Academic journal article Kritika

Perlustration in Imperial Russia

Academic journal article Kritika

Perlustration in Imperial Russia

Article excerpt

V. S. Izmozik, "Chernye kabinety": Istoria rossiiskoiperliustratsii, XVIII-nachalo XX veka ("Black Offices": The History of Russian Perlustration, 18th-Early 20th Centuries). 693 pp. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. ISBN-13 978-5444802373.

Vladlen Semenovich Izmozik, a professor at the Bonch-Bruevich Saint-Petersburg State University of Telecommunications, is incomparably the world expert on late imperial Russia's government-sponsored interception of mail (perliustratsiia), to which he has devoted over 20 years of study and some 30 publications, including this massive book. Perlustration was one of the three principal secret methods of security policing and information gathering before the rise of the electronic wizardry culminating in the exploits of the National Security Agency (and the counterexploits of Edward Snowden). (1) The other two were surveillance by plainclothes policemen and infiltration by secret informants, neither of which has received anything like the detailed and wide-ranging treatment provided by Izmozik. (2) This is somewhat surprising, because both the security police themselves and the revolutionaries they hunted and watched all considered secret informants to be the "linchpin" of the entire system. (3) Yet the disparity of attention probably makes sense, as Izmozik demonstrates in his book, because unlike the other two methods, which evolved late in imperial Russian history and were focused largely on a narrow group of political dissidents, the interception of mail emerged early and had a broad and ever-increasing scope.

In 2003, when I surveyed recent scholarship on the Russian security police for this journal, the field was just coming of age. (4) At that time, the doyenne in terms of expertise and output was Zinaida Peregudova, an archivist at the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), who has helped countless researchers to find their way through the archival labyrinth. (5) Since then, many more studies have appeared, almost entirely in Russia, including many focused on localities and regions, (6) though a few monographs also came out in the West. (7) Now Vladlen Izmozik is just as prominent as Peregudova in security and especially surveillance studies of late imperial Russia. Yet his work also bridges the Great Revolutionary Divide, contributing nearly as significantly to the history of political surveillance in the early Soviet as in the late imperial era. (8) His concept of "political control" (politicheskii kontrol'), by which he means "efforts to ascertain and manage the people's 'mood,' especially their attitudes to the authorities," has been particularly influential. (9)

The book under review is encyclopedic. It draws upon vast unpublished and published documentation, including materials gathered in ten archives in Russia, among them the less pregnable collections of the Federal Security Service (FSB, St. Petersburg branch), the navy, the military, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Izmozik supplies a detailed bibliography, a lengthy index of names, and six appendices. The appendices present key official documents, the revolutionary-era memoir of a leading practitioner of perlustration, prosopographical data on officials engaged in the work, and a list of the shifting locations throughout the empire where it was conducted.

The author begins by distinguishing between what he calls official military censorship (voennaia tsenzurd) of the mail, as well as the judicially imposed inspection of the correspondence of convicts and individuals under police supervision (politseiskii nadzor), which were overt and regulated by laws, and perlustration as such, which was an extralegal practice. Yet the Russian Code on Punishments of 1845 (revised in 1885) stated unambiguously that a government official could not be held liable for exceeding his authority, even when he deviated from established rules, "so long as, in regard to this particular instance or such instances in general, he was doing so on the basis of a directive issued from a higher authority" (13-14). …

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