‘Report any suspicious persons,’ the message flashing above the New Jersey turnpike said as I drove south towards Washington a few months after 9/11. I did not respond to the call, but it reminded me of someone who did: Pavlik Morozov, the heroic young Soviet denouncer of the early 1930s whose legend is the subject of Catriona Kelly’s new book. Unfortunately in Pavlik’s case the suspicious person he dobbed in was his own father, and angry relatives took revenge by murdering him. Pavlik won a lasting place in Soviet martyrology as the boy who was brave enough to put loyalty to the state above loyalty to family. Then, in the twilight of the Soviet regime in the 1970s and 1980s, he became the anti-hero of the Russian intelligentsia’s counter-myth, which presented him as a cowardly betrayer and a dupe. The real-life Pavlik story is, of course, more complicated; and Kelly has set herself the task of straightening it all out, which includes correcting an earlier revisionist effort, Yury Druzhnikov’s Denouncer No. 001 (1995).
Denunciation – the act by which one citizen tells the authorities about wrongdoing on the part of another citizen, implicitly or explicitly calling for his punishment – has always been a touchy subject. In the first place, there is the inevitable uneasiness about motive: is the denouncer the patriot that he claims to be, or is he acting out of self-interest and a wish to settle personal scores? The rhetoric of civic virtue with which governments (and schools, prisons and other closed institutions) surround denunciation coexists with a subaltern counter-discourse in which denunciation is an act of betrayal. Our assessment of acts of denunciation is highly sensitive to context and angle of vision: if I do it, it’s public-spirited; if you do it (especially if you do it to me), it’s contemptible. Ambivalence about denunciation has produced parallel lexicons in many languages: the French have the classic dichotomy of dénonciation (the good kind of denunciation) and délation (the bad); the Russians have the pejorative donos/donoschik to set against various official euphemisms; Americans admire whistleblowers but disdain squealers, distinguishing the patriotic act of providing tips from the sordid habit of snitching.
Practices of denunciation have a long pedigree. States have sometimes offered financial rewards: the Roman Empire is one example, Restoration England another. Or the state may proclaim a duty to denounce and punish citizens who fail to honour it: Muscovite Russia comes immediately to mind, but the Napoleonic Penal Code made similar provision. During the Spanish Inquisition, as Henry Kamen writes, ‘there was no need to rely on a secret police system, because the population as a whole was encouraged to recognise the enemy within the gates.’ The tradition of denunciation as civic virtue was reinvented in the French Revolution, when the revolutionaries’ passion for transparency led them to advocate dénonciation and the rooting out of corruption as a high revolutionary duty. In the words of a speaker at Marat’s funeral in 1793, ‘Denunciation is the mother of virtues just as vigilance is the surest safeguard of the people and of liberty.’ In mid-20th-century America, the pro-denunciation case was put by Elia Kazan (who had recently named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee) in On the Waterfront (1954), starring Marlon Brando as a longshoreman who risks his life by breaking ranks and denouncing the mob; while the counter-view of denunciation as betrayal was presented in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (1955), the story of a docker who turns in his wife’s cousins as illegal immigrants.
If occasional denunciation is part of the everyday life of all societies, there are times when it runs riot, as it did in the Soviet Union during the Purges of the late 1930s, and in France under German occupation in World War Two (as well as after the Liberation). Mass denunciation is also precipitated by moral panics, as it was during the Salem witch-hunts, or at the time of the anti-Communist hysteria in the US in the 1950s, or, more recently, in the extraordinary outburst of public anxiety about child abuse in the 1980s and early 1990s that produced thousands of accusations, most of which turned out to be baseless, against kindergarten teachers and day-care workers.
Liberals, who generally abhor denunciation, often see it as a phenomenon peculiarly characteristic of totalitarian states, whose regimes encourage it as a method of social control. While it’s not clear to me that the historical record bears this out, there is no doubt that denunciation flourished in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the postwar Soviet-style regimes in Eastern Europe. The sociologist Jan Gross developed the ingenious theory that denunciations constituted a form of ‘privatisation’ of the totalitarian state, since they enabled individuals to draw on the state’s coercive power to settle private grievances. When we think of denunciation in a totalitarian context, we think of secret police, of ideologies exalting loyalty to the state or party, of zero tolerance of dissent, and the possibility of appalling outcomes – death or concentration camp – for those denounced. Such states also tend to stigmatise certain groups (kulaks, Jews) as ipso facto disloyal, without regard for the actual attitudes or behaviour of a particular individual. This makes denunciation all the easier, a mere act of labelling, while at the same time rendering it virtually impossible for the victim to prove his innocence.
The Romans, as Kelly reminds us, had a legend that placed loyalty to the state above loyalty to family: Livy’s story of Brutus the Elder, ‘who condemned his own sons to death for treachery to the Republic’. Notwithstanding this (and the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, which shows family loyalty being trumped in the service of God) denunciation of family members has often earned special opprobrium. In Western commentary on the Pavlik Morozov story, Pavlik’s denunciation is seen as infamous because its target was his father, implying an unnatural repudiation of family loyalty. In the real-life Soviet Union of the 1930s, however, ‘family’ denunciations, though not unknown, seem to have been comparatively rare. This was no doubt largely because of the dangers they posed: at peak periods for denunciations, to denounce a family member as an ‘enemy of the people’ put the entire family at risk of the Gulag or death.
There were many different forms of denunciation in the Soviet Union, their variety no doubt a testimony to the relative poverty of alternative forms of individual agency and legal redress. ‘Loyalty’ denunciations were one genre, practised particularly by Communists in the Stalin period who either genuinely suspected one another of heresy or noticed that labelling someone an ‘enemy of the people’ was a good way of getting rid of them. Even more prevalent were the ‘whistle-blowing’ denunciations (first identified as such in Nicholas Lampert’s Whistle-Blowing in the Soviet Union, 1985), in which ordinary citizens (usually not Communists) denounced their (usually Communist) bosses for abuses of power – embezzling, bullying of subordinates, nepotism or bribe-taking. In its Soviet guise, ‘whistle-blowing’ was a quintessential ‘weapon of the weak’, in James C. Scott’s phrase, whose purpose was to get the offending persons removed from office. As with whistle-blowing all over the world, the Soviet practice involved risk: if you wrote to higher authorities about your local boss, and the higher authorities sent your complaint back down to the local level, you might well be the one to suffer, rather than your boss.
Pavlik’s legendary denunciation had a whistle-blowing component but seems closer in genre to the patriotic denunciation, though it seems pointless to try to classify a denunciation of which no original text survives – according to Kelly, none may ever have existed. Her remarkably thorough research, far surpassing even Druzhnikov’s (which for its time was impressive), encompassed the central archives of the Russian security police (a real coup); archives in Ekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk), the provincial capital of the Urals; the files of Tavda district’s local newspaper; and even oral history in the remote village of Gerasimovka, where Pavlik lived and died. The result is a wholesale deconstruction of the myth. The reader may feel a tinge of disappointment that no ‘true story’ is offered as a replacement, and even fleetingly wonder if this is a deliberate postmodern effect – no ‘true’ stories, only different versions – but Kelly, I’m sure, is enough of a natural puzzle-solver to have given us a ‘true’ story if her materials had supported one. As it is, the fascination of the chase outweighs any disappointment about the outcome. It is sobering – sometimes almost comic – to see the sloppiness and failures of logic of the 1930s Soviet documentation nakedly revealed under such a formidable analytic gaze. Those half-educated Tavda officials, with all their confusions, mendacities, grammatical mistakes and self-interested evasions, are no match for Catriona Kelly.
The Soviet myth of Pavlik Morozov has no single, canonical version; indeed, its evolution over time is an important part of the story Kelly sets out to tell. It is nonetheless possible to give a rough paraphrase of the official version, as established by early investigative journalism and the original trial of Pavlik’s alleged murderers. It runs as follows: Pavlik, born in 1918 of peasant parents in a poor village near the border between the Urals and Siberia, denounced his father, Trofim Morozov, chairman of the village soviet, for selling identity documents to kulak deportees who had been settled in the neighbourhood. The motive for the denunciation was patriotism: Pavlik was a Young Pioneer, or junior Communist. He was murdered by members of his own family, the Morozov clan, whose patriarch (Pavlik’s grandfather) was the big man in the village and therefore close in spirit to a kulak. Thus the murder was not only an act of revenge for family betrayal but also an episode in the ‘class war’ between kulaks and the proletarian Soviet state in the wake of collectivisation. Pavlik’s denunciation was an act of bravery and he died a martyr.
In Druzhnikov’s 1995 version, it was all quite different. In Kelly’s view, Druzhnikov’s story, which won great acclaim among post-Soviet intellectuals, was ‘as much a product of myth-making as the official legends about the boy’, flawed by its assumption – common among the Russian intelligentsia in late Soviet times – that the truth had to be not just different from the official version, but its opposite. Druzhnikov’s Pavlik was not a Pioneer – there were no Pioneers in this backward, depressed village – or a Soviet patriot or any kind of exemplar; he was the poor son, widely disliked and despised in the village, of a peasant mother (Tatiana) whose husband, Trofim, had left her for another woman. Even the name ‘Pavlik’ (one of several possible diminutives of Pavel) was false: the actual Pavel Morozov was called Pasha or Pashka by his family and schoolmates. Pavlik (we will keep the false name so as not to confuse the story even further) denounced his father as part of a feud between his parents, compounded by his own resentment at inheriting, as eldest son, the chores of the man of the house. He was then killed not by members of his father’s family, but by the OGPU, who wanted to set up a show trial of kulaks in Tavda and saw the Morozovs as the best candidates. Thus there was no virtue involved in this squalid case, no patriotism, and the murder was instigated by the Soviet state, not its enemies.
In Kelly’s version, based on close scrutiny of court and other documents, practically all certainties evaporate. Pavlik existed (though she agrees with Druzhnikov that he was not called Pavlik), and was probably murdered in the forest (unless an animal killed him). There is no reason to think he was murdered by the OGPU rather than a villager, but which villager(s) did the deed is unclear. While he was not formally a Pioneer, since there was no Pioneer organisation in the village, he may have thought of himself as one in spirit. He may or may not have denounced his father; and his father, while certainly absent from the village, may or may not have been tried and sentenced for helping kulaks. Kelly confirms that – according to local gossip – Pavlik’s father did go off with another woman, and that Pavlik, an unpopular boy, was a habitual snitch whose killing, committed by Morozov family members, was a consequence of his snitching. Her own best guess, however, is that Pavlik was killed by two young men, his cousin Danila (convicted of the murder in the original trial in 1932, along with his grandfather and one of his uncles) and another villager, Efrem Shatrakov (convicted on the lesser charge of failing to prevent the murder), because of resentment arising out of his denunciations and a quarrel over a piece of horse harness. In the end, though, ‘the Morozov murder case is likely to remain open for ever … the substance of the boy is long gone, evaporated in fantasy, fiction and deliberate lies – as created by Soviet myth-makers, by provincial journalists, by police investigators and, not least, by his fellow villagers.’
The evolution of the Pavlik myth in the Soviet Union is one of the most interesting parts of Kelly’s account. The story was first publicised, in connection with the trial of Pavlik’s alleged killers, in the local newspaper. Then it was picked up by Pioneer Pravda. But the real breakthrough came when Maxim Gorky spoke to the Communist youth organisation in 1933 of ‘the heroic deed of Pioneer Pavlik Morozov, the boy who understood that a person who is a relative by blood may well be an enemy of the spirit, and that such a person is not to be spared’. Gorky was an ally and favourite of Stalin’s, but this particular initiative does not seem to have been to Stalin’s taste, at least according to rumour: ‘What a little swine, denouncing his own father,’ is one remark attributed to him. Nevertheless, a Pavlik Morozov cult took off. Streets, parks and clubs were named after him, plays and songs written. Eisenstein even made a film, Bezhin Meadow (1936), freely adapted from the Pavlik legend, though it failed to win favour. In 1948, a monument to Pavlik – admittedly less grand than the one originally projected, and not in Red Square – was sculpted by Izaak Rabinovich and erected in a once revolutionary district of Moscow, Krasnaya Presnya. In 1955, Pavlik was canonised ‘in the Book of Honour of the Moscow Pioneer Palace, as “Pioneer No. 001”’.
Pavlik’s reputation had its ups and downs. In the 1940s, he was temporarily eclipsed by Arkady Gaidar’s fictional boy hero, Timur, as well as by various teenage partisans martyred during the war; in the 1960s and 1970s, he made something of a comeback. The emphasis in the myth itself tended to shift from the virtue of his denunciation to his bravery in challenging the village consensus and his martyrdom. By the 1970s and 1980s, a strong current of anti-Pavlik feeling was developing among the intelligentsia, based on dislike of him for squealing to an increasingly discredited state. In the course of her extensive researches on children and children’s memories in the Soviet Union, Kelly has found that many people remember being moved by the Pavlik myth as children – not necessarily because of their pro-Soviet feelings, but out of admiration for his bravery and horror at his death. She compares its disturbing power over Soviet children’s imaginations with the ‘stirring but strange’ legend of the Spartan boy stoically refusing to cry out when his innards were gnawed by a fox, which used to be read to British schoolchildren.
In 1991, Pavlik’s statue was one of the first to fall, along with that of Felix Dzerzhinsky. The statue in Ekaterinburg, then still called Sverdlovsk, also disappeared. But in 2003, in an odd twist, George Soros’s Open Society Foundation gave $7000 to the Ekaterinburg branch of the Memorial society to help re-establish ‘a Pavlik Morozov museum of a radically new kind’ – putting the legend in its context of forced collectivisation and drawing on oral histories of the repressed. Not everyone reacted favourably to this idea: Kelly reports that some people suspected that ‘the museum would be pushing its own ideological line, a simplistically anti-Soviet, pro-Western one, all with the aid of Western money.’ However bizarre the form, it seems that the Pavlik legend lives on.
Pavlik’s story ‘raises important issues about civic duty that are valid well beyond the context of the Soviet system’, Kelly writes. But these issues receive relatively short shrift in her book, which is understandable, given the detail and complexity of the material with which she has to deal and the fact that her book for much of its length belongs to the genre of the historical detective story. But the moral issues are worth exploring further.
Many Russians would warmly endorse E.M. Forster’s belief that private loyalties trump public ones, given the low regard in which they hold their current (and former) government: Kelly notes that in recent decades in Russia and the Soviet Union the concept of loyalty to a tight group of friends and family has been so exalted, and that of loyalty to the state so depressed, that ‘the idea that one might – in whatever circumstances – report a misdeed by a member of … a closed group to the police or government authorities (whose reputation for probity is non-existent) would strike many people as laughable.’
In the US, people like to think well of their government. Thus, Forster’s Two Cheers for Democracy was certainly one too few in the opinion of such critics as the philosopher Judith Shklar, who hotly disputed his preference for private over national loyalty. While denunciation was undoubtedly immoral under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Shklar argued, it is both moral and necessary in democratic countries like the United States and Britain, where the governments deserve their citizens’ trust and a ‘decent legal system’ gives recourse to innocent victims. Hence, there is no real commensurability between informing on a fellow citizen in the United States and performing a similar act in the Soviet Union. As with the morality of sexual intercourse inside and outside marriage, everything depends on institutional context.
Commensurability was a big problem in Anglo-American Soviet studies during the Cold War. In the 1970s and 1980s, many people felt that any comparative analysis, even the implicit comparison involved in the use of (supposedly universal) social-science terms like ‘interest groups’ and ‘social mobility’, presupposed a moral equivalence between democratic and totalitarian societies and was an attempt to whitewash the latter. By the 1990s, such views were on the wane: even denunciation (which Sovietologists had treated as a purely totalitarian phenomenon) seemed ripe for comparative treatment. In 1997, Robert Gellately and I edited a comparative volume called Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History 1789-1989. This was around the time of the attempted impeachment of President Clinton, which featured a denunciation of Monica Lewinsky by her erstwhile friend Linda Tripp, and the New York Times was intrigued by the idea that denunciation might be part of the American democratic tradition (‘Before Tripp, a Long Line of Denouncers’, 30 January 1999). The Times did sound a note of caution about commensurability, quoting Gellately on the difference between the likely consequences of denunciation in America and in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany: ‘While someone in the United States can easily report a neighbour they do not like as a crack dealer or child molester, that neighbour still has protections under the American judicial system: the right to a lawyer, due process, the right to a trial.’ Reviewing our book in the LRB on 19 March 1998, Timothy Garton Ash took a sterner view, describing the whole comparison between Stalinist denouncers and American whistle-blowers as ‘a ludicrous piece of pseudo-liberal moral relativism’.
In the light of recent developments in both Britain and the United States, however, real liberals as well as the pseudo variety may need to revisit the question of denunciation in democratic societies: not in the interests of moral relativism but because there are real moral issues involved. The argument over morality cuts two ways. If commensurability may imply a moral equivalence (‘the Soviets were no worse than we are’), insistence on incommensurability may be a way of getting ourselves, rather than the Soviets, off the hook (‘since our government is democratic, we don’t need to worry about the morality of denunciation’).
It is not hard to draw a clear moral distinction between denouncing a Jew in Nazi Germany, a political dissident in the old GDR, and a terrorist in present-day Germany. But these are comparatively easy cases, since the offence being denounced is directly related to the political values of the regime in question, and it is (relatively) easy to assign ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labels to these regimes. (Shift the cases to Turkey or Pakistan, for example, and the good/bad dichotomy immediately becomes trickier.) But what about non-political denunciation, where the targets are, let’s say, serial murderers, arsonists and drug peddlers? Such people threaten the welfare of the community, and even ‘bad’ states carry out necessary functions of community protection. Does it make sense, following Shklar’s argument to its logical conclusion, to say that denouncing a serial murderer would be an act of civic virtue in the Federal Republic of Germany but would have been morally dubious in the GDR and totally immoral under the Third Reich? The same problem applies to whistle-blowing, for it is surely wrong to argue that an insider’s denunciation of corruption in an American corporation like Enron is moral and courageous, while a similar, but even more risky act in the Soviet Union (relating, say, to corruption in one of the big oil trusts) would not have been.
Imagine Denunciations, a parlour game, in which you, as a player, have to decide whose wrongdoing, and wrongdoing of what kind, to denounce to the authorities: your son’s marijuana-growing; your neighbour’s tax evasion; a colleague’s affair with a student; a commuter who parks without a permit in front of your house; an Islamic extremist; an illegal immigrant; a paedophile schoolteacher or Scout leader; a sexist boss. Are all these denunciations equal in moral terms? Which, if any, could properly be addressed to a non-democratic government? Within the democratic context, to which authorities – local police, FBI/MI5, the inland revenue, your child’s headmaster, your immediate boss at work – would you be willing to pass information, and what euphemism would you use? You might even go a step further and require players to offer their own most recent experience of denunciation, either as victim or as perpetrator.
Denunciation for everyday offences is always with us. Nevertheless, its pervasiveness, as revealed by a search of the Chicago Tribune in the early 1990s, came as a surprise. That search turned up not only a multitude of new items but also a commentary, ‘Goodbye, good neighbour policy; hello, public snitching’ (21 October 1994), warning that
Big Brother, as it turns out, may be your little brother, your former sister-in-law or the neighbour whose power-saw you forgot to return last summer. In a phenomenon that gives a new twist to the concept of community policing, people in Chicago’s suburbs are busily snitching on each other over zoning infractions … Meanwhile, Chicago officials, in hopes of enticing the more jaded city dweller to do the same, are contemplating offering people money to turn in the brazen scofflaws who don’t buy their annual vehicle stickers.
Recently, as a result both of the growth of the web and the ‘war on terrorism’, it has become easier than ever to denounce, and the calls to do so have become more urgent. ‘Help your country,’ exhorts the official US government website, FirstGov. ‘Provide tips, support the troops, volunteer, donate.’ ‘Submit a tip’ is prominently displayed on the FBI’s counter-terrorism website, which offers an online form as well as a toll-free hotline. The State of Pennsylvania advertises a special email address for tips on terrorism. MI5, too, has its own ‘anti-terrorist hotline’ (call 0800 789 321) and its website says: ‘If you know something about threats to national security, we want to hear from you.’ The Department for Work and Pensions is even more forthright with its National Benefit Fraud Hotline: ‘Report a cheat’ is the injunction (‘you do not need to tell us who you are’), followed by a remarkably detailed form for online reporting of the frauds practised by your neighbours. The British Public Interest Disclosure Act was passed in 1998 to protect whistle-blowers from dismissal and victimisation.
This wave of vigilance has not gone unremarked or unprotested. In 2002 the Bush administration’s new Citizen Corps (a department of FEMA) proposed a new national Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS) for reporting ‘suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity’, but this had to be hastily abandoned after widespread objections. The programme was to have ‘involved the millions of American workers who, in the daily course of their work, are in a unique position to serve as extra eyes and ears for law enforcement’ – truck drivers, bus drivers, train conductors, mail carriers, utility readers and so on. (This text, now deleted from the Citizencorps website, is quoted from a retrieval site called the Memory Hole.) Unfounded denunciations, such as that by a Chicago man who admitted to having falsely accused his relatives of links to Osama bin Laden and plans to blow up the Sears Tower (reported by the Associated Press on 16 August), have led to prosecutions in the US. The authorities’ pro-denunciation websites have generated some anti-denunciation sites as well, such as Operation TIP-TIPS for denouncing denouncers, with its spoof encouragement to ‘aspiring citizen informants … to demonstrate their patriotism by using this form to report any and all suspicious persons to the authorities … Liberal, Homo, Intellectual, Falafel-Breath … Gun Control Nut, ACLUer, Homeless, Academic, Welfare Mother, Immigrant … (check all that apply).’
It is easier for civil libertarians to attack programs like TIPS than to say exactly what guidelines and boundaries for reporting fellow citizens to the authorities can or should be set. But the ‘war on terrorism’, with its creation of a demonised category of ‘terrorist’ and removal of the normal safeguards for persons under suspicion, obviously complicates the moral question about denunciation, as well as undermining the argument for the incommensurability of denunciation under ‘good’ and ‘bad’ governments. Is it still possible to say – as Robert Gellately quite reasonably did in 1999 – that denunciation in democratic countries is different and not morally problematic because everyone is assured of due legal process? Not in the US or UK if it’s an accusation of terrorism. Yet, despite that, there are real terrorist threats, and most of us would probably recognise a duty to denounce if we had hard information of, for example, a forthcoming bomb attack in the New York subway. But what of a latter-day Arab-American Pavlik: if he suspects his father of terrorism, should he denounce him?