The Chargé in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Secretary of State

No. 1442

Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the Department’s confidential circular instruction of November 21, 1944, (File No. 124.06/11–21/44, Foreign Service Serial No. 279),5 concerning the submission of confidential biographical data by foreign service missions.

Before describing the arrangements which exist at this post at present for the handling of biographical material and the plans for handling such material in the future, I should like to make some general comments on the factors which affect the conduct of this work in Moscow.

There are certain conditions governing the work and life of Soviet civil servants which render the question of assembling and utilizing biographic data on them quite different than in the case of any western country. Among these, the following may be mentioned.

1. The Soviet official must remain impervious to the personal qualities of any foreigner with whom he deals.

Any Soviet official dealing with foreigners who would admit that his actions or his opinions had been in any way influenced by personal liking or gratitude for any individual foreigner would receive severe disciplinary punishment without delay. The Communist Party and the Soviet Government go on the theory that every foreign representative is acting solely in the interests of his own government, and that whatever he does may be explained by this factor. If he does a kind or obliging act, it is because he finds it in the interests of his government to do so. From this it follows that in theory no foreign representative or official can be considered objectively capable of an [Page 811] act of kindness or generosity, and no Soviet official accordingly need feel himself under obligation to a foreigner. To do anything or say anything in deference to a personal relationship which one would not have done or said in straight performance of official duties would be considered equivalent to acting in the interests of a foreign state. This is particularly true if the act or the statement is one favorable to the foreigner. If it is one unfavorable to him it can, unfortunately, be more easily defended.

2. The Soviet official must not endeavor to please or to stand out by virtue of his own individual personality.

It is not part of the job of a Soviet official to “sell” himself. His own individuality is not to be stressed, and should have as little as possible to do with the performance of his duties. These duties are laid down for him with the greatest exactitude by the Party and the Government. His job is to perform these duties, nothing more. He is instructed to be civil in his contacts with foreigners. He is not to offend them unnecessarily. But it is not part of his j ob to make himself personally liked. If he goes too far in this direction, he creates among his colleagues an impression of seeking personal ends, and brings discredit upon himself. It is for his country and its leader that he is supposed to win respect, not for himself.

3. The personal views of a Soviet official have little or no influence on his behavior.

The views of a Soviet official are manufactured for him, in considerable detail, by the All-Union Communist Party, to which—if he is an official dealing with the outside world—he almost surely belongs. Even if he does not belong to the Party, it is encumbent upon him, as a Soviet citizen, to stick closely to what the Party has told him, in his conversations with foreigners. In Party meetings, questions may be discussed by Party members as long as no decision has been taken with respect to them in that body or a higher one. Once such a decision has been taken, the subject is no longer open for discussion. What the Party has decided is true, and final. To voice any other views, particularly to a foreigner, would be a serious breach of discipline. In general, any unnecessary discussion with an outsider, and anything that smacks of personal speculation or ad-libbing, is frowned on. Soviet circles are often contemptuous of foreign diplomats in Moscow for their readiness to blurt out ideas of their own which do not represent the considered policy of their governments and which are therefore, in the Soviet view, “interesting to nobody”.

4. The Soviet official is to keep his private life as distant as possible from his work.

The passion for conspiracy in the Soviet structure is so great that considerable efforts are made to conceal as far as possible even the actual identity of Soviet officials who deal with the outside world.

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Officials in Soviet offices abroad are changed frequently. When they return to the Soviet Union, every contact between them and persons they may have known in their work abroad ceases at once, and entirely. They disappear back into the great mass of the Soviet people. Inquiries about them are in vain. If foreigners who knew them abroad encounter them by chance in the public places of Moscow, the Soviet officials are obviously upset and embarrassed, and make their get-away as fast as possible. There is reason to believe that on occasions they use false names in their work abroad, in order to help to hide their real identities. Their biographies are often revealed, if at all, only in their obituaries. As a rule, only married people with children are now permitted to serve abroad for any length of time and they go abroad accompanied by their families. The purpose of this is to eliminate any possible dependence on personal company or intimacy outside of their own circle. In foreign capitals they build their own life, as far as possible. They have their own schools, and their own amusements. This again reflects the determination of the regime that no relationship shall grow up between them and foreigners which might affect the performance of their work.

5. The basis of Soviet Government and administration is collective and not individual.

It is safe to say that practically all decisions in the Soviet Union which have any importance of principle are taken by collective bodies and not by individuals. If these collective bodies are not pure Party bodies, they always contain dominating Party elements, one of whose tasks is to see that the deliberations reflect the interests of the Party itself and not of any individual. It is true that in certain executive posts, such as those of the party chiefs of large provincial territories, a great deal of personal executive power is given to individuals. But in the central administration, and particularly in all matters affecting foreigners, the collective principle is rigidly adhered to. I think it safe to say that no important request of a foreign government is ever considered in Moscow except by a collective body. Individual relations could therefore not possibly have—except possibly in the case of Stalin6 himself—much effect on such decisions.

From the above, two factors flow which affect biographical reporting from this Mission.

The first of these is the fact that individual personality as such plays a far smaller role in the public affairs of the Soviet Union than in the case of other countries. It is obviously a matter of policy [Page 813] with the Soviet Government to rule out the personal element as far as this can possibly be done in all official relations between Soviet citizens and foreigners. This has been accomplished with what I should say was at least 95 percent efficiency. It is therefore idle to hope that much can be gained in relationships with Soviet officials by a knowledge of their personal background and predelictions as distinct from those of any other Soviet citizen. Their behavior is not influenced by games of golf or invitations to dinner. Their egos have usually taken a pretty thorough subduing before the individuals themselves ever appear on the international scene. Persons abroad who have to deal with them will do better to study carefully the ideological conceptions in which they have been trained rather than to bother about their individual propensities. There has been no more common nor more fateful mistake in the judging of Russian matters by our people, and particularly by our personality-conscious press, than the effort to explain all Soviet phenomena in the light of reactions to the personality of individuals. The Soviet Government is a collective effort of the most baffling and unprecedented character; and whoever deals with a Soviet official or a Soviet citizen should never think of him outside of the collective framework into which he has been carefully and firmly fitted.

In the second place, it being official Soviet policy to obscure the background and identity of those Soviet officials who deal with the outside world, it is probably more difficult to assemble personal data on individual officials here than any other place in the world. There are perhaps 20 to 25 officials, at the most, with whom this Mission comes into contact in its work. There are practically none who are permitted to have sufficiently close social contact with foreign representatives in the Soviet Union so that it would be possible to know anything much of their personal lives or characters. It should never be forgotten that it cannot be ascertained even in the case of some of the most important and prominent men in the country whether they are married, or even where they live. All this is a state secret and no Russian dares mention it to a foreigner even if he knows it. As a rule, the best this Mission can do is to give the announced names (we are never sure that they are the real ones) of the incumbents of high positions in the country. In certain cases, we are able to trace them through from one position to another by careful collecting of official press announcements in which their names appear, but their real biographies usually appear only in their obituaries when, as the regime is well aware, they can no longer be of use to the foreign world.

[The final five paragraphs, which are concerned with the method und difficulties of collecting biographical details, are here omitted.]

Respectfully yours,

George F. Kennan
  1. Not printed.
  2. Marshal Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union.