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Informers circa 1870 and 1970

June 19, 2012

I’m interested in how informers are represented in nineteenth-century literature, and even things two steps away from that, like this twentieth-century informer in memoirs about a writer. This old man in a communal apartment informing on his neighbors seems distinctively Soviet, but is he?

This is from Nekrasov’s “The Recent Past” (Недавнее время, 1871). While there’s no analogue here for the odd intimacy between Dombrovskii and the informer noted at the Faculty of Useless Knowledge, there are quite a few points of contact in the informers themselves:

  • Nekrasov’s informer “lived in extreme poverty,” and Dombrovskii’s neighbor, despite being a former KGB employee, had to live in a communal apartment with “a man who spent the past twenty years in prisons and camps.”
  • On the other hand, there’s a suggestion in each case that an informer can hope to get a “free apartment” or “proper accommodation.”
  • Both informers are old men with long histories of informing, who continue out of habit or love of craft or sense of duty or all three. There might be some suggestion that the older generation uses informing as a weapon against a younger generation of which they disapprove.
  • Both are seen to compose denunciations that exaggerate or invent so much that they fail to convince the authorities.
  • Unsurprisingly both are disgusting: “everyone instinctively avoided” Nekrasov’s, who was “dirty,” while Dombrovskii’s neighbor “was known as the communal zit.”

No great conclusion here, but I wanted to note an example of continuity from pre-revolutionary to Soviet informers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2012 3:16 pm

    Really interesting comparison, thank you for highlighting that. Informers, like the secret police and camps, have a very rich and long history in Russia and definitely something to keep in mind, not just their presence during the Soviet times. Great work!

    • June 21, 2012 6:14 pm

      Thanks for your comment and your original post – I know nothing about Dombrovskii and am always glad to learn about him on your blog!

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