Rat Nation

Writing in the Moscow Times, columnist Georgy Bovt explains that Russia is nation of squealing rats:

The Federal Tax Service has come out with an interesting new initiative. In an effort to identify people renting out apartments without paying taxes, they have asked people to report any “suspicious” people in their buildings. More than 100,000 apartments are rented out in Moscow alone, and the majority of landlords don’t pay the relatively low 13 percent tax on the income. The authorities have not been able to find a solution other than calling on neighbors to be vigilant. One well-known liberal figure who is founding a new political party told me he doubts the initiative will work. He said that the Communist period had so inoculated the population against the practice of informing on each other that few people will volunteer to help the authorities.

He may be partly right. People don’t trust authorities much, and they distrust law enforcement agencies the most. But informing is a tradition with deep roots in the culture. And the authorities have been making special efforts to praise people for their “openness.” During the Kremlin’s recent campaign against Georgians, for example, fliers were circulated in schools encouraging people to report children with Georgian surnames. There is also the long-standing practice of reporting structural repair work on neighboring apartments, the hiring of illegal immigrants, and so on.

A brief review of Russian history helps to explain this.

Under the Tatar-Mongolian yoke from the 13th century to the 15th century, snitching was a way to gain favor with the Golden Horde. Anyone coveting a personal fiefdom got it by informing on the rivals of the Tatar-Mongolian rulers. This is how Ivan Kalita, generally considered the founder of Russia’s centralized state, gained authority in the 14th century.

The larger the state grew, the more Muscovy relied on informers. Under Ivan the Terrible the practice was institutionalized. People were imprisoned, tortured, exiled and killed on the sole basis of denunciations. Peter the Great did away with secret church confessions and made priests inform on their parishioners. Then serfs were promised their freedom in return for informing on their masters. During the Soviet collectivization campaign, the same practice allowed poorer peasants to denounce the better off — and then scoop up and divide the booty when their victims were dispossessed.

Informing gradually became almost a reflex, and the two main features of the practice of informing began to crystallize from the very beginning. First, the practice was directed not so much at bringing social justice as at protecting the interests and security of the ruling regime. Second, social discord was often the chief motive, as informing came to be more a means of settling accounts with people than of establishing the rule of law. The Communist authorities elevated this to the level of a social virtue. Neighbors snitched on neighbors, spouses on spouses, and children on their parents. There was a monument erected in Moscow to a peasant boy, Pavlik Morozov, who informed on his prosperous peasant father. The father was shot and Pavlik became a hero in Soviet textbooks. Informers were encouraged in every way, including with bonuses and promotions at work. No sooner had Soviet citizens gained the right to travel abroad than denunciations of “improper” behavior outside the country’s borders began to pour in. There was a professional stool pigeon in every Soviet group traveling abroad who would file a report on arriving home.

Some estimates put the number of people working as informers for the secret police at more than 2 million. How many more would rat colleagues and neighbors out informally will probably never be known. As a result, it’s hard for me to believe in the “inoculation” theory — if for nothing else, because the saying “It’s not so to have no cows, if your neighbor’s cows have all died” is still around in the Russian language.

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