chapter  5
20 Pages

The Omnipresent Conspiracy: On Soviet Imagery of Politics and Social Relations in the 1930s

In August 1941 a young NKVD officer was taken captive by the Germans. He pretended to be a peasant's son who had studied agronomy and mathematics, before being 'mobilised' to work in the political police in the spring of 1938, at the age of twenty-five. He also pretended to having rendered some services to German intelligence in Riga in 1940. His interrogators were impressed by his willingness to cooperate and to present himself in a favourable light. 1 They were equally impressed by his manifestly sincere conviction that there was hardly any sphere of Soviet society where conspiracies were not present in the 1930s. In some respect the young man was far from being poorly informed. Apparently assigned to the surveillance of Komintern officials and foreign Communists in Moscow, he possessed pertinent information about people who must have been unknown even to police cadres, if they were not specialised in his field. 2

Nevertheless, the interrogators could not help wondering if he was able to distinguish his undeniable familiarity with certain facts and rumours arising out of the NKVD's obsession with the ubiquity of spies and plotters. 3 Indeed, the young man reported a profusion of conspiracies in educational institutions, enterprises and offices as well as in the highest spheres of government in the 1930s. He even presented a chart of the complicated relations among secret organisations of 'leftist' and 'rightist' groups that included defendants in the show trials, commanders of the army and leading officials of the Komintern and the NKVD. 4 Despite his eagerness to seek the favour of his interrogators, he was ready to enter into dispute with them when they objected to his tendency to see spies in entire ethnic

groups, and especially when they reminded him that they knew better who had been working for German intelligence in the Soviet Union: so much that he continued to stick to his opinion concerning an alleged German spy, insisting that he was better informed about the real state of affairs behind the regime's fa<;ade. 5

The young officer's propensity to see a complicated web of conspiracies at the centre of Soviet politics had obviously more than a few things to do with his training at the NKVD and proceeded from a consciously cultivated spy mania in the secret police. Nevertheless, everything points to the assumption that Soviet citizens of the epoch were inclined to lend credit to the regime's propaganda about the subversive activities of plotters and foreign agents. Captured officers seemed to believe that there was something behind the accusations against the high command in 1937.6 At the start of the war, ordinary citizens were ready to accept the idea that the 'whole of our country is full of spies' and to attribute the disastrous military situation to 'high treason' and 'wrecking' in leading circles.7