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The Spy Depicted

Sylvia Sasse

Operative Censorship

Translated by Brian Alkire and Michael Turnbull

Published: 18.10.2018


In December 2016 an unconventional act of censorship action took place in Moscow. teatr.doc, the most well-known off-theatre in Russia, founded in 2002, wanted to show the documentary Stronger than Weapons (2014), by Igor Savychenko, in its basement space in Moscow, a film about the resistance on the Maidan and the war in Eastern Ukraine. The performance was not banned in advance; instead, shortly before the performance, about twenty persons in civil and military clothes burst into the basement and yelled that there was a bomb in the building. The audience was driven into the streets and, once there, registered. The residents of the building above the theatre were not evacuated and were allowed to stay in their apartments despite the bomb threat. After this the bomb squad (skvod) barricaded themselves in the theatre for approximately two hours. Their search quickly became one for extremist (ekstrimist) materials that could violate the interests of the Russian state. Almost as an afterthought, the police disassembled the film projector, confiscated the film, laid waste to the space, and destroyed the props. The film showing could no longer take place.

This event was an act of what I call “operative censorship”. This practice was typical of the Soviet Union and other states in the former Eastern bloc; from about 2000, it has again been more intensely used in Russia. I understand “operative censorship” to mean an action of the authorities or secret services intended to conceal the actual activity of censorship. The action itself functions as a kind of fake event, one that occurs, but only “as if.” It takes place, but it isn’t what it appears to be. The event is “made,” planned, sometimes even rehearsed, so as to present a reason for why an exhibition isn’t opened, a film not shown, a performance not carried out, or indeed artistic work not continued.

Events such as these make clear that every exhibition, film or play that is planned can be prevented—within the law—at any time. This is perhaps the decisive point: operative censorship is not only intended to show that there is no censorship but also to demonstrate the existence of an intact legal system that takes bomb warnings seriously, is concerned about fire-prevention measures, or protects viewers and readers from pornographic or blasphemous art and literature.

Regarding the recent charges of sexual assault against the actionist artist Petr Pavlensky, or of the misappropriation of public funds in the case of Kirill Serebrennikov, it has to be asked whether these are instances of the practice of sham charges familiar from the Soviet Union—that is, the attempt to create the preconditions for a prosecution. The frequency of such proceedings in recent years shows that the logic of the secret services has once again become part of the operation of censorship.


The Russian philosopher Michail Ryklin describes the current practice of politics in Russia, not only in relation to potential censorship measures but also in general, as an “operative power,” which is characteristically able to subordinate current politics to the logic of secret-service methods: “Putinism is basically the politicization of secret-service methods,” Ryklin writes. The result of such politics is that its public, visible part is a “fiction” for or of “outsiders,” that is, “of those not party to the actual secret knowledge.”1 One might object that his had been the case during Soviet times, and Ryklin would certainly not deny this. But while operative politics during this period still followed or aided an ideology, and covered over a reality that contradicted the ideology itself, current secret-service practices merely serve the retention of power.

When Ryklin writes “operative,” he doesn’t mean the recently discussed media-philosophical question of the technical or performative aspects of operations; he is referring instead to the unpredictability and dissimulation involved in secret-service operativity. A good idea of how this dissimulation functions can be obtained by looking at the Stasi guidelines for Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (IM = unofficial staff), as informants were known in the GDR. According to Stasi Directive 1/76, “disruption”, perhaps the most important activity of the Stasi, is the “systematic discrediting of public reputation, standing, and prestige on the basis of true and verifiable discrediting information in combination with false, believable, non-disprovable, and thus equally discrediting information.”2 One could say here that the Stasi oriented themselves towards Aristotle, who rightly noted with regard to fiction that probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities. The Stasi also aimed to produce probable events intended to manipulate the lives of artists or dissidents. But these “falsely probable” events didn’t remain fictive; they became biographical reality for those affected.

Against this background the observation that theatre and politics have always been closely connected historically and conceptually sounds banal. But the point here isn’t to criticize an “aestheticization of politics” (Benjamin), or to claim that “ideology” is in any case “spectacle” (Debord). Nor to note the gradual deterioration of democratic principles, such as participation, into a mere market-compliant spectacle, as Colin Crouch typifies post-democracy. Rather, as Ryklin has already indicated, the idea of operativity refers to secret-service actions that aim to “disrupt” or criminalize their own society. In the case of operative censorship these are criminal practices by the state intended to obscure its action as a censor, contrary to the artistic freedom specified in the constitution, or through which the state itself creates reasons to justify the censorship of artists. This staged invention of reasons—which entirely conforms with the logic of the secret services and takes place covertly—signifies a perfidious kind of auto-subversion of the state by itself. Auto-subversion undermines and circumvents the law through the lawgivers.

“Plainclothes Art Historians”

Since the archives of Eastern Europe’s former intelligence services have been opened to researchers, it has been possible to examine secret-service theatrical practices more closely, although only in those countries that have made the files accessible. This is not the case in Russia. Acts of “operative censorship” can only be analyzed there from the point of view of the affected artists, from their diaries and memories, or in other records by the civil-rights movement, for example the Chronical of Ongoing Events (Chronika tekushchikh sobytii), which was typed with carbon paper in the Soviet Union from 1968 to 1983. Sixty-three editions of this chronical have been circulated in the past fifteen years. It includes reports by artists about obstructed or “impeded” exhibitions, about “fire-protection measures,” “burst pipes,” burgled studios and private apartments with the aim of destroying art, even of arson. The chronicle records these events in much detail, and does so in the full knowledge that they were initiated by the KGB. This knowledge gives rise to a varied interplay between artists and “plainclothes art historians,” as the agents on the Russian art scene were known. The planning of both public events and covert exhibitions always took place in anticipation of potential KGB action. Aside from typical minor actions there were also elaborately staged ones with an ideological subtext. The most spectacular of these undercover acts of censorship was undoubtedly the so-called bulldozer exhibition in September 1974 in Moscow. A public presentation of art was destroyed by hired workers and truck drivers who were on hand at just the right moment to lay out a recreational park exactly where the art was on show. The action was intended to prevent the previously approved exhibition, but also to stage a will of the people against such art and its presentation.

It can only be seen how partial this view from outside is when available secret-service files are examined. These not only give information about acts of operative censorship on the artistic scene but also about the theatrical training of informants. One can read about the criteria according to which agents are casted, trained in acting, and schooled in the methods of operative psychology. Their respective roles are recorded in the so-called legend. The “legend,” according to the dictionary, consists of “operational, staged facts and pretexts that trigger desired behaviors in certain persons and/or should put the Stasi in a position to arrive at certain information. The legend should be believable and based on real, verifiable facts. Depending on focus, there were travel legends, investigation legends, contact legends, evasive legends, and retreat legends.”3

People needed to be found who wouldn’t attract attention in the artistic milieu, and who would be capable of simulating critical or subversive artistic activity. The “job requirements” of such people, in the case of artist Gabriele Stötzer, who I will consider in more detail below, looked like this, for example: “Lifestyle must conform to the above-named circles of persons or be easily adapted,” “artistic talent,” “strong general education.”4

We have to do here with subversive state practices intended to undermine the art scene. It becomes clear that subversive operations don’t necessarily need to be aimed at a state power or ideology; they can also be used effectively by the state to infiltrate the underground.

The files of the artist and writer Gabriele Stötzer are a particularly vivid example of the theatrical disruptive activity of the Stasi in artist circles. Disruption with true and untrue—but credible—means was directly aimed at her network of relationships, psyche, and artistic activity. It was intended to undermine her perception of reality and self. The key to resistance to power lies, as Foucault has written,5 in the relationship to oneself. If this is disrupted, then no more resistance is possible. In the vocabulary of the Stasi this involved the “systematic organization of professional and social failures for the undermining of self-confidence.”6 The Stasi called upon the methods of “operational psychology” as they were developed at Stasi law schools.7

In the case of Gabriele Stötzer, it was the IM David Menzer (Sascha Andersen), among many other informants, who as a Stasi critic devalued her artistic and literary activities. Informants, but primarily their leading officers, usually put the words “artistic” and “literary”8 in quotation marks, or wrote “so-called artistic work,” “pamphlets,” or “shoddy efforts.”9 They also disparaged the literary texts as “incomprehensible” or “unqualified,” or pathologized them as “partially psychopathic.”10

In the case of the writer Rainer Kunze, to name another example, it was said in the operational plan that “evidence shall be provided that Kunz’s prose is bad prose and serves the sole purpose of agitation and the political-ideological diversion of the opponent.”11 From Stötzer’s file we also learn that attempts were made to convince her social circle that she was incapable of “successfully carrying out planned activities,”12 although it was of course the Stasi itself that was secretly preventing these activities.

The undermining of one’s relationship to oneself occurred not only through causing uncertainty, through the non-recognition of artistic work or bad reviews, but also through performative censorship: exhibitions abroad, for example, were prevented by issuing rejections in the name of foreign curators; publishers were pressured not to publish texts, and so on. The Stasi also “liquidated” Stötzer’s private gallery by terminating the lease on her apartment, which made the continuance of the gallery impossible. In Stötzer’s files this was referred to as the “formulation of a liquidation and disruption plan” and as an “elaboration” or “exhaustion” of “every possible legal option for the restriction of the activities”13 or as the elaboration of “preconditions […] against K. Carrying out administrative sanctions from the point of view of tax evasion.”14

In a status report connected with Operation Toxin, the following was written: “To summarize, we can say that success was achieved in the framework of the operation in keeping the most essential activities of K. under control and in liquidating in a timely and sustainable fashion the operationally relevant actions of K., which are to be classified as the organization of an underground political activity.”15

In his book Stasi Konkret [Stasi Concretely], the historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk lists, over two pages, further examples of common disruption practices, including consciously spreading the rumor that one was working with the Stasi.16 The most fantastic-sounding, however, are the numerous “disruption measures” which were imposed on Jürgen Fuchs. These includes a bomb explosion in front of his house in 1986 and the sabotage of the brake hoses on his car. Planned but not executed by the Stasi Main Section VIII for Observation and Transit Traffic in 1988 was the installation of a radioactive source in Fuchs’s home by an IM.17

The Spy Depicted

In Gabriele Stötzer’s case, the Stasi directed its “disruption activities” not only towards the person but also towards the art. To do so they planted IMs as models in Stötzer’s photo actions. If Stötzer was interested in photographing transgender actions, which was the word spreading among her close acquaintances, then the Stasi promptly provided a transvestite, who was brought to her by the IM “Konrad.” Stötzer herself suspected that their intention was to radicalize her photographic works. They attempted to elicit pornographic photos from her in order to “be able to introduce criminal proceedings”. Stötzer reports that when she first half-publicly showed the photographs she received a criminal charge for pornography, which is not contained in the Stasi files and is also otherwise untraceable. Another IM who was observing Stötzer made fun of the photos. He noted it in his record without realizing that the photo model was also an IM: “To articulate herself, she composed abstruse prose texts, but also photo series and narrow-gage films portraying the person as ‘medium.’ For example, she produced a series with a transvestite of about 150–200 photos, in which she believed that the transvestite had, at the end of the series, ‘found herself and is able to know herself more self-confidently.’”18

Looking at the photographs with “Winfried” today, one sees the whole ambivalence of the Stasi interference, but also the failed artistic devaluation. For “Winfried” was a highly talented photographic model, and behind the camera stood an artist. The photographic works are art both because of and despite Winfried. Even if we recognize Winfried as an agent, we see a pleasure in posing. He is invited to show himself as a transvestite before Stötzer’s camera, and it is Stötzer who turns the agent into a photo model who loves the camera more than his mission, whereas the Stasi recruitment photographs, which are also in the archive, are clumsy, banal, and look more like surveillance images.

Stötzer thus worked involuntarily with informants in her artistic photographs and films. Not only was “Winfried” “supplied” to her but also the IM Breaky. In the Super-8 film Die Spitze [The Peak] he clambers up a “phallic object” as an acrobatic punk in the spring of 1986 in Erfurt. A later status report quotes what Breaky himself said about the action: “When I pointed to the cathedral during the shoot, she misinterpreted it as a Nazi salute and corrected me immediately.”19 Breaky’s report bears witness to Stötzer’s watchfulness, but also to the fact that he wouldn’t go so far as to smuggle a fascist gesture into her work in order to criminalize her.20

The spies were ultimately unable to prevent Gabriele Stötzer’s artistic work. On the contrary, it not only shows the artist’s view of her city or of sexuality but also makes the fearful eye of the secret service visible. Today Stötzer’s works are not only works of art, even though the interventions were intended to deny them this status; they also document operative censorship in the GDR.


1 “Legende, Operative Macht. Sylvia Sasse im Gespräch mit Michail Ryklin,” in Geschichte der Gegenwart,

2 “Zersetzung,” in Das MfS-Lexikon. Begriffe, Personen und Strukturen der Staatssicherheit der DDR, 3rd edition, Berlin 2016, 390ff.

3 “Legende,” in Das MfS-Lexikon, 222f.

4 Eingeschränkte Freiheit. Der Fall Gabriele Stötzer, BSTU 2014, 51.

5 Michel Foucault, Hermeneutik des Subjekts, Frankfurt am Main 2009, 313.

6 Das MfS-Lexikon, 391.

7 Günter Förster, Die Dissertationen an der “Juristischen Hochschule” des MfS. Eine annotierte Bibliographie, BStU, Berlin 1997.

8 OV Toxin, 4, BSTU, 0127.

9 OV Toxin, 4, BSTU 0021.

10 OV Toxin, BSTU, 0005.

11 Marko Martin, “‘Geschaffene Machwerke.’ Die Sprache der Stasi,” in Text+Kritik, Feinderklärung. Literatur und Staatssicherheitsdienst, ed. Heinz Ludwig Arnold, Heft 120, Oktober 1993, 48–55: 51.

12 OV Toxin, 4, 0011.

13 Eingeschränkte Freiheit. Der Fall Gabriele Stötzer, 51, OV Toxin, 4, BSTU, 0013.

14 OV Toxin, BSTU 4, 0006.

15 Eingeschränkte Freiheit, 51.

16 Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, Stasi Konkret, 174.

17 BStU: report on the project “Einsatz von Röntgenstrahlen und radioaktiven Stoffen durch das MfS – Fiktion oder Realität?,” Berlin 2000, 209–217: 215.

18 Ibid., 235.

19 Eingeschränkte Freiheit, 235.

20 Conversation with the artist.

  • intelligence sercive
  • gender
  • subjectification
  • body
  • surveillance
  • identity
  • Russia

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Sylvia Sasse

Sylvia Sasse

is a professor of Slavic studies at the University of Zurich and co-founder of the ZKK (Centre for Arts and Cultural Theory), member of ZGW (Center "History of Knowledge"), and co-editor of "Geschichte der Gegenwart" (

Other texts by Sylvia Sasse for DIAPHANES