25 October 2013


I'm chasing citations after reading Mark Harrison's elegant 'Secrecy' in Harrison (ed) Guns & Roubles: The Defense Industry in the Stalinist State (Yale University Press, 2008).

'Soviet controls on the circulation of information in the 1920s and 1930s' by Jonathan Bone in (1999) 40 (1-2) Cahiers du monde russe comments that
If Bolsheviks in general understood that knowledge is power, Stalinists institutionalized the adage. Historians have long recognized that Stalin and his supporters used control over information to help them gain, exercise, and maintain power in the USSR of the 1920s and 1930s. Surprisingly, however, there has been little serious investigation of how this deliberate manipulation might have affected the era's archival records. On the basis of recent work in a variety of Russian repositories, therefore, I should like to offer some initial observations on the ways information was controlled within the pre-war Soviet apparat (Party and state apparatus).
From the apparat's inception, conspiratorial Bolshevik habits (carried over from pre-revolutionary practice) reinforced tendencies normally inherent in bureaucratic settings such that knowledge was subjected to control. Individuals and especially institutions in the subsequent, formative years not only routinely manipulated information for their own proximate reasons. More and more they were required to control it procedurally, as part of the general process of consolidating and administering Soviet rule.
Specialists in the history of the 1920s and 1930s have paid considerable attention over the years to the increasing censorship of publicly disseminated information. However we have given short shrift to the control of information circulating within the apparat itself. While the Soviet Union still existed this neglect was an honest artifact of restricted archival access. In the relatively open post-1991 era, though, it has continued for what I think have been rather different reasons.
First, although cold-war concerns have not vanished entirely, the social focus that used to be decidedly heterodox now dominates our research. Our prior obsessions with the top end of the Soviet system and its capacity to do harm have yielded to broader interests in Soviet society and in the subtleties of the statesociety interface.
Second, many post-1991 investigators (Russians in particular) have been rather more interested in exhuming the Stalinist past than in the relatively prosaic work of analyzing it in full forensic detail. Given that the former activity must precede the latter, much of the bias is wholly understandable and perfectly normal. Unfortunately, zeal in uncovering repression and other salient secrets occasionally has exceeded attention paid to the provenance and general import of the evidence in question.
Controls on the circulation of information within the apparat can be divided heuristically into three general categories: right-to-know controls, need-to-know controls, and special handling procedures.
What I call 'right-to-know controls' involved the consecration of various types of material according to an elaborate, graded system of secrecy classification. Access to these sacred texts was proportionate to standing within the state apparatus. The lower the potential recipient's sacerdotal status, the lower the category of esoteric knowledge that was allowed.
'Need-to-know controls' circumscribed the circulation of information at a given right-to-know secrecy level. They compartmentalized knowledge that was notionally relevant to constituent parts of the state apparatus. In particular, they ensured that bureaucratic paper was directed to specific recipients and that these documents contained only that information thought necessary and/or sufficient for the purpose at hand.
Finally, 'special handling procedures' governed the preparation, distribution, and storage of secret materials. Note that none of these generic types of controls were mutually exclusive. Need-to-know targeting often was applied to material already restricted by secrecy classification, further narrowing its circulation. My eventual intent is to work through all three of these areas systematically. I shall confine myself here mainly to right-to-know controls and some special handling procedures.
Harrison's 'Secrecy and Transaction Costs: The Business of Soviet Forced Labour in the Early Cold War' (PERSA Working Paper no. 64, 2011) [PDF] argues that
In 1949 the Cold War was picking up momentum. The Soviet state had entered its most secretive phase. The official rationale of secrecy was defense against external enemies. One of the Gulag’s most important secrets was the location of its labour camps, scattered across the length and depth of the Soviet Union. As this secret was guarded more and more closely, the camps began to drop out of the Soviet economic universe, losing the ability to share necessary information and do business with civilian persons and institutions without disclosing a state secret: their own location. For some months in 1949 and 1950, the Gulag’s camp chiefs and central administrators struggled with this dilemma without achieving a resolution. This episode teaches us about the costs of Soviet secrecy and raises basic questions about how secrecy was calibrated.
His 'Why Secrets? The Uses of Secrecy in Stalin’s Command Economy' comments that
In Stalin’s command system secrecy was used to conceal information and decisions. We look at the uses of secrecy in a hierarchical system of the Soviet type in the context of the fundamental problem of command. Secrecy was a conditional choice. Principals gained by making economic information secret when the agent’s expected profit opportunities in private trade were tempting, horizontal trust was fragile, and secrecy itself was cheap. It paid them to make decisions in secret when unexploited opportunities, and the wage that the principal could afford to pay the agent, were both low. Under some circumstances secrecy benefited both principal and agent. Secrecy was one element in an equilibrium that enabled principals and agents to participate in the command system and enabled the system itself to persist.