Talking “Prophylactic Chats” with Fellow-in-Residence Edward Cohn

Authored on:

Apr 25, 2017

It's 1975, Lithuania. You receive a letter in the mail—brief, and on KGB letterhead. "You are invited to a friendly chat at our headquarters," it says. "Next Monday, 10 a.m."

Gulp.

These "chats"—frequent occurrences in Khrushchev-era Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—are the current fascination of Obermannn Fellow-in-Residence Edward Cohn. A professor of history at Grinnell College, Dr. Cohn specializes in the social and political history of the Soviet Union in the decades after World War II and is currently at work on a book about the KGB’s efforts to fight political dissent in the Baltic republics. He is particularly interested in the little-known tactic of profilaktika, or "prophylactic conversations," used by the KGB in the 1960s and 70s as a cost-saving alternative to arresting low-level political offenders.

Upon receiving word of an "anti-Soviet act" committed by a Lithuanian citizen, KGB agents would “invite” the offender to a supposedly informal chat, during which they would pressure him or her to admit having made a mistake and vow to correct it, then attempt to "re-educate" him or her in Soviet values. The KGB claimed they administered these chats to prevent crime, but, according to Dr. Cohn, they also wanted to "demonstrate the power of the secret police and remind their victims that they were being watched."

Listen in to our conversation with Cohn. 

Q: What attracted you to the subject of prophylactic chats?

A: My interest in the KGB's use of prophylactic chats dates back more than ten years, to when I was working on my doctoral dissertation. That project dealt with a somewhat different topic—the processes of expulsion and censure within the Soviet Communist Party—but one of its major themes was the growing intrusion of the Soviet regime into the everyday lives of its citizens after World War II. I even noticed a trend in which local Communist party leaders held "conversations" with rank-and-file Communists who drank too much or abandoned their families, and I was interested in the KGB's use of a similar (but more sinister) form of "chat" as a way to deal with dissent and political unrest. So as I was finishing my first book [The High Title of a Communist], I turned my attention from the Communist Party to the KGB and from Russia to the Baltic republics, where KGB archives are far more accessible.

Q: According to your recent paper, "Coercion, Reeducation, and the Prophylactic Chat," these so-called "chats" seem to have been pretty serious. How did branding these visits as casual help the KGB fulfill its objectives?

A: The use of the term "chat" or "conversation" is fascinating in a lot of ways. KGB documents typically differentiate between a "chat" [beseda] and an "interrogation" [dopros], but when I began my research, I assumed that this was a meaningless distinction and that "chat" was just a euphemistic way to refer to a grilling by the secret police. Euphemistic language like this is common in KGB records, after all: profilaktika victims were "invited"—not summoned—to the KGB's offices, for example. I've also found a lot of examples of people who cried and begged for forgiveness at KGB "chats," suggesting that the event could be pretty intimidating.

Over time, however, I've found that there really were a lot of differences between prophylactic chats and official KGB interrogations. Although some of the profilaktika victims I've interviewed didn't really distinguish between the two, a majority have suggested that prophylactic chats were more informal and open-ended. At an interrogation, the KGB wanted concrete information, and often focused on factual questions. At a prophylactic chat, KGB officers wanted to convince their targets to change their behavior, often asking open-ended questions, giving mini-lectures on state policies, trying to get their victims to say that the Soviet system had been good for them, and seeking to intimidate or manipulate their targets into saying that they'd change their ways. They might ask, "You're a smart guy, and life in the USSR has been good for you. You didn't really mean what you said, did you?"

The KGB, then, used the term "chat" for a couple of reasons. It wanted to emphasize that its policies weren't as repressive as they'd been under Stalin, and it saw "chats" as a way to get their victims to change their behavior, rather than just as a means of gathering information. The line between "chats" and "interrogations" wasn't always as clear as KGB officers wanted people to believe, but the differences were real.

Q: Did the KGB come up with the idea of prophylactic chats on their own, or did they see it at work elsewhere—another time, another place? How far back can you trace the idea that the best way to fight the influence of nationalist leaders is to strengthen the values of citizens?

A: The basic idea behind the prophylactic chat would be familiar to most people who've lived under an authoritarian system: no secret police force can arrest everyone who's a potential threat to the regime, so nearly every secret police force will call in at least some wrongdoers to warn them that they're going too far and to intimidate them into changing their behavior. Profilaktika went a little beyond the most typical secret police activities, however. It was more formal than similar attempts to warn wrongdoers in other countries, it often had a more elaborate theoretical justification, and its rhetoric was often based on the language of science and medicine.

My work argues that the KGB started to use prophylactic chats more often, beginning in the 1950s, for a couple of reasons. The country's leaders wanted to show that the system was less repressive than it had been before, so they started emphasizing the "fatherly" concern of the KGB for wrongdoers and the closeness of the secret police to the country's people. There was also a lot of concern with juvenile delinquency, hooliganism, and alcohol in the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s, which led to other efforts (by institutions other than the KGB) to fight crime using "comradely warnings" and renewed efforts at moral education. (There was a worldwide concern with the upbringing of youth at this time, as events in America show.) When it first arose, profilaktika was based partly on typical secret police tactics, partly on the regime's desire to show a less coercive face, and partly on a widespread belief among Soviet officials that the regime needed to fight the root causes of crime through a new focus on education and values.

Q: Can you elaborate on the worldwide concern with the upbringing of youth in the '50s and '60s? How did this manifest in the U.S., and why at that particular time?

A: One of the things that most surprised me in my research was the number of cases I found involving "prophylactic chats" at the KGB involving teenagers or even older pre-teens (say, 12- or 13-year-olds). Since profilaktika was meant to change the behavior of people who were redeemable (and weren't incorrigible enemies of the regime), it didn't surprise me that a lot of profilaktika targets were youth. But in the 1950s and 1960s, there were a lot of cases involving high-school students who formed anti-Soviet youth groups, wrote anti-Soviet leaflets, or wrote anti-Soviet graffiti. They often summoned the kids' parents or teacher as well—a tactic designed to send a signal to families and schools about the sorts of behavior the KGB was worried about.

To some extent, these cases were the result of particular Soviet worries: the regime had been much less willing to talk publicly about social problems in the Stalin years, so after Stalin died in 1953, there was renewed attention to problems like juvenile delinquency and hooliganism. But you see similar worries elsewhere in the world during the 1950s and 1960s. In America, there were growing concerns that television and rock and roll were corrupting youth or that teenagers were lazy, spoiled, or disrespectful toward their elders; then, in the 1960s, some people worried that youth were becoming radical politically. There were a lot of factors behind these worries—economic changes, the rise of the Baby Boom generation, changes in communication—and it's interesting that you can see parallel concerns in a lot of different countries.

Q: How do you think Lithuania regards this chapter of its history? Do you see its current leaders or political climate acknowledging/responding to it in some way? I imagine that Lithuania’s decision to make its secret police archive accessible is a clue here, yes?

A: It's been really interesting to do research in the Baltic states the last few years. As you can imagine, people in the region are quite concerned about Russian foreign policy in the area, especially after events in Ukraine. There can be some political issues around the former KGB archives (especially if archival documents involve people who informed for the secret police during the Soviet era), but the archives are extremely open and people are generally happy to talk about this period in their countries' history.

Q: On the subject of archives, how have you been researching this topic? Have you traveled to Lithuania? 

A: I've spent a lot of time in the Baltic region over the last few years. I began my work at the archives of the Hoover Institution (at Stanford University), which now has a collection of microfilms from the Lithuanian KGB archives. That gave me a great start to my research. Since then, I've spent about 8 months in the three Baltic republics, doing archival work and oral history research in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. I've interviewed more than 20 victims of the KGB and spent a lot of time looking at KGB records, especially in Lithuania, the country whose KGB archive is largest and most accessible. I've also spent some time learning Lithuanian, which is helpful for interviews and reading work by Lithuanian scholars (though most of the KGB documents I need are written in Russian).

Q: Has the Obermann Center residency helped you with this work so far?

A: The Obermann Center has been a great place to work this semester. I've enjoyed participating in the Center's bi-weekly seminar (where I presented a journal article I'm about to submit), and it's been really convenient to be near the UI library and other historians and scholars of Russia.

 

Our thanks to Dr. Cohn for this (non-prophylactic) conversation.

For more on the Obermann Fellows-in-Residence program, please visit https://obermann.uiowa.edu/programs/fellows.