secret police: Russia and the Soviet Union

Russia and the Soviet Union

After the abortive Decembrist coup of 1825, a powerful secret police was organized in Russia at the order of the repressive Nicholas I. This notorious Third Section (thus named because it was the third department of the czar's chancery), established a rigid and complicated system of censorship and sought to suppress not only subversive activity but even subversive thought. (The culmination of this trend, typical of police states, was symbolized by the name of the Japanese secret police before 1945—Thought Police.) The use of agents provocateurs by the czarist police led to such extremes that secret police, posing as revolutionists, actually helped to assassinate government officials.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Soviet government instituted its own secret police, the Cheka (the Russian acronym for All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for the Suppression of Counterrevolution and Sabotage), under Feliks Dzerzhinsky. This was reorganized (1922) as the GPU, later the OGPU (United State Political Administration). In 1934 the functions of the OGPU were transferred to the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), which was also responsible for all places of detention (e.g., forced labor camps) and for the regular police. In 1936, Stalin named Nikolai Yezhov as its head, and under Yezhov's direction Stalinist purges culminated in the wave of terror (1936–38) known as the Yezhovshchina. When Yezhov himself was convicted of conspiracy in the 1938 Moscow treason trials, he was succeeded by Lavrenti Beria.

Under Beria's long tenure the vast apparatus of the Soviet security organs became the most powerful and the most feared section of society. The NKVD was split (1943) into the NKVD and the NKGB (People's Commissariat for State Security), the former retaining responsibility for internal security; in 1946 the NKVD became the MVD (Ministry of Interior), and the NKGB became the MGB (Ministry of State Security). After Stalin's death in 1953 the two ministries were fused into a new MVD under Beria. Later in the year Beria was arrested on charges of conspiracy and was killed; the charges illustrated the inherent danger of a strong secret police and its potential for overthrowing the very state that it is supposed to protect.

After Beria's fall the Soviet security service was placed under the KGB (Committee of State Security). Although the KGB's functions resembled those of its predecessors, it employed terror to a far lesser degree. Subordinated to party control, its main duties were concerned with internal intelligence. Much of what is now known about the secret police in the Soviet Union was made public in reports by Khrushchev. Under Gorbachev's policies, the power of the KGB was strongly curtailed, and in the aftermath of the attempted coup (1991) against him, in which KGB leaders played a major role, reformers were named to head the KGB and Interior Ministry. The KGB was then renamed and restricted to counterintelligence, economic crimes, and air and rail security. Foreign intelligence gathering was assigned to the new Central Intelligence Service.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia absorbed the KGB's remnants, combining most of them under the Security and Internal Affairs Ministry. President Boris Yeltsin ordered the ministry replaced with a new Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK) in 1993. In 1995 the FSK was given expanded powers and renamed the Federal Security Service (FSB). Since the collapse of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, many documents have been made available concerning the activities of the secret police.

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