The KGB was formally established by Khrushchev in 1954 but the concept of an intelligence force was nothing new in Russia. Most of the tsars had some form of secret police. The Bolsheviks revived the tsar's political police months after they seized power in 1917. Headed by Feliks Dzerzhinsky until his death in 1926, the organization was called the Cheka, an acronym of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage. A statue of Dzerzhinsky still stands outside the headquarters of the KGB in Moscow and in many cities and towns in Russia.

Over the years the Cheka changed it name numerous times. The names included the OGPU, NKVD, MVD, MGB, KGB, FSB. In 1923 the name was changed to OGPU. In 1934 it became the NKVD under Stalin. In 1946 the secret police were divided into two parts: the MGB which operated mainly abroad and the MVD which operated the forced labor camps and policed the local population. It became the KGB on March 13, 1954, shortly after Stalin's death.

Under Lenin's leadership the Cheka persecuted enemies of the Communist party. This policy reached an unprecedented level under Stalin. The NKVD, headed by the notorious Lavrenti Beria, purged and executed millions of real and imagined enemies in the Soviet Union and attacked Stalin's adversaries such as Leon Trotsky, abroad.

SMERSH was the villainously evil Soviet intelligence agency that Goldfinger and Dr. No worked for in the James Bond novels. Especially with a name like SMERSH you would think it had to be a fictional creation, right? Wrong! SMERSH was a real agency—Smert Shpionam, or “Death to Spies”—that operated for three years during World War II and dueled with the Nazi intelligence services the same way that the KGB battled the CIA. Among the activities that SMERSH was involved in were the recovery of fragments of Hitler’s skull, parachuting agents behind Nazi lines and shooting Russian soldiers that fled the front lines.

Secret Police Under the Tsars

Ivan the Terrible founded Russia’s first secret police, sometimes called the “oprichniki”, in 1565 to strengthen his grip on power by terrorizing the populace. The dog-and-broom insignia's on the secret police’s uniforms symbolized the sniffing out and sweeping out of Ivan's enemies. At the end of his reign in the 1720s Peter the Great often spent one day a week in the torture cells of his secret police.

Nicholas I (ruled 1825-1855) established a secret police, the so-called Third Section, that ran a huge network of spies and informers. Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881) replaced the brutal Third Section secret police with the poorly organized Okhrna. Alexander III (born 1845, ruled 1881-1894) strengthened the security police, reorganizing it into an agency known as the Okhrana, gave it extraordinary powers, and placed it under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Repression also has a long history in Russia. The famous French traveler Marquis de Custine wrote in 1775: “The numerous questions I had to meet, and then the precautionary forms that it was necessary to pass through, warned me that I was entering the Empire of Fear.” As Western influence and opposition to Russian autocracy mounted, the regime reacted by creating a secret police and increasing censorship in order to curtail the activities of persons advocating change.

Decembrists and the Third Section

One of the earliest Russian revolutionary groups, later called the Decembrists, launched a day-long revolt on December, 14, 1825 with the goal of overthrowing tsar Nicholas I. Hastily launched after Alexander I's death, the revolt was put down by tsarist troops who first tried peaceful methods and then opened fire with artillery, leaving dozens of dead and wounded in St. Petersburg's Senate Square, where the revolt took place.

Many of the participants in the revolt were idealistic young aristocrats, who called for an end to the monarchy, freedom for serfs and the establishment of a constitutional government. Stirred by ideas of freedom and equality put forth by the American and French Revolutions, the rebels also included noblemen, military officers, philosophers and poets. The average age of the ones arrested was 26.

Nicholas I, who had been in power less than a month before the Decembrist rebellion took place, and hadn't even been crowned yet, had been regarded as a potential reformer. He responded to the revolt as a threat on his leadership, however, setting the scene for a repressive 30-year reign with the establishment of a censorship system and establishing the Third Section, a secret police force that was a forerunner of the KGB.

Nicholas I saw the Decembrist uprising as a personal betrayal. Many of the participants were his close friends. After the leaders of the rebellion were hung, Nicholas said, "It is my duty to give a lesson to Russia" Nicholas I also led a campaign a against what he considered to be corrupting Western ideas. Ideas that aimed to give people more power and rights were suppressed. Over 100 Decembrist men that were captured were sent to Siberian camps.

Dostoevsky’s Mock Execution Under Nicholas I

In 1847, the famed Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky joined a 20-member liberal discussion group that studied liberal French philosophy, professed atheism and secretly conspired against the tsar. The group met every Friday to discuss literary and political ideas. Dostoevsky and other serious members in the group planned to put out a reformist magazine, an act of treason at that time. After the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Tsar Nicholas I decided tip to repress and round up "revolutionists." On April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky's apartment was raided by police while he was asleep and he was taken to a prison in the Peter-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. After a lengthy interrogation, Dostoevsky said that his subversive remarks had been unintentional and professed his loyalty the tsar and church.

After spending eight months in prison at the Peter-Paul Fortress, Dostoevsky was brought to Semonovsky Square, where disobedient soldiers were flogged and criminals executed, with 21 others on December 22, 1849 to be publicly executed. The condemned men were dressed in white burial gowns, given their last rites, and tied to whipping posts in groups of three. The men listened to a sermon and then, one by one, keeled and kissed the cross. Noblemen, including Dostoevsky, had a sword broken over their heads. Just as the drums had started to roll and the firing squad was ordered to get ready to shoot, a royal courier arrived with a stay of execution and told the men they had been sentenced to hard labor in Siberia instead.

It was too late for one of the men. He went insane right on the spot. Another shouted, "The Good Tsar! Long Live the Tsar!" According to some reports of the event, Dostoevsky suffered an epileptic seizure. The whole affair was scripted by Tsar Nicholas I himself as a warning to political dissidents. Describing the experience, Dostoevsky wrote his brother, "Never has there seethed in me such an abundant and healthy kind of spiritual life as now. Whether it will sustain the body I do not know...Now my life will change. I shall be born again in a new form. Brother! I swear to you that I shall not lose hope and shall keep pure my mind and heart. I shall be born again for the best. That is hope, all my comfort.

Secret Police Under Lenin and the Bolsheviks

On coming to power in 1917, the Bolsheviks (Russian Communists) issued a series of revolutionary decrees ratifying peasants' seizures of land and workers' control of industries, and set up revolutionary tribunals in place of the courts. The new government created a secret police agency, the VChK (commonly known as the Cheka, an acronym of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage.) to persecute enemies of the state (including bourgeois liberals and moderate socialists). The Cheka was headed by Feliks Dzerzhinsky until his death in 1926, the Cheka, A statue of Dzerzhinsky still stands outside the headquarters of the KGB in Moscow and in many cities and towns in Russia.

The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin encouraged the use of terror and violence to solve political, social and economic problems. In 1918, he gave the following instructions to Bolshevik leaders on how to deal with peasant leaders who did not accept the revolution: "Comrades!...Hang (hang without fail, so that people will see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers...Do it in such a way that...for hundreds of kilometers around, the people will see, tremble, know shout: 'They are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks'...Yours Lenin."

In 1918 Lenin complained that his secret police were “inordinately soft, at every step more like jelly than iron.” In September of that year he ordered authorities in Nizhni Novgorod to “introduce at once mass terror, execute and deport hundreds of prostitutes, drunken soldiers, ex-officers, etc.

He also wrote, "If we can't shoot a White Guard saboteur, what sort of great revolution is it?...What sort of dictatorship is this? All talk and no action." On another occasion he explained the killing of political rivals by saying: “If we do not shoot these few leader we may be placed in a position to where we would need to shoot 10,000 workers?”

The death penalty was authorized for children a young as 12. In retaliation for the assassination attempt that wounded him in the neck, Lenin ordered the execution of more than 800 Socialist Revolutionaries. To punish Latvia and Estonia for declaring independence in 1918 he said: "Cross the frontier somewhere, even if only a depth of half a mile, and hang 100-1,000 of their civil servants and rich people."

Stalin and the NKVD

Joseph Stalin (ruled 1924-1953) ranks with Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot as one of the 20th century's greatest villains. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of Russians. Among the victims were women, children and some of his closest friends.

The gradual accession of Stalin to power in the 1920s eventually brought an end to the liberalization of society and the economy that took place in the later Lenin years, leading instead to a period of unprecedented government control, mobilization, and terrorization of society in Russia and the other Soviet republics. Stalin’s regime became steadily more repressive in the 1930s. Agriculture and industry underwent brutal forced centralization, and Russian cultural activity was highly restricted. Purges eliminated thousands of individuals deemed dangerous to the Soviet state by Stalin's operatives. Stalin's new constitution officially recognized the secret police which controlled militias, exercised censorship and built a huge system of forced labor camps. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

During the period of purges by Stalin in the 1930s, the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyy komissariat vnutrennikh del — NKVD), the secret police agency that was heir to the Cheka of the early 1920s, stepped up surveillance through its agents and informers and claimed to uncover anti-Soviet conspiracies among prominent long-term party members. Stalin established the dreaded NKVD security force to enforce his political agenda at home. He also created a political police force, called the GPU, that conducted espionage abroad and had thousands of agents planted all over the world. This was the precursor of the foreign arm of the KGB.

The NKVD took carry of rounding up and interrogating many of the people who were executed or sent to the gulags under Stalin. It was based in the same building in Moscow that was later used by the KGB and its successor the FSB. The NKVD kept meticulous records, many of which were finally made public in the early 2000s. Some bore the stamp “”Khranit’ Vecho”’—“Preserve for Eternity”—a special classification developed in the 1930s. People bound for the gulags had “”zdorov k fiztrudu””—“fit for physical labor”—written on their medical report.

Purges Under Stalin

In the mid-1930s, Stalin began a purge of the party. Out of this process grew a campaign of terror that led to the execution or imprisonment of untold millions from all walks of life. During the Great Terror of 1936 to 1938, more than a million people were executed and millions more were arrested, exiled, forced out of their jobs or sent to labor camps. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the 1930s, Stalin aimed to consolidated his power within the Communist party, the government and the military by launching a series of purges against people he accused of "plotting against the state." People in the party that opposed Stalin or were perceived to oppose him were arrested and sometimes tried in show trials. Nikolia Yezhov, who organized many of the show trials, is believed to have ordered 20,000 executions.

The purges are mainly blamed on Stalin paranoia. Stalin ordered the execution of fellow comrades and close friends. With no bourgeois left to purge he invented them, often within the Communist party. In the 1940s, Stalin became increasingly more paranoid and anti-Semitic. The infamous Doctor's Plot was used by Stalin to purge the trop ranks of the Jewish scientific intelligentsia. The historian Richard Pipes wrote, the government gave itself "the power to kill its citizens not for what they had done but because their death 'was needed.'"

Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens played an active part in the purges: serving as jailers and police; informing on their friends and family members; coming up with victims of non-existence crimes; carrying out torture and executions. The poet Osip Mandelshtamm wrote: "Stalin doesn't have to cut heads off/ They fly off by themselves like dandelions." People routinely betrayed friends and relatives. Stalin often arrested the wives of people who worked under him and waited them to plead for their release to gain some advantage. He made sure cleaning women were KGB informers.

History of Stalin’s Purges

The complete subjugation of the party to Stalin, its leader, paralleled the subordination of industry and agriculture to the state. Stalin had assured his preeminent position by squelching Bukharin and the "right-wing deviationists" in 1929 and 1930. To secure his absolute control over the party, however, Stalin began to purge leaders and rank-and-file members whose loyalty he doubted. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Stalin's purges began in December 1934, when Sergey Kirov, a popular Leningrad party chief who advocated a moderate policy toward the peasants, was assassinated. Although details remain murky, many Western historians believe that Stalin instigated the murder to rid himself of a potential opponent. In any event, in the resultant mass purge of the local Leningrad party, thousands were deported to camps in Siberia. *

There were well-publicized show trials of party leaders and unpublicized purges that swept through the ranks of younger leaders in party, government, industrial management, and cultural affairs. Party purges in the non-Russian republics were particularly severe. The Yezhovshchina ("era of Yezhov," named for NKVD chief Nikolay Yezhov) ravaged the military as well, leading to the execution or incarceration of about half the officer corps. The secret police also terrorized the general populace, with untold numbers of common people punished after spurious accusations. By the time the purges subsided in 1938, millions of Soviet leaders, officials, and other citizens had been executed, imprisoned, or exiled.

Victims of Stalin’s Purges

Executions were carried out on “an industrial scale” during Stalin’s purges. Entire families were wiped out for the perceived minor offense of one person. At one site near Moscow up to 500 people were killed a day between August 1937 and 1938, the height of the Great Terror. Among the victims were many ordinary farmers., factory workers as well as government officials and army members.

More than one million members of the Communist Party were purged. Many of people that helped Stalin in his drive for power were killed. Of the 1,961 people attended the 17th Party Congress in 1934, 1,108 were executed. Leningrad was particularly hard hit.

The Soviet Union military was also hit hard. Over 1,000 Soviet generals were shot between 1938 and 1940 (in contrast only 600 Nazi generals died in all of World War II). In 1937-38, three out of five marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 110 or 195 divisional commanders, 220 of 406 brigaders and countless other officers were executed under Stalin's orders for alleged treason. These killings seriously hurt the Russian military on the eve of World War II.

At three publicized show trials held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, dozens of these Old Bolsheviks, including Zinov'yev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, confessed to improbable crimes against the Soviet state. Their confessions were quickly followed by execution.

People Arrested During the Great Terror Period

Many of those sent to the gulags were classified as counter-revolutionaries or enemies of the people under Stalin’s criminal code. Many were taken into custody in what were called “prophylactic arrests”—which simply met that anyone could be arrested based on suspicion alone. Questions, if they were asked at all, came later. Many times an individuals’s class, ethnic group or profession was reason enough to arrest them.

At height of the purge,in 1938, more than 12 million people were arrested, often on trumped up charges or because they were deemed "Enemy of the people" or "Enemy of the state." Many Russians in the 1990s knew someone or had a relative that was arrested. One high school student told Newsweek, "My grandfather, they came for him at night. My grandmother never found out what happened to him. She didn't like to talk about it."

The daughter of a Baku oil baron, told National Geographic, "My father wasn't very clever. They arrested him for being a former capitalist. They put a stool pigeon in his cell. This provocateur started to curse Stalin. My father said, 'What do you want? He's a dictator. This comment was reported he was sent to Kazakhstan and shot." Alla B. Shister was once an enthusiastic Stalin supporter. But after one husband was killed the Great Terror, another disappeared into a mental institution and she herself was sent to labor camps she changed her tune.

People who spoke up for democracy were jailed under charges of plotting to "topple the Communist system, liquidate the Warsaw Pact, dissolve the Soviet Union and promote the system of the United States." All the guests at parties where a single jokes critical of Stalin was told were arrested and sent to Siberia. One family was thrown out of its house and sent to the Arctic because they were labeled as bourgeoisie for owning two horses.

Description of a Stalin-Era Arrest

Describing the arrest of Osip Mandelstam in May 1934, his wife Nadezhda wrote: "In the evening the translator David Brodski turned up and then just would not leave. There wasn't a bit to eat in the house and M. went around to the neighbors to try and get something for Akhmatova's supper...At about one o'clock in the morning , there was a sharp unbearably explicit knock on the door. 'They've come for Osip,' I said and went to open the door."

"Some men in civilian overcoats were standing outside—there seemed to be a lot of them. For a split second I had a tiny flicker of hope that this still wasn't it...Without a word or a moment's hesitation, but with consummate skill and speed, they came in past me (not pushing, however) and the apartment was suddenly full of people already checking our identity papers, running their hands over our hips with a precise well-practiced movement, and feeling our pockets to make sure we had no concealed weapons.

"M. came out of the large room. 'have you come for me?' he asked. One of the agents a short man, looked at him with what could have been a faint smile and said, 'Your papers.' M. took them out of his pockets, and after checking them, the agent handed him a warrant. M read it and nodded...After checking our papers, presenting their arrest and making sure there would be no resistance, they began to search the apartment.

"Brodski slumped into his chair and sat there motionless...At last permitted to walk freely...Brodski suddenly roused himself, help up his hand like a schoolboy and asked permission to go to the toilet. the agent directing the search looked at him with contempt, 'You can go home,' he said...The secret police despised their civilian helpers. Brodski had no doubt been ordered to sit with us that evening in case we tried to destroy any manuscripts when we heard the knock on the door."

Interrogation After a Stalin-Era Arrest

The poet Mikhail Isayevich, a former Red Army soldier who served in Berlin in World War II, was arrested after saying that the roads in Germany were good (the conversation in which he said that had been recorded by a friend-informant). He told Newsweek, that after his arrest "they put me in a car. There were four of them who came for me. In the car they always offer a cigarette. As soon as the door shut, everything changed. First they took off your hooks and buttons from your pants so you had to hold up your pants."

"After that I went to a cell; it was not a special prison. It was downtown Rostov-on-Don, in a district where there were meat warehouses. They turned the warehouses into prisons. The average-size room was about 20 square meters. I was arrested in May. It was very hot, almost hard to breath. There were 12 people in the room...All different people. I don't know why most of them were there."

"At the beginning of my interrogation I didn't say anything. They didn't torture us—no slivers under the fingernails or that sort of thing. But this is what they did: they prevented us from sleeping. And every night they would ask the same things: tell us about your anti-Soviet activities! I would start to nod off and they would shake me and say, 'Are you here to sleep or what?' Eventually I "confessed" to praising German roads." For the crime of "praising life abroad" he spent six years at a labor camp in Siberia."

After torture and coercion even the most loyal Communists confessed to betraying the state and engaging in terrorist plots. The judicial process was minimal. If there was a trial, the judiciary acted on orders from the Stalin regime and gave the sentences the regime wanted.

KGB After Stalin

The KGB was established by Nikita S. Khrushchev (in office 1953-64) in 1954 to replace the NKVD. After taking power Khrushchev stunned the Communist leadership at the secret Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956 when he spent three hours denouncing Stalin's “cult of personality,” his “capricious and despotic character,” the brutal violence” and his abuse of power and admitted that Stalin committed crimes against innocent people such as mass arrests, deportations and executions.

Leonid Brezhnev—the leader of the Soviet Union years from 1964 to 1982—rolled back Khrushchev's reforms and resurrected Stalin as hero and role model. Brezhnev expanded the powers of the KGB. Yuri Andropov was appointed KGB chairman and he launched a campaign to crush dissent within the Soviet Union.

The dissident movement grew under Brezhnev. Brezhnev responded by sending dissidents to labor camps and psychiatric institutions or forcing them into exile. When they weren't in jail they were harassed and watched by the KGB. The threat of arrest constantly hung over their head. Andropov once remarked that dissidents were the result of “political or ideological aberration, religious fanaticism, nationalist quirks, personal failure, and resentment..and in may cases individual psychological instability.” Well-known dissident intellectuals included Moscow mayor Gavril Popov, Vladimir Bukosky and Yuri Orlov. Natan Sharansky was a dissident who was exiled by the KGB. The KGB had over 500 separate files on the dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Andropov, a member of the Politburo since 1973, was chosen by the Central Committee as Brezhnev's successor and took over as leader of the Soviet Union in November 1982 after Brezhnev died. Andropov was leader for only 15 months until his death on February 9th, 1984. Regarded as "the last of the true believers," Andropov was well educated, lived ascetically and believed strongly in security and discipline. He argued for less violent forms of "political persuasion" such as expulsion from the country rather than executions and labor camps. But as head of the KGB, Andropov encouraged repression at home and abroad, and led a cruel campaign against dissidents, nonconformists and others. Ironically the major player behind the Soviet Union’s demise, Mikhail Gorbachev rose into the upper echelons of the Soviet hierarchy with the help Andropov, his patron.

Putin and the KGB

Vladamir Putin, the leader of Russia from 1999 to 2008 and 2012 to the present, is a former KGB colonel. His ambition to join the KGB, he said, was sparked by the 1968 film “The Sword and the Shield”, a romanticized view of Soviet intelligence agents in World War II. In his mind, it has been said, KGB as patriots protecting the interests of the state. He also liked to read thrillers about the adventures of KGB agents.

Putin said he decided to pursue law because he visited a KGB office when he was in the 9th grade and was told the KGB liked recruits with legal training. He later said, “When I accepted the proposition from the Directorate’s personnel department, I didn’t think about the [Stalin-era] purges. My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories. I was a pure and utterly successful product of the Soviet patriotic education.”

Describing what he had been taught in the KGB about violence, Ptin said, "There is no need to meddle into anything without extreme necessity, but as it happens, you must proceed from the assumption that there is no way back, and one must fight until the end...Another simple rule they taught me in the KGB was that you don't pull your weapon unless you are ready to use it. Don't try to scare anyone."

Putin never resigned from the Communist Party. When he was prime minister Putin kept a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, in his office. As president he had a picture of Peter the Great on the wall of his office.

Putin's KGB Career

Putin rose to the level of colonel in the KGB. His KGB background is regarded by Russians as a plus rather than a minus. Immediately after graduating Putin began working for the KGB, joining the foreign intelligence arm. He began his career as a cadre in the KGB internal affairs department in St. Petersburg from 1975 to 1984.

Putin worked for the KGB in East Germany from 1984 to 1990. His duties included recruiting Western agents, seeking information on political enemies of the Soviet Union and coercing East Germans into collecting information on the West. His career was mediocre according to U.S. intelligence agencies. He was based in Dresden, regarded as a backwater compared to Berlin. Of his time in Dresden, Putin said he drank a gallon of beer a week and gained 12 kilograms. He was in Dresden at the time Berlin Wall came down. During that he time said he and his coworkers worked hard to burn documents before their office was overrun by a mob.

In 1990, Putin returned to St. Petersburg in 1990 and earned an advanced degree and was a deputy director, supervising foreign students, at Leningrad State University, a lowly position for a KGB man. At that juncture in his life he was ill prepared for the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union

In August 1991, Putin resigned from the KGB in the midst of the hardline putsch against Gorbachev but retained his membership in the Communist Party. He joined the office of the new democratically- elected, reform-minded mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak, Putin's former law professor. Under Sobchak, Putin developed a reputation as man who got things done. He was regarded as a shadow mayor who signed documents when Sobchak was out of town. Later, Putin caught the eye of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who named Putin as his successor in 1999,


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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.