Skip to main content

Smuggling Across the Soviet Borders: An Interview with Title VIII Research Scholar Andrey Shlyakhter

Image of Andrey Shlyakhter

Andrey Shlyakhter is a Title VIII Research Scholar with the Kennan Institute. We recently asked him to tell us more about his Kennan Institute project titled "Smuggling Across the Soviet Borders: Contraband Trades, Soviet Solutions, and the Shadow Economic Origins of the Iron Curtain, 1917-1932,” and the world of Soviet smugglers.

A Soviet border guard and his dog (1938) at the Revolution Square subway station in Moscow.
A Soviet border guard and his dog (1938) at the Revolution Square subway station in Moscow.

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

I grew up in Leningrad in the eighties and led a happy (one might say privileged) Soviet urban intelligentsia childhood. We came to the US as Jewish refugees before I turned nine. 

For as long as I can remember, I was drawn to old things and the stories they tell; coin collecting was an early passion. Eventually, I realized that I was interested in history. That wasn’t a well-trod path for an immigrant kid, so I also majored in economics, and thought that I was going to law school. But the encouragement of some wonderful Brandeis University history professors caused me to reconsider. So I embarked on a PhD in Soviet history under the guidance of Sheila Fitzpatrick at the University of Chicago.

When I began researching in the Russian archives a dissertation on smuggling across the Soviet borders, what I found most intriguing was that Soviet authorities did not simply respond to smuggling by deploying border guards, stringing up barbed wire, and so on – but that they closely studied the statistics on confiscated contraband in order to fine-tune the domestic production and distribution of commonly-smuggled goods.  In other words, they were “looking under the rug” to see what was really going on and trying to beat smuggling with (centrally-planned) market forces of their own. Felix Dzerzhinsky, best known as the founder of the Soviet political police, but who was also intimately involved in economic planning, was a particularly enthusiastic advocate of this approach. By 1929, Soviet trade officials had even devised a secret system of “contraband coefficients” to determine the share of each border district in allocations of scarce goods based on its estimated share in smuggling.

But then I discovered that what began as an attempt to combat contraband developed into a much more wide-ranging and ambitious effort to transform the country’s border districts into reliable bastions of Soviet power.  Soviet leaders understood that the loyalty of border-area inhabitants would be a decisive factor in the event of war (which they expected was only a matter of time), and that such loyalty was also key to securing the country’s perimeter in peacetime. Soviet authorities attempted to ensure this loyalty in two ways. 

On the one hand, they tried to buy it with material inducements.  So, border areas received special allocations of “commonly-smuggled” goods – but the privileging did not stop there.  At the end of the 1920s, border districts were targeted with higher per-capita investment in healthcare, schooling, and infrastructure.  One chapter I wrote demonstrated that during the Holodomor (the famine that devastated Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1934), mortality rates in the districts along the frontier were significantly lower than in the republic’s interior.  Smuggling was part of the reason for this, but so was the priority provisioning of the border districts with critically-needed food aid.

At the same time, over the course of the 1930s, border areas became subject to increasingly pervasive and brutal policing, including the special purges and wholesale deportations of suspect social and ethnic groups.  And all of this – the privileging and the policing – followed a constantly-refining spatial logic. Both took place within a specially-delineated “border belt,” which was itself divided into strips and zones.  Proximity to the border, or “borderness,” determined both the degree of economic privileging and the intensity of policing. I saw in this carrot-and-stick story a microcosm of the Soviet system as a whole.  So that is the story I began to tell, until I eventually realized that it was too ambitious for the dissertation stage. 

By that point, my advisor had retired, and I had run out of funding.  At around the same time, a college friend invited me to join a startup, now called Hermiona Education, which she had founded to help students from the former USSR attend summer academic programs, high schools, and universities in the US.  I’ve always been interested in entrepreneurship, and the mission of the company appealed to me. I gradually took on a more responsible role, moving from a tutor and educational consultant to Director of Education. I am proud to have played a part, however small, in helping this post-Soviet generation build bridges at this challenging time in East-West relations.

However, while I enjoyed working with students, I missed the research and writing.  Meanwhile, new scholarship had appeared that prompted me to reframe my project. Moreover, we were lucky enough to hire an alumna of my PhD program to gradually take over my responsibilities at Hermiona, which freed me to complete the dissertation.  Finally, a Title VIII Research Scholarship from the Kennan Institute provided some timely encouragement to finish it.

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

I am working on a book manuscript, informed by my dissertation, tentatively titled Smuggling Across the Soviet Borders: Contraband Trades, Soviet Solutions, and the Shadow Economic Origins of the Iron Curtain, 1917-1932.  This is an international history of contraband trade across the Soviet borders during the foundational period of Bolshevik rule. It traces the development of two fundamental features of the Soviet experience: the border and the black market. The border was crucial because Stalin could not have built a totalitarian-type system without controlling the exits. The black market was key to Soviet citizens’ ability to survive. Smuggling of course connects the two, and contraband trade reached an unprecedented scale in Soviet Russia soon after the Bolshevik takeover. The book uncovers the evolution of this trade and its many facets, but my primary argument is actually about how this unprecedented traffic caused the Soviet government to respond: I argue that even as smugglers successfully challenged Soviet power, they also stimulated its aggressive assertion.  In other words, the Soviet struggle with contraband fostered the border control infrastructure, techniques of surveillance, mechanisms of repression, and economic autarky that would make Stalinist isolation possible. And so I argue that the origins of the Iron Curtain lay in the shadows of the Soviet economy.

I am also preparing several articles that draw on this research. The first is based on the chapter I mentioned above, titled “Borderness and Famine: Why did Fewer People Die in Soviet Ukraine’s Border Districts During the Holodomor?” Another, for a proposed journal special issue on the regulation of exit in the modern world, analyzes the growth of the Soviet border guard over the interwar period.  It argues that while these sentries became key to preventing exit, this was not the Soviet leadership’s original motivation for growing the border guard corps. Finally, thanks to the Kennan Institute’s internship program, I am working with an Estonian-speaking research assistant on an article that uncovers the systematic smuggling of valuables out of Soviet Russia by Estonian officials acting both with and without Tallinn’s approval. The arrests of dozens of Estonian diplomatic personnel and their local accomplices in 1922 supplied the Kremlin tangible proof of Western capitalist chicanery, and furnished fodder for evocative exposés in the Soviet press (which supplied saturation coverage of the resulting show trials). This article will illuminate the interplay of diplomacy, trade, crime, and ideology in the early Soviet state.

Latvian cartoon showing the windfalls earned by the operators of so-called “barter stations” on the Soviet frontier
Latvian cartoon showing the windfalls earned by the operators of so-called “barter stations” on the Soviet frontier, where Soviet smugglers exchanged precious metals and stones, foreign currencies, and raw materials for consumer goods ranging from salt to silk stockings. Here, the operator is also a deputy to the Latvian Constitutional Assembly, highlighting the role of high-placed Latvian government officials in fostering this traffic.

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

The idea came to me between a conversation and a song. The conversation was with my original advisor, Sheila Fitzpatrick. Sheila’s own research interests had, by that point, moved into the postwar period, and she encouraged her students to explore its largely uncharted waters. Listing possible avenues of inquiry, she mentioned drugs in the 1960s. “What about smuggling?” I asked. As I spoke, I felt as if I was echoing an idea that had been suggested to me even earlier, although I had not put it into words until that moment in Sheila’s office. Eventually, I pinpointed the source: an enthralling Russian song, “Kontrabandisty (“The Smugglers”), composed in 1967 by the bard Viktor Berkovskii.  The song, based on a 1927 poem of the same name by the Odessa poet Eduard Bagritskii, captures the thrill and romance of a smugglers’ starlit journey on the Black Sea, but also evokes more transcendent themes: the exuberance of youth, the rush of freedom, the vastness of the universe.

It's been said that all research is “mesearch.” While I was not conscious of this when choosing my topic, it’s safe to say there are personal reasons that made it appealing. Leningrad, where I grew up in the twilight of the Cold War, was considered a cosmopolitan city. Even so, the first Finnish food truck that arrived in the late 1980s became an object of widespread fascination. My classmates and I would barter and fight over foreign gum wrappers and gape at tourists. The word “importnyi” (imported) had a magical pull. The experience of immigration was grounded in material objects: what we could and could not take with us; the cornucopia of consumer goods that greeted us when we walked off our flight in Vienna; the caviar and Russian handicrafts my father tried to hawk in Rome; the brand-name clothes that my American classmates wore and I did not. As a scrappy immigrant kid, I developed an appreciation for the ability to adapt, to make do with little, for the underdog: the qualities of a smuggler.

At the same time, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the border guard in the Soviet imagination. For instance, border guards have been immortalized in the Stalinist pantheon that is the downtown Moscow subway station Ploschad’ Revoliutsii (“Revolution Square”), built in 1938. Among the bronze socialist realist sculptures – workers, peasants, athletes, and students – are four border guards kneeling with their trusty German shepherds. The sculptures were reportedly inspired by the legendary Soviet border guard Nikita Karatsupa (who even earned an obituary in the 1994 LA Times). In the decades since the station’s construction, hundreds of millions of Muscovites and visitors to the capital have made the sculptures their own by rubbing the dogs’ muzzles for good luck.

One of my favorite songs growing up was “Pugovka” (“The Button”), based on a 1939 poem, which tells the story of the boy Alyoshka, who, walking barefoot with his friends along a border-area road, steps on a brown button with foreign letters. The boys alert the border guards, who track down an enemy spy. Alyoshka gets to keep the button in his collection. I remember feeling an intense, envious longing to be like Alyoshka – to find my own button and catch my own spy.

I think this sentiment helps understand the genuine appeal of militaristic propaganda for young children, or at least for coddled urban boys.

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

The fall of the Iron Curtain, the acceleration of globalization, and the reach of the internet led many to imagine a borderless world – yet states have asserted increasingly muscular control over their borders.  As the researchers at UPenn’s Project on Borders and Boundaries have found, when the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, sixteen countries had border walls; by 2019, a third of the world’s states had built or were building barriers. And the process is accelerating: about half of the frontiers fortified since the end of World War II have been erected between 2000 and 2014.

There are several reasons for this trend. The “wars” on drugs and terrorism, the efforts to control migration and curb trafficking, the nativist appeal of separation barriers and the deployment of such symbolism by politicians: all of these processes come together at state borders. Efforts to address these concerns have knock-on effects on one another, and collide against the demands of economic integration and human rights.

It has been said that history is a record of unintended consequences. The wars on drugs and terrorism led states to cultivate policing capacity later deployed against migrants and refugees; likewise, early Bolshevik border control efforts focused on the movement of goods and valuables at least as much as on the circulation of people or ideas. The key components of Stalinist isolation and the Iron Curtain – numerous border guards patrolling a highly-restricted border zone, armed with powerful searchlights, German shepherd dogs, a thick web of informants, and extrajudicial authority – may all be traced to the Soviet struggle against economic contraband in the 1920s.

It is difficult to imagine Stalinism taking hold when it did without a relatively secure frontier to forestall flight; and it is unclear how one would have emerged without nearly a decade-and-a-half of fighting smuggling.  In this sense, through the responses they triggered, smugglers helped "build the wall" that made Stalinism possible.  The borrowing of the expression is not incidental.  Former President Trump owes his election to the hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans trying to survive (or do better than survive) by smuggling themselves north, and to the thousands of drug traffickers making a living by doing the same.

While Stalin's path to power was made possible by the presence of a "wall" and Trump's by hyping its absence, both politicians benefited from the apolitical actions of smugglers pursuing private interests.  Just as the masses of disenfranchised undocumented migrants, coyotes, and drug mules seeking to improve their lot helped propel Trump, so too did the masses of disenfranchised Soviet citizens coping with scarcity inadvertently inspire the installation of a critical part of the infrastructure of Stalinism.  Most broadly, my research highlights the unintended consequences of popular deviance, and of the growth of a policing apparatus.

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

People think accessing an illegal activity such as smuggling is difficult. It’s not. The proliferation of recent studies demonstrates that archives around the world are bursting with records of frontier apprehensions, tallies of confiscated contraband, and court files of convicted smugglers. With sprawling bureaucracies dedicated to fighting smuggling (e.g., the border guard and customs apparatuses), the challenge is typically one of too many records, rather than too few. Moreover, to avoid “seeing like a state” and lift its bureaucratic blinders, historians have successfully mined intercepted letters, eyewitness accounts, songs, and even the occasional smuggler’s memoir. Getting to know smugglers – particularly long-dead ones – is not the problem.

In my view, the chief challenge is to write a history of smuggling that does justice to the cornerstone concern of the discipline: change over time.  The primary roadblock to this effort lies at the intersection of criminology and politics, both popular and (especially) bureaucratic.  The criminological conundrum is one that is common to the study of most activities whose participants hope to stay out of the archives. Do more frequent seizures of contraband indicate more smuggling or more intensive policing – or both? Do fewer seizures suggest that smugglers have become less numerous, or that they have become more practiced at avoiding detection? Does growing concern about smuggling reflect an underlying reality, or the groundless swell of moral panic? Not surprisingly, with vast (but always scarce) state resources at stake, the interpretation of smuggling statistics often becomes freighted with the institutional concerns of the bureaucrats doing the interpreting.

One way I’ve sought to overcome this challenge is by writing a dissertation, “Smuggler States: Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Contraband Trade Across the Soviet Frontier, 1919-1924,” that looks east rather than west. The eastern borders of Poland, Latvia, and Estonia comprised much of the interwar Soviet state’s western frontier – the focus of Moscow’s revolutionary aspirations and security concerns. These nations paid for their independence with the loss of the Imperial Russian market. Łódź, the “Polish Manchester,” had fashioned its textiles for Russian and Ukrainian consumers; Riga had been the Empire’s busiest commercial port; Tallinn had been one of the busiest – and Russians drank nine-tenths of the potato vodka distilled on Estonian estates. Eager to reclaim their traditional market but stymied by the Soviet state monopoly on foreign trade and impatient with the slow grind of trade talks, these countries’ businessmen turned to the porous Soviet frontier.

The dissertation reveals how, despite considerable misgivings, their governments actively abetted this traffic. Business reports, trade balance statistics, and even job growth figures produced in Poland, Latvia, and Estonia during the first half of the 1920s testify to these countries’ active and officially-sanctioned involvement in contraband trade across the Soviet frontier. So do the minutes of parliamentary debates, Cabinet meetings, and conferences of government officials and business leaders in Warsaw, Riga, and Tallinn – some published, others preserved in these countries’ state archives. Moreover, the ‘Wild East’ atmosphere – with its gold-rush paydays, rowdy taverns, lawless lawmen, and Comanche-style raids from beyond the Bolshevik border – garnered popular press coverage in all three neighboring nations and beyond; and the trade was a frequent subject of discussion (and advertising) on the business pages as well. So I have also made extensive use of Polish, Estonian, and Latvian periodicals, including German- and Russian-language papers published in the two Baltic countries.

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

I hope that it enriches a number of conversations: e.g., about how the Soviet system worked; the relationship between licit and illicit economies; the significance of the night.

Very broadly speaking, in the historiography of the Soviet Union there have been two major schools of thought: the totalitarian school, which has emphasized ideology, intentionality, and Soviet state power; and the revisionist school, which has underscored the ad hoc nature of Bolshevik policies, the primacy of unintended consequences, and the many ways in which the Soviet state was actually quite weak and dysfunctional.

My research falls closer to the second camp, but also bridges the two models. On the one hand, it challenges the more “totalitarian” view that Stalin simply sealed the Soviet frontiers to keep Soviet citizens in, and subversive ideas out.  Instead, I demonstrate that the struggle against contraband trade was a primary preoccupation of the Soviet authorities from the Revolution through the 1920s, and that the effort to curb economic contraband was critical to building the infrastructure that made Stalinist political isolation possible.  On the other hand, by tracing the growing reach of Soviet state power over Soviet space, the sprawling informant network, the border guard, etc., I emphasize the evolution of Soviet social control.

While smuggling catalyzed the growth of Soviet border policing, that growth alone does not explain the traffic’s decline.  I find that even as smuggling was becoming more dangerous, a shrinking market was making the trade less profitable.  Contraband trade declined not despite the end of the mixed-market New Economic Policy (NEP) in the late 1920s and the transition to the Stalinist economy of shortages, but because the NEP had ended. This finding highlights the surprisingly symbiotic relationship between authorized and illicit economic activity.

Smugglers worked mostly at night.  Illuminating the role of the dark as both refuge from and incubator of state power, my research traces how smugglers’ ownership of the night challenged the Soviet state to cultivate the policing capacity that would enable an unprecedented degree of isolation in the 1930s. I hope that my research encourages others to look into the literal and figurative dark places, where so much of history takes place.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Image of Andrey Shlyakhter

Andrey Shlyakhter

Former Title VIII Research Scholar;
Ph.D. in History, University of Chicago; Center Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on 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, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more