Reading, writing, rambling...

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The files

Interesting to read in the newspaper the other day an account by a Romanian journalist of what she read when she finally got access to her Securitate file. Like other communist regimes, Romania controlled its citizens through surveillance and widespread informing. All kinds of perks, advantages and absolutions could be earned by "whispering" to the spooks, the Securitate. The percentage of the population engaged in informing about incidents of suspicious behaviour, inappropriate opinions or just the wrong jokes on the part of neighbours or even family has been variously estimated between 3% - 10%. The Securitate files fill well over 20km of shelving.

The fall of the Berlin Wall had the Stasi, in what would soon cease to be the German Democratic Republic, burning out the motors of umpteen shredders and finally sending to West Germany for better models, as they liquidated the product of an even greater army of informers. Until recently - and maybe still - a roomful of people was engaged in putting the shredded papers back together again at (necessarily) the pace of a snail. Perhaps computers are being used now, but big fish (big transgressors) have been given plenty of time to die.

These East German and Romanian files, once a secret information resource and social control tool for the repressive state, remain open. The KGB equivalent was open for a brief period during the heady and shambolic days of Yeltsin, long enough for the fate of some well-known figures from the creative world to be clarified. For example the files showed how, in a refinement of interrogator cynicism, Isaac Babel the writer was given as his last authorial assignment the task of defining his crime and confessing to it, while KGB officers added a few editorial tweaks. The power exerted, abetted by the levers of torture and threats to family, is total, irresistible.

The self-belief of totalitarianism is also visible here. The files were bulging, comprehensive - why not, when no-one but the "organs" was ever going to see them, in perpetuity? And paradoxically what the files contained was, among the fabrications, a full record of the mutations of fact that had built into the new "truth"; as if there had to be, among the spidery fictions, a bedrock, a setting-off point, a reality.


  1. It would have been fascinating to see the KGB files on my great-uncle, who died of a "sudden heart attack" in 1934. His death was reported in Pravda, but he then ceased ever to have existed. He had been leader of the Communist Party of the USA but was not allowed out of Russia again after returning there for the 1921 International.

  2. There's a great book of photos called The Commissar Vanishes in which successive versions of official photos are printed side by side, showing how disgraced apparachniks became replaced by a bit of balustrade, a view of the canal, etc. There were lots of sudden heart attacks and slow declines too - Gorky for example seems to have been poisoned by his doctor with camphor.