• Peripheral Histories

Inside the Chita MGB: The Memoir of Junior Lieutenant Leopol’d Avzeger

Cover of Chernyi kabinet. Georgetown University Special Collections, Russell J. Bowen Collection

Phil Kiffer

Leopol’d Avzeger possessed an atypical biography for a late-Stalinist chekist. A Ukrainian Jew born in Polish Drohobych, he became a Soviet citizen in 1939 after the Soviet annexation of western Ukraine. Following wartime service in the Red Army, Avzeger readily agreed to join the Ministry of State Security (MGB) when recruiters visited his unit in 1946, motivated both by an opportunity for upward mobility and a desire to escape the freezing barracks in eastern Siberia. His language skills made him a desirable candidate—he spoke Ukrainian, Yiddish, Polish, and some German in addition to Russian. Avzeger was sent to the MGB directorate in Chita, a Siberian city on the eastern side of lake Baikal. Like many other polyglots, he was assigned to department ‘V’—the organ in charge of postal censorship and perlustration. He began as a censor of military correspondence before transferring to the top secret ‘PK’ (political control) service which processed civilian mail in the Soviet Union. He continued this work until his dismissal in 1953.[1]

Roughly thirty years after the end of his career, Avzeger penned one of the most revealing (and reliable) memoir accounts of the Soviet secret police—Chernyi kabinet: Zapiski tainogo tsenzora MGB (The Black Office: Notes of an MGB secret censor). He states that the purpose of his memoir—penned during the Gorbachev years, the exact date is unclear—is “to open up, to shed light on” the previously unexplored topic of Soviet perlustration.[2] He claims to describe “only that in which I personally participated, what I know in connection to my work, from personal experience so to say.”[3] The goal of this post is to draw attention to this unique and insightful primary source. Avzeger’s book provides the historian with a detailed picture of the intimate, sometimes bizarre, world of a local MGB directorate during late Stalinism, enabling us to see the secret police apparatus through the eyes of one of its cogs.

The main theme of the work is the MGB’s regime of secrecy and its effect on the personal lives of MGB employees. His narrative supports the available archival material while simultaneously addressing silences in the official record. This regime was all encompassing and leaks were a major societal problem in the eyes of the security organs. A state secret, Avzeger contends, was any information “that sharply diverged from what appeared in print,” ranging from negative sentiments to factual, but embarrassing events.[4] Censors were responsible for policing the circulation of these ‘secrets’ and tasked with either confiscating the offending letter or copying the offensive sentences before allowing it to proceed to the addressee. Summary reports from the Ukrainian PK service support this account and descriptions of floods, failed harvests, and industrial accidents are all listed as grounds for confiscation.[5] Avzeger claims that “only letters of familial, every-day, friendly, [and] intimate content, and likewise various messages from the party press and radio not containing any analysis or views objectionable to [Soviet] power” were allowed to pass through completely unmolested.[6]

Section of monthly report from the Ukrainian PK service listing the categories of domestic post subject to confiscation. SBU, f. 16, op. 1, d. 641, l. 91-3.

However, secrecy needed to be practiced, not just policed. Maintaining the cover of the PK service itself was a top priority. He describes, not without a hint of pride, how his department managed to run an office in a public post office undetected for years. This feat demanded incredible discipline from MGB employees, including strict windows for entering and exiting the building for each individual.[7] These demands, however, proved taxing on a personal level as work inevitably bled into the personal lives of chekists: “We, employees of the MGB, lived some ghostly otherworldly life. We could not allow ourselves to have friends, say whatever came to mind, travel wherever we wanted, [or] even establish a casual affair or simply flirt.” During the first half of his career, Avzeger and his colleagues managed to compensate for these hardships by occasionally meeting with each other to drink and fraternize. But this did not last. The organization of a “quiet” gathering of MGB staff to celebrate the end of the 1940s resulted in a massive scandal after it emerged that one of the division leaders took photographs of the event.[8] There would be no cheerful gatherings of Chita’s chekists in the 1950s.

The obsession with secrecy also affected the relationship between the MGB and the Party. Needless to say, all employees involved in secret work needed to be affiliated with the Party. Summary reports from the PK service list the typical party activities undertaken by the cell in a given period ranging from lectures on Lenin to daily newspaper readings.[9] However, the relationship between the MGB and the KP was strained and the security organs’ conspiratorial rules could be bent when it came to Party work. For example, despite his status as a secret employee, Avzeger was drafted to participate in the MGB’s public agitational work ahead of elections to the Supreme Soviet.[10]

The MGB carefully guarded the details of its work from local Party officials. Avzeger recounts the anxiety generated by a visit from the first secretary of the Chita gorkom, a certain Pakhomov, to the Chita PK party cell. The cell’s existence, like that of PK, was secret and known only to the secretary and his deputy. Despite being subordinate to Pakhomov, the visit required special permission from the oblast directorate of the MGB, and prophylactic measures were taken to prevent the secretary from ascertaining the physical location of the office. Upon his arrival, “‘The tools of the trade’ were taken away, the desks and shelves cleared, the [secret] rooms concealed in the interior.”[11] The party was clearly an unwelcome guest in the chekists’ inner sanctum.

According to Avzeger, even the family dynamics of MGB men were not spared the effects of the regime of secrecy. He notes that, “Back in Tsarist Russia the law did not allow officers to marry without the permission of their commander. This same law, in practice, applied to the MGB as well.”[12] He recounts a “scandal” that arose after the discovery that the grandfather of an officer’s fiancé had been repressed. The officer in question was informed, in “no uncertain terms,” that “if [he] were to marry, both he and his mother would be dismissed from the organs.”[13] Consequently, intermarriage amongst chekists was popular because it was politically safe. Avzeger himself married into a “chekist family.”[14] Similarly, the MGB often hired the spouses of employees—they were viewed as more trustworthy and likewise, by virtue of their marriage, had already passed a background check. Interestingly, this unofficial policy ended up providing the bulk of the staff for the PK service. Avzeger explains, “Censors had an eight-hour workday,” unlike other departments where hours were often long and irregular. “That’s why many of the directorate’s employees tried to place their wives in censorship, it allowed them to use the evenings to run the household, to raise the kids.”[15]

Thanks to the opening of secret police archives across the former Soviet Union, historians can no longer ignore the history of the Soviet Security organs due to a lack of sources. However, these sources come with a set of new problems. The documents produced by the KGB and its predecessor organizations are, as a rule, formulaic, dull, and intentionally vague—a product of the chekist obsession with ‘conspirativity’ and the strict compartmentalization of information. Avzeger’s work is especially valuable to historians in the wake of the recent wave of declassification because it helps us to address gaps in the archival record, shedding light on both the professional and personal lives of MGB employees. Likewise, a strength of the memoir is its focus on the local, the provincial, and the intimate elements of the secret police. Avzeger strips secret service work of its romantic associations and reveals its banality, loneliness, and absurdity. It suggests the importance of studying the Soviet security organs from the bottom up, as the paper record at the top of the chekist pyramid hardly reflected the reality on the ground. Chernyi kabinet is a valuable source for understanding the Soviet secret police precisely because of its author’s role in the MGB. Reflecting on his career as a chekist he simply states, “I was a cog.”[16]

Photo of Avzeger in 1953 after his dismissal from the MGB. Avzeger, Chernyi kabinet, insert between 152 and 153

Phil Kiffer is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. His dissertation examines practices of domestic surveillance and the culture of secret policing in the postwar Soviet Union. Other research interests include the development and evolution of bureaucratic practices and culture, local government in Imperial Russia, and dissent. He tweets @Phil_Kiffer

[1] Avzeger alleges that he was dismissed as part of an order (top secret order No. 17) to purge all Jews from the security organs—he quit the party, secured permission to move to Poland in 1957, and from there struggled fruitlessly for authorization to emigrate to Israel before eventually succeeding in 1966. See Leopol’d Avzeger, Chernyi kabinet: Zapiski tainogo tsenzora MGB (Tel-Aviv: Khoken), 246-8.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 68.

[4] Ibid., 170.

[5] For example, see Haluzevyi derzhavnyi arkhiv Sluzhby bezpeky Ukraïny (SBU), f. 16, op. 1, d. 596, l. 26-8; SBU f. 16, op. 1, d. 641, l. 91-3.

[6] Avzeger, Chernyi kabinet, 85; 84; 121.

[7] Ibid., 116.

[8] Avzeger, Chernyi kabinet, 202.

[9] For example, see SBU, f. 16, op. 1, d. 600, l. 117.

[10]Avzeger, Chernyi kabinet, 196.

[11] Ibid., 215-6.

[12] Ibid., 211.

[13] Ibid., 209.

[14] Ibid., 65-6.

[15] Ibid., 32.

[16] Ibid., 249.


© 2018 by Peripheral Histories.

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