LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 44, No.3 - Fall 1998
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1998 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Louise I. Shelley, Policing Soviet Society: The Evolution of State Control (New York: Routledge, 1996), 269 p.
The Soviet Union's KGB has often been viewed as the primary form of security control within the former Soviet Union. Considerable scrutiny was focused on the KGB both during and after the Cold War in books, journal articles and memoirs of defectors and those who fought against it. However, the KGB was not the main form of social control; that dubious honor belongs to the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD, Ministerstvo Vnutrennych Del). Despite being the result of splitting the NKVD into two entities, the MVD remained virtually unknown to most western observers. Dr. Louise Shelley's book, Policing Soviet Society, unveils the mysterious MVD and gives the reader a well-guided tour through the MVD's history, structure, and personnel. Her thesis, supported by interviews and other primary sources, is that the current Russian MVD is a logical continuation of what developed under the Soviets and that nobody should be surprised at the extent of problems the MVD is facing. The presentation is logical and powerful.
The MVD was, and some would argue remains, a mixture of a continental police force, similar to France's and Germany's, and colonial police. While responsible for combating crime in the traditional police sense, it was also responsible for functions that an American would not associate with the police. These functions including internal passport control, monitoring health regulations, and the control of food supplies provided yet another means to the ultimate purpose of the MVD, control of the Soviet citizenry. Another feature of the Russian police system was and remains the fact that it has its own military forces complete with armored vehicles and tanks. For the most part these were the forces used in Chechnya, not the regular military, which allowed Yeltsin to maintain the illusion that it was "an internal affair."
While western police forces developed the concept of making the police subordinate to the rule of law, this never came to pass in the Soviet Union. Like the KGB, the MVD was ultimately responsible to the Communist Party and not the state which allowed it to be used as a means of social coercion. More importantly, this negated the ability of the population to even have the illusion of just administration of the law. What was good for the Communist Party was instituted as "law" and then randomly enforced. This produced waves of arrests as the entire police system concentrated on a particular problem, such as the consumption of alcohol, and ignored other problems.
One continuing concern of the Communist Party was political deviance and it regularly used the MVD to crush such activities. In order to maintain unit cohesion, Soviet officials maintained a high degree of ideological training within the MVD. Competence was not the means of advancing a career within the MVD, rather political loyalty was the ticket to success. Unfortunately, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, depolitization within the security apparatus of the newly independent states (MS) was spotty at best resulting in a system based more around personal loyalty than professionalism. As with the KGB, Yeltsin decided to forego true reform within the security apparatus and allowed MVD to continue defending the ruling elite and not the citizenry.
Compounding these difficulties is the plight of the average member within the MVD. With low wages, poor equipment and an almost indifferent attitude towards personal safety from the top, it is no surprise that corruption is rampant within the MVD. Today the cadre is literally left to fend for themselves as the leadership continues to enjoy disproportionate benefits and many times seems to be in cahoots with organized crime. Moreover, coupled with the disastrous performance in Chechnya morale within the MVD is dangerously low.
Shelley effectively argues that these factors prevented the MVD from becoming the professional and effective forces that the western world enjoys. Until a thorough housecleaning takes place, the MVD of many republics will continue to be second rate police force and may even prove an impediment to the continuation of democracy.
This book is highly recommended for those interested in understanding one of the fundamental control mechanisms of the former Soviet Union. The historical record the book puts forward provides the reader with a firm grasp of the situation within the MVD prior to the collapse of Communism and the subsequent democracy. Moreover, Shelley's Russian language skills, her contacts within the MVD, and years of experience studying the Soviet and Russian police systems provide her with a bounty of primary sources which she then uses to effectively present her case.
Tomas J. Skučas