Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Department of Modern and Contemporary History
Center for the Study of the History of Religion and the Church
The Secret Service and Religious Communities in the Soviet Union:
Mechanisms of Collaboration, Survival strategies, and Sources.
27th-28th October, 2021
(Organizers: Dr Alexey Beglov, Dr Nadezhda Beliakova)
At the turn of the 1980s-1990s, at first in the USSR, and then in the independent states that emerged on its ruins, various media outlets were swept by a wave of "exposures" of clergymen belonging to various Christian denominations, who were ousted for their cooperation with the KGB. Very soon these "revelations" became part of a ramified critical discourse produced by political groups or "alternative" religious communities and directed against the old religious elites.
Years passed, many archival sources were de-classified, but the issue of collaboration of religious leaders and ordinary believers with the secret police in the USSR still remains highly politicized. Within the framework of this symposium, we would like to consider the issue of cooperation of religious organizations, both their leaders and ordinary believers, with the special services of the Soviet state from an academic standpoint, without emotional assessments and political conclusions, as a historical phenomenon corresponding to the Soviet period. We want to understand mechanisms of cooperation and outline ways to further study them in the context of relatively limited historical sources available to scholars. It seems important to us to explore the agency, motives and voices of both parts within the phenomenon of collaboration: the secret police and their agents, and religious communities with their clergy and ordinary believers.
Geographically we limit our research focus only to the USSR since we are convinced that comparative studies that include historical experiences from other Eastern and Central European countries are a separate research task that can be set only after an in-depth exploration of these practices in the Soviet Union (which in many ways formed a model for the secret police in other countries of the Eastern bloc). Chronologically, we propose to consider the entire Soviet period and try to trace the evolution of strategies and mechanisms deployed by the security services in their work with religious leaders and believers.
We expect the participants to address the following questions:
- How can we define collaboration or cooperation with special services? To what extent did signing an agreement to cooperate make a clergyman an agent of the special services? In which historical cases and contexts can we assertively talk about collaboration and when it requires a more nuanced approach?
- Who could initiate cooperation? How different were the technologies of agent recruitment in different periods and was it possible to avoid the encounter with the security services? What other strategies did the secret police deploy in their work with religious groups and individual believers (obtaining information, coercion into “proper” behaviour beneficial to the authorities, provocation ...)?
- Did the security services take different approaches to different confessions? For instance, were an Orthodox bishop and a rabbi recruited differently? Whether and how did the secret police strategies differ from region to region and how believers responded to encounters with the security services: did they cooperate differently in Siberia and the Urals, in Ukraine, in central Russia and in the Baltic states?
- Can we trace the evolution in the mechanisms of work of the security services with religious communities from the 1920s to the 1930s, from the 1930s to the 1940s and from the 1940s to the 1960s and beyond?
- What models of interaction with the security services have been developed in the religious environment? What was the agency of believers in their encounters with the “organs” or they were rather passive participants in this cooperation? When and how did the “spy” discourse emerge along with the practice of denunciation of “KGB agents” and “informers” amongst various religious communities?
- In one of her presentations, T. Vagramenko has argued that collaboration with the security services became one of the survival strategies for the believers who faced religious persecutions. If that was the case, what did these survival strategies mean for both religious communities and individual believers? What was the goal and who benefited – i.e. “survived” – as an outcome of these compromise strategies, an entire religious community or only its leaders?
- What were the implications and outcomes of collaboration for the communities and their leaders? Can we trace whether or how the daily religious life of believers and/or religious structures were transformed under the influence of agents? And whether and how did the “spy” discourse generated conflicts and caused a split within the religious environment? That is, did the activity of agents influence the emergence of parallel structures within religious communities?
- What sources can we use for an in-depth exploration of these phenomena? Which sources should be regarded as essential and additional, what is the potential of different types of sources and what is their availability in different regions? How can we use oral history and religious community memories to fill the existing gaps in this lesser-known history of surveillance and collaboration? What are the possible approaches and perspectives in studying the phenomenon of collaboration?
The symposium will be held on October 27-28, 2021 in an online format with live streaming on the YouTube channel of the Centre for the Study of the History of Religion and Church History of the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The Programme could be found here.
To participate in the symposium, please send your applications to: email@example.com. In the application, please indicate your name, place of work and area of professional interest.
15 Sep 2021