Russia’s Secret Police

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on August 1, 20151

Charles Ruud’s and Sergei Stepanov’s Fontanka 16: The Tsar’s Secret Police traces the evolution of political policing in Russia, focusing on the Okhranka, the final incarnation of the secret police before the Russian Revolution in 1917, and along the way puts paid to a whole array of myths about the pre-Bolshevik Russian government, especially as regards the Jewish Question.

The growth of the Russian political police occurred in four major stages. The first phase lasted from the founding of the Russian State by Ivan the Terrible (1533-84) after the expulsion of the Tatars to the opening of the “Third Section” in 1826 as a reaction to the Decembrist revolt the previous year—the first time the Imperial State security services were housed at Fontanka 16 in St. Petersburg—which intended to (and succeeded in, as 1848 would demonstrate) extirpate the liberal spirit that challenged the autocracy. The third phase saw the Third Section become the Department of Police at the onset of a crackdown after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, who had enacted broad liberal reforms on censorship and serfdom. The elite secret police force grew out of the palace guard, becoming known as the Okhranka (though this is more usually rendered in English as Okhrana). The final phase began in 1906, after the 1905 revolution, when the Okhranka worked to stop a liberal-radical coalition building.

The key methods of the Okhranka in battling the revolutionaries were infiltration and provokatsiya (provocation), pushing radical groups to commit criminal acts that allowed the authorities to imprison them and discredited their cause in the eyes of the public. Provocation was justified by the argument—often true—that it prevented murder and mayhem by taking terrorists off the streets and decreasing the number of people prepared to join radical groups. This is, of course, morally ambiguous and caused the Okhranka its greatest trouble when some of its own agents defected, out of principle or avarice, to reveal that events that had been held against radical opponents of the autocracy were not what they seemed. Overall, however, the methods of penetration and provocation were hugely successful.

Before reading Fontanka 16 my impression had been that the Tsarist regime was some kind of proto-fascist government. That view quickly unravels on reviewing the evidence. The Tsarist government was certainly the most repressive in Europe at the time, but if you make the assumption of legitimacy for the autocracy, its actions start to look rather mild. The main problem of the autocracy starts to look like its creaking incompetence and inefficiency, not its overbearing tyranny. The Imperial Government did not try to control the thoughts of its citizens, and outside the major cities surveillance was minimal.

For example, the 1881 law for trying terrorists in military courts is often cited as one of the excesses of the Imperial Government. But in fact it was a pragmatic response to the terrorism of the 1870s, to which the Tsarist regime had underreacted, and the laws’ primary initial use was not against the revolutionary movement. Of the sixty-six military trials in 1881, eleven were for crimes against the State and fifty were for attacks against Jews or their property. In 1882, thirty-one of forty military trials were for the perpetrators of pogroms. The Okhranka’s interest was in stability, and it acted against all who threatened it, including Right-wing fighting squads like the Black Hundreds that claimed to be more royalist than the king, and to be defending an autocracy that wouldn’t defend itself.

While the Tsarist regime stood (wrongly) accused of complicity in the wave of pogroms in the 1880s, the sensational case of Mendel Beilis in 1913, charged with ritual murder of a blood libel kind on the thinnest evidence, in a court case that became international news, is sometimes called Russia’s Dreyfus affair and is held to confirm the autocracy’s antisemitism. However, the Imperial Government’s policy was a lot more nuanced. The government realized quickly its mistake in not simply cancelling the trial, but had gone too far to back out, so it dropped all effort to prosecute Beilis, and instead set about proving that ritual murder had taken place. The verdict reflected this, saying that a ritual murder had happened but Beilis had not done it. This was intended to placate the antisemites—and did so—because the government’s overwhelming intention was to avoid a pogrom.

In the case of the pogroms between 1903 and 1905, some local police forces failed to act quickly enough and some individual lower police officers did participate and even incited some of them, but higher police and government officials—many of them personally antisemitic—made their first priority the prevention of pogroms: Russia needed investment from Western Europe, which required that the government not appear backward and intolerant, and as always the first priority was internal stability. The autocracy had restricted the Jews’ rights after the 1880s—which pushed Jews disproportionately into the revolutionary movement—but the accusation that the secret police sought to incite the population against the Jews to distract from the autocracy’s failings falls.

Here, Ruud and Stepanov dismantle a longstanding myth: that the Okhranka were behind the creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Of six copies of The Protocols issued before 1917, only one can be tied in any way to the autocracy—a lower police official allowed an official printing press to be used. And a decision in 1905 of a censorship board, preventing the publication of The Protocols as a short book that could be widely read, on the grounds that it could “lead to the annihilation everywhere of all Jews,” a decision it was well within the Okhranka’s power to have overturned if they wished to spread antisemitism to deflect the blame for Russia’s ills from the autocracy to the Jews, “provide convincing evidence of non-involvement by the Okhranka or any other government agency” in the dissemination of The Protocols.

Ultimately, Tsar Nicholas II’s downfall provided a case-study in the flaws of autocracy: the regime depended on one man, who held his office by an accident of birth, and he was in thrall to his wife, who was in thrall to Rasputin, the Siberian peasant who presented himself as a “holy man” when in fact he was a debauched and cynical fraud who mocked the tsarina even as he used her to gain an increasing hold over State power. Nicholas abandoned his capital for the frontlines in September 1915 because of the intrigue around Rasputin, leaving power to his wife, who was under Rasputin’s spell. Rasputin’s murder came too late; the damage to the government’s reputation by its association with him was done. The Okhranka had done its best to protect the Tsar’s government but it couldn’t protect the Tsar from himself.

With the machinations of Russia’s intelligence agencies back on the front pages, the history of the Okhranka is more relevant than ever. Vladimir Putin’s “special services” have added modern communications to the Chekism he was raised on, and the Soviet KGB was an expansion of the tactics of the Okhranka. Cases like Evno Azeff provide insight into the near-incredible exploits of Russian intelligence going back a century. The Okhranka’s demise also provides lessons in the interaction of intelligence and policy: the Okhranka accurately reported the mounting chaos in late 1916 and had accurately predicted that the radicals would use the working class to roll over both the autocracy and the liberals. But the policymakers didn’t want to hear it, so they didn’t. Perhaps most of all the Okhranka’s history gives one a new-found appreciation of what happens when a society is riven by actual government-origin conspiracies. A German visitor to Ivan the Terrible’s Russia said of the Russians that they “kill themselves by mutual slander”. Five centuries on, this terrible by-product of a regime that sees little distinction between internal dissent and external threat remains.