Empire, USSR as

views updated Jun 08 2018


The understanding of the concept of empire depends on time and space. During the nineteenth century the terms empire and imperialism were associated with the spread of progress by countries claiming to represent civilized forms of existence. By the end of World War II the emergent superpowers, the United States and the USSR, adhered to an anti-imperialist, anti-empire ideology and thereby ended the colonial empires of countries such as Britain and France.

According to Leninist thought, empire and imperialism represented the highest and last stages of capitalist development after which socialism would emerge. Therefore the Soviet leadership never considered the multinational USSR, the leader of socialist revolution, to be an empire. This Leninist ideological definition of empire, while providing a framework for comprehending the Soviet leadership's approach to governing, fails to describe the dynamics of the USSR as an empire. As shown by Dominic Lieven (2000), a country must fulfill several criteria to be considered an empire. It must be continental in scale, governing a range of different peoples, represent a great culture or ideology with more than local hegemony, exercise great economic and military might on more than a regional level, and arguably govern without the consent of the people. According to these criteria the USSR was indeed an empire, however not without certain characteristics distinguishing it from other empires, such as the British, Ottoman, or Hapsburg.

The USSR was the world's largest country, extending from Europe in the west to China and the Pacific in the east, its southern borders touching the boundaries of the Middle East. Given this geographic position, Moscow was a player in three of the world's most important regions. The Soviet Union's population consisted of hundreds of different peoples speaking a myriad of languages and practicing different religions, including Judaism, Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Sunni and Shia Islam. Such diversity was reminiscent of the great British and French maritime empires.

Josef Stalin's brutal industrialization policies and victory in World War II paved the way for the Soviet Union's emergence as a superpower with global reach and influence. The Soviet economy was the second largest in the world despite its many deficiencies and supported a huge military industrial complex, which by the 1960s had enabled the USSR to attain nuclear parity with the United States while maintaining the largest armed forces in the world.

Ideological power accompanied this military and economic might. The Cold War between the USSR and the United States was rooted in alternative visions of modernity. Whereas the United States held that liberal democracy and capitalism ultimately represented the end of history, the Soviet Union believed that an additional stage, that of communism, represented the true end of history. Many across the globe found Soviet communism's claims of representing a truly egalitarian and therefore more humane society attractive. In other words, the ideological and cultural power of the USSR exercised global influence.

In the midst of war and revolution many areas of the former tsarist empire became independent. With the exception of Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and parts of Poland, the Bolsheviks, through the effective and brutal use of force and coercion and under the banner of progressive Soviet communism, resurrected the empire they once called "Prison of the Peoples." In 1940 Stalin invaded and occupied the Baltic States, which subsequently, according to Soviet propaganda, voluntarily became part of the USSR. Until the late 1980s during the reform process of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leadership governed without the direct consent of the people.

land-based empire

The Soviet Union was a land-based empire encompassing all the territories of its tsarist predecessor except Poland and Finlandwhile adding other areas such as western Ukraine and Bessarabia. The dynamics of a land-based empire differ greatly from those of maritime empires, such as the British and French. Before embarking on maritime empire building, countries such as Britain, France, and Spain already had a relatively solidified national identity. In tsarist Russia, empire and nation building commenced at roughly the same time, thereby blurring empire and nation. To determine where Russia the nation ended and where the empire began was difficult. This theme would continue in the Soviet era.

Given the geographical distance between the metropole and its maritime empire, a clear division remained between colonized, most of whom were of different races and cultures, and colonizer, and therefore the question of assimilation of different peoples under a single supranational ideology or symbol never arose. The metropolitan British identity was neither created nor adjusted to include the peoples of the vast empire ruled by London. In tsarist Russia the emperor and the crown represented the supranational entity to which the various peoples of the empire were to pledge their loyalty. Here, terminology is important. Two words for the English equivalent of "Russian" exist. When discussing anything related to Russian ethnicity, such as a person or the language, the word russky is used. However the empire, its institutions and the dynasty, were called rossysky, which carried a civil meaning designed to include everyone from Baltic German to Tatar. The emperor himself was known not as the "russky" tsar, but vserossysky (All-Russian).

The Soviet leadership faced the same problems of governing and assimilation associated with a multiethnic land empire. While Soviet nationality policy, in other words how Soviet leaders approached governing this large and diverse empire, varied over time, its goals never did. They were (a) to maintain the country's territorial integrity and domestic security; (b) to support the monopolistic hold on power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU); and (c) create a supranational Soviet identity, reminiscent of the civil rossysky. On one hand the Soviet leadership in line with MarxistLeninist thought believed that nationalism, the death knell for any multinational empire, was a phenomenon inherent to capitalism and the bourgeois classes. Therefore, with the advent of socialism, broadly defined working class interests would triumph over national loyalties. In short, socialism makes nationalism redundant. On the other hand, the reality of governing a multiethnic empire required the Soviet leadership to pursue several policies reminiscent of a traditional imperial polity, such as deportations of whole peoples, playing one ethnic group against another, and drawing boundaries designed to maintain the supremacy of the central power.

Unlike previous empires, the USSR was a federation that had fifteen republics at the time of its dissolution in 1991. Confident in the relatively speedy victory of socialism and communism over capitalism, in the 1920s the Soviet leadership followed a very accommodating policy in regard to nationalities. Along with the creation of a federation that institutionalized national identities, the new Soviet authorities supported the spread and strengthening of non-Russian cultures, languages,

and identities. In areas where a national identity already existed, such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia, great ethnic cultural autonomy was allowed. In areas where no national identity yet existed, as in Central Asia, Soviet ethnographers worked to create peoples and national borders, based on cultural and economic considerations. The Soviet drawing of borders is comparable to the creation of states by European imperial powers in Africa and the Middle East. Each created republic had identical state, bureaucratic, and educational structures, an Academy of Sciences, and other institutions whose responsibility was the maintenance and strengthening of the national identity as well as propagation of MarxistLeninist teachings. Therefore the Soviet Union supported and gave birth to national identities, whereas other land-based empires, such as the Ottoman and Habsburg, fought against them. At the same time the central Soviet authorities recruited indigenous people in the non-Russian republics to serve in local, republican, and even all-union institutions.

Alongside nation building went social and economic modernization, and a requirement for the emergence of socialism, which would bring an end to strong national feelings. Unlike French and British colonial rule, the Soviets made dramatic changes of the societies and peoples of the USSR one of the main thrusts of their nationality policy. While Central Asia and the Caucasus were the most economically and socially "backward," through rapid industrialization and collectivization of peasant land all societies of the USSR endured dramatic change, surpassing the extent to which France and Britain had affected their colonial possessions. Importantly, the Soviets strove to modernize Russia, which many regarded to be the imperial power. There is no such analogy in regard to the maritime European empires, whose metropole was considered to be at the forefront of modernization and civilization.

The rule of Josef Stalin brought changes to this policy. Regarding cultural autonomy a threat to the integrity of the Soviet state, Stalin imposed very strong central control over the constituent republics and appointed Russians to many of the high posts in the non-Russian republics. The biggest change, however, was in regard to the position of the Russian people within Soviet ideology. The Russians were now portrayed as the elder brother of the Soviet peoples whose culture and language provided the means for achieving communist modernity. Appreciation and love of Russian culture and language was no longer regarded as a threat to Soviet identity, but rather a reflection of loyalty to it.

From Stalin's death to the collapse of the USSR, Soviet nationality policy was an amalgamation of the policies followed during the first thirty-five years of Soviet power. The peoples of the non-Russian republics again filled positions in republican institutions. Through access to higher education, privilege, and the opportunity to exercise power within their republican or local domain, the central leadership created a sizeable and reliable body of non-Russian cadres who, with their knowledge of the local languages and cultures, ruled the non-Russian parts of the empire under the umbrella of the CPSU. However, Great Russians, meaning Russians, Ukrainians, or Belarusians, usually occupied military and intelligence service positions.

The Soviet command economy centered in Moscow limited the power of the local and republican authorities. Through allocation of economic resources, goods, and infrastructure, the central Soviet authorities wielded a great degree of real power throughout the USSR. Moreover, in traditional imperial style, Moscow exploited the natural resources of all republics, such as Russian oil and natural gas and Uzbek cotton, to fulfill all-union policies even to the detriment of the individual republic.

The problem of assimilation of varied peoples and the creation of a supranational identity remained. After the death of Stalin, the Soviet leadership realized that ethnic national feelings in the USSR were not dissipating and in some cases were strengthening. The Soviet leadership's response was essentially the promotion of a two-tiered identity. On one level it spoke of the flourishing of national identities and cultures. The leadership stressed, however, that this flourishing took place within a Soviet framework in which the people's primary loyalty was to the Soviet identity and homeland. In other words, enjoyment of one's national culture and language was not a barrier to having supreme loyalty to the progressive supranational Soviet identity.

Nevertheless the existence of national feelings continued to worry the Soviet leadership. During the late 1950s it adopted a new language policy, at the heart of which was expansion of Russian language teaching. The hope was that acquisition of Russian language and therefore culture would bring with it the spread and strengthening of a Soviet identity. The issue of language is always sensitive in the imperial framework. Attempts by a land-based empire to impose a single language frequently results in enflaming national feelings among the people whose native tongue is not the imperial one. Yet every land-based empire, especially one the size of the USSR, needs a lingua franca in order to govern and ease the challenges of administration.

russia and the soviet empire

One of the more contentious issues concerns the extent to which the Soviet Union was a Russian empire. The USSR did exist in the space of the former tsarist empire. The Russian language was the lingua franca. From Stalin onwards the Russians and their high culture were portrayed as progressive and therefore the starting point on the path toward the modern Soviet identity. Great Russians held the vast majority of powerful positions in the center, as well as sensitive posts in the non-Russian republics. Many people in the non-Russian republics regarded the USSR and Soviet identity to be only a different form of Russian imperialism dating from the tsarist period.

On the other hand the Soviets destroyed two symbols of Russian identitythe tsar and the peasantrywhile emasculating the other, the Russian Orthodox Church. During the 1920s Lenin and other Bolsheviks, seeing Russian nationalism as the biggest internal threat to the Soviet state, worked to contain it. The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, by far the largest of the republics of the USSR whose population equaled all of the others combined, had no separate Communist Party and appropriate institutions in contrast to all of the other republics. The Soviet regime used Russian high culture and symbols, but in a sanitized form designed to construct and strengthen a Soviet identity. The Russian people suffered just as much as the other peoples from the crimes of the Soviet regime, especially under Stalin. Already by the 1950s Russian nationalism was on the rise. The Soviet regime was blamed for destroying Russian culture and Russia itself through its reckless exploitation of land and natural resources in pursuit of Soviet goals. In the closing years of the USSR the symbols of Russian identity, the tsarist tricolor flag and the double-headed eagle, were commonly seen, while cities and streets regained their prerevolutionary Russian names. For many Russians, a distinction existed between Russian and Soviet identity.

collapse of the soviet empire

Debate continues over the causes of the collapse of the USSR and specifically the extent to which Soviet handling of its multiethnic empire was responsible for it. The Soviet federal structure, although leaving real power in Moscow, nevertheless institutionalized and therefore strengthened national identities, which are lethal to any multinational empire. Yet the goal of nationality policy was the creation of a supranational Soviet identity. Despite this contradiction, Soviet nationality policy when compared to that of other imperial polities enjoyed a relative degree of success. By encouraging dependence on the state and protecting the educational and occupational interests of the local political elite and educated middle class, the central Soviet leadership blunted aspirations to independent nationhood and integrated groups within the Soviet infrastructure. While the use of local elites to govern the periphery is a traditional imperial practice, providing a degree of legitimacy to the imperial power, Soviet non-Russian elites achieved powerful positions within their respective republics, wielding power unattainable by the colonized local populations in the French and British empires.

Ideological power is as strong as its ability to deliver what it promises. Disillusionment with the unfulfilled economic promises of the Soviet ideology weakened loyalty to the Soviet identity. Gorbachev's economic policies only worsened the economic situation. At the same time, Gorbachev ended the CPSU's monopoly on power. Faced with growing popular dissatisfaction with the economic situation and loss of guarantee of power through the CPSU, regional and local political figures became nationalists when the national platform seemed to be the only way for them to retain power as the imperial center, the CPSU, weakened.

Russia itself led the charge against the Soviet center, thereby creating a unique situation. The country that many people inside and outside the USSR considered to be the imperial power, revolted against what it regarded to be the imperial power, the CPSU and central Soviet control over Russia, leading to the collapse of one of the world's great land-based empires.

See also: colonial expansion; colonialism; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; union of soviet socialist republics


Barkey, Karen, and Von Hagen, Mark, eds. (1997). After Empire. London: Westview Press.

Dawisha, Karen, and Parrott, Bruce, eds. (1997). The End of Empire? The Transformation of the USSR in Comparative Perspective. London: M. E. Sharpe.

Lieven, Dominic. (2000). Empire. London: John Murray.

Nahaylo, Bohdan, and Swoboda, Victor. (1990). Soviet Disunion. London: Penguin.

Pipes, Richard. (1964). The Formation of the Soviet Union. London: Harvard University Press.

Rezun, Miron, ed. (1992). Nationalism and the Breakup of an Empire: Russia and Its Periphery. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Rudolph, Richard, and Good, David, eds. (1992). Nationalism and Empire: The Habsburg Empire and the Soviet Union. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Suny, Ronald. (1993). The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Szporluk, Roman. (2000). Russia, Ukraine, and the Breakup of the Soviet Union. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Zhand P. Shakibi

KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, USSR Committee of State Security)

views updated May 14 2018

KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, USSR Committee of State Security)


The KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti or Committee of State Security) was the preeminent Soviet intelligence agency and Soviet equivalent of the American CIA. The KGB was the primary organization for intelligence and counterintelligence matters during the later Soviet period. Although the NKVD was tasked with internal security, the KBG role in political security and counterintelligence was so broad that its operations often touched on internal security matters. For example, in 1957, Soviet border guards were placed under KGB supervision.

The KGB and Western intelligence services played a continual deadly game of "cat and mouse" (both as pursuers and the pursued) throughout the Cold War, with some of the most intense activity centered on Berlin (e.g., Operation Gold and the Berlin tunnel episode). In 1967, Yuri Andropov, then head of KGB and later Soviet premier, described the role of the KGB and other state security bodies as "a bitter and stubborn battle on all fronts, economic, political, and ideological."

Origin and formation of the KGB. The first Soviet state security organization, the Cheka (aka, Vecheka or All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage) was created by the new Soviet leaders almost immediately following the November revolution in 1917. In 1922, the State Political Directorate (GPU) succeeded the Cheka and was then placed under the control of the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs).

When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formally created the next year, the GPU became the OGPU (Unified State Political Directorate) and was made an independent directorate (disassociated from the NKVD) of the Soviet Council of People's Commissars. In the political infighting and turmoil of the early 1930s in the Soviet Union, the OGPU was renamed the GUGB (Chief Directorate of State Security) and simultaneously placed under the control of the also reformed All-Union NKVD.

This fusion of state security and intelligence functions produced powerful influence embodied in a string of leaders that included G. G. Yagoda, N. I. Yezhov (1936), and Lavrentii Beria (1938).

In 1941, during World War II, the GUGB was split from the NKVD and granted equal status as the NKGB. The first NKGB director, V. N. Merkulov, had worked directly with Beria and followed similar brutal methodologies. The NKGB was tasked with conducting both external espionage and counter-espionage activities as well as guaranteeing Communist Party rule by suppressing counter-revolutionary organizations.

As the Nazi invasion pushed deeper into Russia, the NKGB was once again briefly fused with NKVD under its old title as the GUGB to streamline efforts to coordinate an effective defense against the Nazi forces. As the front stabilized and the Soviets began to push the Germans back, the GUGB was once again given independent status as the NKGB.

Derived from special sections of the NKVD Army (NKO) and Navy (NKVMF), a powerful new element,

SMERSH (SMERrt SHpionam or "Death to Spies") became a forerunner to KGB assassination teams. In 1940, Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City by SMERSH. Trotsky had long been a rival of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, who recognized that Trotsy's role in launching the Bolshevik takeover of Russia alongside V. I. Lenin gave him much greater revolutionary legitimacy. SMERSH agents tracked Trotsky for more than a decade before the assassination.

Following World War II, the Soviet government renamed the People's Commissariats as ministries and the NKVD became the MVD and the NKGB became the MGB. In March, 1953, the day after Stalin died, Beria united the MGB and MVD into one organization (retaining the title MVD). After Beri's trial and execution in 1954, espionage activities were assigned to a reconstituted unit designated as the KGB and placed under the direction of the Soviet Council of Ministers. In 1978, the KGB chairman was assured a place on the Soviet Council of Ministers.

As part of his attempted reforms of the Soviet Union (e.g., glasnost ), the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev also attempted to reform the KGB before it was dissolved in 1991 but these attempts were met with resistance within the KGB hierarchy and eventually created tension significant to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The fate of the KGB was sealed when its leader, Colonel General Vladimir Kryuchkov, ordered KGB agents to participate in the failed August, 1991, coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. KGB-directed forces surrounded Gorbachev's Crimean dacha (house) for three tense days before the coup collapsed.

The Soviet Union collapsed and splintered in 1991. The KGB was dissolved and the Federal'naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK), and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) were formed (from resources that included some former KGB elements) to serve the intelligence needs of the new Russian Federation.

KGB tactics. KGB operatives were masters at tactics ranging from disinformation (in Russian, dezinformatsiya ) to assassination. As did their Western counterparts, KGB operatives also employed technology specifically designed for espionage operations. KGB agents employed a range of weapons, including exotic devices like poison pens that fired hydrocyanic acid gas or pellets of ricin. Another celebrated example involved the KGB development of the lipstick pistol, or "kiss of death." Created by KGB scientists, the lipstick pistol contained a 4.5-mm single-shot pistol encased in rubber and disguised as a tube of lipstick. The deadly poison ricin came to widespread public attention in 1978, when it was used during the KGB assassination of Bulgarian dissenter Georgi Markov in the United Kingdom. Markov, a BBC broadcaster, died several days after being jabbed by an umbrella at a bridge in London. The poison-tipped umbrella injector was designed by KGB scientists.

KGB operatives used disinformation not only directly against Western governments, but also against governments not following pro-Soviet policies. For example, KGB operatives used disinformation tactics in attempts to destabilize Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for his increasingly pro-Western policies by issuing false statements and writing attributed to Islamist fundamentalists. The disinformation not only contributed to the assassination of Sadat, but also helped fuel Islamist terrorism.

To avoid direct conflict with the U.S., the KGB funded subversive groups and domestic terrorists within the United States (e.g., the Weathermen, a 1960s radical group) through intermediaries such as Cuba.

Spy vs. spy. As did their Western intelligence counterparts, KBG officers continually attempted to recruit agents and plant moles in Western intelligence organizations. The KGB's success in this effort was unparalleled, the most infamous success coming with the compromise of British intelligence by the Cambridge University spy ring and mole Kim Philby.

KGB methods of suppression of moles and traitors could be brutal. According to one eyewitness account, when KGB officers discovered a fellow officer had provided information to the CIA, he was thrown feet first into a roaring furnace while his colleagues watched.

The most well known mole for Western intelligence operating within the KGB was Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Penkovsky initially served the Soviet regime faithfully, but when he became disillusioned with communism and the Soviet leadership, Penkovsky ultimately offered his services to British intelligence. United States President John F. Kennedy used information provided by Penkovsky during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The KGB subsequently arrested Penkovsky. After being convicted of treason, Penkovsky was executed.

The Legacy of the KGB. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the KGB, access to secret archives and testimony of former KGB officers and agents has exposed several double agents. The extent of the Walker family espionage activities became apparent, and specific sensitive U.S. Navy and National Security Agency documents were discovered in the KGB archives.

In 1994, long-time CIA veteran Aldrich Ames was discovered to be a KGB mole. The information he sold to the KGB included the names of Russian double agents and operatives working for the U.S. within the Soviet intelligence community, ultimately leading to their capture, imprisonment, or execution by Soviet authorities.

In 2001, FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen was arrested for conspiracy to commit espionage. Hanssen eventually pled guilty to charges that he had spied for the KGB.

Although the predominant sentiment in contemporary Russia is one of relief from fear of the KGB, some express the sentiment that the once omnipresent intelligence-gathering entity was so powerful and invasive that it minimized the commission of ordinary crimes, which now plague Russia.

Some of the bizarre disinformation created by the KGB has become a source of urban legends occasionally regurgitated by ill-informed or profoundly anti-U.S. critics. For example, documents in the KGB archives provide evidence that operatives mounted a disinformation campaign laden with pseudo-scientific "proofs" that the United States had deliberately created the AIDS virus in the laboratory to use as a biological weapon.

The KGB mounted a major disinformation campaign during the Korean War that resulted in lasting influences on North Korean and Western relations. KGB operatives disseminated information that accused U.S.-led United Nations forces of using biological and chemical warfare against North Korean civilians, information that is still propagated by the North Korean government and so continues to poison public opinion against the U.S. and other Western powers.



Bittmann, Ladislav. The KGB and Soviet Disinformation. Washington: Pergamon-Brassey's International Defense Publishers, 1985.

Kessler, Ronald. Moscow Station: How the KGB Penetrated the American Embassy. New York: Scribner's, 1989.

Mitrokhin, Vasily, ed. KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officer's Handbook. London: Frank Cass, 2002.


Gordievsky, Oleg. "The KGB Archives."Intelligence and National Security 6, no. 1 (Jan. 1991): 714.

Waller, Michael J. "State within a State: The KGB and its Successors" Perspective IV, no. 4 (1994).


Romerstein, Herbert. "Disinformation as a KGB Weapon in the Cold War." Prepared for a Conference on Germany and Intelligence Organizations: The Last Fifty Years in Review, sponsored by Akademie fur Politische Bildung Tutzing, June 1820, 1999.


Ames (Aldrich H.) Espionage Case
Assassination Weapons, Mechanical
Berlin Tunnel
Biochemical Assassination Weapons
Cambridge University Spy Ring
Cameras, Miniature
CIA (United States Central Intelligence Agency)
CIA, Formation and History
Cold War (1945-1950), The Start of the Atomic Age
Cold War (1950-1972)
Cold War (1972-1989): The Collapse of the Soviet Union
Concealment Devices
Crime Prevention, Intelligence Agencies
Cuba, Intelligence and Security
Czech Republic, Intelligence and Security
Dirty Tricks
Document Forgery
Double Agents
Hanssen (Robert) Espionage Case
Intelligence Agent
MI5 (British Security Service)
MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service)
Propaganda, Uses and Psychology
Rosenberg (Ethel and Julius) Espionage Case
Soviet Union (USSR), Intelligence and security
Ukraine, Intelligence and Security
Walker Family Spy Ring


views updated May 18 2018

USSR (also U.S.S.R.) hist. • abbr. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


views updated May 21 2018


views updated May 21 2018