‘The KGB Campaign against Corruption in Moscow, 1982-1987’ by Luc Duhamel

While mentioning book reviews in the pipeline, I ought also to mention Luc Duhamel’s The KGB Campaign against Corruption in Moscow, 1982-1987 (Pittsburg UP, 2010), which I’ve reviewed for the re-launched Soviet & Post-Soviet Review. Duhamel looks at Moscow’s two largest trade organizations: the Chief Administration of Trade (Glavtorg) and the Administration of the Moscow Fruit and Vegetable Office (Glavmosplodovoshprom – gotta love these Soviet-era constructions), which became engines of embezzlement, corruption and clientelism, and thus obvious targets for the KGB once its former chief, Yuri Andropov, had become General Secretary of the CPSU in 1982. After all, Andropov was not only something of a puritan Leninist, he also had a much greater awareness of the delegitimizing and dysfunctional impacts of corruption on the Soviet system. The campaign was also a handy way of removing and intimidating the Brezhnevites still dominant within the apparat and those who resisted Andropov’s program for limited reform. As Duhamel shows, early victories petered out before the trade organizations’ counter-attack, with accusations of abuses of investigative powers, dark allusions to Stalinist repression and careful exploitation of their networks and powers. The irony is that many of these venal but able wheeler-dealers were to be rehabilitated in the perestroika era precisely for their entrepreneurial skills.

Duhamel knows the trade organizations inside out, but although in the main I think his portrayal of the investigations and their political context is good, I was less comfortable accepting their detail in every respect. He draws on official court and investigation records, newspaper accounts and interviews, but I know from my own experiences researching crime and security issues that these are not always as reliable as we might hope. This was a time, after all, when the press was an organ of propaganda, when the courts were thoroughly politicized and when investigations often retailed rumor as fact when it was politically expedient. (It would be easy to make a cheap dig here about the modern situation, but in fairness however great the limitations of the modern Russia media and judiciary, they are a world away from the pre-glasnost’ Soviet model.)

As a rather surreal first, I even found myself quoting Rumsfeld on “known knowns” when asking the question of quite what can we be sure we know? These are the inevitable caveats of any attempt to research the underbelly of such a society, and it does not at all invalidate the book. I think Duhamel has done the scholarship a service with this study, which still has a great deal to commend it: I think it is better on the trade organizations and their corruption than about the politics and operational methods of the KGB, but there is much here for anyone who wants to understand quite how the late Soviet system really worked (or didn’t).

Luc Duhamel, The KGB Campaign against Corruption in Moscow, 1982-1987. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, xviii + 249pp., $26.95.

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