A Brief History of the KGB

The Lubyanka building (former KGB headquarters) in Moscow

A.Savin/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

If you grafted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), added a few hefty tablespoons of paranoia and repression, and translated the whole megillah into Russian, you might wind up with something like the KGB. The Soviet Union's main internal and external security agency from 1954 until the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, the KGB wasn't created from scratch, but rather inherited much of its techniques, personnel, and political orientation from the greatly feared agencies that preceded it.

Before the KGB: The Cheka, the OGPU and the NKVD

In the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin, the head of the newly formed U.S.S.R., needed a way to keep the population (and his fellow revolutionaries) in check. His answer was to create the Cheka, an abbreviation of "The All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage." During the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920, the Cheka — led by the one-time Polish aristocrat Felix — arrested, tortured, and executed thousands of citizens. In the course of this "Red Terror," the Cheka perfected the system of summary execution used by subsequent Russian intelligence agencies: a single shot to the back of the victim's neck, preferably in a dark dungeon.

In 1923, the Cheka, still under Dzerzhinsky, mutated into the OGPU (the "Joint State Political Directorate Under the Council of People's Commissars of the U.S.S.R." — Russians have never been good at catchy names). The OGPU operated during a relatively uneventful period in Soviet history (no massive purges, no internal deportations of millions of ethnic minorities), but this agency did preside over the creation of the first Soviet gulags. The OGPU also viciously persecuted religious organizations (including the Russian Orthodox Church) in addition to its usual duties of rooting out dissenters and saboteurs. Unusually for a director of a Soviet intelligence agency, Felix Dzerzhinsky died of natural causes, dropping dead of a heart attack after denouncing leftists to the Central Committee.

Unlike these earlier agencies, the NKVD (The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was purely the brainchild of Joseph Stalin. The NKVD was chartered around the same time Stalin orchestrated the murder of Sergei Kirov, an event he used as an excuse to purge the upper ranks of the Communist Party and strike terror into the populace. In the 12 years of its existence, from 1934 to 1946, the NKVD arrested and executed literally millions of people, stocked the gulags with millions more miserable souls, and "relocated" entire ethnic populations within the vast expanse of the U.S.S.R. Being an NKVD head was a dangerous occupation: Genrikh Yagoda was arrested and executed in 1938, Nikolai Yezhov in 1940, and Lavrenty Beria in 1953 (during the power struggle that followed the death of Stalin).

The Ascension of the KGB

After the end of World War II and before his execution, Lavrenty Beria presided over the Soviet security apparatus, which remained in a somewhat fluid state of multiple acronyms and organizational structures. Most of the time, this body was known as the MGB (The Ministry for State Security), sometimes as the NKGB (The Peoples' Commissariat for State Security), and once, during the war, as the vaguely comical-sounding SMERSH (short for the Russian phrase "smert shpionom," or "death to spies"). Only after the death of Stalin did the KGB, or Commissariat for State Security, formally come into being.

Despite its fearsome reputation in the west, the KGB was actually more effective in policing the U.S.S.R. and its eastern European satellite states than in fomenting revolution in western Europe or stealing military secrets from the U.S. (The golden age of Russian espionage was in the years immediately following World War II, before the formation of the KGB, when the U.S.S.R. subverted western scientists in order to advance its own development of nuclear weapons.) The major foreign accomplishments of the KGB included suppressing the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the "Prague Spring" in Czechoslovakia in 1968, as well as installing a Communist government in Afghanistan in the late 1970s; however, the agency's luck ran out in early 1980s Poland, where the anti-Communist Solidarity movement emerged victoriously.

All during this time, of course, the CIA and the KGB engaged in an elaborate international dance (often in third-world countries like Angola and Nicaragua), involving agents, double agents, propaganda, disinformation, under-the-table arms sales, interference with elections, and nighttime exchanges of suitcases filled with rubles or hundred-dollar bills. The exact details of what transpired, and where, may never come to light; many of the agents and "controllers" from both sides are dead, and the current Russian government has not been forthcoming in declassifying the KGB archives.

Inside the U.S.S.R., the attitude of the KGB toward suppressing dissent was largely dictated by government policy. During the reign of Nikita Khrushchev, from 1954 to 1964, a certain amount of openness was tolerated, as witnessed in the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag-era memoir "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (an event that would have been unthinkable under the Stalin regime). The pendulum swung the other way with the ascension of Leonid Brezhnev in 1964, and, especially, the appointment of Yuri Andropov as the head of the KGB in 1967. Andropov's KGB hounded Solzhenitsyn out of the U.S.S.R. in 1974, turned the screws on the dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov, and generally made life miserable for any prominent figure even slightly dissatisfied with Soviet power.

The Death (And Resurrection?) of the KGB

In the late 1980s, the U.S.S.R. began to fall apart at the seams, with rampant inflation, shortages of factory goods, and agitation by ethnic minorities. Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had already implemented "perestroika" (a restructuring of the economy and political structure of the Soviet Union) and "glasnost" (a policy of openness toward dissidents), but while this placated some of the population, it enraged hard-line Soviet bureaucrats who had grown accustomed to their privileges.

As might have been predicted, the KGB was at the forefront of the counter-revolution. In late 1990, then-KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov recruited high-ranking members of the Soviet elite into a tight-knit conspiratorial cell, which sprang into action the following August after failing to convince Gorbachev to either resign in favor of its preferred candidate or declare a state of emergency. Armed combatants, some of them in tanks, stormed the Russian parliament building in Moscow, but Soviet President Boris Yeltsin held firm and the coup quickly fizzled out. Four months later, the U.S.S.R. officially disbanded, granting autonomy to the Soviet Socialist Republics along its western and southern borders and dissolving the KGB.

However, institutions like the KGB never really go away; they just assume different guises. Today, Russia is dominated by two security agencies, the FSB (The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) and the SVR (The Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation), which broadly correspond to the FBI and the CIA, respectively. More worrisome, though, is the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin spent 15 years in the KGB, from 1975 to 1990, and his increasingly autocratic rule shows that he has taken to heart the lessons he learned there. It's unlikely that Russia will ever again see a security agency as vicious as the NKVD, but a return to the darkest days of the KGB is clearly not out of the question.

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Strauss, Bob. "A Brief History of the KGB." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-kgb-4148458. Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 28). A Brief History of the KGB. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-kgb-4148458 Strauss, Bob. "A Brief History of the KGB." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-kgb-4148458 (accessed March 27, 2023).