American diplomats, foreign policy experts, and politicians desperately want to believe that the Soviet leaders are essentially like us and that, fundamentally, they want the same things as we do.

The Soviets encourage this kind of thinking with their proposals for disarmament, trade, and detente, and with their laments over the madness of the current arms race and the millions of Russians who perished in the last world war.

But while the Soviets beat their breasts about the 20 million dead in World War II, they remain tight-lipped and silent about the estimated 30 to 70 million citizens killed by the Soviet secret police on orders from the Communist Party. That is why Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKVD Politics 1936-1939 by Robert Conquest is an important book. A short book, dense with names, dates, appendices, and footnotes. Inside Stalin’s Secret Police traces the demise of NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) leader Genrikh Yagoda in the autumn of 1936 and the ascent of Nikolai Yeshov as head of the secret police. In studying available official and Samizdat sources. Conquest uncovers the sequence of events which led to Yeshov’s subsequent fall from power and the rise of Lavrenti Beria in late 1938. What Stalin achieved in this time period can be considered in many respects as dramatic a change as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Between 1936 and 1938, 70 percent of the Central Committee and half of the Politburo were shot. In the one-year period beginning in the spring of 1937, an estimated 3,000 NKVD officers were killed. Within two years Stalin personally approved 383 execution lists prepared by Comrade Yeshov, condemning over 400,000 people including several thousand of Russia’s highest ranking military leaders and their wives.

Not only did Stalin liquidate all potential rivals, he also killed off the old-timers like A.S. Kiselev whose only crime was that they could remember what communism had meant before Stalin took over. Harder to document than these killings of party, army, and secret police leaders is the extermination of rank-and-file party members and citizens. How does a scholar determine the precise results of telegrams to NKVD chiefs in the provinces that say: “Exterminate 10,000 [or 15,000] enemies of the people “? In any case, Conquest has assessed those numbers and their significance in The Great Terror (1973). His purpose in this book is to analyze the political dynamics within a group of torturers and executioners, so fundamental to the modern police state.

Conquest’s challenge is to determine how Stalin could kill so much of his leadership so quickly, even as he killed off the executioners.

When Stalin began to solidify his rule in the early 1930’s he determined that the powerful and cohesive secret police must be destroyed. Through transfers, phony trials, patronage promotions, and executions, he split the NKVD, creating a new faction under Nikolai Yeshov, who had none of Genrikh Yagoda’s professional background. Once the new NKVD had completed the purge of the party, the secret police, and the army, Stalin had only to arrange the execution of Yeshov and his henchmen. Of the 92 NKVD central and provincial leaders in 1938, only 10 survived into 1939. Once the bloodletting was finished, Stalin became a hero for ridding the Soviet Union of Yeshov—whose evils were ascribed to private ambition and egomania. Lavrenti Beria took over the NKV’D using the same techniques of transfer, phony trials, awards, promotions, and executions, but most of the dirty work had been done.

Americans still find it incredible that Stalin would weaken his country by executing his political, military, and intellectual leadership at a time of grave military threat from Germany. But no one has yet survived as a Soviet leader who considered anything above his own quest for power. The Soviet leaders we have seen since Stalin—Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and even Andropov and Chernenko—have all been the heirs of the purges. Even a man like Gorbachev, born in 1930, was elected to the Politburo in 1978 by Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and the influential Mikhail Suslov—a party secretary and Politburo member at the time Stalin ruled.

Written from a different perspective and employing different methods, Vladislav Krasnov’s book, Soviet Defectors also provides a wealth of insight into the values and character of the Soviet regime. A former employee of Radio Moscow who defected in 1962, Krasnov received his Ph.D. in Russian literature from the University of Washington.

In the past few years, there has been much sensational publicity about Soviet defectors, including Soviet UN diplomat Arkady Shevchenko and Oleg Gordiyevsky, a KGB station chief in London.

Krasnov approaches his subject—Soviet defectors since 1945—first by a review of the literature, such as it is, related to defections and what defectors themselves have written. Krasnov details the motivations for defection, describes conditions in the Soviet Union, and offers policy recommendations for the U.S.

The basis for much of Krasnov’s book is a remarkable list compiled by the KGB of 470 persons who defected after World War II. Smuggled out of the Soviet Union and first published serially by the National Labor Union of Russian Solidarists in their monthly, Possev, between January 1977 and June of 1978, this list gives not only the names of the defectors but also updated biographical profiles of each person, complete with the sentences pronounced upon them following their defection.

These lists, corroborated by outside sources where possible, give us some understanding of the changing character of Soviet defectors. Under Stalin, defectors were usually poorly educated male military conscripts, mostly Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian. Under Khrushchev, the Berlin Wall made it more difficult for Soviet soldiers to defect. Ship-jumping by the sailors in the merchant marine increased, though, and the non-Slavic nationalities defected in greater numbers than before.

The KGB list ends in 1969, but Krasnov has searched available sources to give us an accurate picture of defectors since then. In the 1970’s, 300,000 Soviets, mostly Jews, immigrated legally. This wave of immigration, tied to detente, the pressure of dissidents, and Western publicity, ended in 1979. Nonetheless, Krasnov lists 230 defectors who have come out of the cold since 1969—a rate of defection higher than the pre-1969 era. In 1984 alone there were 25 documentable cases.

Defectors in this post-1969 era tend to be better educated than before, reflecting the increased travel opportunities in scientific, academic, cultural, and sport exchanges. More women have made it out in recent years, but males still escape much more frequently.

Death sentences are listed for almost half of the defectors on the pre-1969 list, but professionals and intelligence specialists are usually shown more clemency. Apparently Soviet leaders consider at least some defectors to be more valuable alive than dead.

On the pre-1969 KGB list, about one in 20 of the defectors worked for the KGB or GRU. Some defectors are listed as cooperating with “foreign” intelligence services after defection, but Krasnov estimates that no more than 10 percent of the defectors have had an experience in spying prior to defection. He knows of only one case out of 700 where a defector—Ivan Rogalsky—has been proved to be a spy. As the case of Yuri Yurchenko showed, the defector as Soviet spy makes good newspaper copy, but such eases are rare. The Soviets do all they can to make defectors appear to be criminals, but the KGB charged almost none of the pre-1969 defectors with crimes other than defection.

Krasnov’s chapter on “Defection and Detente” records numerous examples of defectors who never made it due to poor response on the part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department. The ease of Simas Kudirka, the Lithuanian shipjumper who was beaten in 1970 by the Soviets on a U.S. Coast Guard ship in U.S. territorial waters and returned to the Soviet ship, was a tragedy that should never have been repeated. Bat even after the establishment of new government mechanisms and procedures to deal with such cases, American officials still sadly mishandled Miroslav Medved when he recently tried to jump ship in the Mississippi River. Krasnov fears that such woeful lapses in judgment will continue until we see Soviet authorities as the thugs they are.

Krasnov wishes to alert the U.S. and other Western countries to the ways in which they might better plan for, take care of, and learn from defectors. He believes defectors should go public rather than seek a secret identity and start from scratch. The publicity, he believes, might protect them, and their professional background also might prove to be an asset rather than something to be hidden. Lacking family, friends, companionship, employment, and a knowledge of our system, is it any wonder that some defectors might think of returning to the Soviet Union? The U.S. interest is served by allocating more resources to assist defectors once they are here so they can contribute their talents and skills in their professions.

Defectors who have not gone underground could also do much to correct American misperceptions of the Soviet Union. Their reports, along with some of the information in Conquest’s book on the Soviet secret police, might be more useful than reading any number of peace proposals.


[Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936-1939, by Robert Conquest; Stanford: Hoover Institution Press]

[Soviet Defectors: The KGB Wanted List, by Vladislav Krasnov; Stanford: Hoover Institution Press]