Soviet security forces have a long history, dating back to the pre-1917 czarist period. Communist predecessors of the KGB were the All-Russian Extraordinary Commissary against the Counterrevolution and Sabotage (also known by its Russian acronym, Cheka), the Main Political Department (GPU), and the Joint Main Political Department (OGPU) headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the "Knight of the Revolution," during 1917–1926. The name "Cheka" suggested that it was to be only a temporary body, but the agency became one of the principal pillars of the Soviet system. In 1934, the OGPU merged into the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), with Genrikh Yagoda (1934–1936), Nikolai Yezhov (1936–1938), and Lavrenty Beria (1938–1945) as its chiefs. Under Yezhov and Beria, the NKVD carried out brutal purges within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). NKVD officers, for example, murdered Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940.
During the rule of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, the security apparatus had achieved almost unrestricted powers to harass, arrest, and detain those who were perceived as class enemies. The Soviet Union thus became a police state in which millions of innocent victims suffered arbitrary and brutal terror. Official figures suggest that between January 1935 and June 1941, some 19.8 million people were arrested by the NKVD and an estimated 7 million were subsequently executed.
Following World War II, in 1946 the NKVD was raised to a state ministry under Beria, who became a member of the Politburo. After the deaths of Stalin (March 1953) and Beria (December 1953), the security services were again reorganized, and on 13 March 1954 the secret police was renamed the KGB. There were a half dozen principal directorates.
The First Directorate was responsible for foreign operations and intelligence-gathering activities. The Second Directorate carried out internal political control of citizens and had responsibility for the internal security of the Soviet Union. The Third Directorate was occupied with military counterintelligence and political control of the armed forces. The Fifth Directorate also dealt with internal security, especially with religious bodies, the artistic community, and censorship. The Ninth Directorate, which employed 40,000 persons, provided (among other things) uniformed guards for principal CPSU leaders and their families. The Border Guards Directorate was a 245,000-person force that oversaw border control. Total KGB manpower estimates range from 490,000 in 1973 to 700,000 in 1986.
The KGB helped and trained the security and intelligence agencies in other communist countries. It was also heavily involved in supporting wars of national liberation in the developing world, especially in Africa. The Soviet Union also maintained a close alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), providing it with arms, funds, and paramilitary training. The KGB mostly avoided direct involvement with terrorist operations, but it played an important role in directing aid to these groups and producing intelligence reports on their activities. Scandals concerning defectors and moles plagued the KGB throughout its existence, but the agency also scored notable successes such as, for example, the recruitment of the Cambridge Five in Great Britain, atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs, and Aldrich Ames, a KGB mole within the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Under Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, the terror lessened considerably. Both the security police and the regular police were subjected to a new legal code, and the KGB was made subordinate to the Council of Ministers. Nevertheless, it was allowed to circumvent the law when combating political dissent. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, the KGB waged a campaign against dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, who became worldwide symbolic figures of communist repression. In July 1978 the head of the KGB received a seat on the Council of Ministers.
The KGB had a considerable impact on Soviet domestic and foreign policymaking. Its chief, Yuri Andropov, became CPSU leader in 1982. Under Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies during 1985–1990, Soviet citizens' fears of the KGB diminished, which signaled the erosion of the Soviet system. The KGB was dissolved in November 1991 following the August coup attempt against Gorbachev, which was engineered by KGB chief Colonel General Vladimir Kryuchkov. Its successor organization, the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (FSB, Federal Security Service), bears great resemblance to the old security apparatus.
Beatrice de Graaf
Knight, Amy W. The KGB: Police and Politics in the Soviet Union. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.; Mitrokhin, Vasili, and Peter Hennessy, eds. KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook. London: Frank Cass, 2002.; Murphy, David E., Sergei A. Kondrashev, and George Bailey. Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.