The KGB—the notorious Soviet secret police service—was one of the most powerful institutions in Soviet Union society. Involved in both domestic and international affairs, it employed an army of secret agents, regular employees, informers and "unofficial collaborators." A relatively small number of KGB agents were in the foreign service wing. Even KGB targets like dissident Andrei Sakharov complimented the KGB for its competency and said it understood what was going on.

KGB stands of Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnost ("Committee for State Security”). It was the predominant Soviet agency for espionage and internal security since 1954. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited the central agency in Moscow. Governments of other former Soviet republics took over KGB property on their territory.

The KGB had been an integral feature of the Soviet state since it was established by Nikita S. Khrushchev (in office 1953-64) in 1954 to replace the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyy komissariat vnutrennikh del — NKVD), which during its twenty-year existence had conducted the worst of the Stalinist purges. Between 1954 and 1991, the KGB acquired vast monetary and technical resources, a corps of active personnel numbering more than 500,000, and huge archival files containing political information of the highest sensitivity. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In contrast to the United States government, which assigns the functions of domestic counterintelligence and foreign intelligence to separate agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), respectively, the Soviet system combined these functions in a single organization. This practice grew out of the ideology of Soviet governance, which made little distinction between external and domestic political threats, claiming that the latter were always foreign inspired. According to that rationale, the same investigative techniques were appropriate for both foreign espionage agents and Soviet citizens who came under official suspicion. For example, the KGB's Seventh Chief Directorate, whose task was to provide personnel and equipment for surveillance operations, was responsible for surveillance of both foreigners and Soviet citizens. *


In “The KGB: Police and Politics in the Soviet Union,” Amy Knight describes the structure and influence of the KGB in its final stage before the end of the Soviet Union. The post-Soviet position of internal security agencies is described by J. Michael Waller in “Secret Empire: The KGB in Russia Today”.

KGB Organization

The KGB often was characterized as a state within a state. The organization was a rigidly hierarchical structure whose chairman was appointed by the Politburo, the supreme executive body of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Key decisions were made by the KGB Collegium, a collective leadership including the agency's top leaders and selected republic and departmental chiefs. The various KGB directorates had responsibilities ranging from suppressing political dissent to guarding borders to conducting propaganda campaigns abroad. At the end of the Soviet period, the KGB had five chief directorates, three smaller directorates, and numerous administrative and technical support departments. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The organization of the KGB was very bureaucratic. The KGB's branches in the fourteen non-Russian republics duplicated the structure and operations of the unionwide organization centered in Moscow; KGB offices existed in every subnational jurisdiction and city of the Soviet Union. The KGB's primary internal function was surveillance of the Soviet citizenry, using a vast intelligence apparatus to ensure loyalty to the regime and to suppress all expressions of political opposition. This apparatus served as the eyes and ears of the party leadership, supplying information on all aspects of Soviet society to the Politburo.

The First Chief Directorate was responsible for KGB operations abroad. It was divided into three subdirectorates, responsible respectively for deep-cover espionage agents, collection of scientific and technological intelligence, and infiltration of foreign security operations and surveillance of Soviet citizens abroad. Segmented into eleven geographical regions, the First Chief Directorate placed intelligence-gathering officers in legal positions in embassies and elsewhere abroad. Such activities increased markedly after détente with the West in 1972 permitted many more Soviet officials to take positions in Western and Third World countries. In the 1970s and 1980s, as many as 50 percent of such officials were estimated to be conducting espionage. *

KGB Agents and Security Troops

The Soviet Union’s best and brightest went into the KGB. KGB agents (troops) had to be smart, disciplined and organized and make it through a rigorous selection process. They were expected to be moral and incorruptible and follow orders. KGB men were trained like soldiers, whose mission was to protect the Communist Party and the Communist regime. They had military-style ranks like colonel and general. Powerful men had titles like the chief of the First Department with the Second Chief Directorate.

The KGB Security Troops, which numbered about 40,000 in 1990, provided the KGB with coercive potential. Although Soviet sources did not specify the functions of these special troops, Western analysts believed that one of their main tasks was to guard the top leaders in the Kremlin, as well as key government and party buildings and officials at the major subnational levels. Such troops presumably were commanded by the Ninth Directorate of the KGB. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Security Troops also included several units of signal personnel, who reportedly were responsible for installation, maintenance, and operation of secret communications facilities for leading party and government bodies, including the Ministry of Defense. Other special KGB troops performed counterterrorist and counterintelligence operations. Such troops were employed, together with the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministerstvo vnutrennikh del — MVD), to suppress public protests and disperse demonstrations. Special KGB troops also were trained for sabotage and diversionary missions abroad. *

The Internal Troops were a component of the armed forces but were subordinate to the MVD. Numbering about 260,000 in 1990, the Internal Troops were mostly conscripts with a two-year service obligation. Candidates were accepted from both the active military and civilian society. Four schools trained the Internal Troops' officer corps. *

KGB International Activities

The primary duty of KGB agents working abroad was to recruit new spies and moles and gather intelligence information. Occasionally the got involved in terrorism, sabotage, training dissident groups and bribing officials. KGB and CIA agents worked under the cover of diplomats, journalists and trade and labor officials.

Some of the KGB's most successful spies, such as Col. Rudolf Abel, were "illegal," agents trained in the language and customs of a country and then sent there, with the passport and documents or a real person, to infiltrate important organizations. Abel entered the United States as Andrew Kayotis and was using the name Emil R, Goldfus when he was arrested.

The KGB and the CIA played a cat and mouse game in the Cold War, often employing the same tactics. Agents included messengers, communications personnel, and well-placed agents and operatives in military commands, businesses, academia, unions, media, intelligence services and political parties.

The KGB was regarded as being behind the CIA in high-tech eavesdropping but made up for this with a large workforce, sensitive spy network and the fact it was easier for them to operate in free societies in the West than it was for Western spies to operative in the more closed and restricted eastern bloc countries.

United States Intelligence Gathering

The United States "intelligence community" contains 16 federal agencies and has a budget of around $50 billion. Most of the money goes into high tech, satellite-oriented military agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which operates satellites, the National Imagery and Maping Agency (NIMA). The largest is the National Security Agency (NSA), once so secret it was known as No Such Agency. It employs more than 30,000 people.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is the most well known of the American intelligence agencies. It is in charge of gathering and sifting through intelligence related to other countries. It's budget of $5 billion is only about a tenth of total intelligence budget. The CIA's Directorate of Operation—the human spying division—employs only 4,000 people. During the Soviet-era the main goal of the CIA was to gather intelligence regarding the Soviet Union and its allies. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were many question on what the mission of the CIA should be. Since September 11th the focus has been shifted to fighting terrorism.


MI6, the international wing of British intelligence. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) is the correct title of the MI6. It was formed in 1921. MI6 stands for Military Intelligence, section six. Immortalized in novels by Ian Fleming and John LeCarrre, , it employs about 2,000 civil servants who provide intelligence and analysis for government ministers and is directly responsible to the Foreign Secretary and ultimately to the British Prime Minister.

The MI6 has its headquarters in heavily protected but obvious green-and-cream building with triple-glazed windows at Vauxhall Cross on the south bank of the Thames in London. Designed by modernist architect Terry Farrell, the building has extensive security features, including an extensive bomb and bullet-proof walls and windows. Many of the most sensitive areas are underground to protect them from terrorist attacks.

During the Cold War MI6 members were involved in espionage and intelligence activities abroad, using British agents and disaffected nationals in counties in which they operated. It operated discreetly out of stations in embassies and consulates around the world which located and recruited agents. Since the end of the Cold War it has redefined its missions and is thought to be working closely with the MI5 to tackle problems like terrorism and drug smuggling.

The MI6 sometimes has used gay couples in spy missions. In September 2000, the eight floor of the MI6 headquarters in London was struck by a missile. The devise is believed to have been fired by Irish Republican dissidents. The MI6 was criticized for not predicting the Falkland war invasion or Iraqi invasion of Kuwait According to a disgruntled former agent, the MI6 attempted to assassinate the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi by planting a bomb under his motorcade but put the bomb under the wrong car, killing several innocent Libyans.

Life of KGB Agents

Being a KGB agent was not as glamorous as it is made out to be. Agents sometimes brought sandwiches on foreign trips because they weren't given money to eat at restaurants.

There was a lot of drudgery and waiting. Often a great amount of time and effort amounted to nothing. One former KGB agent told U.S. News and World Report. "Ninety percent of the people you contact never come to the second meeting." Much time is taken up listening to diplomatic gossip.

A large number of the people who worked at Soviet and American embassies were involved in some kind of espionage. Periodically diplomats and other alleged spies were expelled for their activities

In the “KGB Guidebook of the Cities of the World”, published in 1995, former agents said they liked to do drops at Harrods department store in London because it was crowded and had back stairwells for getaways.

Successes of KGB Overseas Activities

In the 1970s and 80s, the KGB mounted a massive bugging operation that enabled them to, among other things, eavesdrop on Henry Kissinger's telephone conversations and intercept transmissions from Air Force One. KGB chief Yuri Andropov reportedly used to amuse himself by listening to conversation between Kissinger and his then fiancee Nancy Maginnes.

One defector in 1979, asserted that more than half of the projects in the Soviet defense industry were based on intelligence from the West. The KGB managed to intercept fax transmissions from Boeing, General Dynamics, Hughes and Lockheed that gave them valuable information on the Trident, MX and Pershing missile systems, the F-15 and f-16 and B-1 aircraft and the AWACS radar system.

In an operation code-named Flamingo, a listening devise was placed in the meeting room for Systems Planning, an important defense contractor. The room was issued for high-level, classified meetings by Pentagon officials and monitored by KGB agents in a car with diplomatic plates a quarter of a mile away.

KGB Files and Following People

The KGB kept files on millions of people at home and abroad. The idea was find damaging information and use that compromise targeted individuals. The files of some Western journalists were hundreds of pages long and contained things like transcripts of phone conversations, copies of letters and notebook entries, attempts to recruit him, reports from agent who followed him and plans to compromise with him a prostitute in the traditional "honey trap." One former KGB agent told the Los Angeles Times, “ All our work through the years was about processing and analyzing information and making conclusions and keeping our mouth shut about what we know.”

The KGB agents that follower American journalists were usually babushkas with shopping bags. Describing his treatment by the KGB one BBC reporter wrote, "Their agents...were (literally) around every corner. They photographed my friends as they left my flat, they followed me wherever I went, on foot or by car indeed they had four to five beige Ladas...They punctured my tires, sat in their car 20 yards away, watching me change the wheel in pouring rain. Once—the most frightening experience—two agents attacked my car in the middle of the night, wielding empty champagne bottles which I think would have shattered by windscreen had I not swerved violently to avoid them."

The BBC reporter said: "The KGB...even accused me of espionage. I had 'penetrated closed areas around Moscow,' traveled without permission and even provided an agent with 'a listening device disguised as a household object.'"

Wild KGB Schemes and Assassinations

The KGB developed contingency plans to sabotage the Flathead dam in Montana, the port of New York, and power stations in New York. Another plan called for bomb to be set off in a black neighborhood, followed by an anonymous call blaming it on the Jewish Defense League.

In attempt to discredit Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover and national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the KGB authorized an extensive disinformation campaign. A 1967 plan that was approved but not carried out called for articles to planted in the African press that portrayed King as an "Uncle Tom" on the government payroll.

Nikolai Evgenievich Khokhlov was a KGB officer who defected to the United States in 1953. He testified about KGB activities. The KGB tried to kill him unsuccessfully using thallium poison in Frankfurt in 1957. Ukrainian leader Stefan Bandera was murdered in Munich, Germany by a KGB agent in 1959. Assassination as KGB practice was reduced somewhat in 1963.

Bulgaria had one of Eastern Europe's most sinister secret polices, which was largely seen as a proxy for the KGB. Bulgarian defector and writer Georgi Markov, died in London in 1978 from poison injected into him from an umbrella as he walked down the street. The incident was widely reported in Western press but ignored in Bulgarian newspapers. A similar attempt made on Vladimir Kostov, another defector, failed. Both men had been criticizing Zhirvkov on radio Free Europe. Markhov warned he would be poisoned if broadcasts continued. The murderer was never found. [Source: Boyd Gibbons, National Geographic, July 1980]

The poison pellet injected and impregnated into the leg of Markov was made of platinum. It took the poison four days to kill him. Doctors were not able to locate the pellet because the inert qualities of platinum didn't cause a biological reaction. The Bulgarian government was implicated in the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II. It was also accused of supplying support for terrorist groups and providing weapons for Communist rebels in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Africa.

CIA Activities Against the Russians and Soviets

The CIA intercepted a phone call between Yeltsin and his campaign aides to get information on his health. To gather information about Gorbachev's health the CIA reportedly tried to retrieve the contents of his visit to the toilet while in Washington.

The United States sent about 200 "DP agents" (mostly Communist-hating Ukrainians and Balts) who were dropped by low-flying planes to watch troop movements by monitoring trains and check on nuclear facilities by testing soil and other intelligence work into the Eastern Bloc countries in the 1950s. Few radioed back.

Donald Jameson, the man in charge of the DP program told U.S. News and World Report, "Probably some of them were captured and sent to the gulags. They were not killed because the Soviets did not want to discourage defections. A few evaded capture for some time...Many of them threw away their radios and codebooks. We never heard from them, and the Soviets never identified them."

SVR: KGB after the Break up of Soviet Union

In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB was broken up into several agencies. Among them were Federal Security Service (FSB), the chief domestic security agency and The External Intelligence Service (SVR), the equivalent of the C.I.A, which handles overseas intelligence. Russians often still referred to these organizations as the KGB. In the 1990s there were rumors that part of the KGB headquarters had been rented out to laundromat.

The Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation is known as the SVR (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki). It is Russia's external intelligence agency, mainly for civilian affairs. The military affairs espionage counterpart is the GRU. The SVR is the successor of the First Chief Directorate (PGU) of the KGB since December 1991. The headquarters of SVR are in the Yasenevo District of Moscow. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Unlike the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the SVR is responsible for intelligence and espionage activities outside the Russian Federation. It works in cooperation with the Russian Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye (GRU, Main Intelligence Directorate), which reportedly deployed six times as many spies in foreign countries as the SVR in 1997. The SVR is also authorized to negotiate anti-terrorist cooperation and intelligence-sharing arrangements with foreign intelligence agencies, and provides analysis and dissemination of intelligence to the Russian president. +

Legal Authority and Mission of the SVR

The "Law on Foreign Intelligence" was written by SVR leadership itself and adopted in August 1992. This Law provided conditions for "penetration by chekists of all levels of the government and economy", since it stipulated that "career personnel may occupy positions in ministries, departments, establishments, enterprises and organizations in accordance with the requirements of this law without compromising their association with foreign intelligence agencies." [Source: Wikipedia +]

A new "Law on Foreign Intelligence Organs" was passed by the State Duma and the Federation Council in late 1995 and signed into effect by then-President Boris Yeltsin on 10 January 1996. The law authorizes the SVR to carry out the following: 1) Conduct intelligence; 2) Implement active measures to ensure Russia's security; 3) Conduct military, strategic, economic, scientific and technological espionage; 4) Protect employees of Russian institutions overseas and their families; 5) Provide personal security for Russian government officials and their families; 6) Conduct joint operations with foreign security services; and 7) Conduct electronic surveillance in foreign countries. +

The President of the Russian Federation President (currently Vladimir Putin) can personally issue any secret orders for the SVR RF, without asking the houses of the Federal Assembly: State Duma and Federation Council. SVR sends to the Russian president daily digests of intelligence, similar to the President's Daily Brief produced by the United States Intelligence Community in the US. However, unlike in the US, the SVR recommends to the president which policy options are preferable.

SVR Organization

Mikhail Fradkov is the current Director of the SVR RF. The head of the SVR RF is appointed by and reports directly to the President of Russia. The Director provides briefings to the President every Monday and on other occasions as necessary. The Director is also a member of the Security Council of Russia and the Defense Council.

According to published sources, the SVR included the following directorates in 1990s: 1) Directorate PR: Political Intelligence: Included seventeen departments, each responsible for different countries of the world (espionage in the USA, Canada, Latin America, etc.); 2) Directorate S: Illegal Intelligence: Included thirteen departments responsible for preparing and planting "illegal agents" abroad, conducting terror operations and sabotage in foreign countries, "biological espionage", recruitment of foreign citizens on the Russian territory and other duties; 3) Directorate X: Scientific and Technical Intelligence; 4) Directorate KR: External Counter-Intelligence: This Directorate "carries out infiltration of foreign intelligence and security services and exercises surveillance over Russian citizens abroad."; 5) Directorate OT: Operational and Technical Support; 6) Directorate R: Operational Planning and Analysis: Evaluates SVR operations abroad; 7) Directorate I: Computer Service (Information and Dissemination): Analyzes and distributes intelligence data and publishes a daily current events summaries for the President; 8) Directorate of Economic Intelligence

According to the SVR RF web site, the organization currently consists of a Director, a First Deputy Director (who oversees the directions for Foreign Counterintelligence and Economic Intelligence) and the following departments: 1) ) Personnel; 2) Operations; 3) Analysis & Information (formerly Intelligence Institute); 4) Science; 5) Operational Logistics & Support. Each Directorate is headed by a Deputy Director who reports to the SVR Director. The Red Banner Intelligence Academy has been renamed the Academy of Foreign Intelligence (ABP are its Russian initials) and is housed in the Science Directorate.

Within the Operations Department of Directorate S, there is the elite Special Operations (Spetsnaz) Group called Zaslon. Formerly in PGU KGB USSR called Vympel (e.g. French counterpart; Division Action). However, mere existence of such group within SVR is denied by Russian authorities. Nevertheless, there were some rumors that such group does indeed exist and is assigned to execute very special operations abroad primarily for protection of Russian embassy personnel and internal investigations. It is believed that the group is deep undercover and consists of approximately 500 highly experienced operatives speaking several languages and having extensive record of operations while serving in other secret units of the Russian military.

SVR Agents

SVR RF actively recruits Russian citizens who live in foreign countries. "Once the SVR officer targets a Russian émigré for recruitment, they approach them, usually at their place of residence and make an effort to reach an understanding," said former FSB officer Aleksander Litvinenko. "If he or she refuses, the intelligence officer then threatens the would-be recruit with legal prosecution in Russia, and if the person continues to refuse, the charges are fabricated". It was reported that SVR prey on successful Russian businessmen abroad and a close number of foreigners swearing allegiance upon pain of death. These claims have not been confirmed by the official SVR website, which states that only Russian citizens without dual citizenship can become SVR RF agents. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Today, Russian intelligence can no longer recruit people on the basis of Communist ideals, which was the "first pillar" of KGB recruitment, said analyst Konstantin Preobrazhenskiy. "The second pillar of recruitment is love for Russia. In the West, only Russian immigrants have feelings of filial obedience toward Russia. That’s precisely why [the SVR] works with them so often. A special division was created just for this purpose. It regularly holds Russian immigrant conferences, which Putin is fond of attending." +

SVR, Foreign Policy, Espionage and Assassinations

During Boris Yeltsin's presidency, the SVR conflicted with Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for directing Russian foreign policy. SVR director Yevgeni Primakov upstaged the foreign ministry by publishing warnings to the West not to interfere the unification of Russia with other former Soviet republics and attacking the NATO extension as a threat to Russian security, whereas foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev was telling different things. The rivalry ended in decisive victory for the SVR, when Primakov replaced Kozyrev in January 1996 and brought with him a number of SVR officers to the foreign ministry of Russia. [Source: Wikipedia +

In September 1999, Yeltsin admitted that the SVR plays a greater role in the Russian foreign policy than the Foreign Ministry. It was reported that SVR defined Russian position on the transfer of nuclear technologies to Iran, NATO expansion, and modification of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. SVR also tried to justify annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union in World War II using selectively declassified documents. +

According to former GRU Colonel Stanislav Lunev, "SVR and GRU (Russia's political and military intelligence agencies, respectively) are operating against the U.S. in a much more active manner than they were during even the hottest days of the Cold War." From the end of the 1980s, KGB and later SVR began to create "a second echelon" of "auxiliary agents in addition to our main weapons, illegals and special agents", according to former SVR officer Kouzminov. These agents are legal immigrants, including scientists and other professionals. Another SVR officer who defected to Britain in 1996 described details about thousand Russian agents and intelligence officers, some of them "illegals" who live under deep cover abroad. Recently caught Russian high-profile agents in US are Aldrich Hazen Ames, Harold James Nicholson, Earl Edwin Pitts, Robert Philip Hanssen and George Trofimoff. +

Igor the Assassin, who is believed to have been the poisoner of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, was allegedly an SVR officer. However, SVR denied involvement in the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. An SVR spokesperson queried over Litvinenko remarked: "May God give him health." It was reported that in September 2003, an SVR RF agent in London was making preparations to assassinate Boris Berezovsky with a binary weapon, and that is why Berezovsky had been speedily granted asylum in Britain. GRU officers who killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar in 2004 reportedly claimed that supporting SVR agents let them down by not evacuating them in time, so they have been arrested by Qatar authorities. +

Espionage Under Putin

Putin said he did "not want to return to some past practices" and hoped to use the Russian intelligence services to catch up with the West technologically. Intelligence experts say its much cheaper and faster to steal scientific secrets than developed and nurture scientific institutions. Russia now reportedly has spies in the U.S. with a mission of uncovering trade and business secrets.

Under Putin, intelligence services have made their presence known. There have been scattered reports of tactics that were reminiscent of the Soviet era: arrests of Russian scholars, restriction on scientific cooperation, harassment of critics of the government and worries that telephones were being tapped and E-mails read. Many members of the FSB called themselves “checkits” after the first Soviet secret police force, the Cheka.

Russia reportedly has nearly as many spies in the United States now as they had there in the Cold War period. Many operate through hard-to-trace front companies involved in acquiring “dual-use technology” such as lasers, computer hardware and software with applications that Russia wants.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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