Our guest on the podcast this week is the historian Nikita Vasilievich Petrov. Nikita Petrov is deputy chair of the board of the Memorial Research and Information Centre (which is based in St. Petersburg). Born in Kiev, Nikita Petrov graduated from the Moscow Institute of Chemical Engineering and went on to study at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. His association with the Memorial Society began in 1988. As a historian Nikita Petrov has specialized in the history of the Soviet security services. He is known as the author and compiler of many works describing the structure and functions of the Soviet security services from 1917 to 1991.
The recording took place on 30 May 2022.
The questions we ask Nikita Petrov include:
- When and why did you first become interested in history, particularly the history of Soviet repression and the security services?
- When did your collaboration with Memorial begin?
- You wrote a number of works with Arseny Roginsky, who headed Memorial and died in 2017. Can you tell us about how you first met, what it was like to work with Roginsky, and what he was like as a person?
- As a historian who worked in Russia’s archives for many years, can you tell us how historians’ access to these archives has changed over the years?
- You have written about the history of the NKVD under Stalin, in particular about Nikolai Yezhov. To what extent can we talk about the personal influence of people like Yagoda or Yezhov on the NKVD, or were they just doing Stalin’s bidding?
- You also wrote about the role of the NKVD and MGB in Central and Eastern Europe from 1939. To what extent were the repressions against people of Polish nationality similar to the Nazi repressions on the basis of race – an example against people of Jewish origin?
- Another topic you wrote about is that of Ivan Serov and the post-Stalinist KGB. To what extent did the security services change in the post-Stalin period, first as the KGB and then as the FSB?
- Is there an explanation for why the security services played such an important role in Soviet and Russian history? For example: in the book From the Red Terror to the Mafia State: Russia’s Secret Services in the Struggle for World Domination the authors [historian Felshtinsky, who is not considered a historian by many, and former KGB Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Popov (Canada)] write about the history of the state security takeover in Russia, presenting developments in terms of a confrontation between the Cheka-KGB and the Communist Party. In fact, did the Chekists confront the Communists or were they basically all the same kind of people?
- Why are today’s authorities in Russia so interested in the study of history?
- Are there any lessons in history? Including for the citizens of Russia?
You can listen to the podcast is full here:
Given the length of the podcast, for ease of listening we have also divided it up into five parts:
Part One: Early career, studying chemistry, Memorial, perestroika:
Part Two: Reading newspapers, Arseny Roginsky, archives, a change in ideology:
Part Three: Yagoda, Ezhov and Stalin, Poland and repressions against ethnic and social groups under Hitler and Stalin:
Part Four: The post-Stalin KGB, the post-Soviet FSB, the role of the security services in Russian history:
Part Five: The Russian state and history, lessons of history, parallels between communism and fascism, the reforms of the 1990s, the closure of Memorial:
Sergei Nikitin writes on Facebook: Read old newspapers and magazines! That was exactly the advice Nikita Petrov got from his father. He taught him that reading the Soviet press would be interesting later, after many years had passed. So Nikita Petrov, who had studied to be a chemist, became a historian. In our latest podcast Nikit Petrov told Simon Cosgrove and me about his love for collecting old newspapers and magazines, how he stacked them in folders and read and re-read them. That’s how chemistry came to lose one scientist from its ranks but history gained a remarkable specialist in the study of the Soviet security agencies. We all know Nikita Vasilievich as the author and compiler of many works describing the structure and functions of Soviet security services from 1917 to 1991. This knowledge is very important to all of us today as people from these very special services continue to occupy seats of power. And these people, having gained access to the levers of power, act even more subtly than the preceding genergation of Chekists. “Logic is turned inside out, black is repainted white, and the crimes of the Soviet regimeare not condemned but justified,” Nikita Petrov told us. “Today’s attempt to recycle history and use it to educate people in the spirit of patriotism is untenable. Such a policy will only bring up a generation of cynics. However, people who can think for themselves will figure things out, they will see for themselves it is all one big lie.”