Victor Serge

What everyone should know about repression

1. The Russian Okhrana
(Part 2)


XII. Mail opening and the international police

Krassilnikov also had under his orders a whole team of detectives, informers, and various unspecified office-workers employed on lowly jobs, such as reading the correspondence of revolutionaries (special censorship office, etc.).

In 1913-1914 (and I don’t think it changed in any important respect up until the Revolution) the secret agency of the Okhrana in France was in practice directed by a certain Bittard-Monin, who received 1,000 francs a month. From the receipts for fees signed by his agents I have taken a list of their names and places of residence, as follows:

Secret agents abroad placed under the direction of Bittard-Monin (Paris): E. Invernitzi (Calvi, Corsica), Henri Dunn (Genoa), Sambaine (Paris), A. or R. Sauvard (Cannes), Vogt (Menton), Berthold (Paris), Fontaine (Cap Martin), Henri Neuhaus (Cap Martin), Vincent Vizardelli (Grenoble), Barthes (San Remo), Charles Delangle (San Renio), Georges Coussonet (Cap Martin), O. Rougeaux (Menton), E. Levêque (Cap Martin), Fontana (Cap Martin), Artur Fruntento (Alassis). Sustrov or Surkhanov and David (Paris), Dussossois (Cap Martin), R. Gottlieb (Nice),Godard (Nice), Roselli (Zurich), Mine G Richard (Paris), Jean Abersold (London), J. Bint (Cannes), Karl Voltz (Berlin), Mlle Drouchot, Mine Tiercelin, Mine Fagon, Jollivet, Rivet.

Three people had a pension from the Russian agency in Paris: Widow Farse (or Farce?), Widow Rigo (or Rigault?) and N.N. Shashnikov.

The temporary presence of several agents in Cap Martin or other less important places is due to the need to keep them out of the way. None of these agents found it inconvenient to move for a while.

They had managed to organise a marvellous system of interception throughout Europe. In Petrograd we have bundles of copies of letters exchanged between Paris and Nice, Rome and Geneva, Berlin and London, etc. All of Savinkov’s and Chernov’s correspondence at the time both were living in France, has been preserved in the police archives in Petrograd. Correspondence between Haase and Dan [8] was also intercepted, together with that of many others. How? The concierge or postman of the addressee, or simply a post-office employee – who doubtless received generous remuneration – held onto letters addressed to the person under surveillance for a few hours only – the time needed to copy them. The copies were often made by people who did not know the language used by the writers of the letters: otherwise insignificant mistakes give this away. They also copied the seal and the address, and the copy was sent to Petrograd at top speed.

Naturally, the Russian police abroad collaborated with the local police forces. [9] While the agents provocateurs, unbeknown to all, carried on in their role of revolutionaries, Krassilnikov’s detectives were working around them, officially unknown but in effect harboured and assisted. Little characteristic details show what kind of help they were getting from the French authorities. The agent Francesco Leone, who had been in contact with Burtzev [10], had agreed to hand over, for money, some of M. Bittard-Monin’s secrets. His colleague, Fontana, whose photograph he had stolen, wounded him with a blow from his cane in a cafe near the Gare de Lyon (Paris, June 28, 1913). When the aggressor was arrested and a revolver and two French Security Police identification cards were found on him, he was sent to the police station on the quadruple charge of ’usurping official functions, carrying forbidden arms, wounding and threatening to kill’. Twenty-four hours later he was freed by the intervention of Krassilnikov – after an official denial that he was a Russian police agent. As for the indiscreet Leone, the Russian embassy got him expelled from France. A letter from Krassilnikov informed the head of security of all these incidents and kept him in touch with the moves in hand to get Burtzev deported from Italy.

In another letter, the same Krassilnikov informs the Okhrana that a parliamentary question from the socialists on the operations of the Russian police, which had been in the offing, “is not now to be feared, according to the French authorities. The socialist parliamentarians have other business on hand at the moment.” [11]



XIII. Decoding. Once more on the interception of mail

But what if the revolutionaries wrote their letters in code?

Then the Okhrana turned them over to a genial research worker who decoded the message. And I am assured that he never failed. This outstanding specialist, whose name was Zybin, had gained such a reputation for infallibility that when the March revolution came ... he was kept on. He went over to the service of the new government, which I believe employed him in counter-espionage.

The most varied kinds of code can apparently be deciphered. A calculation of probabilities gives some clue, whether the combinations used are geometrical or arithmetical. One starting point – the smallest key – is enough to decipher a message. To write the letters, I am told, some comrades used to use certain books in which they had previously agreed to mark off given pages. A good psychologist, Zybin found the books and the pages. “Codes based on texts by well-known writers, on a pattern given in the manuals of the revolutionary organisations, following vertical lines of numbers or letters” are worthless, writes ex-policeman M.E. Bakai. [12] Central codes of organisations are most frequently given away by provocateurs or cracked by long, minute and precise work. Bakai considers the best codes in common use are those based on less well-known printed works, Zybin had made himself a whole cabinet of catalogue-drawers and files, in which it was possible immediately to find, for example, the name of all the towns in Russia with a St Alexander Street; the name of all the towns with such-and-such a factory or school; the real names and pseudonyms of all the suspect persons living in the Empire etc. He had alphabetical lists of students, sailors, officers, etc. He would find in a seemingly innocent letter the simple words. “’Blackie’ sent down the High Street tonight”, and further down a phrase referring to a “medical student”. He had only to look up a few of his registers to see if “Blackie” was already on the files, and which town with a faculty of medicine had a High Street. Three or four clues of this kind set him on the track.

With all the monitored or intercepted correspondence, the slightest allusions to particular people were transferred to files, with numbers referring back to the text of the letters. Whole archives were filled with such letters. Three completely ordinary letters, coming from revolutionaries scattered across a region, and making incidental reference to a fourth, could give him away completely.

It should be stressed: the interception of correspondence by the secret agencies – whose existence, as a matter of strictly observed custom, is totally denied by the police, but without which there is no police – is of great importance. The mail of known or suspected persons is opened in the first instance; then there is also a random selection of letters bearing “please forward” on the envelope, others with the envelope addressed in a particular way – those, in a word, which attract attention. The opening of letters at random provides as much useful documentation as the interception of the mail of known revolutionaries. The latter in fact do try to write with caution (although the only worthwhile precaution is really not to mention in letters, even indirectly, anything to do with action), while the ordinary members of the party – the unknown ones – forget the most elementary precautions.

The Okhrana made three copies of letters of interest: one for the mail-opening office, one for police General Headquarters and the other for the local police. The letter would reach its destination. In some cases – for example where invisible ink had to be chemically processed – the police kept the original and sent the addressee a perfectly forged copy; done by another specialist who was a real virtuoso.

The letters were opened by means which varied with the inventiveness of those doing the job: steaming open envelopes, unpeeling lacquered seals (and then replacing them) with heated razor blades, etc. Most often the corners of the envelope are not well sealed. A tool made from a little strip of metal is then slid into the opening, and the letter gently rolled round it, so that it can easily be taken out and put back in without opening the envelope.

The letters intercepted were never handed over to the courts, in order not to shed the least light, even indirectly, on the work of the mail-opening office. They were used purely for making police reports.

The decoding office not only worked on the revolutionaries’ codes. It also collected photographic copies of the diplomatic codes of the great powers ...



XIV. Summarising reports: the diagram method

So far we have only looked at the observation techniques of the Russian police. The procedures are the same whether for an organisation or an individual militant. They proceed in a sense analytically: investigating, noting down, compiling records. After a certain time – possibly a very short time – the police have in their possession four kinds of information on the enemy:

  1. Information from external surveillance (tailing), the results of which are summed up in analytical diagrams, to shed light on the enemy’s activities and movements, habits, acquaintanceships, circle, etc.
  2. Information from the secret service or from informers on his ideas, intentions, work, clandestine activity.
  3. The information which can be gleaned from a very careful reading of the revolutionary press and publications.
  4. Finally, information from his correspondence, or the correspondence of other persons with him, completes the whole.

The degree of accuracy of the information gained by the secret agents of course varied. The general impression the files give is nonetheless of a very high level of accuracy, especially in relation to firmly established organisations. The police reports contain detailed minutes of every secret meeting, summaries of each important speech, copies of every clandestine publication, even the duplicated ones. [13]

We already have the police in possession of abundant information. The work of observation and analysis is done. Following the scientific method, the work of classification and synthesis now begins.

The results are laid out in diagrams.

Let’s unfold one of them. It is entitled, Connections of Boris Savinkov.

This diagram, two feet deep and three feet wide, sums up, so that they can be taken in at a glance, all the data obtained on the terrorist’s connections.

In the centre is a rectangle, in the form of a visiting card, with his name in handwriting. From this rectangle lines spread out linking it to, little coloured circles. Often these are in turn the centres from which other lines go to other circles. And so on. Even the indirect connections of a man can in this way be grasped at once, whatever the number of the intermediaries, conscious or otherwise, who link him up to a given person.

In the diagram of Savinkov’s connections, the red circles which represent his “combat” connections, are divided into three groups of nine, eight and six people, all denoted by name and patronymic. The green circles represent the people with whom he is or was in direct contact, political or other (37 of them); nine yellow circles represent his relatives; the brown circles represent people connected with his friends and acquaintances ... All this is in Petrograd. Other signs show his connections in Kiev. Reading it, we see for example: BS knew Barbara Eduardovna Varkhovskaya, who in turn knew 12 people in Petrograd (names and patronymics, etc.) and 5 in Kiev. It may well be that BS knew nothing of the 12 and the 5. But the police knew who was around him better than he did!

In the case of an organisation – let’s take a series of working diagrams, obviously sketches, of a Socialist-Revolutionary organisation in the province of Vilna. The red circles form, here and there, something like constellations: the lines between them criss-cross to an extraordinary degree. We read: Vilna. A red circle: Ivanov, alias “The Old Man”, street, house number, profession. An arrow links him to Pavel (same information), with dates showing that on February 23 (4-5 pm), on the 27th (at 9pm) and on the 28th (at 4pm) Ivanov called on Pavel. Another arrow links him to Marfa, who visited him at mid-day on the 27th.

And so it goes on, with these lines crossing each other like footsteps in the street. It is a table on which you can follow, hour by hour, the activity of an organisation.



XV. Forensic study, description and ... liquidation

A very useful accessory method of the police should be mentioned here: forensic study (or bertillonage, after Monsieur Bertillon who invented the system), which is very useful for all legal identification purposes. A forensic file is compiled on every arrested person: he is photographed from every angle, from in front, in profile, standing, sitting; measured with the aid of precision instruments (shape and dimension of the skull, the forearm, the foot, hand etc.), examined by experts who classify him scientifically (according to the shape of nose and ear, colour of eyes, scars or marks on the body). His fingerprints are taken; a study of the slightest curves on the skin’s surface can be used, almost infallibly, to detect a person from prints left on a glass or doorknob. In all court cases the forensic files, classified by characteristic signs, supply their quota of information.

The simplest descriptions can be just as dangerous. The angle of an ear, the colour of someone’s eyes, or the shape of the nose can be observed in the street without alerting their attention. These data will be enough for the experienced policeman to identify his man, in spite of changes he may have been able to make in his appearance. A few pre-arranged letters will send a scientific description over the telegraph wires.

... By now the main revolutionaries are perfectly well known. The police are very well informed about the organisation as a whole. All that is left is to make a synthesis, this time concretely. Let’s make a good job of it! And they do: in coloured diagrams, as careful and as artistically-labelled as the work of an architect. The symbols are explained by keys. There is a Plan of the Organisation of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, such as not even the members of its own Central Committee possessed; or diagrams showing the organisation of the Polish Socialist Party, the Jewish Bund, propaganda in the Petrograd factories, etc. All the parties and groups are thoroughly studied.

And not in a platonic way either! We are getting closer to the goal. An elegant drawing reveals to us the Plan for the liquidation of the Social-Democratic organisation of Riga. At the top the Central Committee (4 names) and the propaganda committee (2 names); below, the Riga Committee, linked with 5 groups, with 26 sub-groups under them. In all, 76 names in some 30 units. The only thing left to do is to seize them all in one fell swoop and that will be the end of the whole Social-Democratic organisation of Riga ...



XVI. A scientific study of the revolutionary movement

Once the work was done, those responsible felt a legitimate pride in preserving a record of it. They produced what was virtually a de luxe album of photographs of members of the liquidated organisation. I have in front of me the album on the liquidation of the anarchocommunist group “The Communards” by the Moscow police, in August 1910. Four pictures show the group’s arms and equipment; there follow 18 portraits accompanied by biographical details.

The materials – the reports, files, diagrams etc – which up to now have been used for an immediate, practical purpose, from now onwards are going to be used, in a certain sense, in a scientific spirit.

Each year, the Okhrana published a book purely for its own employees, containing a succinct but complete account of the main cases which had occurred and reports on the current situation of the revolutionary movement.

Voluminous treatises were written on the revolutionary movement for the instruction of new generations of policemen. The history of each party, its origins and development, can be read, with a summary of its ideas and programme, a series of drawings accompanied by explanatory texts showing a plan of the organisation, the resolutions of its most recent meetings and information on the better known members. In short, a brief and complete monograph. The history of the anarchist movement in Russia, for example, will be extraordinarily difficult to reconstruct because of the dispersal of men and groups which took place, the unprecedented losses of this movement during the revolution and finally its disintegration. Nonetheless, we have the good fortune to find in the police archives an excellent, very detailed little volume which sums up this history. It would only take the addition of a few notes and a short preface, and the public would find it a book of very great interest ...

On the larger parties, the Okhrana published thorough works, some of which would be worth reprinting and, taken together, will at some point be very useful: On the Jewish Zionist Movement, 156 pages, large format. Report to the Chief of Police. The Activity of the Social Democracy during the War, 102 closely printed pages. The Position of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party in 1908, etc. These are some of the tides chosen at random among the pamphlets produced on the presses of the imperial police.

The Police Department also brought out periodical news-sheets for the information of the higher-ranking officers.

For the use of the Tsar a single-copy edition was made up of a kind of manuscript review, appearing twelve or fifteen times a year, and recording the slightest incidents concerning the revolutionary movement – isolated arrests, successful raids, acts of repression, disturbances. Nicholas II took it all in. He did not look down on the information gained by the mail-opening service. The reports are often annotated in his own hand.

The Okhrana kept watch not only on the enemies of the autocracy. It was considered a good idea to keep its friends too in hand, and especially to know what they were thinking. The mail-openers made a special examination of the letters of high officials, State councillors, ministers, courtesans and generals, etc. The passages of interest in these letters, listed by date and subject, formed a thick duplicated volume by the end of each quarter, and were read only by two or three powerful persons. General Z’s wife wrote to Princess T ... that she disapproved of the nomination of Monsieur So-and-so to the Imperial Council, and that people were making fun of the minister X in the salons. This was noted down. A minister makes a comment on a bill, a death, a speech. Copied and noted down. Under the heading “Information on public opinion”.



XVII. Protection of the Tsar’s person

The protection of the sacred person of the Tsar required a special apparatus. I have read some thirty pamphlets on how to prepare His Imperial Majesty’s travels by land, sea, rail or car, in the camps, the countryside, the streets. Countless rules governed the organisation of every trip the sovereign made. When he had to pass through certain streets on a procession, the itinerary was studied house by house, window by window, in order to know exactly who lived along the route and who visited them. Plans were made of all the houses, and all the streets the cortege would pass down; drawings were made of the house-fronts showing the number of flats, the names of the tenants, etc., to enable the police to find their way around.

... Several times, in spite of this, Nicholas II’s life was in the hands of the terrorists. It was chance circumstances that saved him – not the Okhrana ...



XVIII. The cost of an execution

In among all the red tape and paperwork of the Tsarist police there abound the saddest of human documents, as we have already seen. Although it is a little outside our subject, I think we should devote a few lines to a series of simple receipts for small sums of money, found enclosed in one of the files. Especially as these little slips of paper appear all too often after the liquidation of revolutionary groups, swelling the files already crammed with details of surveillance and informing. As a kind of epilogue ...

These are the documents which tell us how much an execution cost the Tsarist judicial system. They are the receipts signed by all those who collaborated, directly or indirectly, with the hangman.

All in all, not very dear. The sums to the priest and the doctor are especially modest. The priesthood of the one and the profession of the other after all surely imply devotion to humanity.

Expenses for the execution of the brothers Modat and Djavat Mustapha Ogli,
sentenced to death by the court-martial of the Caucasus


Transportation of the condemned men from the Metek fortress to the prison, paid to the carters


Other expenses


For having dug and filled in two graves (six grave-diggers each signed a receipt for two roubles)


For setting up the gallows


For supervising the job


Travelling expenses for a priest (return)


To the doctor, for the death certificate


To the hangman


Hangman’s travelling expenses


At this point we should perhaps have a chapter headed: Torture. All police forces resort in varying degrees to medieval “interrogation”. In the USA they practise the terrible “Third Degree”. In most of the European countries, torture has become generalised because of the resurgence of the class struggle following the war. The Roumanian security services, the Polish Defence Ministry, the German, Italian, Yugoslavian, Spanish and Bulgarian police – and there must be others we have missed out – frequently resort to it. The Russian Okhrana preceded them in this, though with a certain degree of moderation. Although there were cases, even many cases, of corporal punishment (the knout) in the prisons, the treatment the Russian police meted out to prisoners before the 1905 revolution seems to have been generally more humane than is the case today when workers are arrested in any one of a dozen European countries. After 1905, the Okhrana had torture chambers in Warsaw, Riga, Odessa and apparently in most of the great urban centres.



XIX. Conclusion. Why the revolution was still invincible

The police had to see everything, know, understand and have power over everything. The strength and perfection of their machinery appears all the more terrible because of the unsuspected resources they dragged up from the depth of the human soul.

But nonetheless they were powerless to prevent what happened. For half a century they vainly defended the autocracy against the revolution, which grew stronger every year.

It would in fact be wrong to let oneself be taken in by the apparently perfect mechanism of Tsarist security. It is true that at the top there were some intelligent men, technicians of high professional standing; but the whole machine rested on the work of a mass of ignorant civil servants. In the best prepared reports some quite amusing discrepancies appear. Money oiled the wheels of this enormous machine; and gain is a strong but inadequate stimulus. Nothing great is achieved without disinterestedness. And the autocracy had no disinterested supporters.

Should it still, after the overthrow of March 26, 1917, be necessary to demonstrate, with facts taken from the history of the Russian Revolution, that the efforts of the Head of the Police Department were in vain, we could quote a whole number of arguments like that put forward by the ex-policeman M.E. Bakai. In 1906, after the suppression of the first revolution, when the Chief of Police, Trusevich, reorganised the Okhrana, the revolutionary organisations of Warsaw, and in particular the Polish Socialist Party [14], in the course of the year liquidated 20 military, 7 constables and 56 policemen and wounded 92; in all, they put 179 officers out of action. They also destroyed 149 consignments of excise alcohol. In the preparation of these actions hundreds of men took part, most of them remaining unknown to the police. M.E. Bakai observes that, in periods of revolutionary upsurge, agents provocateurs often lay low; but they reappeared as reaction gained the upper hand. Like carrion crows over the battle-fields.

In 1917, the autocracy fell without the legions of informers, provocateurs, hangmen, policemen, civil guards, Cossacks, judges, generals and priests being able to deflect the unswerving course of history. The reports from the Okhrana, written by General Globachev, affirm that the revolution is close at hand and offer the Tsar vain warnings. Just as the most knowledgeable doctors called to a deathbed can only observe, minute by minute, the progress of the disease, the omniscient police of the Empire watched impotently as the world of Tsarism plunged into the abyss.

For the revolution was the outcome of economic, psychological and moral causes outside their reach. They were doomed to resist helplessly and then succumb. Because it is the eternal illusion of the ruling classes to think that they can remove the effects without getting to the causes, legislate against anarchy or against syndicalism (as in France and the United States), against socialism (as Bismarck did in Germany), or against communism, as they strive to do more or less everywhere today. The same old historical experience. The Roman Empire too persecuted the Christians in vain. Catholicism had people burned at the stake throughout Europe, without defeating the heresy which is the essence of life.

In fact, the Russian police were overtaken by history. Instinctively or consciously, the overwhelming majority of the population gave their sympathy to the enemies of the ancien regime. Their frequent martyrdom brought them some recruits and the admiration of countless others. Among the people, Christians for long centuries, there was an irresistible attraction towards the apostolic life of the propagandists who, renouncing comfort and security, faced prison, Siberian exile and death itself to bring the new evangel to the oppressed. They were the real “salt of the earth”: they were the best, the only bearers of an immense hope, and for this they were persecuted.

On their side they had the only moral strength, the strength of ideas and feelings. The autocracy was no longer a living principle. No-one believed it was necessary. It no longer had any ideologues. Even religion, in the voices of its most sincere thinkers, condemned a regime which now rested solely on the systematic use of violence. The greatest Christians of modern Russia, the Dukhobors and Tolstoyans, were anarchists. But a society which no longer rests on living ideals, and whose basic principles are dead, often survives for a time by sheer weight of inertia.

But in Russian society in the last years of the ancien regime, the new, subversive ideas had acquired irresistible force. Everyone in the working class, the petty bourgeoisie, the army and the navy, the liberal professions – everyone among them who acted and thought, was a revolutionary, that is, a “socialist” of some kind. There was no satisfied middle bourgeoisie as in the countries of Western Europe. The ancien regime was no longer really defended by anyone except the upper clergy, the court nobility, the financiers, and a few politicians, in other words, by a very small aristocracy. Revolutionary ideas therefore found fertile soil everywhere. Over a long period, the nobility and the bourgeoisie gave the flower of their youth to the revolution. When a revolutionary went into hiding, he found many spontaneous, disinterested, devoted helpers. When he was arrested it happened more and more frequently that the soldiers in charge of conveying him sympathised with him, and among the jailers he almost found “comrades”. So much so that in most prisons it was easy to communicate illegally with the outside world. This sympathy also made escape easier. Gershuni, condemned to death and transferred from one prison to another, found policemen who became “friends”. Burtzev, in his fight against provocation, gained valuable collaboration from a high-ranking official of the Ministry of the Interior, a Mr Lopukhin, who happened to be an honest man, and from a former policeman, Bakai. I knew a woman revolutionary who had once been a prison warder. Cases of “screws” who were converted by prisoners were not at all rare. As an index of the attitude of the most backward elements of the population – from a revolutionary point of view – these facts are symptomatic.

And these are only the apparent, superficial causes, superimposed on other, deeper ones. The power of ideas, the moral strength, organisation and mentality of the revolutionaries were only the results of an economic situation which was developing towards revolution. The Russian autocracy incarnated the power of an aristocracy of great landowners and a financial oligarchy subjected to foreign influences which were in turn hampered by the existence of institutions so unfavourable to the development of the bourgeoisie. Few in number, deprived of political influence, and discontented, the middle class of the towns gave their children – student youth and intellectuals – to the revolution, a liberal revolution of course, not seeing the workers and muzhiks coming up the line. The great industrial, commercial and financial bourgeoisie was restless, wanting an “English-style” constitutional monarchy, in which the power would naturally fall to them. Weighed down by taxes, a prey in peacetime, in the period of great prosperity in Europe, to periodic famine, demoralised by the vodka monopoly, brutally exploited by the priest, the policeman, the bureaucrat and the big landowner, the rural masses, after over half a century, enthusiastically greeted the call of the revolutionaries who had forsaken their class: “Peasants, seize the land!” And as these masses supplied the army with the overwhelming majority of its ranks, the cannon-fodder for Lyaoyang and Mukden, and the scourge of all uprisings, the army, with the military organisations of the clandestine parties working within it – this army kept in obedience by the courts-martial and the “gagging regime” – was in a ferment of bitterness. A working class still young, multiplying as fast as capitalist industry developed, deprived of consciousness, organisations, a press (rights not recognised by the old regime in Russia), oblivious to the attraction of the parliamentary regime, living in hovels, on low wages, the target of arbitrary police action – in short faced with the bare reality of the class struggle – this working class became more and more clearly conscious of its interests with every day that passed. Thirty nationalities conquered or annexed by the Empire, deprived of the elemental right of speaking their own languages, or of the possibility of maintaining their own culture, Russified under the whip, were only kept under the yoke by constant repressive measures. In Poland, in Finland, in the Ukraine and the Baltic countries, in the Caucasus, national revolutions were in gestation, preparing to join forces with the agrarian revolution, the workers’ revolution, the bourgeois revolution ... The Jewish question was coming up everywhere too.

Holding the reins of power was a degenerate dynasty surrounded by imbeciles. The hairdresser Philip treated the shaky health of the heir presumptive by hypnotism. From his private council rooms, Rasputin removed and set up ministries. The generals robbed from the army, the high dignitaries plundered the State. Between this power and the nation, stood a countless bureaucracy, well-oiled with bribes.

In the midst of the masses, were the revolutionary organisations, broad-based and disciplined, constantly active, possessing both vast experience and the prestige and support of a magnificent tradition ...

Such were the profound forces working for the revolution. And it was against them, in the vain hope of stemming the avalanche, that the Okhrana stretched its spindly strands of barbed wire!

In this deplorable situation, the police worked skilfully. Fair enough. They would manage, for example, to “liquidate” the Riga Social-Democratic organisation. Seventy would be taken prisoner, beheading the movement in the area. Imagine for one moment what total “liquidation” means. No-one escaped. And then?

For a start, the imprisonment of the seventy did not go unnoticed. Each of the members was in contact with at least ten people. Seven hundred people, at least, were suddenly faced with the brutal fact of the seizure of honest, brave people, whose only crime was to strive for the common good ... The trial, the sentences, the private dramas involved, brought about an explosion of interest and support for the revolutionaries. If even one of them was able to make his impassioned voice heard from the dock, it could be said with certainty that the organisation, at the sound of this voice, would rise again from the ashes. It was only a question of time.

And then what was to be done with the seventy members in prison? They could only be locked up for a long time or deported to the deserted regions of Siberia. Very good. But in prison – or in Siberia – they find comrades, teachers and pupils. Their enforced leisure obliges them to study, to shape their theoretical ideas. Suffering together, they grow harder, become tempered, impassioned. Sooner or later, escaping, amnestied – through general strikes – or paroled, they will return to the life of society as “veteran” revolutionaries, “illegal” this time, and much stronger than ever. Not all of them of course. Some of them will die on the way; a painful selection process, useful in its own way. And the recollections of the friends who disappeared will make those who survive intransigent ...

In the end, a liquidation is never completely final. The precautions of the revolutionaries will preserve some. The interests of provocation in themselves require some of the prisoners to be liberated. And chance operates in the same way. The ones who “escaped”, although they find themselves in difficult situations, are soon able to take advantage of favourable factors in their circumstances ...

Repression can only really live off fear. But is fear enough to remove necessity, thirst for justice, intelligence, reason, idealism, all the revolutionary forces which express the formidable, profound impulse of the economic factors of a revolution? Relying on intimidation, the reactionaries forget that they will cause more indignation, more hatred, more thirst for martyrdom, than real fear. They only intimidate the weak: they exasperate the best forces and temper the resolution of the strongest.


And the provocateurs?

At first sight, they can cause the revolutionary movement terrible losses. But is this really so?

Due to their help, the police can, of course, multiply their arrests and the “liquidation” of groups. In given circumstances, they can counter the most carefully-laid political plans. They can do away with valiant militants. Provocateurs have often been the direct suppliers of the hangman. This is of course all terrible. But it is also the case that provocation can only wipe out individuals or groups and that it is almost impotent against the revolutionary movement as a whole.

We have seen how an agent provocateur became responsible (in 1912) for bringing Bolshevik propaganda into Russia; how another (Malinovsky) gave speeches written by Lenin in the Duma; how a third organised the execution of Plehve. In the first case, our agent could hand over a considerable quantity of literature to the police; but nonetheless he could not, for fear of blowing his cover at once, hand over all the literature, or even more than a limited quantity. Willy nilly, he did contribute to the circulation. Whether a propaganda leaflet is handed out by a secret agent or a devoted revolutionary, the results are still the same: the essential thing is that it should be read. Whether Plehve’s execution was prepared by Azev or Savinkov doesn’t matter to us. It does not even matter whether it was the result of a struggle between different factions of the police: the important thing is that Plehve disappeared. The interests of the revolution in this case are much more important than those of the wretched little Machiavellis of the Okhrana. When the secret agent Malinovsky acted as Lenin’s voice in the Duma, the Minister of the Interior was wrong to rejoice over the success of his hired agent. Lenin’s words were far more important to the country than the mere voice of a wretch like him. I think then that we can give two definitions of an agent which are complementary, but of which the second is much more significant:

  1. the agent provocateur is a fake revolutionary;
  2. the agent provocateur is a policeman who serves the revolution in spite of himself.

Because he must always appear to be serving it. But in this question there are no appearances. Propaganda, fighting, terrorism, is all reality. There is no way you can be a member half-way or superficially.

Wretches who in a moment of cowardice threw themselves into this swamp paid for it. Recently, in his Untimely Thoughts, Maxim Gorki published a curious letter from an agent provocateur. What the man wrote was something like this: “I was conscious of my baseness, but I also knew that it could not for a single second hold back the triumph of the revolution.”

What is certain is that provocation poisons the struggle. It incites people to terrorism, even to terrorism of a type revolutionaries prefer to abstain from. What is really to be done with a traitor? The idea of pardoning him occurs to no-one. In the duel between the police and the revolutionaries, provocation adds an element of intrigue, suffering, hatred and contempt. Is it more dangerous to the revolution than to the police? I think not. From another standpoint, the provocateurs and the police have a direct interest in ensuring that the revolutionary movement, which is their raison d’être, should always be a threat. In case of need, rather than give up a second source of earnings, they hatch plots themselves, as we have seen. In such cases, the interests of the police are completely in contradiction with those of the regime which it is their job to defend. The manoeuvres of such provocateurs can in a certain sense also be dangerous to the State itself. Azev once organised an attempt on the Tsar’s life, which was frustrated only by totally fortuitous and unforeseen circumstances (one of the revolutionaries renouncing the plan). At that instant, Azev’s personal interest – which was undoubtedly much dearer to him than the security of the Empire – demanded a bold action; within the Socialist-Revolutionary Party he was under a cloud of suspicion which placed his life in danger. On the other hand, it has been raised that the attacks he successfully carried out might have served the designs of some Fouché. It is possible. But such intrigues among those in power only reveal the gangrene of a regime and contribute in no small measure to its fall.

Provocation is much more dangerous in terms of the distrust it sows among revolutionaries. As soon as a few traitors are unmasked, trust disappears from within the organisations. It is a terrible thing, because confidence in the party is the cement of all revolutionary forces. Accusations are murmured about, then said out loud, and usually they cannot be checked out. This causes enormous damage, worse in some ways than that caused by provocation itself. Recall these harrowing cases: Barbès made an accusation against the heroic Blanqui – and Blanqui, in spite of his forty years of solitary confinement, in spite of his exemplary life and his indomitability, could never get rid of the infamous slander. Bakunin was also accused. And what about the victims who were less well known, but not less harmed by the slander? Girier-Lorion, the anarchist, was accused of provocation by the “socialist” deputy Delory; to free himself of this intolerable suspicion, he shot the agents and was taken off to die in prison. Another who met the same fate was also a valiant anarchist, from Belgium: Hartenstein-Sokolov (of the Ghent trial of 1909), who was vilely smeared by the whole socialist press and died in prison as a result ... There is a tradition of it: the enemies of action, the cowards, the well-entrenched ones, the opportunists, are happy to assemble their arsenal – in the sewers! Suspicion and slander are their weapons for discrediting revolutionaries. And we have not seen the end of it yet.

This evil of suspicion and mistrust among us can only be reduced and isolated by a great effort of will. It is necessary, as the condition of any victorious struggle against real provocation – and slanderous accusation of members is playing the game of provocation – that no-one should be accused lightly, and it should also be impossible for an accusation against a revolutionary to be accepted without being investigated. Every time anyone is touched by suspicion, a jury formed of comrades should determine whether it is a well-founded accusation or a slander. These are simple rules which should be observed with inflexible rigour if one wishes to preserve the moral health of revolutionary organisations.

And what is more, however dangerous it is for the individuals concerned, the strength of the agent provocateur should not be overestimated: to a large extent, it is also up to every member to defend himself properly.

The Russian revolutionaries, in their long struggle against the police of the ancien regime, had acquired a very sure practical knowledge of the procedures and methods of the police. If the police were very strong, they were stronger still ... Whatever the perfection of the tables drawn up by the Okhrana specialists on the activity of a given organisation, it is a certainty that it contains gaps. As we said, “liquidation” of a group was rarely complete, because through their precautions, someone would escape. In the highly laborious diagram of Boris Savinkov’s connections, some names are missing; and perhaps the most important ones. The Russian revolutionaries in fact considered that clandestine (illegal) action was subject to unbending rules.

At every turn they asked themselves: “Is this in line with the rules of conspiracy?” [15] The “code of conspiracy” had outstanding theoreticians and practitioners among the great enemies of the autocracy and of capital in Russia. It would be extremely useful to study this in depth. It must contain the simplest rules, precisely those which, because they are so simple, are often forgotten ...

Thanks to this science of conspiracy, the revolutionaries were able to live illegally in the main cities of Russia for months or years at a time. They were able to turn themselves, as the case required, into peddlers, coachmen, “rich foreigners”, servants etc. In each case they had to live out their roles. To blow up the Winter Palace, the worker Stepan Khalturin spent weeks living the life of the workers employed at the palace. [16] In order to keep watch on Plehve in Petrograd, Kaliaev became a coachman. Lenin and Zinoviev, hunted by Kerensky’s police, were able to find a hiding-place in Petrograd and only went out in disguise. Lenin was a factory worker.

Illegal action, over a period, creates habits and an outlook which can be considered the best guarantee against police methods. What talented police, what clever impostors can be compared with revolutionaries who are sure of themselves, circumspect, thoughtful and valiant, who obey a common watchword?

Whatever the perfection of the methods used by the police to keep track of revolutionaries, won’t there always be an irreducible unknown in their movements and actions? Won’t there always be, in the most carefully worked out equations of the enemy, an enormous, fearful x? What traitor, what skilled informer or spy can decipher revolutionary intelligence? Who can measure the strength of revolutionary will?

When you have on your side the laws of history, the interests of the future, the economic and moral needs which lead to revolution, when you know with certainty what you want, what arms you have and what the enemy has; when you have decided on illegal action; when you have confidence in yourself and you work only with those in whom you have confidence; when you know that revolutionary work demands sacrifices and that every lovingly sown seed will bear fruit a hundred times over, then you are invincible.

The proof of this is that the thousands of Okhrana files, the millions of notes from the information services, the magnificent diagrams by its technicians, the works of its scientists, the whole amazing arsenal, is now in the hands of the Russian communists. The police, on the day of revolt, fled the cries of the crowd; those who were caught by the coat-tails took a dive – for good – into the canals of Petrograd. In the main, the officers of the Okhrana were shot. [17] All the provocateurs who could be identified met the same fate. And one day, partly to show to the foreign comrades, we set up in a kind of museum a number of particularly interesting items taken from the secret archives of the police of the Empire... Our exhibition took place in one of the finest halls of the Winter Palace; the visitors could leaf through, by a window between two malachite columns, the jail-book of the Peter and Paul fortress, the sombre Bastille of the Tsars, over whose ancient battlements, on the other side of the River Neva, they could see the red flag flying ...

Those who saw it know that even before it has conquered, the revolution is invincible.





8. Haase was a leader of German Social Democracy killed by a madman in 1919; Dan was a Russian Menshevik.

9. Close collaboration is almost the rule in relations between the police forces of the capitalist states, so that in one sense you can speak of an international police. Concerning the beginnings of collaboration between the Tsarist Okhrana and the Political Police of the 3rd Republic in France, see the curious, detailed account contained in an old book by Ernest Daudet, Histoire diplomatique del’alliance franco-russe, 1894. This shows how the then ministers, Freyssinet, Ribot, and Constant, connived with the Russian ambassador, Morenheim, to procure the arrest of a group of nihilists, who were moreover organised by the informer Landesen (who later, under the name of Harting, rose to a diplomatic career in France, receiving the Legion of Honour). Another equally neglected book, L’alliance franco-russe, by Jules Hansen, confirms this version. Finally, the former Security chief, Goron, tells in his memoirs of how the prefect of Paris asked the Russian police chief in Paris (Rachkovsky) for the collaboration of his agents in keeping watch on certain emigrants (quoted by V. Burtzev). We note these avowals in spite of their date; the authors are above any suspicion of intention to slander the French government.

We should refer here to much more recent events which unfortunately have not made the headlines as they should have, even in the labour press. In February 1922, Nicolau Fort, one of the supposed assassins of the Spanish minister, Dato, and his companion Joaquina Concepcion, was handed over by the German police to the Spanish police, via the French police. The handover of the extradited prisoners took place under the greatest secrecy. The Spanish government paid a substantial reward to the Berlin police. In 1925, under the Herriot government, the French constabulary and police on the Pyrenees frontier on different occasions refused entry to Spanish workers being hunted by Primo de Rivera’s police.

10. A writer and a liberal, Vladimir Burtzev devoted himself to the history of the revolutionary movement and the fight against police provocation. He unasked Azev, Harting-Landesen, and many other provocateurs. He advocated individual terrorism against the ancien regime. After the fail of Turin, lie, like the majority of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, moved rapidly towards the counter-revolution. A friend and colleague of G. Hervé, who favoured intervention in Russia, he was to become a propagandist for Denikin, Kolchak and Wrangel in Paris.

11. The whole of the correspondence between this individual and his superiors is highly instructive. We see the head of Security in Petersburg assuring Mr Krassilnikov that the Russian authorities will in any circumstances deny his role in the Russian police; we see this strange “embassy adviser” (his official title) machinating an extraordinarily complicated intrigue to derail Burtzev’s inquiries. An ex-foreign agent of the Russian police, Jollivet, enters into contact with Burtzev, makes revelations to him and undertakes to keep watch on someone suspected as a provocateur, but in reality he is watching Burtzev himself and informing on him to the Okhrana. Informing and betrayal to the third degree! A maze of intrigue ...

12. Byloe, Le Passé, Paris 1908.

13. The file on surveillance of the Social Democratic organisations, for the year 1912 alone, amounts to 250 thick volumes.

14. It later became a patriotic, governmental party, full of police – Pilsudski’s party.

15. Konspirativno?

16. The carpenter Stepan Khalturin, who in 1878 founded the Southern Union of Russian Workers, was one of the real precursors of the Russian labour movement. A quarter of a century before his time, he conceived that the revolution could be carried out through a general strike. Getting a job as a carpenter among the staff at the Winter Palace, he slept for a long time on a mattress he gradually filled up with dynamite ... Alexander II escaped the explosion of February 5, 1880. Khalturin was hanged two years later, after executing the Kiev Prosecutor, Strelnikov. He had been driven into terrorism by the police provocation which dissolved his group of workers. He is one of the finest and most noble figures of the history of the Russian Revolution.

17. Kerensky’s democratic republic thought it could protect them, and managed to get a few of them abroad.


Last updated on 21.3.2004