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Religion Under Secret Police Surveillance: An Interview with George F. Kennan Fellow Tatiana Vagramenko

Tatiana Vagramenko

Tatiana Vagramenko is a recent George F. Kennan Fellow at the Kennan Institute. We recently spoke with her about the role of secret police in the development of religious underground movements.

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Q: Describe your background and what brought you to the Wilson Center.

I was born in Crimea when it belonged neither to Russia, nor to Ukraine, but was part of the USSR, the country that no longer exists. My hometown was, and still is, one of the most secularized areas in the region. I remember as a child there was one small Russian Orthodox church and the ruins of the ancient Byzantine church, which people often used as a toilet. Faith in God looked both strange and enigmatic to me.

Then the 1990s arrived, bringing what is sometimes called “the greatest religious revival in human history.” The first foreigner I met in my life was an American Adventist missionary who arrived in our town. He gathered hundreds of people for prayer. Many of my friends and neighbors were baptized in the waters of the Black Sea that summer. The contrast was rather shocking to me.

Since that time, faith and religion stirred my imagination: what makes people change their faith, or keep it even under the threat of death or long-term imprisonment; what makes people travel to the end of the earth to spread the word of God and to save souls or what makes others kill in the name of God. Conversion, religious fundamentalism, religious dissent, non-conformism, and secularism became the focus of my master and then PhD research. I see the Wilson Center, the top 10 think tank worldwide and number one in regional studies (including its oldest and largest regional program the Kennan Institute for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia) as the best place to continue my research on the politics of religion and religious freedom in (post-Soviet) Russia and Ukraine.

Q: How did you become interested in your current research topic? 

I am a social anthropologist and prior to my current project on the KGB archives, I conducted my research in the Russian Arctic. I traveled to northern Siberia, to the lands of nomadic indigenous people who lived in the tundra as reindeer herders and hunters. My focus was the politics of religion in the post-Soviet period; I studied contemporary religious landscape and the international Protestant missionary movements in Russia, which grew in the 1990s and early 2000s. It was when I was in the Arctic that the issue of religion under secret police surveillance aroused my interest. “Every foreign missionary coming here is under the surveillance of the Federal Security Service," said a local official in the snowbound Yamal region, where I did my fieldwork. Blackmail, threats, and anti-religious media campaigns were the reality of those who were colloquially known as sectarians. A Pentecostal minister was arrested and interrogated in the middle of the night, and then the police made him walk home in his slippers when it was minus 20 Celsius outdoors. A Baptist believer was fired from his job as his boss told him, “Sorry, but I don’t need problems here." These stories did not happen in the Soviet Union, but in mid-2000s Russia.

A few years ago, I came across a document from the KGB archives recently opened in Ukraine. The file was about one KGB secret operation against what became known as the religious underground in Soviet Ukraine in the 1950s. This is when I realized that nothing has changed.  The same strategies of surveillance, intrusion, intimidation, and control derived the life of religious minorities now and then. The same organization, the Federal Security Service (FSB), which openly counts its history from 1917 (the year when Cheka was established in post-Revolutionary Russia), is in charge of any expression of religious dissent in Russia, both now and then.

At that moment, I came up with the idea to extend my field into the KGB archives. I traveled to Ukraine and spent several months doing my ethnography in and of the KGB archives. I sifted through thousands pages of what used to be top-secret documentation, looking for stories of KGB secret operations against the religious dissent. As an anthropologist, I was interested in the life stories of believers, informers, and KGB officers, focusing on the entanglements and ambiguities of collaboration and secret police surveillance in the Soviet era. A paragraph or just a few sentences, a marginal note, an image of a person looking straight into the camera on a surveillance photograph (was he an agent?), an indirect citation of an informer’s voice – all these small traces of a bigger story are dispersed in different files and even in different archival collections. I wanted to see what was concealed behind official anti-religious propaganda and how the image of dangerous, destructive, foreign sects (which still dominates the public discourse in present-day Russia) was constructed. My aim was to offer a new perspective on religious-political dialogue in the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine by looking deeper into non-institutionalized negotiations between state authorities (the security services) and marginal religious minorities, stigmatized as illegal sects.

Q: What project are you working on at the Center?

My current project Religion under Surveillance: Religious Dissent and Secret Police Archives in Soviet Ukraine addresses one of the most sensitive issues in the history of religion and socialism – the role of secret police agents and “insider” informers in the development of the Soviet-era religious underground. I examine the Soviet political surveillance system directed against the religious opposition, focusing on the significance of accessing the secret police files in the exercise of post-socialist transitional justice, and the democratization processes in Eastern Europe.

In 2015, on the wave of the Maidan Revolution, Ukraine adopted as series of Decommunization Laws, which included opening the archives of “repressive bodies of the Communist totalitarian regime” from 1917–1991. Regardless of the ambiguity of the laws in general, one of the biggest achievements is the openness of the former KGB archives in Ukraine.

The KGB archive is the hegemonic archive of the authoritarian state. This repository of state secrets is brought to order around as Kathy Ferguson says “a central, system-sustaining perspective.” All documents that eventually landed in the KGB archives – be they surveillance files, reports, circulars, or confiscated photographs, diaries or art – are subordinated to a dominant interpretation: they are turned into the evidence of crime against the Soviet state. However, to continue with Ferguson, this “state-centric archive” has anti-hegemonic potentials, i.e. it can work against itself. In the context of post-Maidan Ukraine, we open dusty files of the country that no longer exists in order to find forgotten memories of the past and to read stories of Soviet regime’s crimes against its own people. My “thick reading” (how else an anthropologist can read!) of the files revealed many other unexpected stories. It unveiled the unseen forms of agency that believers developed within the context of surveillance or while being forced to collaborate with the secret police. Recently I even found a story in which the KGB, ironically, restored a faith in a community’s communication channels and rebuilt their communities. Intriguing enough?

Q: Why do you believe that your research matters to a wider audience?

The European integration of post-socialist societies has highlighted the significance of the unique experience of Soviet-forced secularization and post-Soviet religious revival for processes of democratization and pluralism in society. This is important as an enlarging Europe faces the re-emergence of religion in the public sphere and political life. In some quarters this has prompted a growing distrust and hostility, as religious revival has become associated with extremism and conflicts.

Based on the historical and contemporary experience of Ukraine and Russia, my aim is to challenge the assumption that religion should be considered a threat to democracy and social cohesion. I approach this problem through an exploration of the relationship between processes of marginalization, persecution and resistance during communism and how religious communities created alternative structures that could later be utilized for democratic action. In the Soviet Union, some religious minorities, even from their position of belonging to the persecuted underground, contributed to setting legal parameters of freedom of conscience in the Soviet period and after the dissolution of the USSR.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your research?

Much controversy revolves around the opening of the secret police files in the former Soviet bloc and the role they play in remembering the past. While it has been understood as an index of the transition to democracy, declassified secret police files have often been used for revenge-seeking and power struggles in post-socialist times. The issue of informers is much discussed in the context of lustration and transitional justice in post-socialist countries, oftentimes bringing painful agitation, debates, and mutual accusations of betrayal. Recently opened materials of the Soviet-era secret services can compromise religious groups who survived repression and had underground experience in the Soviet period, as many religious leaders and ordinary believers turned out to be secret agents and collaborators.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are an example of this. The harsh anti-Jehovah’s Witness propaganda in contemporary Russian media – launched in the ways of the old Soviet tradition – is often backed by scandalous revelations from KGB archives. Published soon after Russia’s banning of the Watch Tower Society in 2017, a viral Internet article titled “Jehovists-extremists” accused the Witnesses of being dangerous American spies and the “enemy foothold.” It cites KGB documents from the 1950s, juggling codenames of agents and informers, quoting agent reports and internal circulars taken out of the context. In her study of the relationships between literature, films, and the secret police in twentieth century Eastern Europe, Cristina Vatulescu writes, “Each time we take a file from its shelf, we run a great risk built into the simple act of reading: the risk of bringing to life once again the secret police’s writing of its subject; the risk of becoming co-creators of this story by reading it on its own terms.” The ethics in my archival research remains the dominant issue. What can be opened and what should remain closed? Is a “collaborator” a traitor, or was he/she the victim of the regime too? Can we publish images and stories of state’s repression or is the risk of compromising those involved too great? The boundaries between believers and agents were blurred and uncertain. Furthermore, as the stories I reconstruct in my archival research show, there was often no clear line between the religious dissent and the political center.

Q: What do you hope the impact of your research will be?

In February 2020, seven antifascist activists who played airsoft together were sentenced by a Russian court to terms of 6 to 18 years of imprisonment. “Network case” defendants were charged as members of the terrorist organization. Tortured with electrodes and beaten during their pre-trial detention, they were forced to make necessary “confessions.” Back in the 1930s, a group of former priests, monks and nuns, along with peasant believers dispersed in the Russian and Ukrainian countryside were arrested and tried as members of the “underground counter-revolutionary terrorist organization.” Their formulaic self-denunciatory answers from interrogation protocols, kept nowadays in the KGB archives in Ukraine, is evidence of coercion and intimidation employed by the secret police.  

“Every act of memory is also an act of forgetting,” argues Jane Taylor, co-author of Refiguring the Archive. Many things are being forgotten today in Russia. Many things are repeating again. We need to open the files of the top-secret past and read what is hidden beneath in order to explore the unseen possibilities of our present and our future.

About the Author

Tatiana Vagramenko

Tatiana Vagramenko

George F. Kennan Fellow;
Post-Doctoral Researcher, University College Cork.
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more