The Tumultuous History and Resilliance of the KGB
The KGB, or Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (Committee for State Security), is the best known name for the terror and espionage organization that operated within the Soviet Union during the twentieth century. This agency underwent a series of name changes and modifications since the Russian Revolution of 1917. In fact, the KGB was only the official name for forty-six years, between 1954 and 1991. Though the name is relatively modern, terror organizations have long been a part of Russia’s political structure. The functions of these organizations were expanded from the political police role that was played by the Okhrana played during Tsar Nicholas II’s reign. In 1917, Illich Vladimir Lenin created the Cheka out of the remnants of the Ohkrana. This new organization, which eventually evolved into the KGB, held broad responsibilities including espionage, the protection of Soviet secrets, and the isolation of the Soviet Union from Western goods, news, and ideas. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to the fragmentation of the KGB into many subsidiary organizations that are the last remnants of a legacy that began nearly a century ago.
The Origins of the KGB
In 1880, Tsar Alexander II formed the Department of State Police, known to the Russian population as the Okhrana (Andrew, 20). This organization was used primarily to investigate, infiltrate and deactivate the various radical factions within Russia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By placing Okhrana members within the various revolutionary groups, the tsar remained constantly aware of the movement of these organizations and could thwart any potential attack with relative ease. In fact, between 1908 and 1909, four of the five members of the St. Petersburg committee of the Bolshevik Party were Okhrana officials (Freemantle, 17). Nicholas II was so secure in his infiltration of these groups that he chose to ignore warnings in November 1916 of imminent revolution from other members of his collapsing government.
In February 1917, over 400,000 industrial workers in St. Petersburg spontaneously revolted in response to hunger and poor working conditions (Freemantle, 18). This strike caught Tsar Nicholas completely off guard because none of the revolutionary groups that the Okhrana had been tracking were involved. Compounding the uprising, the Russian army sided with the civilian population against the government. As the government crumbed, the Russian parliament, or Duma, became the provisional government and the tsar abdicated.
During the nine months of uncertain democracy that ensued, Illich Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party secretly organized their forces. After one failed coup in July 1918, the Bolshevik-controlled Military Revolutionary Committee stormed the WinterPalace on October 25, 1918. They seized control after very little resistance and Lenin became the head of the new government (Andrew, 38).
Lenin strongly believed in the use of terror and admired the Jacobins, the most radical of the French revolutionaries of 1790 (Freemantle, 21). He appointed Feliks Dzerzhinsky as the chairman of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the NKVD (Freemantle, 21). The primary objective of this organization was to combat counter-revolution and sabotage throughout the nation.To do this more effectively, The Vecheka was formed as a subsidiary of the NKVD on December 20, 1917 (Freemantle, 21). Shortened to “Cheka” by the people, this organization was the original basis for the more recent KGB.Dzerzhinsky, a Polish nobleman who had served an eleven year prison term resulting from his involvement in anti-Tsarist terrorism activities before the Russian Revolution, was Lenin’s immediate choice for Chairman.
As Dzerzhinsky became acclimated to his new position, he began to make changes to the Cheka’s format.In December 1920, the location of the Cheka’s headquarters was moved from St. Petersburg to the former offices of the All Russian Insurance Company in Moscow (a site in which it has remained, in one form or another, until this day) (Freemantle, 21 The organization expanded from an investigative body to one that encompassed the powers of summary arrest (arrest without due cause), trial and execution. Eventually, the Cheka acquired the ability to incarcerate criminals in concentration camps.
The Cheka was responsible for over 500,000 Russian deaths between its
creation in 1917 and its renaming in 1922
(Freemantle, 22). One common practice became known as the “Red Terror.”Twenty to thirty hostages were selected from an agricultural community and were held until any surplus food that was grown there had been distributed to other areas in an effort to combat both famine and a capitalistic system. If the food was not distributed appropriately, these hostages were shot (Freemantle, 22). Though this process and others like it were effective in spreading and maintaining Lenin’s ideology, they were not looked upon highly by the outside world.In order to improve economic relations with the West, the Cheka was disbanded and replaced with the more positive sounding – but no less oppressive – State Political Administration (GPU).
Originally, the GPU, still under the jurisdiction of the NKVD, operated with less absolute power than the Cheka had maintained. However, with Lenin’s urging, Dzerzhinsky remained the Chairman of the GPU and over time it became as powerful as it had been under the Cheka name. With the adoption of the Soviet constitution in July 1923, the GPU underwent another name change, this time to the OGPU, or Unified State Political Administration (Freemantle, 24). This new name implied the solidarity that Lenin was striving to achieve within his Communist state.
In 1924, Lenin died and was succeeded by Joseph Stalin.Dzerzhinsky, who had sided with Stalin during the battle for succession, retained his position as the Chairman of the OGPU. When Dzerzhinksy died in 1926, he was replaced by Vyacheslav Menzhinsky (Andrew, 108).One of the primary tasks of the OGPU during this time was maintaining order amongst Soviet citizens as Stalin turned fourteen million peasant properties into collective farms. To meet export demands, the OGPU physically removed bread and grain from these farms, creating a famine that ultimately killed more than five million people (Freemantle, 25-26).
Menzhinsky died under mysterious circumstances in 1934 and was replaced by Genrikh Yagoda, a trained pharmacist.Under his control, the OGPU expanded its laboratory facilities and began scientific research into biological and chemical extermination. Yagoda himself liked to conduct human experiments on captured criminals.He was executed during Stalin’s reign after he confessed to killing Menzhinsky in an effort to acquire the Chairmanship of the OGPU.
During the administration of Nikolai Yezhov, Yagoda’s successor, terror within the Soviet Union reached its height.In fact, three thousand of Yezhov’s own men were executed between 1936 and 1938. Stalin, wary of the extent of Yezhov’s control, had him tried and shot in 1938 (Freemantle, 27).
Following Yezhov, Lavrenti Beria served as KGB Chairman for fifteen years. He was a brilliant leader who expanded the NKVD, the parent organization under which the OGPU operated, to such an extent that the security arm of it was transferred into a separate organization in 1941 (Dziak, 105). This new branch, the NKGB, was responsible for internal security, counter-espionage, frontier guards, administration of corrective labor camps, and guerilla and underground activities against the Germans during World War II (Freemantle, 28). The man who headed the NKGB, Vseveolod Merkulov, was under Beria’s control, which effectively kept the NKGB tied to Beria.In 1950, Merkulov was replaced by Viktor Abakumov, who had no allegiance to Beria.As a result, Beria convinced Stalin to convict Abakumov of plotting against him. In 1951, Abakumov was killed by a firing squad (Freemantle, 29).
When Stalin died in 1953, Beria attempted to take his place as dictator of the Soviet Union.However, several key members of the Soviet army worked with Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, to bring Beria to trial and he was executed in 1953 (Andrew, 425). After Khrushchev assumed control of the Soviet government, the state security organization assumed its final name.In March 1954, it became the KGB and was made responsible for the control of police, clandestine operations, border patrols and internal security.
History of the KGB (1954-1991)
On March 13, 1954, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or the Committee for State Security, was formed. Ivan Serov was named the first Chairman of this organization (Freemantle, 30).
The initial task of the newly formed KGB, as ordered by the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, was to “purge” the government of any person with association or allegiance to Lavrenti Beria, who had tried to seize control of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953. Under Khrushchev’s leadership, the Soviet Union made several policy changes.It underwent legal reform, reduced the size of prison/camp populations, and selectively relaxed the censorship of cultural and literary expression (Dziak, 140). While granting several minor accessions in an attempt to differentiate itself from Stalin’s reign, during the Khrushchev administration the KGB developed a more involved role in foreign affairs.
Beginning in 1958 with the appointment of Aleksandr Shelepin as the new KGB Chairman (Serov was moved to the Chairmanship of the GRU, the KGB’s sister organization), Khrushchev made several changes to the operational functions of the KGB. His ultimate goal was to return the Soviet Union – and the KGB in particular – to a positive, creative political focus similar to that of Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka during the early 1920’s. Several Western nations were named as the main “enemies” of the Soviet Union, including the United States, Britain, and Japan. These countries were to be destabilized and their alliances weakened.As a result, assassinations and Soviet-sponsored terrorism actually increased under Khrushchev’s leadership (Dziak, 141).
During this time, the KGB also struggled to change the oppressive image that Stalin’s dictatorship had imparted. Several literary works were released that stressed the heroic contributions that had been made by the KGB on behalf of the Soviet Union and postage stamps bearing the likeness of Dzerzhinsky were released (Dziak, 152).
In December 1961, Shelepin resigned as the KGB Chairman in order to become the Chairman of the new Committee of Party and State Control (Andrew, 456).Vladimir Semichastny became the new KGB Chairman.
On October 11, 1964, several prominent Soviet leaders arranged a meeting with Khrushchev at his Black Sea resort. By October 15, he had “resigned” from his position as the Soviet leader.Behind the resignation, a clandestine conspiracy had taken place. Leonid Brezhnev, the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, became the head of the Communist Party on October 15, 1964 (Andrew, 478).
Semichastny was fired from his position as KGB Chairman because of several key misjudgments he made while in power (Andrew, 479-80). Immediately afterward, in May 1967, Yuri Andropov, the head of the Department for Liaison with Socialist Countries, accepted Semichastny’s position. He served the longest term of any KGB Chairman, from 1967 until his resignation in May 1982 (Dziak, 157).
During his time as Chairman, Andropov continued the restructuring of the KGB that had been initiated by Khrushchev and Shelepin in the 1950’s. He worked steadily against political, intellectual, minority group and religious dissidence; expanded the labor camp system and internal exile; and increased the use of psychiatric wards for captured criminals (Dziak, 159). In addition, his administration improved the scientific and technological intelligence acquisition by helping to build an organizational infrastructure for the funding and supervision of military, defense industry, and aviation industry research (Dziak, 160-1). Under Andropov’s direction, the KGB improved in forgery, worked on the anti-neutron warhead campaign, and expanded its use of agents in foreign arenas. In May 1982, Andropov became the leader of the Soviet Party and the KGB Chairmanship was given to Vitaly Fedorchuk, the former Chairman of the Ukrainian’s regional KGB (Dziak, 164).
After serving as the KGB Chairman for only seven months, Fedorchuk resigned from the position to become the Minister of Internal Affairs (Andrew, 588). In December 1982, Viktor Chebrikov, the first deputy KGB Chairman under Fedorchuk, stepped up into the vacated position.He served from 1982 until October 1988, when he was replaced by Vladimir Kryuchkov, who had been Chairman of the First Chief Directorate, a division of the KGB (Andrew, 625).
Kryuchkov served as the Chairman of the KGB until August 18, 1991, when he and seven other key members of the Soviet government attempted an ultimately unsuccessful coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet party from 1985 until the party’s dissolution on December 25, 1991.
The Organization and Operation of the KGB
In 1954, the Soviet Union’s political police organization officially became the KGB, or Committee for State Security.It was during this name change that the KGB also adopted its basic organizational structure.
When the KGB was formed in March 1954, the organization was demoted from a ministry to a state committee – a significant reduction in status. However, despite this change in hierarchical importance, the KGB retained more autonomy than most other Soviet government departments and was primarily independent from the Council of Ministers, the body that delegated power within the Soviet Union. As a state committee, the KGB was technically subject to the Council of Ministers’ authority as issued through a statute that outlined its basic organizational structure. Interestingly, the statute of the KGB was never published, unlike most other Soviet statutes. Many aspects of the KGB were, however, revealed through various Soviet textbooks and individual disclosures of guarded information.
The KGB was an umbrella organization that encompassed corresponding state committees in each of the fourteen non-Russian Soviet republics. Within each republic were KGB administrations that operated separately from, though in accordance with, the central KGB. In the RussianRepublic, however, there was no regional organization.Instead, the KGB administrations throughout Russia reported directly to the central KGB in Moscow (Knight, 120).
The central KGB was directed by a Chairman who was confirmed by the Supreme Soviet (the figurehead Parliament of the USSR) but selected by the Politiburo (a policy-making body). In addition to the Chairman, there was also one or two First Deputy Chairmen and four to six Deputy Chairmen. These men, along with the chiefs of certain KGB directorates (see below), formed the KGB Collegium, a leadership body that made important decisions regarding the KGB’s actions (Knight, 121).
The KGB’s major tasks encompassed four areas:protection of the state against foreign spies and agents, the exposure and investigation of political and economic crimes by citizens, the protection of state borders, and the protection of state secrets (Aftergood (1), 1). In order to fulfill these obligations, between 390,000 and 700,000 Soviets served in the KGB in six chief directorates.
The First Chief Directorate (“First” was a titular designation and was neither sequential nor did it indicate power level) was responsible for all foreign operations and intelligence gathering activities in the KGB.Within this organization were several sub-groups, categorized both by functional operations (i.e. – intelligence training, gathering, and analysis) and worldwide geographical regions. Due to the nature of this line of work, the First Chief Directorate recruited the best-qualified personnel of all the directorates; these recruits had a strong academic record, knowledge of one or more languages, and a strong belief in the Communist ideology (Knight, 122).
The Second Chief Directorate handled the internal political control of Soviet citizens and foreigners residing in the Soviet Union. This directorate worked to prevent foreign diplomats from interacting with Soviet citizens; investigated political crimes, economic crimes, and informant networks; and monitored tourists and foreign students (Knight, 123).
The Third Chief Directorate dealt with military counterintelligence and the political surveillance of the Soviet armed forces. This Directorate was subdivided into twelve departments that oversaw all the various military and paramilitary formations of the Soviet government (Knight, 123).
The Fifth Chief Directorate, along with the Second Chief Directorate, focused on internal security.Created in 1969 to combat political dissent, it was specifically responsible for discovering and routing out opposition amongst religious factions, national minorities, and the intellectual elite (including the literary and artistic community) (Knight, 123).
The Eighth Chief Directorate was responsible for communications within the Soviet system. Specifically, it monitored foreign communication, created the cryptology used by KGB divisions, transmitted communications to KGB stations abroad, and developed secure communication equipment (Knight, 124).
The Chief Directorate of Border Troops protected Soviet land and sea borders.It was divided into nine border districts that covered the 41,600 miles of the USSR border. The basic duties of these troops included repulsing potential attacks on the Soviet Union; preventing the illegal crossing of the border by persons, weapons, explosives, contraband, or subversive literature; monitoring Soviet and foreign ships; and working to protect the environment from pollution (Aftergood (1), 1).
In addition to these six Chief Directorates, there were at least three directorates that were smaller in size and scope than the Chief Directorates. The Seventh Directorate handled surveillance and provided personnel and technical equipment to monitor the activities of foreigners and suspect Soviet citizens. The Ninth Directorate supplied bodyguards for key Soviet Party leaders and their families inside the Kremlin and other government facilities throughout the nation.The Sixteenth Directorate maintained the telephone and radio lines used by the Soviet government agencies (Knight, 123-24).
As a vast and intricate organization, the central KGB had, in addition to these branches, an expansive bureaucracy to help it deal with day-to-day functions. These additional organizations included a personnel department, a secretariat, a technical support staff, a finance department, an archives, an administration department, and a party committee.Along with the major directorates, these groups helped to ensure a smooth transition between Chairmen and kept the KGB efficient and successful throughout its thirty-seven year existence.
The Demise of the KGB
On August 18, 1991, the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was confronted by several plotters at his vacation home on the Black Sea in the Crimea. These conspirators, including Lieutenant General Yuri Plekhanov, Chairman of the Presidential Bodyguard, and Vlery Boldin, Gorbachev’s Chief of Staff, felt that communism was threatened under Gorbachev’s progressively capitalistic rule. They ordered him to either resign or surrender Presidential authority to Vice President Gennadi Yanayev.When Gorbachev refused to comply, KGB guards surrounded his home, preventing him from leaving or contacting the outside world.
At the same time in Moscow, the KGB’s Seventh Directorate’s “Alpha Group” was instructed to attack the Russian Federation Building and seize control of it. Their orders included the undertaking of covert reconnaissance on the building beginning on August 19, followed by an infiltration and seizure of the building during August 20 and 21. Contrary to the coup members’ expectations, the group, led by Mikhail Golovatov, decided not to carry out the attack.Instead, they postponed the operation until opposition forces, led by Boris Yeltsin, gathered to defend the Russian Federation Building (Ebon, 7).
After realizing that the coup was badly planned and would be ultimately unsuccessful, the conspirators tried to negotiate with Gorbachev, who was still being held captive. Gorbachev refused to meet with the coup members.When Soviet loyalists arrived at his summer home, several of the usurpers were arrested and the coup was effectively suppressed.
Eight key coup members, called the “Gang of Eight,” were responsible for the attempted uprooting of Gorbachev’s rule.It included the Vice President of Russia; the Chairman of the KGB; the Defense Minister; the Russian Prime Minister; a member of the Soviet Defense Council; a Soviet Parliament member; the President of State Enterprises, Industrial Construction, Transport, and Communications; and the Minister of the Interior (Russia.net, 1). Of these eight, seven were arrested and stood trial.The eighth shot himself in the head before he could be arrested.
After this major upheaval in the Soviet Government, which included the necessary replacement of these eight key governmental positions, Gorbachev began to make serious reforms that ultimately led to the disbanding of the Soviet Union and the end of Communist rule in Russia. Among those replaced within his administration was Vladimir Kryuchkov, who had served as the Chairman of the KGB for three years.In his place, the Supreme Soviet assigned Vadim Bakatin to become the new Chairman. Bakatin had served as the Minister of the Interior from 1988 to 1990 and had called for the dismantling of the KGB during that time. In fact, his vocal opinion on the matter directly led to his replacement in 1990 by Boris Pugo, who ultimately became a conspirator in the August coup (Ebon, 55).
Bakatin, with his strong anti-KGB sentiments, was, ironically, exactly the kind of person Gorbachev was looking for to fill the position of KGB Chairman. He was a man of integrity and respectability, so the government saw him as the perfect candidate to see the KGB through until its end. He was responsible, from late August until late October, for analyzing and organizing the several branches of the KGB.Ultimately, on October 24, 1991, the KGB – the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security – was officially dissolved.
Does the KGB Exist Today?
The Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti officially existed from March 13,1954 until October 24, 1991. Under the leadership of Vadim Bakatin and Mikhail Gorbachev, the organization was dismantled and no longer exists as such within the Russian Federation’s governmental hierarchy. However, as happened quite frequently in the years before 1954, the KGB was not actually destroyed in 1991. Instead, it was broken apart into several smaller factions that assumed, collectively, many of the same functions that the KGB was once responsible for. In the Russian Federation, though, these smaller organizations are of a narrower scope, which prevents them from becoming as all encompassing and ruthlessly powerful as the old KGB.
The Foreign Intelligence Service was created directly after the demise of the KGB in October 1991. It incorporates most of the foreign operations, intelligence gathering and intelligence analysis activities that once comprised the KGB’s First Chief Directorate (Aftergood (2), 1).
The Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information was formed from the combination of the Eighth Chief Directorate and the Sixteenth Directorate. It is responsible for communications security and signals intelligence (Aftergood (2), 1).
Eight thousand to ten thousand troops that once constituted the KBG’s Ninth Directorate joined the Federal Protective Service and the Presidential Security Service. These groups are responsible for guarding the Kremlin and all of the important offices of the Russian Federation (Aftergood (2), 1).
The Federal Security Service was created after the Ministry of Security was disbanded in 1993. This organization absorbed 75,000 people from the Second, Third and Fifth Chief Directorates. It is responsible for internal security functions within the Russian Federation (Aftergood (2), 1).
After years of invoking terror in Soviet citizens who never knew when they might be brutally interrogated by a KGB officer or sentenced to the harsh conditions of a forced labor camp, the KGB no longer exists under its official name. Yet, many Russian people still live in fear of this harsh and repressive organization. Writers whose work was deemed anti-Soviet never saw their accomplishments in print, a result of the censorship of the Fifth Chief Directorate. Families were broken up as KGB agents arrested, convicted and condemned millions of people to labor camps in Siberia or, in the most extreme cases, to death. Most of these people had committed no crime – they were targeted due to unfortunate circumstances that put them in the wrong place at the wrong time or because of a careless comment they may have made in their own homes. Some were killed simply because KGB agents had to meet their quotas – if they had not found enough legitimate spies within their jurisdictions, they simply rounded up innocent people, who were often tortured until they confessed to crimes they did not commit. These atrocities no longer occur within the Russian Federation, but for the generations who grew up under this oppressive system, the nightmares never go away. As the former political prisoner Lev Timofeyev wrote, “The KGB is a state of society, an illness of the public conscience. The healing process has begun, but Society will heal only when the KGB is destroyed” (Albats, 359). The KGB has been dismantled, but for the millions of people who were affected by it, the scars will never fade and forgiveness comes slowly.
Aftergood, Steven.“Intelligence Resource Program – Committee for State
Security.” 17 April 2002(1)
< http://www.fas.org/irp/world/russia/kgb/su0514.htm >
Aftergood, Steven.“Intelligence Resource Program – Committee for State
Security.” 17 April 2002(2)
< http://www.fas.org/irp/world/russia/kgb/post_cccp.htm >
Albats, Yevgenia. The State Within a State. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.
Andrew, Christopher and Oleg Gordievsky. KGB – The Inside Story. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990.
Dziak, John. Chekisty – A History of the KGB. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.
Ebon, Martin. KGB – Death and Rebirth. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.
Freemantle, Brian. KGB – Inside the World’s Largest Intelligence Network. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.
Knight, Amy. The KGB – Police and Politics in the Soviet Union. Winchester, MA: Allen & Unwin, Inc., 1988.
Russia.Net. “The Failed Coup of August 1991.” 17 April 2002. < http://www.russia.net/~oldrn/history/coup.html
KGB Committee for State Security - Russia / Soviet Intelligence Agencies – A good page for a wide array of general information about the KGB.
NKVD & KGB Web Page – Another general page about the KGB, including several photographs of KGB-related artifacts.
Russia.Net - History: The Coup of August 1991 – A good source for history about the failed coup of 1991 and its aftermath.
Capitalism in Russia - History of the Soviet Union – This site contains a brief history of Communist rule in the Soviet Union.
Culture of Russia / The Path to Revolution – A summary of the
Soviet era and the fall of the Soviet Union.
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