State Security, Organs of

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The political police and other organs of state security have played a prominent role in Russian and Soviet history. For almost two hundred years they have served a variety of state interests, including among their functions the surveillance of the population; censorship; the quashing of political and intellectual dissent; foreign and domestic espionage; and the guarding of borders. At times they have shared duties or been subsumed within the Ministry (or Commissariat) of Internal Affairs, and at other times they have been self-standing organs, often operating in parallel with the regular police or militia.

Although the political police in the modern understanding of the term originated in Russia in the early nineteenth century, various forms of special security forces existed well before this. The first such organ to play a prominent role was Ivan IV's (the Terrible) infamous oprichniki, who terrorized the Russian aristocracy in the late sixteenth century in order to root out Ivan's real and imagined foes. In the mid-seventeenth century Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (r. 16451676) made use of a "Secret Department" (tainy prikaz ) to keep him informed of events in the capital and to confirm the accounts of his foreign embassies. Crimes of "word and deed," that is, either speech or action deemed inimical to the tsar, were vigorously investigated.

Alexei's successors continued to keep private security forces. Peter I (the Great) (r. 16821725) maintained the "Preobrazhensky Department" and later a "Secret Investigative Chancellery" staffed with close friends and trusted allies to maintain his personal power and to guard against insurrection. These institutions were preserved in various forms throughout the century, despite occasional gestures toward limiting their power; their agents became powerful instruments of the throne and were often feared and loathed among court circles. Despite reaffirming her ill-fated husband Peter III's (r. 17611762) abolition of the Secret Chancellery, Catherine II (the Great, r. 17621796) made much use of an agency called the "Secret Expedition" to root out opposition. Its leader, Stepan Sheshkovsky, was particularly noted for his brutal methods of interrogation, especially in the latter years of Catherine's reign, when the French Revolution prompted an intensification of repression.

These institutions (in general) had a narrower focus and scope than would the genuine political police that originated in the nineteenth century. This had its root not only in the ideals of the Enlightenment-era "well-ordered police state," but also, ironically, in the French Revolution, which attempted to protect itself through institutions such as the Committee for Public Safety. Hence the organs of state security in Imperial Russia were concerned not only with the possibility of immediate rebellion within court circles, but with dissent in a more general sense.

The early reforming efforts of Alexander I (r. 18011825) included the aspiration to establish a more rational government system. Of course this did not appear all at once, but it did involve the creation of a ministry system, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which soon acquired competence over all policing matters. In the latter years of Alexander's reign, several different groups functioned as secret police forces, including the Secret Chancellery within the Ministry of the Interior.

The true consolidation of a secret police force came early in the reign of Nicholas I (r. 18251855). Nicholas's accession had been met with a revolt of military officers known to history as the Decembrist uprising, and Nicholas became adamant that such an occurrence not repeat itself. As part of his efforts to strengthen his own autocratic powers vis-à-vis the ministerial system erected by his brother Alexander, he had formed a set of agencies under his own personal dominion, known collectively as His Majesty's Own Chancery. The infamous "Third Section" of His Majesty's Own Chancery formed the first modern secret police force in Russia. It was originally headed by General Alexander Benckendorff and included much of the staff of Alexander's Secret Chancery. The Third Section vastly expanded the range of surveillance functions and incorporated other government officials in its scope, using army gendarme units to spy on the populace; the censors within the Ministry of Education to detect subversive writings; and the postal service to begin the practice of perlustration, or examining the contents of letters. Benckendorff also served as the head of the Corps of Gendarmes, an army unit that came to serve as the Third Section's information-gathering apparatus.

The power of Nicholas's secret police grew during a time when political opposition in Russia was relatively muted. It concentrated therefore on rooting out intellectual dissidents. During the European Revolutions of 1848, the Gendarmes rounded up members of the so-called Petrashevsky circle, including the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was under Alexander II (r. 18551881), the Tsar-Liberator who at last emancipated the serfs, that revolutionary opposition began truly to appear. In the early 1860s, student riots broke out at St. Petersburg University, and in 1866 a demented ex-student attempted to assassinate the tsar. From this time the Third Section under Count Peter Shuvalov was given immense powers to eradicate subversives. It soon became involved in a number of high-profile prosecutions, including the notorious Nechayev Affair. Despite the judicial reforms of 1864, Shuvalov continued to use extralegal means whenever security and expediency required it. Through the 1870s, however, public sympathy increasingly rested with the defendants in a series of celebrated trials prosecuting revolutionary terrorists and other radicals. This culminated in the scandalous acquittal in 1878 of the man who had shot and wounded the much-loathed St. Petersburg police chief General Trepov. Political crimes were soon transferred to military courts to better control the outcome. In 1880, in an effort to better consolidate control, Alexander II transferred the responsibilities of the Third Section to a newly created Department of State Police within the Ministry of Interior, then headed by the moderate Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov.

On March 1, 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by a conspiracy of the People's Will terrorist organization led by Andrei Zhelyabov and Sofia Perovskaya. His son and successor, Alexander III (18811894), and his chief advisor Konstantin Pobednostsev demanded a firm accounting. The remnants of People's Will and other terrorist groups of the late 1870s were ruthlessly sought out and expunged. Loris-Melikov was replaced by Nikolai Ignatiev, who soon promulgated a set of temporary measures providing for greater emergency policing powers. Establishing a system of quasi-martial law, these measures were renewed periodically until 1917, and they were used by the government when necessary to circumvent its own legal institutions.

Henceforth the minister of the Interior would have broad powers to quell real and potential disturbances and dissent to maintain public order. Within the Interior Ministry's Police Department was formed a new section in charge of political crimes, called the Division for the Protection of Order and Public Security, better known as the Okhrana. During the 1880s, political proceedings were much less publicized than they had been, and the authorities began to expand the practice of administrative exile of political prisonersthat is, deportation with no trial at all.

The Okhrana expanded the business of state surveillance further than it had ever been before, using undercover agents to infiltrate revolutionary organizations. It also established a Foreign Agency to operate among emigré groups conspiring against the Russian government. From the assassination of Alexander II to the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the regime and its opponents were thus locked in a bitter struggle replete with murder and intrigue.

Revolutionary terrorists, and in particular the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR), carried out several spectacular assassinations, including several ministers of the interiorDmitry Sipiagin in 1902 and the much-loathed Vyacheslav von Plehve in 1904. In response, the Okhrana increasingly used double agents to gather information on and control subversive groups, especially with the explosion of terrorist activity during and after the Revolution of 1905. The most infamous of the agent provocateurs was Evno Azev, who served the Okhrana while heading the SR's Combat Organization, completely unbeknownst to his comrades, until his dramatic exposure by the rabble-rousing journalist Vladimir Burtsev. After 1908, there were increasingly fewer assassinations of top tsarist officials, with the major exception of the assassination of Prime Minister Peter Stolypin in 1911.

Despite the Okhrana's successful efforts at infiltrating revolutionary groups and the awe and fear it inspired among the public, security officials faced several important obstacles. There was division over how to deal with the vigilante violence of radical nationalists, aimed at Jews, revolutionaries, and intellectuals. Many officials sympathized with the politics of right-wing organizations, which after all were bent on defending the monarchy, and the Okhrana became involved in the printing of anti-Semitic materials and condoned pogroms; but others were leery of permitting popular disorder. There was also disagreement over to what degree the police could circumvent the rule of law in its efforts to disrupt revolutionary activities.

In the end, the tsarist organs of state security were unable to prevent the overthrow of the imperial regime, despite a marked increase in surveillance during World War I. The growing unpopularity of the tsar and his government was greatly exacerbated by the quixotic influence of Grigory Rasputin, whose rise to prominence concerned leaders of the Okhrana proved powerless to prevent. After the February Revolution in 1917, the Provisional Government abolished the Okhrana and Gendarmes and sponsored a series of hearings into the abuses of power that had occurred during the previous regime.

The Council of People's Commissars established the first Soviet organ of state security in December 1917, creating the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, better known by its Russian acronym as the Cheka. It was headed by the inimitable Felix Dzerzhinsky, recognized as the founder of the Soviet secret police. Under Dzerzhinsky's leadership the Cheka, headquartered in the Lubyanka in central Moscow, quickly became a critical part of the Bolshevik efforts to stamp out all opposition in the difficult early days of power.

Opponents of Soviet power were targeted starting soon after it was founded. The Red Terror began after the assassination of the Petrograd Cheka chief M. S. Uritsky and an unsuccessful attempt on Lenin's life, both on August 30, 1918. Hundreds of real and imagined enemies were shot in an effort to quell all opposition, including Socialist Revolutionaries, landlords, capitalists, and other people associated with the old regime. Both the Bolsheviks and the various counterrevolutionary governments that formed during the civil war established intelligence services and made ample use of terror in attempting to win the struggle.

At the end of the civil war, some voices from within the Bolshevik leadership began to press for the establishment of revolutionary legality and a reduction in the extralegal methods of the Cheka. With Vladimir Lenin's support, the Cheka was abolished in February 1922 and replaced with the

State Political Administration, or GPU. The GPU was to be made nominally subordinate to the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD, and subject to the laws of Soviet Russia. However, from the start this proved more illusion than reality. Dzerzhinsky remained both commissar of internal affairs and head of the GPU, and within a year and a half the GPU had reacquired most of its former powers and been removed from NKVD oversight (and renamed the OGPU). The transformation from Cheka to OGPU, from civil war extraordinary to ordinary organ, marked the institutionalization of the security police in the Soviet system.

During the 1920s the OGPU competed with several other Soviet institutions for control of political policing operations. The system of administrative exile was reestablished along with a growing system of forced labor camps known as gulags. Political prisoners soon populated these destinations as they had under the old regime, and many individuals who had been exiled under the tsars found themselves once again in prison. In addition, the OGPU and the other organs of state security created a system of surveillance that would soon dwarf that of its tsarist predecessors. State censorship was unified in 1922 under a new organ, called Glavlit, which also worked closely with the secret police. At the same time, infiltration of Russian emigré groups and external espionage commenced.

A dramatic intensification of secret police activity marked the end of the 1920s, when Josef Stalin solidified his hold on power. Dzerzhinsky and his successors as head of the OGPU, Vyacheslav Menzhinsky and Genrikh Yagoda, allied themselves with Stalin and were instrumental in helping purge the opposition centering on Leon Trotsky. At the end of the decade, a series of show trials were orchestrated with OGPU support in which purported opponents of Soviet power were exposed and eliminated. This period ushered in the rapid intensification of Soviet industrialization campaigns and the collectivization of agriculture. It also featured the expansion of the system of administrative exile and prison camps, most notably through the campaign against the wealthier peasants, or kulaks, who were thought to be congenitally resistant to collectivization. The OGPU conducted a campaign of rooting out and deporting several hundred thousand kulaks and their families in the early 1930s in order to eliminate opposition to the collectivization of agriculture.

By 19311932 the OGPU had vastly expanded its extralegal authority and had gained primary competence over the rapidly growing penal apparatus. Its ability to control and observe the population was augmented through the introduction of an internal passport system in 1932. The 1930s and in particular the latter half of the decade are the period in which the punitive functions of the Soviet organs of state security reached their notorious zenith. Driven by a desire to purge the country of all real and imagined enemies, Stalin and his henchman in the secret police unleashed a wave of arrests, deportations, and executions, later known as the Great Terror.

In 1934 the OGPU was transformed once again into the Main Administration of State Security (GUGB) within a reconstituted Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), under the leadership of Genrikh Yagoda. The first wave of purges focused on Stalin's former colleagues in the Politburo who had been part of the several oppositions in the previous decade. The pretext for these purges was the December 1934 murder of the Leningrad Party chief Sergei Kirov, an event that, according to some historians, was actually ordered by Stalin himself. In any event, the increasingly militant atmosphere following Kirov's death, in which accusations against loyal Leninists reached infamously absurd proportions, culminated in the show trials of 19361938. Such well-known old Bolsheviks as Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, and Nikolai Bukharin were accused of plotting against the Soviet state and executed. Yagoda himself was caught up in the wave of purges; he was replaced as NKVD chief by Nikolai Yezhov in September 1936 and arrested along with a number of his colleagues the following year.

Toward the end of the decade, the NKVD-led purges changed dramatically in tone and scope. Starting in 1935, mass deportations of particular ethnic groups deemed potentially unreliable had begun, and in 19371938 Stalin and Yezhov unleashed the most concentrated wave of the Terror. Hundreds of thousands of Party officials, former oppositionists, intellectuals, military officers, and ordinary citizens were arrested and imprisoned, deported, or summarily executed under Article 58 of the criminal code. Arrest numbers were approved a priori from the center but consistently increased based on requests from the localities. The Gulags were expanded dramatically. The exact number of victims has been a measure of some dispute and is still being debated by scholars more than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The start of World War II exacerbated the felt need to remove potential fifth columns and intensified the deportation of ethnic groups, including Koreans, Poles, Germans, the Baltic peoples, Chechens, and Tatars. Yezhov had been removed and been replaced with the powerful Central Committee member Lavrenti Beria, marking yet another purge of leading NKVD cadres. Under the leadership of Beria and his equally notorious lieutenants, the organs of state security changed names several times, eventually reconstituting as the People's Commissariat for State Security (NKGB), which was renamed the Ministry of State Security (MGB) in 1946, functioning alongside and sharing some duties with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD).

In 1953, soon after Stalin's death, the two ministries were fused, and a separate Committee for State Security (KGB) was established the following year. Beria was arrested by his anxious colleagues and executed toward the end of the year. Thus the three most notorious heads of the state security apparatus during the height of repression, Yagoda, Yezhov, and Beria, were all eventually removed by the system they had turned into an instrument of mass terror. The collective leadership that emerged took careful steps to reestablish Party control over the state security apparatus, and the security and regular police were now separate organs.

The period of de-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev brought with it the gradual end of the terror and camp system that had characterized the Stalin period, and Khrushchev's exposure of the excesses of Stalin's rule changed the nature of the security organs. At the same time, the transition did not by any means diminish the authority of the KGB under the leadership of Ivan Serov, Alexander Shelepin, and their successors. While the abuses of the previous period were decried, and socialist legality once again stressed, the infiltration and surveillance of society by the security organs continued to intensify. In addition, the foreign counterespionage apparatus now reached a position of supreme importance in the tense atmosphere of the Cold War and the establishment of Soviet client states in Eastern Europe and around the world.

That the KGB had emerged again as a powerful force in Kremlin politics is evidenced by the fact that Shelepin and his handpicked successor, Vladimir Semichastny, were instrumental in the coup that overthrew Khrushchev in October 1964. The KGB enjoyed increased prestige and a further expansion of extralegal powers under the Brezhnev-led collective leadership that followed. In conjunction with high Party leaders, the KGB began the well-known crackdown on internal dissidents in 1965 with the arrest of the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel and the expulsion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974. Under the leadership of Yuri Andropov, who chaired the KGB from 1967 until 1982, it became a stable and critical part of Brezhnev-era mature socialism.

The reforms of the Gorbachev era, with their emphasis on openness and legality, threatened the central tenets of the security police, as did its loss of control over the Soviet satellite empire. The dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the formal end of the KGB, which was replaced with several successor institutions within Russia, the most important of which came to be called the Federal Security Service (FSB). Nevertheless, despite the changed political circumstances in post-Soviet Russia, the FSB has maintained a great deal of authority, as is evidenced by the rise of former FSB chief Vladmir Putin to the presidency. While critics of the security police can now complain about its abuses, the legacy of centuries of powerful state security organs continues in the early twenty-first century.

See also: autocracy; oprichnina; nicholas i; purges, the great; red terror; stalin, josef vissarionovich; terrorism


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Stuart Finkel

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