Ivan Ilyin vs. the NKVD

The great Russian White emigre philosopher Ivan Aleksandrovich Ilyin (1883-1954) was not just an erudite thinker, but also a practitioner of espionage and underground political work. Before he was exiled in 1922, Ilyin was active in the anti-Bolshevik resistance. This article, written at some point during the 1930s or 1940s, addresses Soviet NKVD provocations and subversion in the Russian White emigration abroad.

The word “tradecraft” signifies a conspiracy. The art of tradecraft is in the ability to run “conspiracies” secretly and bring them to a successful completion. This art has its own inviolable rules: whoever doesn’t observe them dooms his undertaking, and possibly himself and all like-minded men far and near. Here amateurism is tantamount to failure and death.

One of these rules holds: the secret of a conspiracy can be communicated only to individuals of unconditional trustworthiness and unconditional unity of thought – i.e., if their participation in the conspiracy is unconditionally necessary.

Let us imagine that a prominent agent of the NKVD comes to me and says:

We are conspirators in the NKVD; we are ready to carry out a coup in the Soviet state and establish a Russian national government if you, emigres, promise us to execute all our orders, and then give us full amnesty and allow us to join your government!

I, of course, let him finish. How should I answer him?

1) Why did you choose me for communicating your secret? Am I really your unconditional fellow-thinker who can be entrusted with a secret? To be your fellow-thinker, I should have known all your intimate plans against the emigration, plans you are professionally obligated to have. How and by what means will you prove to me that you are speaking with me now not as a professional provocateur from the NKVD, but as a patriot thinking of the nation? What unity of thought is possible between us? Unity of thought presupposes firmness of belief from two directions. If we accept that my firmness of belief is proven by my past, then your firmness of belief perished forever in your activity as a provocateur. You already can never believe yourself. What conspiracy is possible in the absence of unity of thought and firmness of belief? Really only one man’s [Judas’s] conspiracy against another Man…

2) Whence did you come by such unconditional trust in me that you resolve to inform me of a dangerous secret? How do you know that I am not chatty and not boastful? That I won’t let your secret slip orally or into print? How do you know that among my acquaintances there are none of your secret agents, hidden from you, who would immediately betray you to your higher-ups? Why do you consider me a fool who is capable of immediately believing in the proposals of a professional NKVD man? If you come to me with such an offer, then you obviously consider me a downright political idiot; but it’s impossible to place any trust in such an idiot. All of this means that you’re only playing at trusting me and you in no way fear betrayal. You’re clearly coming to me with the knowledge of your senior officers, and all of your undertaking can only be a new provocation.

3) But if there was truly unity of thought and trust between you, a professional provocateur, and me (which is ridiculous to contemplate), then you would have a reason to tell me of your “conspiracy” only if my participation was unconditionally necessary for your success. As a matter of fact, everything stands quite to the contrary: your “conspiracy” is being undertaken in an atmosphere completely falsified and professionally hived with spies and traitors. In the NKVD you even eavesdrop on each other’s thoughts at night and attribute your own fabrications and designs to each other. And, nonetheless, you’ve supposedly created an entire conspiracy. But then what insanity is it, on your part, to make it an object of “émigré export?” After all, for its success it’s necessary that not one mosquito in the emigration would suspect it or even buzz of it in the night…And you’re spilling to me, the first man you come across, your entire secret-police rationale? Tell me, how many emigres have you already initiated into this “plan to save Russia?” You understand, of course, that by so doing you’ve doomed your whole “conspiracy.” And you, the artful NKVD man, are pretending that you’ve not conceived of this. If your “conspiracy” is known to you, an émigré you’ve randomly happened upon, then of course it’s long been known to your higher-ups. And that means that it’s hopeless, and namely you have doomed it, or that it’s another provocation. It’s clear that the latter is correct.

Lubyanka, NKVD headquarters, in 1939. Photo: opoccuu.com
Lubyanka, NKVD headquarters, in 1939. Photo: opoccuu.com

4) You decidedly do not need the emigration to carry out a coup in the Soviet Union. Rather, their participation and gossip could only be damaging to you. If you are capable and wish to execute a coup, then carry it out silently, unexpectedly and decisively, but don’t announce it abroad.

You want “amnesty” from us. But why do you need amnesty if you’ll be in power? Then you’ll be granting the amnesties, not us. Along with that you know well that there’s no unity in the emigration: it’s multi-headed with various lines of thought, and there are many hundreds of thousands or more therein, yet you’re conversing with me. As Anempodist Chizhikov[i], as if I could guarantee you anything. On “joining your government:” Well then, we’ll just rush into your inconceivable government, we with our multiple heads and various opinions. Or are you promising this participation only to me, Chizhikov, personally? It must be that you find me a very ambitious and simultaneously stupid person…When you’ll be in power, then you will invite whom you wish, and the invitees will answer you individually. Until that time, do you yourself understand that only fools can be tempted by your promises and take your provocative twaddle seriously? But is it worth your energies to entice fools? Or do you want to turn them into your spies?

5) Concerning the execution of all your directives and demands and unconditional obedience to you in all things, that is a demand that was pronounced by your agent Fedorov-Yakushev, the founder of the “Trust” provocation well-known to all. We’re already familiar with that. And it’s precisely that that finally gives you away, head-first. So look for co-conspirators among men less experienced, blindly trusting, and painfully ambitious. But don’t disturb me with harmful discussions!

There is no need, of course, to expound all of these reasons to our sly interlocutor; one can say otherwise, more or less. But it namely follows to think this way for oneself. And then it follows to warn all one’s ideological fellows of a new provocation being prepared, perhaps through the emigre press.

[i] Anempodist Chizhikov was one of the sarcastic pseudonyms Ilyin used during his time in the underground. Translated from Greek, Anempodist means “unhindered.”

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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