Victor Serge

What everyone should know about repression

1. The Russian Okhrana
(Part 1)


I. A special kind of policeman

The Okhrana took over in 1881 from the notorious Third Section of the Ministry of the Interior. But it only really developed after 1900, when a new generation of police was put in charge. The old officers of the constabulary, in particular the higher ranks, had considered it contrary to military honour to occupy themselves with certain aspects of police business. The new school overrode such scruples, and undertook to organise the secret police on a scientific basis, to carry out provocation, informing and betrayal inside the revolutionary parties. It was to produce talented, erudite men like the Colonel Spiridovich who has left us a voluminous History of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and a History of the Social-Democratic Party.

Special attention was given to the recruitment, education and professional training of the officers of this police force. At police headquarters, a file was kept on each man, thoroughly documented and including many interesting details. Character, level of education, intelligence and service record were all noted down in an eminently practical spirit. One officer, for example, is described as “limited” – all right for secondary jobs, only requiring firm handling; while another, the file points out, is “inclined to pay court to the ladies”.

Among the many questions on the form, the following are particularly striking: “Does he have a good knowledge of the statutes and programmes of any of the parties? Which parties?” We find that our friend who runs after the ladies “has a good knowledge of Socialist- Revolutionary and anarchist ideas – a passable knowledge of the Social-Democratic Party – and a superficial knowledge of the Polish Socialist Party.” Note the careful grading of learning. But let us carry on examining this same file. Has our policeman “followed courses in the history of the revolutionary movement?” “In which parties has he had secret agents working? How many? Are they intellectuals? Workers?”

Naturally, to train its experts, the Okhrana organised courses in which each party was studied – its origins, its programme, its methods, and even the life-histories of its better-known members.

It should be noted that this Russian police force, trained to do the most sensitive political police work, no longer had anything in common with the local constabularies of Western European countries. Its equivalent is to be found in the secret police of all capitalist states.



II. External surveillance – being followed

At the start, all surveillance is from the outside. This always involves following the individual, getting to know his activities, movements and contacts, and then finding out his plans. “Tailing” sections are developed by all police forces, and the Russian outfit clearly provides us with a prototype of all similar services.

In Russia, “tails”, like the “secret agents” – who in fact were spies and provocateurs – belonged to the Okhrana or Political Police. They were in the investigation service, which could only keep someone under arrest for a month; in general, after that the investigation service would hand its prisoners over to police headquarters, who would pursue inquiries.

External surveillance was the simplest of the services. Its many agents, whose identity photographs we now possess, and, who were paid 50 roubles a month, had only one job: to spy on the person they were assigned to, hour after hour, day after day, with no interruption whatsoever. They were not in principle supposed to know the name of the person nor the aim of the espionage, undoubtedly to prevent betrayal or any blunders. The person under surveillance was given a nickname: Blondie, the Housekeeper, Vladimir, the Coachman, etc. We find these nicknames at the head of the daily reports, bound in thick volumes, in which the agents set out their observations. The reports are written in minute detail and without a gap. The text generally goes more or less like this:

On April 17, at 9.54 a.m., the Housekeeper left home, posted two letters in the postbox on the corner of Pushkin Street; went into various shops on Boulevard X; at 10.30 went into No. 13 Z Street, left at 11.20, etc.

In the most serious cases, two agents spied on the same person unbeknown to each other; their reports were cross-checked and used to complement each other.

These daily reports were sent to the police to be analysed by specialists. These officers – the backroom boys – were dangerously perceptive. They would draw up tables showing a person’s deeds and actions, the number of visits, their length, regularity, etc. Sometimes, these tables brought out the importance of one member’s relationships and his probable influence.

The police chief Zubatov – who around 1905 tried to gain control of the workers’ movement in the great centres, by setting up his own unions in them – brought this system of espionage to its highest level of perfection. His special brigades could follow a man throughout Russia, even throughout Europe, moving with him from one city to the next, from one country to the next. Secret agents did not go short on expenses. The expenses sheet of one of them, for the month of January 1905, gives us a figure for general expenses of 637.35 roubles. To get an idea of the kind of credit a mere informer like this enjoyed, it should just be remembered that at this period a student could easily live on 25 roubles a month. Around 1911 it became customary to send foreign agents abroad to keep watch on émigrés and make contact with the European police. From then on His Imperial Majesty’s informers were at home in every capital city in the world.

The Okhrana had the special mission of seeking out and placing under constant watch those revolutionaries considered the most dangerous, mainly terrorists or members of the Socialist- Revolutionary Party who practised terrorism. Its agents always had to carry with them collections of 50 to 70 photographs – among which we can pick out Savinkov, the late Nathanson, Argunov, Avksentiev (alas!), Karelin, Ovsianikov, Vera Figner, Peshkova (Madame Gorki) and Fabrikant. They also carried copies of Man’s portrait, since the presence of such pictures in a room or a book was regarded as a clue.

One amusing note: external surveillance was used not only against the enemies of the ancien régime. We have records in our possession which show that even the activities and movements of the ministers of the Empire did not escape the vigilance of the police. A Record of the Monitoring of Telephone Conversations at the War Ministry in 1916, for example, tells us how many times a day different members of the court asked after the precarious health of Madame Sukhomlinov!



III. The secrets of provocation

The most important section of the Russian police was unquestionably its “secret service”, a polite name for the provocation agency, whose origins go back to the first revolutionary struggles, developing to an extraordinary degree after the 1905 revolution.

Only policemen (force officers) who had undergone special training, instruction and selection were engaged in the recruitment of agents provocateurs. Their degree of success in this field was taken into account in grading and promoting them. Precise instructions established the very finest details of their relations with their secret collaborators. Finally, highly paid specialists collated all the information supplied by the provocateurs, studied it, sorted it out and catalogued it in reports.

At the Okhrana buildings (16 Fontanka, Petrograd), there was a secret room entered only by the chief of police and the officer in charge of sorting documents. It was the centre of the secret service. Its basic contents consisted of the filing system on the provocateurs, in which we found over 35,000 names. In most cases, though an excess of precautions, the name of the “secret agent” was replaced by a pseudonym.

When, after the triumph of the revolution, these reports fell in their entirety into the comrades’ hands, this made the identification of many of these wretches particularly difficult. The name of the provocateur was to be known to no one but the head of the Okhrana and the officer responsible for maintaining permanent contact with him. Generally only pseudonyms were used, even when the provocateurs signed the monthly receipts for their salaries, which were paid as normally and regularly as to other state employees, for sums ranging from 3, 10 or 15 roubles a month up to a maximum of 150 or 200. But the administration, distrustful of its agents and anxious that police officers should not invent imaginary collaborators, often carried out detailed investigations to check on different branches of their organisation. A fully authorised inspector personally checked up on secret collaborators, interviewed them at his discretion, and either sacked them or gave them a rise. We should add that reports from such inspectors were, as far as possible, carefully checked out against each other.



IV. Directive on the recruitment and operation of agents provocateurs

We turn next to a document which can be taken as the ABC of provocation. It is the Directive on the Secret Service, a 27-page, duplicated, small-format booklet. Our copy (numbered 35) also carries, in the upper corners, the following three warnings: “Highly secret”, “Confidential use”, “Professional secret”. What an insistence on mystery! The reader will will see why.

This document, which reveals a good knowledge of psychology and of practical questions, a remarkably far-sighted intelligence and a very odd mixture of cynicism and official moral hypocrisy, will one day be of interest to the psychologists.

It begins with some general guidelines:

The Political Police must prepare to destroy the revolutionary centres at the moment their activity is greatest and not allow their work to be diverted by dwelling on secondary undertakings.

So the principle is: let the movement develop, the better to liquidate it later on.

Secret agents must be paid at a fixed rate, proportional to services rendered.

The police must:

... take the greatest care not to give away their collaborators. To this end, do not arrest or free them except when other members of equal importance belonging to the same revolutionary organisations may be arrested or freed.

The police must:

help their collaborators to gain the confidence of the revolutionaries.

There follows a chapter on recruitment.

The recruitment of secret agents is the constant preoccupation of the head of Investigation and his collaborators. They must let slip no opportunity of procuring agents, even when it does not seem very hopeful ...

This is an extremely delicate task. Carrying it out involves making contact with political prisoners ...

The following must be considered suitable to enter the service:

Revolutionaries of weak character, those disillusioned with or aggrieved at the party, those living in poverty, those who have escaped from places of exile or are under sentence of exile ...

The Directive recommends a “careful” study of their weaknesses and how to take advantage of them: engage in conversation with their friends and relatives, etc; “constantly increase contacts with workers, witnesses, relatives etc., without ever losing sight of the objective ...”

Extraordinary duplicity of the human mind! I give here a literal translation of three disconcerting lines:

We can make use of revolutionaries living in poverty who, without renouncing their convictions, agree out of necessity to hand over information ...

Were there then such people?

But let us continue.

Placing informers among prisoners is extremely useful.

When a person appears ready to enter the service – that is, when, for example, in addition to knowing a revolutionary to be embittered, in material difficulties, or perhaps disoriented by his own errors, there are also sufficient grounds for charges to get a hold over him:

Capture the whole group to which he belongs and bring the person in question before the chief of police; have serious reasons for charging him, while nonetheless reserving the possibility of freeing him at the same time as other jailed revolutionaries, so as not to cause astonishment.

Interrogate the person individually. To convince him, make use of the quarrels between groups, the mistakes of members, things which have wounded his self-esteem.

Reading these lines, one gets a glimpse of the paternal policeman taking pity on his victim: “Of course, while you go off to do forced labour for your ideas, your Comrade X, who has given you such a bad time, will be doing all right at your expense. What do you expect? The good pay the price for the sinners!”

This may have an effect on a weak person, or someone driven crazy by the years of exile hanging over him ...

So far as possible, have several collaborators in each organisation. The service must direct its collaborators, not be directed by them. Secret agents must never know the information given by their colleagues.

And here is a passage Machiavelli would not have been ashamed of:

A collaborator working in secondary posts in a revolutionary organisation can be promoted within it by means of the arrest of more important members.

Keeping provocation an absolute secret is of course one of the main concerns of the police.

The agent swears to keep his work an absolute secret; on entering the service he should not in the least modify his usual habits.

Relations with him are hedged around with the precautions which it would be difficult to improve upon.

Meetings with him may be assigned only to highly trustworthy colleagues. They will take place in clandestine apartments, consisting of various rooms with no direct communication between them, where, should it be necessary, different visitors can be isolated from each other. The tenant must be in public employment. He will never be able to receive private visits. Nor will he be able to get to know the secret agents or speak to them. He will be obliged to open the door to them in person and check before they go out that there is no-one on the stairs. Interviews will take place in locked rooms. No papers must be left lying about. Care must be taken not to seat any visitor near windows or mirrors. At the least suspicious sign, move apartments. [The provocateur] can under no circumstances present himself at Police Headquarters. He can undertake no important mission without the agreement of his chief.

Meetings were fixed by means of pre-arranged signs. Correspondence was sent to agreed addresses.

Letters from secret collaborators must be written in unrecognisable writing and should only contain ordinary expressions. Use paper and envelopes in keeping with the social standing of the addressee. Write in invisible ink. The collaborator despatches his letters himself. When he receives letters, he is obliged to burn them as soon as he has read them. The addresses used should never be written down.

One serious problem was how to free a secret agent who was arrested with those he had given away. The Directive does not advise resorting to escape in such cases, since:

Escape attracts the attention of the revolutionaries. Before the liquidation of any organisation, consult the secret agents about which people to leave at liberty, so as not to give away our sources of information.



V. A monograph of provocation in Moscow (1912)

Another item chosen from the archives of provocation gives us a clear picture of the extent it had reached. The document in question is a kind of monograph on provocation in Moscow in 1912. It is the report of a high-ranking official, Mr. Vissarianov, commissioned that year to carry out an inspection of the secret service of Moscow.

This Mr. Vissarianov carried out his mission from April 1 to 22. His report forms a thick duplicated booklet. Every provocateur – under a pseudonym of course – is the subject of a detailed note. Some are very curious.

On April 6, 1912, there were in Moscow 55 official agents provocateurs. They were distributed as follows:

Socialist-Revolutionaries, 17; Social-Democrats, 20; anarchists, 3; students (schools movement), 11; philanthropic institutions, etc, 2; scientific societies, 1; Zemstvos, 1. What is more, “the secret service in Moscow also keeps watch on the press, the Octobrists (Cadet or Constitutional Democratic Party), Burtzev’s agents, the Armenians, the extreme right and the Jesuits.”

The collaborators were described in fairly concise reports:

Social-Democratic Party, Bolshevik faction. Portnoi (the Tailor), a wood-turner, intelligent. In the service since 1910. Gets 100 roubles a month. Very well-informed collaborator. Will be candidate to the Duma. Took part in the Prague Bolshevik conference. Out of 5 revolutionaries sent from Russia to this conference, 3 were arrested.

On the question of the Prague conference of the Bolsheviks, our high-ranking officer further congratulated himself on the results obtained by the secret agents. Some had been able to infiltrate the Central Committee, and one of them, an informer, was commissioned by the party to smuggle literature into Russia. “This way we have the whole propaganda supply in our hands,” our policeman affirms.

But a parenthesis is in order here. Yes, at this point they did have the Bolshevik propaganda supply in their hands. But was the effect of this propaganda any the less? Did Lenin’s written words lose any of their value for passing through the wretched hands of informers? The strength of the revolutionary message lies within it, it has only to be heard. It doesn’t matter who transmits it. The success of the Okhrana would really have been decisive if it had been able to prevent the Bolshevik organisations being supplied with literature from abroad. But it was only able to do so to a certain extent, at the risk of exposing its forces.



VI. Files on agents provocateurs

What is an agent provocateur? We have thousands of files which give abundant documentation on these wretched people and their activities. Let’s cast an eye over a few of them:

File 378. Julia Orestovna Serova (alias Pravdivy – the Truthteller – and Ulyanova). When the minister raised a question about the service record of this provocateur, sacked because her cover had been blown, the chief of police replied by enumerating her first-rate achievements. The letter consists of four long pages. I shall summarise it, quoting almost literally:

Julia Orestovna Serova was employed from September 1907 to 1910, in surveillance of the Social-Democratic organisations. Occupying relatively important positions in the party, she was thereby able to render great services, both in Petrograd and in the provinces. A whole series of arrests was brought about thanks to information from her.

In September 1907 she got the Duma deputy, Sergei Saltykov, arrested.

At the end of April 1908 she got 4 members arrested: Rykov, Nogin, “Gregorii” and “Kamenev”.

On May 9, 1908 she got an entire party meeting arrested.

In the autumn of 1908 she got the Central Committee member “Innocent” Dubrovsky arrested.

In February 1909 she had the equipment for a clandestine printing press seized and the party’s passports office raided.

On March 1, 1909 she got the whole of the Petersburg Committee arrested.

She also helped get a band of expropriators arrested (May 1907), had consignments of literature seized, and in particular got the transportation of illegal literature through Vilna blocked. In 1908 she kept us informed of all the meetings of the Central Committee and told us the composition of the committees. In 1909 she took part in a conference of the party abroad and reported to us on it. In 1909 she kept watch on the activities of Alexei Rykov.

Such was her fine service record.

But Serova’s cover was blown in the end. Her husband, a deputy in the Duma, announced in the daily press of the capital that he no longer considered her to be his wife. His meaning was understood. As she could no longer be of service, her superiors in the hierarchy bid her farewell. She fell into poverty. Her file is crammed with letters sent by her to the head of the political police: protestations of loyalty, reminders of services rendered, requests for help.

I have read nothing more afflicting than these letters, written in the nervous, hurried handwriting of a female intellectual. The “retired provocateur”, as she calls herself at one point, appears to be at bay, tormented by poverty, in total moral disarray. How was she to live? Serova was useless with her hands. Her state of inner disorder prevented her from finding a solution – a simple, reasonable job.

On August 16, 1912 she wrote to the chief of police:

My two children, the elder of whom is five years old, have no clothes or shoes. I have no furniture left. I am too poorly dressed to find work. If you do not grant me assistance, I shall be forced to commit suicide

They sent her 150 roubles.

On September 17, in another letter, enclosing a letter for her husband which the chief of police was to be sure to post, she said:

You will see, in the last letter I am writing to my husband, that on the point of putting an end to my life I am still denying having worked for the police. I have decided to put an end to it all. I am neither joking nor trying to attract attention. I no longer believe it is possible for me to begin a new life.

But Serova was not to kill herself. A few days later she was denouncing an old gentleman for concealing arms.

The letters finally amounted to a thick volume. Here is a moving one – a few lines saying farewell to the man who had been her husband:

I have often been bad to you. I had not even written to you until now. But forget all that was bad and remember only our life in common, our work in common, and forgive me. I bid farewell to life. I am tired. I feel that too many things have broken inside me. Far be it from me to curse anyone: but curse the “comrades” all the same!

Where does sincerity begin in these letters? Where does duplicity end? We do not know. We have before us a complex, painful, blemished, prostituted, naked soul.

Nonetheless, the police were not deaf to her entreaties. Each of Serova’s letters, bearing handwritten comments from the head of the service, has the director’s solution noted on it: “Send her 250 roubles”, “Pay out 50 roubles”. The ex-collaborator announces the death of one of her children. “Check it out,” writes the director. Later, she asked them to supply her with a typewriter so that she could learn to type.

The police had none to spare. Towards the end, the letters become more and more pressing.

In the name of my children [she wrote on December 14] I write to you with tears and blood: grant me one last sum of 300 roubles. I will make do with that.

This was agreed, on condition that she left Petrograd. In all, in 1911, Serova received 743 roubles in three payments; in 1912, six payments totalling 788 roubles. At that time it was a considerable sum.

After a final payment made in February 1914, Serova got a little job with the railway administration. She soon lost it for pilfering small sums of money from her workmates. A note in the file says: “Guilty of extortion. No longer worthy of any confidence.” Under the name of Petrova she nonetheless managed to get into the service of the railway police, who found her out and sacked her. In 1915 she again asked for a job as an informer. On January 28, 1917, on the eve of the revolution, this former secretary of a revolutionary committee wrote to “His Excellency, the Chief of Police”, reminding him of her good and faithful service and proposing to keep him informed of the activity of the Social-Democratic Party, which she could get her second husband to join ...

On the eve of the great events one feels to be coming, I suffer at being unable to help you ...

File 383. Osipov – Nicolai Nicolayevich Veretsky, the son of a priest. A student. A secret collaborator from 1903, informing on the Social-Democratic organisation and the school youth of Pavlograd.

Sent to Petersburg by the party in 1905, his mission being to get arms into Finland, he immediately presented himself at police headquarters to receive instructions.

When his comrades became suspicious of him, he was arrested, spent three months in the secret section of the Okhrana, got out and had himself sent abroad “in order to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the revolutionaries”.

I quote literally from the conclusion of one report:

Veretsky gives the impression of being a very intelligent and cultured young man, very modest, conscientious and honest; it has to be said in his favour that he gives the greater part of his salary of 150 roubles to his aged parents.

In 1915 this excellent youth withdrew from the service and still received a further twelve monthly payments of 75 roubles each.

File 317. The Invalid: Vladimir Ivanovich Lorberg. A worker. Writes clumsily. Works in a factory and gets 10 roubles a month.

A proletarian provocateur.

File 81. Sergei Vasilievich Praotsev, son of a member of Narodnaya Volya, boasts of having grown up in a revolutionary environment and of having extensive, useful connections.

There are thousands of similar files in our possession.

Because the lowness and wretchedness of some human beings is unfathomable. We have not yet had access to the files of the secret collaborators whose names are given below. They should, nonetheless, be mentioned here as being characteristic cases: one an able intellectual, the other a popular leader ...

Stanislaw Brzozowski, a Polish writer of considerable talent, looked up to by the youth, and the author of critical essays on Kant, Zola, Mikhaiovsky and Avenarius – “the herald of socialism, in which he saw the most profound synthesis of the human spirit, and which he wanted to make into a philosophical system embracing nature and society” (Naprzod, May 5, 1908) – and author of the revolutionary novel, The Flame. For his report on revolutionary and “progressive” circles, he drew 150 roubles a month from the Okhrana in Warsaw. Father Gapon, the life and soul of the workers’ movement in Petersburg and Moscow before the 1905 revolution; organiser of the workers’ demonstration of January 1905, which was drenched in blood under the windows of the Winter Palace by volleys of rifle fire against the crowd of petitioners, led by two priests carrying a portrait of the Tsar – Father Gapon, the very incarnation of one moment in the Russian Revolution, ended up selling himself to the Okhrana, and, convicted of the crime of provocation, was executed by the Socialist-Revolutionary, Ruthenberg.



VII. A ghost from the past

Even today we are far from having identified all the agents provocateurs of the Okhrana whose files we now have.

Not a month passes without the revolutionary tribunals of the Soviet Union passing judgement on some of these men. They are met and identified by chance. In 1924, one such wretch appeared, coming back to us from a fifty-year past as though with a sudden rush of nausea – he was a real ghost. This spectre called to mind a page of history, which we insert here simply to project into these sordid pages a little of the light of revolutionary heroism.

This agent provocateur had given 37 years’ good service (from 1880 to 1917) and, even as an old man, was wily enough to give the Cheka the slip for seven whole years.

... Around 1879, the 20-year-old student Okladsky, a revolutionary from the age of 15; a member of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) Party, and a terrorist, planned an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II together with Zheliabov. They were going to blow up the imperial train. It passed over the mines without incident. The infernal package had not worked. An accident? So it was thought at the time. But 16 revolutionaries, including Okladsky, had to answer for this “crime”. Okladsky was condemned to death. Was this the beginning of his brilliant career? Or had it already begun? A pardon from the emperor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

It was in any case the beginning of the series of inestimable services Okladsky was to render to the Tsarist police. In the long list of revolutionaries he was to hand over, were four names which are among the finest in our history: Barannikov, Zheliabov, Trigoni and Vera Figner. Of these four, only Vera Nicolaevna Figner survived. She spent twenty years in the Schlüsselberg fortress. Barannikov died there. Trigoni, after suffering twenty years in Schlüsselberg and four in exile in Sakhalin, lived just long enough to see the overthrow of the autocracy before his death in June 1917. Zheliabov died on the gallows.

All these brave figures were leaders of Narodnaya Volya, the first Russian revolutionary party, which, before the birth of the proletarian movement, had declared war on the autocracy. Their programme was for a liberal revolution, which if achieved would have been an enormous step forward for Russia. In a period in which no other action was possible, they employed terrorism, constantly striking at the head of Tsarism, driving it mad sometimes, and on March 1, 1881, beheading it. In the struggle of this handful of heroes against the powerfully-armed old society, were forged the customs, traditions and outlook which, carried forward by the proletariat, were to temper many generations for the victory of October 1917.

Of all these heroes, perhaps the greatest was Alexander Zheliabov, and it was certainly he who rendered the greatest services to the party he had helped to found. Denounced by Okladsky, he was arrested on February 27, 1881, in an apartment on the Nevsky Prospekt, in the company of a young lawyer from Odessa, Trigoni, also a member of the mysterious Executive Committee of Narodnaya Volya. Two days later, the party’s bombs blew Alexander II to pieces in a St Petersburg street. The following day, the legal authorities received an astounding letter from Zheliabov, jailed in the Peter and Paul prison. Rarely has a judiciary and a monarchy met with such defiance. Rarely has the leader of a party carried out his last duty with such pride. The letter said:

If the new sovereign, who receives his sceptre from the hands of the revolution, plans to give the regicides the same punishment as of old; if he plans to execute Ryssakov, it would be a crying injustice to spare my life, since I have made so many attempts on the life of Alexander II, and only chance prevented my participation in his execution. I am very concerned that the government may be putting a higher price on formal justice than on real justice, and adorning the crown of the new monarch with the corpse of a young hero, solely for lack of formal proof against myself, a veteran of the revolution.

With all my heart I protest against this iniquity.

Only cowardice on the part of the government could explain why two gallows should not be raised instead of one.

The new Tsar, Alexander III, in fact had six gibbets put up for the regicides. At the last moment, a young woman, Jessy Helfman, who was pregnant, was pardoned. Zheliabov died alongside his companion, Sophia Perovskaya, Ryssakov (who had turned traitor, to no avail), Mikhailov, and the chemist Kibalchich. Mikhaiov had to suffer being hanged three times. Twice, the hangman’s rope broke. Twice, Mikhaiov fell, wrapped in his shroud and hood, and stood up again of his own accord ...

... The provocateur Okladsky, meanwhile, carried on with his services. Among the open-hearted youth who tirelessly “went to the people”, to poverty, prison, exile and death, to open the way for revolution, it was easy enough to deal hidden blows! Scarcely had Okladsky arrived in Kiev, when he handed over Vera Nikolaevna Figner to the police chief Sudekin. Then he worked in Tbilisi as a professional traitor, becoming an expert in the art of forming relationships with the best men there, gaining their friendship and feigning to share their enthusiasm, in order then one day to point the finger and have his comrades buried alive ... and receive the expected gratuity.

In 1889, the imperial police called him to St Petersburg. The Minister, Durnovo, absolving Oksladsky of anything unworthy in his past, turned him into the Hon. Citizen Petrovsky, still of course a revolutionary and the confidant of revolutionaries. He was to remain on “active service” until the revolution of March 1917. Up until 1924 he managed to pass himself off as a peaceful inhabitant of Petrograd. Later, locked up in Leningrad in the very prison where many of his victims had awaited their death, he agreed to write a confession of his life up until the year 1890.

But beyond that date, the old agent provocateur refused to say a word. He would speak only about a past from which scarcely any of the revolutionaries survived, but which he had peopled with martyrs and with dead.

The revolutionary tribunal of Leningrad passed judgement on Okladsky in the first fortnight of January 1925. The revolution is not vengeful. This was a ghost from too remote a past, a past which was dead and buried. The trial, conducted by veterans of the revolution, seemed like a scientific debate on history and psychology. It was a study of the most pitiful of human documents. Okladsky was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.



VIII. Malinovsky

Let us dwell briefly on a case of provocation of which there are several examples in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement: provocation on the part of a party leader. Enter the enigmatic figure of Malinovsky. [1]

One morning in 1918 – the terrible year which followed the October Revolution, with civil war, requisitioning in the countryside, sabotage by technicians, conspiracies, the Czech uprising, foreign intervention, the infamous peace (as Lenin called it) of Brest-Litovsk, two assassination attempts on Vladimir Ilyich himself- one morning in that year, a man quite calmly appeared before the Commandant of the Smolny Institute in Petrograd and said to him:

“I am the provocateur Malinovsky. I ask you to arrest me.”

Humour has a place in all tragedy. Unmoved, the Smolny commandant nearly showed his untimely visitor the door.

“I have no orders to deal with this! And it’s not my job to arrest you!”

“Then take me to the party committee!”

And at the committee offices, he was recognised, with astonishment, as the most execrable, the most contemptible figure in the party. He was arrested.

His career, in brief, was as follows:

The good side: a difficult adolescence, three convictions for thieving. Very gifted, very active, a member of several organisations, so highly thought of that in 1910 he was asked to accept nomination to the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, and was elected to it at the Prague Bolshevik Conference (1912). By the end of that year he was a Bolshevik deputy in the IVth Imperial Duma. In 1913 he was president of the Bolshevik parliamentary faction.

The bad side: Okhrana informer (known as “Ernest”, and later “The Tailor”) from 1907. From 1910, he was on 100 roubles a month (a princely rate). The ex-Chief of Police, Beletsky, says: “Malinovsky was the pride of the service, which was grooming him to be one of the leaders of the party.” He had groups of Bolsheviks arrested in Moscow, Tula, etc; he handed Milyutin, Nogin, Maria Smidovich, Stalin and Sverdlov over to the police. He made over secret party archives to the Okhrana. He was even elected to the Duma with the discreet but effective help of the police ...

Once exposed, he received hefty compensation from the Ministry of the Interior and disappeared. The war intervened. Taken prisoner in the fighting, he became an active member again in the concentration camps. Finally he returned to Russia, to proclaim to the revolutionary tribunal: “Have me shot!” He maintained that he had suffered enormously from his dual existence; that he had only really understood the revolution too late; that he had let himself be drawn on by ambition and the spirit of adventure. Krylenko mercilessly refuted this argument, sincere though it may have been: “The adventurer is playing his last card!” he said.

A revolution cannot halt to decipher psychological enigmas. Nor can it run the risk of being deceived once again by a turbulent, impassioned actor. The revolutionary tribunal delivered the verdict demanded by both the accuser and the accused. That same night, a few hours later, Malinovsky was crossing an isolated courtyard in the Kremlin when he suddenly received a bullet in the back of the neck.



IX. The mentality of the provocateur. Provocation and the Communist Party

This brings us to the question of the psychology of the provocateur. It is certainly a morbid psychology, but that should not surprise us unduly. We have seen, in the Okhrana’s Directive, what kind of people the police “work on” and what methods they use. Someone like Serova, considered a weak character, living in poverty, works courageously as a party member. She is arrested. Abruptly torn out of her normal existence, she feels lost. Forced labour awaits her, perhaps the gallows. Or else she could say a word, lust one word, about someone who actually had done her some wrong ... She hesitates. An instant of cowardice is enough; and there is plenty of cowardice in the depths of a human being. The most terrible thing is that from now on, she will no longer be able to turn back ... They have her now. If she refuses to go on, they will throw her first betrayal in her face in open court. As time passes she will become accustomed to the material advantages of this odious situation, all the more because she will feel perfectly secure that her activity is a secret ...

But there are not only people who are agents out of cowardice; there are, much more dangerously, those dilettantes and adventurers who believe in nothing, indifferent to the ideal they have been serving, taken by the idea of danger, intrigue, conspiracy, a complicated game in which they can make fools of everyone. They may have talent, their role may be almost undetectable. Such Malinovsky appears to have been. The Russian literature of the period following the defeat of 1905 offers us several similarly perverted psychological cases. The illegal revolutionary – above all the terrorist – acquires a terrible cast of mind, a formidable will, daring, love of danger ... If then, following a common shift of mentality, under the influence of petty personal experiences – failures, disillusionment, intellectual deviations – or of temporary defeats of the movement, it turns out that he loses his idealism, what is to become of him? If he really is strong, he will steer clear of neuroticism and suicide; but in some cases he may become a faithless adventurer, to whom all means seem good to attain his personal ends. And provocation is one means which they will certainly try to put to him.

All mass movements involving thousands and thousands of men experience similar murky episodes. This should not surprise us. The action of such parasites has very little power against the vigour and moral strength of the proletariat. We believe that the more proletarian the revolutionary movement, the more clearly and energetically communist it is, the less danger will it face from agents provocateurs. They will probably exist as long as the class battle goes on. But they are individuals to whom the habit of collective thought and work, strict discipline, and action calculated by the masses and inspired by a scientific theory of the social situation, give the least chance of success. There is nothing more opposed to adventurism on a large or small scale, than the broad-based, serious, profound, methodical action of a great Marxist revolutionary party, even in illegality. Communist illegality is not the same as that of the carbonari. Communists do not prepare the insurrection in the same way as the Blanquists. The carbonari and the Blanquists were handfuls of conspirators, led by a few intelligent, energetic idealists. A Communist Party, even if it is numerically weak, always, by virtue of its ideology, represents the proletarian class. It incarnates the class consciousness of hundreds of thousands or millions of men. Its role is immense, since it is the role of the brain and of the whole nervous system, albeit inseparable from the aspirations, needs and activity of the whole proletariat – so that within it the designs of individuals, when they are not in line with the needs of the party – that is, of the proletariat [2] – lose much of their importance.

In this sense, the Communist Party is, among all the revolutionary organisations history has produced up to now, the least vulnerable to the blows of provocation.



X. Provocation – a two-edged weapon

Certain special files contain offers of service addressed to the police. I have looked at random through a tome of foreign correspondence, in which there appear successively “a Danish subject possessing higher education”, and “a Corsican student of good family” asking for employment in the secret police of His Majesty the Tsar of Russia ...

The repeated grants of financial aid to Serova bear witness to the great attention paid by the police to those who served them, even when no longer active. The administration only blacklisted agents caught in flagrante delicto committing fraud or extortion. Described as “blackmailers” and blacklisted, they lost all right to recognition from the State.

The others, however, could get anything they wanted. Postponement or exemption from military service, pardons, amnesties, different favours after being officially sentenced; temporary pensions or travel grants – everything, even favours from the Tsar himself. The Tsar was even known to give long-standing provocateurs new first names and patronymics. The family name and patronymic, according to orthodox doctrine, had religious value; so that the spiritual head of the Russian church was thereby breaking the rules of his own religion. But nothing is too much for a good informer!

Provocation in the end became a real institution. The final count of those who, in the course of twenty years, had been in the revolutionary movement, and had been of service to the police, may vary between 35,000 and 40,000. It is estimated that about half of them were exposed. A few thousand former provocateurs and informers still survive today within Russia, as it has not yet been possible to identify them all. Among this multitude there were men of daring, and even some who played an important role in the revolutionary movement.

At the head of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and its combat organisation, up to 1909, was the engineer Evno Azev, who from 1890 onwards had been sending reports to the police signed with his own name. Azev was one of the organisers of the executions of Grand Duke Sergei, the minister Plehve and many others. It was he who first directed the work of such heroes as Kaliaev and Igor Sazonov, then sent them to their death. [3]

On the Bolshevik Central Committee, and leading its Duma faction, as we have seen, was the secret agent Malinovsky.

Provocation, when it becomes so widely extended, becomes a danger even to the regime it serves, and above all to the men at the head of this regime. It is known, for example, that one of the highest officials of the Ministry of the Interior, the policeman Rachkovsky, knew and approved of the plans for the execution of Plehve and of Grand Duke Sergei. Stolypin [4], well informed on this score, was accompanied whenever he went out by the police chief Gerasimov, whose presence he took to be a guarantee against attacks instigated by provocateurs. Stolypin was nonetheless killed by the anarchist Bagrof, who had belonged to the police.

Provocation, in spite of everything, was still flourishing at the moment the revolution broke out. The agents provocateurs received their last month’s salary in the last few days of February 1917, a week before the overthrow of the autocracy.

Committed revolutionaries’ found themselves tempted to take advantage of provocation. Petrov, the Socialist-Revolutionary, who has left us intensely tragic memoirs, entered the Okhrana the better to fight it. Imprisoned, after meeting with an initial refusal from the chief of police, he pretended to be mad in order to be sent to a place of exile from which he could escape, did so, and came back as a free man to offer his services. But, soon convinced that he had gone too far, and that in spite of himself he was betraying, Petrov committed suicide after executing Colonel Karpov (1909).

The Maximalist [5] Solomon Ryss (Mortimer), the organiser of an extremely daring terrorist group (1906-1907), managed for a time to hoodwink the Service, of which he had become a secret collaborator. The case of Solomon Ryss is a notable, almost unbelievable exception, which can only be explained by the particular habits of the Okhrana and its general disarray after the 1905 revolution. As a general rule, it is impossible to hoodwink the police; impossible for a revolutionary to penetrate its secrets. The most trusted secret agent only has contact with one or two policemen, whom he can get nothing out of; but to whom the least word is of use, even the lies they are told, which are soon brought to light. [6]

The development of provocation, however, often led the Okhrana to set up complicated intrigues in which they did not always have the last word. So, in 1907; it became necessary for their plans for Ryss himself to escape. To achieve this, the police chief himself did not draw the line at crime. Following his instructions, two police officers organised the revolutionary’s escape. Through bad management, the judicial inquiry revealed their part in the affair. Court-martialled and officially stripped of rank by their superiors, they were sentenced to forced labour.



XI. Russian informers abroad. M. Raymond Recouly

The ramifications of the Okhrana of course extended abroad. Their archives contained information on the large number of people then living beyond the frontiers of the Empire, including some who had never been in Russia at all. Although I only came to Russia for the first time in 1919, I found a series of files on myself. The Russian police followed the activities of revolutionaries abroad with the greatest attention. On the case of the Russian anarchists Troianovsky and Kirichek, caught during the war in Paris, I found voluminous files in Petrograd. They included the complete report of the inquiry held in the Paris Palace of Justice. For the rest, be they Russians or foreigners, the anarchists were everywhere kept under special surveillance by the Okhrana, which for that purpose maintained a constant correspondence with the security services of London, Rome, Berlin etc.

In every major capital city there was a Russian police chief in permanent residence. During the war, M. Krassilnikov, officially an adviser at the embassy, occupied this delicate position.

At the time the Russian Revolution broke out, some 15 agents provocateurs were operating in Paris in the different Russian emigré groups. When the last ambassador of the last Tsar had to hand over the legation to a successor appointed by the Provisional Government, a commission consisting of highly-regarded members of the emigré colony in Paris undertook a study of M. Krassilnikov’s papers. They identified the secret agents without difficulty. Among other surprises, they found that a member of the French press, who had always appeared to be a good patriot, had been around the Rue de Grenelle as an informer and spy. He was M. Raymond Recouly, then a journalist on Le Figaro, where he was in charge of the foreign desk. In his secret collaboration with M. Krassilnikov, Recouly, following the rule for informers, had changed his name to the not-very-literary pseudonym of Rat-Catcher. A dog’s name for a dog’s job. The Rat-Catcher reported to the Okhrana on his colleagues in the French press. He put forward Okhrana policy in Le Figaro and elsewhere. He was paid 500 francs a month. His activities are notorious. They can be read about complete, in printed form; they were apparently published in Paris in 1918 in a voluminous report by M. Agafanov, a member of the Paris emigrés’ commission of inquiry into Russian provocateurs in France. The members of this commission – some of whom must still be living in Paris – will certainly not have forgotten the Rat-Catcher Recouly. René Marchand, meanwhile, in 1924, published in L’Humanité proof, taken from the Okhrana’s Petrograd archives, of M. Recouly’s police activity. This gentleman did no more than issue a denial which no-one believed, yet he was not rejected by his colleagues. [7] And for good reason. Given the extent of the corruption of the press by foreign governments, his case was not very remarkable.





1. The Socialist-Revolutionaries in their time had Azev, whose activity was perhaps even more widespread and extraordinary than Malinovsky’s. On this see Jean Longuet’s book, Terroristes et policiers.

2. Conversely, individual or collective initiatives in line with the needs and aspirations of the party – that is, of the proletariat – acquire their greatest effectiveness within it.

3. I. Kaliaev, on the orders of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, executed Grand Duke Sergei (in Moscow in 1905) and was hanged. Igor Sazonov, in the same year, executed the government Minister, Plehve, in St Petersburg. Condemned to death, pardoned, sent to do forced labour, and then amnestied, he committed suicide in Akatui prison a few months before his sentence was due to expire, as a protest against the mistreatment of his fellow prisoners. These two men, of high moral standing, left deep-rooted memories in Russia.

4. Stolypin, the head of the Tsar’s government in the period of implacable reaction following the 1905 revolution, devoted himself to consolidating the regime by means of systematic repression and agrarian reform.

5. Few in number, the Maximalists, dissidents from the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, reproaching it for the corruption of its leaders and opportunist ideology, were primarily intrepid terrorists, though their theories were radical to the point of fantasy. There still are a handful of them, closely bound up with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries.

6. Solomon Ryss was to pay dearly for his boldness. Arrested in the south of Russia, after some risky actions, he had to defend himself, before the judges, against the terrible suspicions of his comrades in arms, refused to go back on “active service” with the Okhrana, and on being sentenced to death, died like a revolutionary.

7. M. Raymond Recouly still proclaims his unqualified patriotism in the bourgeois papers ... But then, money has no smell.


Last updated on 21.3.2004