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KGB

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Updated: 03.12.2003

Russian in full Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (Committee for State Security), political police and security agency that was also the primary intelligence and counterintelligence entity of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1991.

KGB old headquarters in Lubyanka Square, Moscow

During the lifetime of the Soviet Union, the KGB's responsibilities were domestic as well as international and included, in addition to overt and covert intelligence and counterintelligence, the protection of Soviet political leaders, the use of special internal-security troops, the supervision of border troops, the protection of state and military secrets, the prevention of sedition and subversion, the supervision of censorship, and the control of travel to and from the USSR.

Established in 1954, the KGB was the most durable of a line of predecessor agencies reaching back to the Cheka, which was created in December 1917 in the first days of the Bolshevik government.

The Cheka (originally VECHEKA, an acronym derived from the Russian for All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage) was charged with preliminary investigation of counterrevolution and sabotage, but it quickly took upon itself the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of "enemies of the state."

Its jurisdiction expanded during the Civil War (1918-20) to include all enemies of Bolshevism, including the bourgeoisie, the former nobility, and the clergy. The Cheka aided in crushing the anti-Soviet Kronshtadt and Antonov uprisings and the suppression of the Nepmen. Its power and autonomy increased, and the Bolshevik government found it necessary to abolish the Cheka-with "expressions of gratitude for heroic work"-in 1922.

The Cheka was immediately supplanted by the GPU (Russian for State Political Administration), whose mission was the suppression of counterrevolution and espionage and whose first chief was Feliks Dzerzhinsky, who had headed the Cheka.

When the USSR was constituted in 1923, the new secret-police agency was re-titled OGPU (for Unified State Political Administration), and its purview was explicitly made all-union - i.e., nationwide - and included additional duties such as the administration of corrective labour camps and the execution of broad new investigative and judicial powers. The OGPU forcibly implemented mass collectivisation and the deportation of the kulaks (wealthy peasants) in the early 1930s. It also staged the show trials (1928-33) of the Mensheviks and other "wreckers."

By 1931 the OGPU had not only a monopoly on all Soviet police functions but also its own army; a vast network of spies and informers in factories, government offices, and units of the Red Army; and a rapidly growing network of prisons and forced-labour camps.

A reorganisation in 1934 saw the OGPU absorbed into the new NKVD (for People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs), which used the extensive investigative and judicial powers it had inherited to carry out Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's purges in the 1930s.

The NKVD carried out the massive purges of 1934 and 1937-38, in which millions were arrested and ended their lives in forced-labour camps. Among the NKVD's victims during the 1930s were its own first two chiefs, Genrikh G. Yagoda (who had briefly headed the OGPU) and Nikolay I. Yezhov. They were succeeded by Lavrenty P. Beria.

In 1941 the state-security function was separated from the NKVD and became the NKGB (for People's Commissariat for State Security). Both agencies, Internal Affairs and State Security, became ministries in 1946, when all commissariats were so redesignated. Beria continued to head the Ministry for Internal Affairs (then MVD), and V.S. Abakumov was chief of the Ministry of State Security (MGB). The latter agency in its various guises conducted Soviet espionage and counterespionage during World War II, administered prisoner-of-war camps, exercised political supervision of the armed forces, and was generally responsible for internal security.

After the end of the war and during Stalin's waning years, the MGB's scope was extended throughout the Soviet bloc; it enforced rigid conformity in the satellite states of Eastern Europe by functioning as overlord of the satellites' police agencies and by infiltrating and destroying anticommunist, anti-Soviet, or independent groups.

In those countries, as in the Soviet Union itself, citizens were often arrested, tortured, imprisoned, and executed by the MGB without due process of law. Persons who were believed to be politically unreliable were arrested and imprisoned wholesale. The MGB (and the earlier NKVD) conducted the pre-war deportations of such minority groups as the Karachay, Kalmyks, Chechen-Ingush, Crimean Tatars (see Tatars), Balkars, and Volga Germans (1941-44); it carried out the executions and imprisonments of A.A. Zhdanov's supporters in the Leningrad Affair (1948) and the purge of Jewish medical men thought to be plotting against the state in the Doctors' Plot (1953).

Immediately upon the death of Stalin in March 1953, the MGB was merged back into the Ministry for Internal Affairs (MVD), under the old Stalinist Beria. Before summer the post-Stalinist leadership turned against the power-hungry Beria; and, like at least two of his predecessors, he was deposed and executed.

A series of trials and executions that went on into 1956 eliminated a number of his senior associates. In the meantime, millions of political prisoners were released from the MVD's vast system of forced-labour camps during the period of liberalisation after Stalin's death. The Gulag, as this camp system was known, consequently shrank greatly, along with the MVD's apparatus of police terror. The MVD was gradually downgraded and abolished in 1960.

Meanwhile, the KGB had been created in 1954 to take over state security and to remain - unlike its forebears - firmly under Communist Party control. The new agency played a major role in the purge of the Beria supporters, and the scope and effectiveness of that purge tended to discredit the security police generally.

An extensive campaign was undertaken to rehabilitate the secret police - in its new manifestation as KGB - in the eyes of Soviet citizens. The former policy of denying any foreign espionage was abandoned, and heroes of Soviet espionage such as Richard Sorge, executed by the Japanese during World War II, and Rudolf Abel, the master spy who operated in the United States after World War II, were introduced to the public and eulogised in Soviet news media.

By the mid-1960s the KGB had become firmly established as the party's security watchdog, and its value as an instrument of social and political control was reflected in the appointment of its head, Yury Andropov, to the Politburo (1973) and his succession to the helm of the nation (1982-84).

The KGB did not fare as well under the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (from 1985). His efforts to expand personal freedoms and to democratise the Soviet political system did not directly affect the KGB at first, though it was compelled to downgrade its secret-police functions slightly and to cultivate its public image both at home and abroad. But the KGB's still-massive secret-police apparatus and its continuing support of the Communist Party's hold over Soviet society eventually made it a prime target for the growing ranks of democratic reformers. A

After the then-head of the KGB had helped lead an unsuccessful coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, the KGB was systematically stripped of its extensive military units as well as many of its domestic-security functions.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB came under control of the Russian government. Its far-flung operations were consolidated into two major departments, one concerned with domestic-security functions and the other with foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. Ukraine, Belarus, and other former Soviet republics maintained their own foreign-intelligence departments with links to that of Russia.

At its peak, the KGB was the largest secret-police and espionage organisation in the world, one whose professional competence was widely respected and whose power and influence within Communist Party and Soviet government circles were substantial. Its organization comprised 17 separate entities. There were a number of chief directorates, concerned with such matters as counterintelligence, foreign intelligence (or espionage), and internal security.

The Border Guards Chief Directorate controlled the KGB's approximately 300,000 troops, with armour, artillery, and naval vessels, and was responsible for the security of Soviet borders and for keeping intruders out and citizens in. There were several lower-level directorates charged with security operations in the armed forces, technical operations, administration, personnel, surveillance, communications and cryptology, and guard service. There were also independent departments for special investigations, finance, operational analysis, physical security, and registry and archives.

At its peak in the four decades after World War II, the KGB conducted the most extensive espionage operations of any nation in the world. KGB agents used "covers" such as Amtorg, the Soviet international trade organisation, and TASS, the Soviet news agency, as well as more conventional diplomatic covers.

According to Western authorities, the KGB managed to infiltrate every major Western intelligence service except the CIA. The KGB did not have responsibility for purely military intelligence; that was the purview of the GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravleniye, or Central Intelligence Office), which was the chief intelligence directorate of the army general staff.

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