Emmalee Ortega


Bolshevik State Surveillance Practices

This research guide covers the state surveillance practices in Bolshevik Russia from the late Imperial period, through the consolidation of power, to the beginning of the Stalinist state.  The dates are somewhat open-ended to allow for more freedom of direction in choosing to begin or end with the Revolutionary period.  The guide begins with contextual sources on European and Imperial Russian surveillance, since the ideas and practice of state surveillance were not unique to Bolshevik regime.  The guide then proceeds in a roughly chronological fashion through the Revolution and civil war to the consolidation of Bolshevik power, tracking the development of concepts and practices of surveillance.   These include the connection of surveillance with the military and mobilization, involvement in propaganda, development of organizations such as the Cheka to gather information and make reports, and the use by policymakers of such information as censuses and surveys.  Primary sources can be difficult to find in English and are often found in anthologies or databases.  For that reason, they appear at the end of the guide.

In America, the concept of state surveillance is inextricably linked to ideas of Communist state control.  The study of this topic reveals the prevalence and development of ideas about how surveillance should be practiced and for what ends.  Significantly, surveillance in Russia and Europe was originally tied to the military and issues of the security of the nation, which concerns and practices were heightened by World War I.  Since the Bolshevik regime was born out of that war and the civil war, many traditionally military practices were turned inwards onto the people in ways that were later demonized by the west.  In particular, it is interesting to see how official Bolshevik ideology effected surveillance practices in terms of gathering and interpreting information.  Finally, many of these sources deal with censorship, which was one of the primary means by which the Bolsheviks sought to realize the goal of transforming human nature and creating a new society.


General Sources:

  • Holquist, Peter. Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s continuum of crisis, 1914-1921. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002.

This work situates the Revolution and development of the Bolshevik state in the continuum of mobilization and violence of World War I, arguing that wartime measures became incorporated into Russian political structures after the war was over.  Chapter Seven, entitled “Psychological Consolidation” (pp. 206-240), is particularly relevant to the topic here.  It deals with the connection between surveillance and the military, and between surveillance and propaganda, as well as surveillance tactics of the Whites during the civil war and development of Soviet tactics.  It is focused on Don Territory, but remains relevant, giving a general overview of the origins of surveillance practices and uses for consolidation of power.

  • Acton, Cherniaev and Rosenberg eds., Critical Companion to the Russian Revolution, 1914-1921. Indiana UP, 1997.

A collection of scholarly essays, this volume provides an excellent topical overview of the Revolution and its issues.  It has a number of relevant pieces to this topic, including Christopher Read’s chapter on “Bolshevik Cultural Policy” (pp. 490-498), which argues that the Bolshevik ability to create and propagate its values and ideology was one of the crucial elements to their success and outlines some of the general policies.  Also relevant are Alter Litvin’s chapter, “The Cheka” (314-322), and Boris Kolonitskii’s “The Press and the Revolution” (381-390).


European Context:

  • Horne, John, ed. “Introduction: Mobilizing for Total War, 1914-1918,” in State, Society, and Mobilization in Europe. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Horne’e introduction focuses on European preparations for war and provides useful context for the process of political and cultural mobilization for World War I.  It does not directly address Russia or the Bolshevik Revolution, but it does demonstrate how the struggle to mobilize and secure an industrial state for total war raised problems for Europe which were similar to those Russia experienced.  Examples of such problems include methods for dealing with concepts of national ideals and the fear of the enemy within the nation.  This volume would be most useful as a source of comparison or contrast for Russia and Europe during the First World War.

  • Holquist, Peter. “’Information is the Alpha and Omega of our Work:’ Bolshevik Surveillance in its Pan-European Context,” The Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997), pp. 415-450.

Holquist’s essay stresses the importance of the pan-European context to avoid assigning shared features to Russia; for instance, the identification of surveillance with totalitarian governments such as the USSR and Nazi Germany, and ignoring the fact that the practice had its roots in European society.  Holquist seeks to draw attention also to the false presupposition of the state/society dichotomy when looking at surveillance.  Instead, he describes the boundaries more as overlapping than as a stark contrast.   The essay describes the underlying circumstance and ideas that motivated the Bolshevik state to begin and carry on surveillance, and focuses on European context for understanding the origins.  He argues that the desire to produce vast quantities of informative surveillance reports is more important than the material itself.  He also defines the goals of surveillance in a very clear and useful way, arguing that the primary purpose of surveillance was to change people.  Similar to his book Making War, Forging Revolution, this essay is also focused on the Don Territory.

  • Mosse, George. Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements from the Napoleonic Wars through the Third Reich.  Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.

This is a common source for comparisons between German and Russian development of mass movements, and includes sections on propaganda and manipulation of the masses (pp. 10-11).  The book is helpful for putting the Bolsheviks in the context of Europe and for emphasizing the continuity and development of these themes.


Imperial Russian Context:

  • Monas, Sidney. The Third Section: Police and Society in Russia under Nicholas I. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1961.

Monas’ work covers a period significantly before the Revolution, but it includes a chapter on surveillance (pp. 133-196) which illustrates the long tradition and development of surveillance and censorship in Russia, and its place in the political mindset.  Monas points out the military tradition in Russia, as the country was considered the greatest military power in Europe during the mid-nineteenth century, and the connection between military might in the surrounding world, and turning that power inward to solve domestic problems.  There is a chapter on political police, the titular Third Section, which had a history of being used to deal with internal social problems.

  • Daly, Jonathan. Autocracy under Siege: Security Police and Opposition in Russia, 1866-1905. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1998.

Daly’s book deals with the period leading up to the Revolution in 1905, dealing particularly with the police.  However, the book contains a good overview and description of Imperial surveillance practices, both for the target and surveillant, regarding methods of operation, official attitudes towards the targets, and effectiveness of the practices.

  • Zuckerman, Fredric S. The Tsarist Secret Police in Russian Society, 1880-1917.  New York: New York University Press, 1996.

This work covers the police system in Imperial Russia, but there are a number of chapters dealing with the lives and working practices of the detectives and agents who provided surveillance and the way that the bureaucracy functioned.

  • Ferenczi, Caspar. “Freedom of the Press under the Old Regime, 1905-1914.” in Civil Rights in Imperial Russia, eds. Olga Crisp and Linda Edmonson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Pp. 191-214.

This essay examines the freedom of the press in the transitional era between the Imperial and Bolshevik regimes.  Ferenczi looks at the relationship between the press and public opinion as well as issues of civil rights.  He does not relate the topic directly to surveillance but this essay can be helpful to establish patterns in the ways that various surveillance practices, such as censorship, developed over in this change-filled period.

Development of Practices and Ideology:

  • Corney, Frederick. Telling October: Memory and the Making of the Bolshevik Revolution. Cornell UP, 2004.

Corney’s book is about the development of the myth of the October Revolution as the origin story of the Bolshevik state.  As it relates to the topic of surveillance, the book chronicles the development of a specific type of propaganda practice.  Chapter four describes questionnaires and surveys distributed by the party around 1918.  These reveal the ignorance of the party leaders, but also the prepared social script that the leaders wanted the people to learn.  The emphasis of this work is on the use of propaganda and art to retell the past and create transformative memories.

  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia. Cornell UP, 1992.

Fitzpatrick’s argument here is based on the idea of opposition between the forces of political power and cultural influence.  In the course of describing this struggle she provides numerous examples of Soviet surveillance in the areas of education, public opinion surveys on sexual behavior, and class issues revolving around the need for “bourgeois specialists.”  Her conclusion is that Soviet political power was not able to fully and permanently dominate and propagate its views to the culture.  The examples she uses demonstrate the Bolshevik ideal of using surveillance to transform society.  This work is also helpful for English-language access to the material, since many of her primary sources are in Russian.

  • Fox, Michaels. “Glavlit, Censorship, and the Problem of Party Policy in Cultural Affairs,” Soviet Studies, Vol. 44, no. 6 (1922). Pp. 1045-1068. 

Fox argues that the censorship process was the most institutionalized form of party-state involvement in cultural and intellectual affairs during the NEP period.  He looks into differences of opinion on censorship within the party and also on cultural involvement, providing a reminder that Bolshevik policy and goals were not always consistent or coherent.  The NEP was also a period of development of ideas on how to regulate the press, and Fox argues that Glavlit’s activities can serve as an example of the development of the observation, evaluation, and regulation of cultural and intellectual topics.

  • Read, Christopher. Culture and Power in Revolutionary Russia: The Intelligentsia and the Transition from Tsarism to Communism.  London: Macmillan, 1990.

In this book, Read argues that the NEP was not, as is usually claimed, a time of leniency towards culture and education, but that instead Soviet cultural policies were already formed, and so this period was a step in continuity towards Stalinism.  This book is relevant to the topic of surveillance because it covers cultural policy during the 1920s.

  • Heinzen, James. Inventing a Soviet Countryside: State Power and the Transformation of Rural Russia, 1917–1929. Pittsburg UP, 2004.

Heinzen explores the initial Bolshevik attempts to peacefully bridge the gap between the urban Bolshevik leaders and the countryside peasantry through the Commissariat of Agriculture.  He goes on to investigate why their attempts did not succeed.  This is a significant question, since the disparity between the two contributed to the failure of the collectivized system and Soviet agriculture did not recover for decades.  Additionally, the source deals with the ideological underpinnings of these attempts, especially the belief that there was enormous productive potential just waiting to be unleashed.

  • McDonald, Tracy. Face to the Village: The Riazan Countryside under Soviet Rule, 1921–1930. Toronto UP, 2011.

McDonald’s work deals with topics surrounding the issue of the surveillance of the countryside under Soviet rule.  Her three main topics of exploration are: the characteristics of those in rural policing and administrative positions, the reports on local areas that actually reached policymakers in Moscow, and the developing relationship between peasants and policymakers in response to surveillance reports.

  • Hirsch, Francine. Empire of Nations: ethnographic knowledge and the making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005.

This book describes the Bolshevik use of former imperial ethnographers to gather information on the people of Russia through censuses and other methods including developing museum exhibits for education.  Although it is not the primary focus of the books, it helps to illustrate the interplay between information gathering and information dissemination.  It also describes the difficulties and dangers of the ethnographers as non-Party members working under the Bolsheviks.

  • Lloyd, Moya and Andrew Thacker, eds. The Impact of Michel Foucault on the Social Sciences and Humanities. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

This source does not deal directly with the topic at hand, but there are two essays, Thacker’s “Foucault and the Writing of History” (pp. 29-53), and Kevin Magill’s “Surveillance-Free-Subjects” (pp. 54-77), which deal with some of the ideas which underlie surveillance practices and propaganda.  Additionally, these essays may be useful for engaging the conceptual relationship between surveillance and freedom.


Consolidation of Power:

  • Hoffmann, David L. Cultivating the masses: modern state practices and Soviet socialism, 1914-1939. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Hoffman’s book deals with both the destructive and creative forces of Soviet policies.  He takes a similar stance to Holquist, arguing for continuity and the growth of Soviet policies and political ideology out of ambitions to redesign society and mobilize for labor and war.  He emphasizes the use of surveillance to keep track of popular moods, although other historians have rejected the notion that surveillance was about popularity measures.  Chapter 4 focuses specifically on surveillance and propaganda.

  • Hudson, Hugh D. Peasants, political police, and the early Soviet State: surveillance and accommodation under the new economic policy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

This source focuses on the New Economic Policy after the civil war and looks at how the Soviet political police, the Cheka and later the OGPU, investigated and tried to understand the peasantry.  Hudson tracks the development of Bolshevik opinion from sympathetic to a suspicious views of the peasants.  He also looks at the role that these reports played in the institution and continuation of forced collectivization.  This work has been criticized for over-reliance on published sources and assuming a universal peasant worldview.

  • Kenez, Peter. The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet methods of mass mobilization, 1917-1929. New York: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Kenez focuses on the reasons the Bolsheviks considered propaganda to be so important.  He considers Lenin’s Marxism as the sources of the Bolshevik aim to change the very consciousness of the people.  An implication he draws from this is that there was no distinction made between propaganda and education.  He argues that even if people were not totally convinced, they at least began to take Bolshevik ideology for granted.  Describes the development and application of practices of management and use of information, especially in the areas of the press, film, and education.

  • Shelley, Louise L.  “Policing Soviet Society: The Evolution of State Control.” In Law & Social Inquiry, 1990, Vol. 15 (3), pp.479-520.  

Shelley’s article follows the development of state control through the body of the Soviet regular police.  Her primary focus is on policing, not surveillance, emphasizing goal of the police which was to establish order after the civil war.


Primary Sources:

  • Katerina Clark et. Al. eds. Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents, 1917-1953. Yale UP, 2009.

This source is a collection of translated Soviet documents, providing insight into the relationships among the Soviet leaders, as well as the progression of party control, especially in the arts.  It includes introductions and explanatory material to supplement the sources themselves.  Of particular interest here are police reports on individuals under surveillance.

  • Wade, Rex A. ed. Documents of Soviet History: Vol I, the Triumph of Bolshevism, 1917-1919. Academic International Press, 1991.

This anthology of documents focuses on a small period of time, and includes a number of documents concerning the Cheka.  Each source is introduced with a brief paragraph, and there is a general introduction as well.

  • www.soviethistory.org provides summaries of key topics and translations and reproductions of primary documents.  The following images are from this source and illustrate various issues in which surveillance practices would have been active.


All-Union Census Day (1937)

Zakhar Pichurgin: The Collective Farm at Work (1930)

Fight with the Leftovers of the Old Life (1929)

Mikhail Cheremnykh: Financial Report for 1921:  Financial Account for 1921 given by Lenin, Sovnarkom Chairman. This Glavpolitprosvet poster illustrates the success rate of the Soviet government from 1918 to 1921 in a variety of areas, including international relations, economic relations with Europe, the New Economic Policy, hunger and agriculture, agricultural taxes, fuel, metallury, electrification, trade, and the reform of the Cheka.