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 Domestic Activities

The Internal Troops supported MVD missions by aiding the regular police in crowd control in large cities and by guarding strategically significant sites such as large industrial enterprises, railroad stations, and large stockpiles of food and matériel. A critical mission was the prevention of internal disorder that might endanger a regime's political stability. Likely working in concert with KGB Security Troops, the Internal Troops played a direct role in suppressing anti-Soviet demonstrations in the non-Russian republics and strikes by Russian and other workers. Most units of the Internal Troops were composed solely of infantry with no heavy armaments; only one operational division was present in Moscow in 1990. In this configuration, the Internal Troops also might have been assigned rear-echelon security missions in case of war; they performed this duty in World War II. *

Regular police forces, called the militia, which were the direct responsibility of the MVD, also played an important role in preserving internal order and fighting corruption; regional and local jurisdictions had no police powers. The Procuracy was the chief investigatory and prosecutorial agency for nonpolitical crimes, with a hierarchical organization that provided procurators (state prosecutors) at all levels of government. Although the new Russian government made several changes in the laws and organization of criminal justice after 1991, the overall system of internal security retained many of the characteristics of its Soviet predecessor. *

By creating an atmosphere of fear, the KGB was able to control the masses by only taking direct action against a few. One woman told the Independent, "When I was seven years old I saw Brezhnev at the rostrum on TV. A few days before I had seen pictures of the Tsar giving a speech. I asked my mother if there was any difference between the two since they both seemed to live pretty well. My mother was terrified. She told me" 'Never, never repeat what you have just said to anybody at school or anywhere else."

Controlling the media and what was shown on television were important. In August 2000, a widely circulated video in the West showed a mother of dead sailor on sunken submarine Kursk shouting angrily about the government's handling of the episode and then suddenly collapsing. A close up showed that before she collapsed she was approached by a woman who injected her using a syringe.

KGB Domestic Targets

One of the KGB main tasks was stifling dissent. The KGB spied on, harassed and kept detail filed on thousands of citizens, some of whom were sent to prison. Dissidents and foreigners had their phones tapped, their garbage sifted through and their apartments ransacked. Bugs were planted in their offices and they were watched constantly by KGB agents. In some case agents planted themselves in an apartment next door and drilled a tiny hole in the wall.

According to KGB statistics,3,853,900 people were tried for counter-revolutionary and anti-state activities between 1918 and 1990 in the of which 827,995 were executed. The list of perceived troublemakers and dissidents was long and comprehensive, including religious groups, people wishing to emigrate, intellectuals who spoke up for human rights, people who associated with foreigners—even tourists and ranking members of the Communist party.

Yuri Andropov, the long time head of the KGB once said that dissidents resulted from "political or ideological aberrations, religious fanaticism, nationalistic quirk, personal failures and resentments...and in many cases individual psychological instability."

Dissidents were detained for hours and hours of heavy interrogation. Their homes were ransacked. Sometimes they were sent to labor camps of "psychiatric" hospitals. Foreign journalists, businessmen and tourist were also watched.

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.'"

KGB Informers

Thousand perhaps millions of Soviet citizens worked as “stukachi” (informers). The KGB Big Brother spy network kept an eye on everyone, reporting on people suspected of committing crimes or disloyalty to the regime. Students were recruited to spy on other students. Workers were encouraged to spy on their coworkers, hairdressers denounced their customers, wives spied on their husbands, children on their parents and best friends on their best friends.

Friends and relatives of dissidents were urged to disclose damaging information and sometimes sent to prison if the didn't cooperate. Numerous respected officials and personalities cooperated with the KGB for various reasons: to gain favors, avoid blackmail, help their family, manipulate rivals. It was not uncommon for someone to discover that half their neighbors worked for the KGB

Some informers were organized into neighbor watch groups called Public Order Squads. Informers informed on people who talked to foreigners and had a "bourgeois lifestyle." For either of these "crimes," one could lose their job, be denied a promotion or a privilege or get thrown out of university.

People who informed said the did it because of their belief in socialism and a sense that it was their duty. Often they were recruited through blackmail after doing something forbidden like taking foreign currency out of the country. People whose cooperation the KGB wanted were told that their career would advance, they could expect to receive a nice apartment and car and their children could attend good schools if they cooperated. If they didn't cooperate, they risked losing their jobs and having their names placed at the end of waiting lists for apartments and cars. Their children might have trouble getting into university.

KGB Facility

The former headquarters of the KGB in Riga, Latvia, vacant since 2008, was open to the public in 2014. Harrison Jacobs wrote in “Business Insider, In Latvia, the KGB had a wide network of informants reporting on Latvians that condemned Soviet power. Numerous political dissidents, artists, and writers were imprisoned or detained by the KGB, many in the Riga building.” [Source: Harrison Jacobs, Business Insider, May 1, 2014]

“The KGB headquarters is popularly known as "the corner house." It was originally built to house apartments and shops and was later appropriated by the Latvian Interior Ministry, before the KGB took over the building in 1944. The building is located in the downtown Centrs neighborhood of Riga, adjacent to the famous Old Town section of the city. The building has two courtyards. There is a large one with massive metal gates and a smaller one where prisoners could walk, "protected" from adjacent residential buildings by overhead barbed wire.

“The ground floor and basement were reconstructed as prison cells and interrogation rooms shortly after the KGB took control of the building. The building held a total of 44 prison cells with 175 beds. When the number of prisoners grew, the cells would become overcrowded. There were sometimes as many as 36 people in a room with 6 beds. Torture and interrogations were carried out on the sixth floor of the building, while executions were carried out in the basement or the yard.”

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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