A System Was Maintained in Russia to Read All Letters in Mails.
The Secret Eyes of the Czar
A System Was Maintained in Russia to Read All Letters in Mails.
REVIEW OF REVIEWS
THE revolution in Russia opened up the archives, of the autocracy and many strange secrets were thus revealed. Nothing discovered was more astounding, however, than the facts with reference to the “Black Cabinet.” This institution was a sort of postal spy system, maintained by Czardom to keep tab on the correspondence of everyone in Russia, from the highest officials down. The system had astonishing ramifications and the result of it was that a pall of dread and suspicion overlay every feature of the Russian life—for nothing could be kept secret. E. H. Wilcox tells of the workings of the “Black Cabinet” in the Fortnightly, writing in part as follows:
The elaborate and effective system of espionage evolved by the Ohrana enabled the old regime to keep a close and constant watch on the development of political currents and the hatching of political plots among the masses of the Russian population. But this was not enough. The Government of the Tsars was, apparently, based on a belief in the fundamental and universal turpitude of human nature. Absolutely no one was trusted, whatever might be his official position, social station, or political connections. All were kept under secret surveillance — ministers, governors of provinces, generals in command of military districts, metropolitans of the Orthodox Church, even members of the Imperial family. In the nature of things it would have been very difficult for the Ohrana to suborn persons in these and similar positions to spy upon their peers, though there are good reasons for supposing that it had its agents in very unlikely quarters. However, for the purposes of “observation” in the higher official and social spheres, the Government had another and not less efficient instrument. This was the Cabinet Noir, the “Black Cabinet,” as the Russians call it, translating literally the term under which such an institution first became known to history in the France of Louis XIV. The “Black Cabinet” wag an office in which the private correspondence of persons of official, social, or political prominence was examined without the knowledge of either sender or addressee, and such portions of it as seemed likely to interest the authorities photographed or merely copied as the exigencies of the case might require.
For regular information as to what was being done and said in the higher social and official circles, the Government was dependent on the “Black Cabinet.” This institution
was absolutely illegal in its very conception, for the Russian Criminal Code forbade the unauthorized opening of other people’s correspondence, but the Ministers of the Tsars puid very little heed to the Taws which they themselves had made if it suited their purposes to break them. That the Cabinet existed at all was known to very few down to the Revolution, though, of course, suspicions and assumptions were general. Many public servants must have noticed that their indiscreet confidences to trusted correspondents had been immediately followed by their fall from the favor of their official superior, but probably few of them had ventured to draw positive inferences from these coincidences. The story went about that, when Minister of the Interior, Count D. A. Tolstoi once rose from his table remarking to his guests: “You stay here—1 must go and read other people’s private correspondence”; but, on the other hand, another Minister of the Interior had declared in the Douma that the "Black Cabinet” was nothing but a legend. In any event, the vast mass of correspondence found in the archives of the Cabinet shows that innumerable men in the highest Government positions either did not know that letters of persons of their class were read by strange eyes during passage through the post, or flattered themselves with the belief that they, at any rate, were too implicitly trusted to be subjected to espionage of this kind. Evidently the Governor of Kiev, Count Ignatieff, who sent all his letters to his brother, the Minister of Education, by the hands of friends who happened to be traveling to Petrograd, was a rare exception. Even so shrewd and well-informed a man as Count Witte is said to have suffered much in his early career through the frank and pungent comments on public matters with which he spiced his private correspondence, and no doubt many Ministers who were suddenly removed from office without assignable cause owed their downfall to a similar lack of caution.
That the “Black Cabinet” had long been a permanent and highly-valued instrument of government in Russia was made clear by a report which had been submitted to Nicholas II. by Durnovo, and which was found among the papers of the Ministry of the Interior. In this report it was stated that the “perlustration’’ of letters in the post—the Russians almost invariably call the process “perlustratzia”— had been carried on unintermittently ever since the days of Catherine the Great. It had always been the duty of the Minister of the Interior to report at regular intervals to the Tsars on the information thus obtained, and Alexander III. had specially thanked the department for the fruitful results of this branch of its work which had disclosed a plot against his life. Under Plehve, it was added, the “Black Cabinet” had also unmasked a military conspiracy at Kiev.
Branches of the Black Cabinet existed at Petrograd, Moscow, Warsaw, Kiev, Tiflis, Kazan, Nizhni-Novgorod, Odessa, and other large towns. The annual cost of the institution, which was defrayed out of the secret service funds at the disposal of the Ministry of the Interior, was more than 100,000 roubles. It is said, however, to have risen greatly above this figure under Protopopoff, who considerably extended the activity of the Cabinet, and whose last audience of the Tsar is believed to have had as its object the communication of a number of letters intercepted on their way through the post. Under the Minister of the Interior the whole organization was controlled by a senior official of the Censorship of Foreign Newspapers and Magazines, Privy Councillor Mardarieff. His staff consisted of officials whose fidelity and discretion had been thoroughly tested. It included a number of skilled translators and cipher experts. One of the former is said to be the master of no fewer than twenty languages. The members of the staff were nominally employees of the Post Office, from which they received salaries corresponding to their positions in its service. Their pay for their work jj. the “Black Cabinet” came direct from the Ministry of the Interior, and in some cases it exceeded what they received through the ordinary official channels.
The rooms of the “Black Cabinet” were in the Post Office building. They were most jealously guarded, and on no consideration whatever was anyone allowed to enter them
except those who had business there. The letters destined for perlustration were picked out by a few trusted officials in the sorting department. These subordinates were provided with lists, drawn up by the Police Department at the Ministry of the Interior, of the persons whose correspondence was to be intercepted. In dealing with incoming letters they were guided by the addresses; to enable them to detect those going out they were supplied with specimens of hand-writing, which it was their duty to study in private till they could recognize them all at a glance.
It is a curious detail that the entire apparatus by which the letters were extracted from and restored to their envelopes was of German manufacture. Letters closed in the usual way were treated to the simple and familiar process of steaming. For this electric kettles of special construction were used. Sealed letters were the real difficulty. The delicate operation of cutting through the seals with a red-hot wire seems to have been little resorted to. The habitual means of dodging the seal was a thin round stick—apparently something like a knitting needle—which was slit half-way up. The slit end was inserted under the flap at the corner of the envelope, and the letter caught in the slit and rolled round the stick. To restore the letter to the envelope the process was, of course, merely reversed. No little skill must have been required to perform this operation without leaving signs that the letter had been tampered with, but evidently the "Black Cabinet” had raised manipulations of this kind to the level of a fine art. In special cases the letters »’ere photographed, but as a general rule only such portions of them were copied as contained something of political interest. Where a signature or a word was illegible, a facsimile of it was taken and carefully pasted into its proper place in the letter. All the copies and negatives were conscientiously docketed and indexed. When a letter was in a foreign language a precise translation was attached to it.
What seems to be an old story has been revived and adapted in Russia to-day to illustrate the delicacy and finish with which the “Black Cabinet” accomplished the operation of perlustration. It is told that a French tutor, who had formerly given lessons at Court, complained to Nicholas II. that he had received a letter which bore signs that it had been opened in the post. At the next audience given to the Minister of the Interior— Goremykin is the one named—the Tsar expressed indignation that this “Black Cabinet” should be so clumsy as to leave behind traces of its work. The Minister took leave to doubt whether the charge was well founded, and suggested a test case. This proposal was accepted by the Tsar, who wrote something on a sheet of paper and enclosed it in an envelope. He then sealed this with the Imperial seal and handed it to the Minister. At the latter’s next audience he handed back to the Tsar the envelope, on which the closest scrutiny failed to reveal any signs that it had been interfered with, together with a photograph of its written contents.
There could be no higher tribute to the secrecy with which the “Black Cabinet” was shrouded than the fact that a month elapsed after the Revolution before the officials at the Moscow Post Office discovered that perlustration had been practised there. It was, of course, suspected from the first, but a thorough search in the rooms occupied by the Censorship of the Foreign Periodical Press yielded no results. Ultimately, it turned out that the head of this department, who was also in control of the “Black Cabinet,” a man of seventy-two years, who had been fifty-three years in the public service, had taken prompt and effective steps to destroy the evidence of his illegal activities. Immediately on the outbreak of the Revolution he had packed all the records and apparatus of the Cabinet in a number of sacks, and had had them placed in a garret above the Post Office. Then, as opportunity permitted, they had been removed to his home, where he had burned them. He denied that he had destroyed anything but some caricatures of Nicholas II. and a collection of cuttings from the foreign papers, but was unable to account for the disappearance of all the customary paraphernalia of perlustration. It appeared that at Moscow the “Black Cabinet” flourished under the ambiguous title of “the secret expedition.” It emI
ployed eight postal officials of various grades in addition to its chief. He received 150 roubles a month from the Post Office and 350 from the secret funds of the Ministry of the Interior.
In the archives of the Black Cabinet at Odessa were found photographic negatives of letters written by the Commander-inChief of the local forces, Count Mousin-Poushkin, to the Dowager Empress Marie. Prints from these had been sent by special messengers to Privy Councillor Fomin at Petrograd, but, as in all cases of communications intercepted by the “Black Cabinet,” it was impossible to establish definitely for whose edifica-
tion they were ultimately intended. Copies of correspondence of the late Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Chouin, were alsq found. In recent years the Odessa Cabinet had paid particular attention to the letters sent and received by the Governor, General Ebieloff, and the Chief of Staff, General Marks. When members of the Imperial family were in Odessa, the allowances of the staff of the “Black Cabinet” were doubled. It is now stated that the suicide of the Odessa Corps Commander, General Shak, who shot himself some years ago, was due to his having been compromised by a letter which had been opened in the post.
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