The Okhrana and the Frailties of a Police State

Officers most likely arresting a revolutionist

The assassination of Alexander II in 1881 revealed the existential threat of revolutionary groups to the regime, and inspired the creation of a secret police force to silence activists before revolution broke out. The Okhrana, different from street police, formed to gather intelligence on these rebel groups through discrete surveillance and provocative measures. Up to the 1905 Revolution, the tactics used by the Okhrana proved to be ineffective as their actions increased the hostility of their target groups. The irony was that the bombings, large group arrests, and illegal undercover missions, terrorist-like actions conducted by the state, were used to counter domestic terrorism. After the Revolution of 1905, the state would learn that fighting terrorism with terrorism only elevates tension with an oppressed populous.

Three major components plagued the success of the Russian state’s police, both public and secret. First, the Okhrana relied on approaches to surveillance that did not follow the consistent changes of revolutionist strategy. Apart from the tactics, undercover agents were left in place even if missions were unsuccessful and no information was retained. Second, illegal methods were used such as fake worker unions, undercover agents, and violence to strike fear into revolutionists instead of earning their trust. Finally, the objectives of the Okhrana clashed with those of the Special Corps of Gendarmes, the public riot police at the time. Important information regarding ongoing cases was not shared between the two forces, and the Okhrana’s failures caused constant change of command which resulted in disunity.

The Special Corps of Gendarmes

In 1904, Director of Police, A. A. Lopukhin said that “for the past three years, six terrorist plots have been exposed, approximately seventy underground presses have been seized, numerous antigovernment circles have been smashed, yet the movement itself and its most dangerous, terrorist elements continue to grow intensively” (Tsarist Secret Police in Revolutionary Russia). The lack of funding and state-recognized success in stopping revolutionary groups caused many officers to stage their achievements; “some actually encouraged revolutionary activity so that they could later take credit for stopping it” (Tsarist Secret Police in Revolutionary Russia).


Vyacheslav von Plehve, Director of Police (1902-1904)

The assassination of Vyacheslav von Plehve took place in the streets of St. Petersburg in 1904 as a result of political revolution. In the wake of religion and class uprising, the regime in Russia was facing internal struggles of its own, especially the police. Plehve took over as Director of Police in 1902 with confidence and ambition for the future success of the department; “a man too self-presumptuous, but strong, authoritative, holding in his hands all the threads of interior politics” (Zuckerman 281). His successor, Lopukhin, tried to carry on the legacy of Plehve, stating that the police would “constitute the entire might of the regime” (Zuckerman 280). In defense of the Russian police at this time in history, revolution was inevitable in a country known for oppressing its people, but the unorganized, naive policing encouraged a revolution instead of stopping one. Fredric Zuckerman writes in his article, Political Police and Revolution, that “it was the 1905 revolution and its aftermath that exposed in bold relief the inadequacies of tsardom’s traditional police culture by forcing its agencies to face unfamiliar, daunting and disorienting situations caused both by the dynamics of the 1905 revolution itself and the new institutions and new values that arose in its aftermath” (281).

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Zuckerman, Fredric S. “Political Police and Revolution: The Impact of the 1905 Revolution on the Tsarist Secret Police.” Journal of Contemporary History 27.2 (1992): 279–300. Print.


One thought on “The Okhrana and the Frailties of a Police State

  1. Many people have written about the Okhrana’s support for Father Gapon and the secret police’s infiltration of the revolutionary movement, but you take a different angle here by exploring the regime’s goals for the secret police and the scholarship that suggests that after 1905 the Okhrana probably did more to advance the cause of revolution than hinder it. Great sources again this week, and the illustrations are wonderful – especially the one of the gendarmes on the big bicycle!

    Liked by 1 person

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