thus doomed to failure. Even in the management of his coveted security bureaus, Zubatov kept most of the details to himself.
Daly's sympathetic treatment of Zubatov raises important questions concerning the capability of Imperial Russia's bureaucracy to reform the system. Although regulations and patronage networks hampered the bureaucracy's innovativeness, the fact that a police official filled a policy-making vacuum suggests that the regime lacked the administrative prowess to avert the revolutionary catastrophes of 1905 and 1917. The security police, Daly emphasizes, was intended primarily to contain an illegal revolutionary movement. It by no means was equipped to contend with the legions of opponents produced by Russia's rapid modernization and an archaic political culture. The widespread indifference to Zubatov's labor program in government circles speaks to the relative poverty of Russian conservative policy-making in the autocracy's last days. The regime lacked the flexibility to rival Disraeli's insight on popular aspirations and Bismark's ambitiously crass opportunism. Even though Nicholas II realized that the police could not preserve the autocracy, he failed to grasp the sophisticated way in which officials such as Zubatov sought to construct a monarchist-oriented nationalism.
In sum, Daly's treatment of the police is intelligent, and richly supported by archival materials. This is not to say that the book is not without faults. Daly's narrative of 1905 revolution conveys the disarray of the autocracy's security forces, but it might have benefited from more systematic organization. Moreover, a more detailed assessment of the exile system would be in order given its importance to the political underground.
So in what way did Imperial Russia's secret police contribute to the distrust and suspiciousness characteristic of the Soviet police state? The Soviet Union certainly drew on the imperial practices of political exile and penal labor (harsher and more pointless than its Imperial predecessor). It likewise continued the tradition of restricting political discourse and persecuting its citizens for the most innocent pronouncements. Yet the construction of Communism extended the system of surveillance to the general population at a tremendous cost to the populace's moral and psychological health. The Imperial practice of allowing political radicals to remain largely at liberty until they committed a crime hardly anticipated the police state maintained by the KGB. Daly's work reminds us that the Imperial secret police directed their efforts mostly at a narrow segment of the population committed to overthrowing the government. In this respect Russia's anonymous enforcers of public orthodoxy were akin to their Western counterparts except that they served a far less tolerant state and confronted a more numerous and vitriolic opposition. Given the autocracy's reluctance to compromise its own authority, it is hardly surprising that its defenders became maligned and despised.
. See Charles Ruud and Sergei Stepanov, Fontanka 16: The Tsars' Secret Police (Ithaca, 1999); Ben Fischer, Okhrana: The Paris Operations of the Russian Imperial Police (Washington, 1997); Frederic S. Zuckerman, The Tsarist Secret Police in Russian Society, 1880-1917 (New York, 1996) Zuckerman refers mostly to printed sources in his comprehensive treatment of the police while Ruud and Stepanov survey archival holdings to complement an interesting thematic treatment of police history (the fabrication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,the Azef Affair, etc.).
. On Azef. see Anna Geifman, Entangled in Terror: The Azef Affair and the Russian Revolution (Wilmington, 2000); Boris Nicolaevsky, Aseff the Spy, Russian Terrorist and Police Stool (Hattiesburg, 1969); Richard Rubenstein, Comrade Valentine (New York, 1994).
. Even though the identity "leader" of the terrorist organization is still disputed by historians, most members of the People's Will recognized Mikhailov as the true conspiratorial genius behind the organization's success. Ironically, George Gershuni, leader of the SR Battle Organization in the 1900s, would later model it after the secret police.
. Many Soviet historians and revolutionaries frequently applied the term provocateur to any informant or traitor within the movement. But provocateurs incited political activists to commit crimes and, as Daly notes, very few informants went to such extremes.
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Z. Ronald Bialkowski. Review of Daly, Jonathan W., Autocracy Under Siege: Security Police and Opposition in Russia, 1866-1905.
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