The Bolshevik

The Bolshevik
A painting from 1920 by Russian artist Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (1878–1927) currently in the possession of The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

02 November 2010

A Brief History of the Soviet State Security Services

Part I
Shortly after the revolution that spawned the creation of the Soviet Union a state security service was created to maintain power for the new regime and combat its enemies, real and perceived. Since the newly formed Soviet Union had no legitimacy as a governing body based on popular support of the people it purported to lead, the self-declared leadership realized the essential necessity of a powerful, politically based state security system. The entire system of self-preservation of Bolshevik authority included several elements such as a standard internal police force, judicial and prosecutorial bodies and an overall state security structure which included political/secret police as well as a foreign intelligence and external security organizations. The first such state security organization was the Cheka and was initially created by Vladimir Lenin as a temporary necessity which he believed would become obsolete as soon as the Soviet citizenry were fully organized under the new government.
The simple facts were the following: 
  • Lenin and the other Bolsheviks seized power from the provisional government, and were not elected by a popular vote, or in fact any vote at all;
  • Because the Bolsheviks had no means of maintaining power in a period of political flux and bitter disgust with the Imperial Russian leadership when many liberal political parties and other groups were competing for leadership of Russia and its many republics and vast territories, staying in power was perhaps more difficult than achieving it; 
  • Despite Lenin's alleged initial hesitation regarding the need for a secret political police, he agreed rather readily to its creation at the behest of advisers and others close to him;
  • The Cheka was created as a temporary organization and was touted as an unpleasant necessity by the Bolshevik leadership who announced that the Cheka would be disbanded as soon as the political and social situation had settled down and the "enemies of the state and its people" had been routed from the country;
  • The number of these so-called enemies of the people grew as the Russian Civil War drew to a close in 1922 and Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP) had been in effect for about a year, which in itself created many new groups of "class enemies" for Stalin to "purge" when he had assumed power and abandoned an otherwise successful policy as contrary to communist principles in favor of the disastrous collectivisation;
  • In the years few years before his death at 53 on 21 January 1924, Lenin used the power of the Cheka more than a few times to crush rebellions, particularly among groups of farmers and communities opposed to the NEP, writing out a number of orders by hand calling for the execution of these rebels;
  • Shortly after Lenin's death, Joseph Stalin used (abused) the Cheka's offspring, the NKVD as his personal tool to forcibly relocate, imprison, torture and execute tens of millions of Soviet citizens (an exact number has never been objectively determined) mostly for imagined charges dreamed up by Stalin's deranged imagination and reinforced by his paranoid delusions;

  • Though tempered by future Soviet leaders and finally divided up under new names beginning in 1991, the "temporary" Cheka exists to this day.

Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1919

On December 20, 1917, barely two months after the first days of the October Revolution, the Cheka – an acronym for “the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage” – was established by Lenin and the rest of the new leadership under the rule of the intractable Polish Bolshevik Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. Born to Polish nobility, Dzerzhinsky was a highly educated individual who became a devout, if not fanatical, Marxist in his youth and joined the Bolsheviks in their earliest endeavors to overthrow the increasingly unpopular Russian Tsarist Imperial regime. With the newly nicknamed “Iron Felix” at its head, the Cheka became the most feared institution in the whole course of the Russian Civil War which continued from 1917 to 1922, and in some respects long after that. In fact, the Cheka (and its subsequent incarnations including the NKVD) became so widely revered throughout Europe for its effectiveness that it eventually had its imitators, the most infamous of which was the Nazi’s Gestapo. Though, as with all imitations, the Gestapo fell far short of the original in terms of achievable goals and success in reaching them.
Political police in Russia has a long history dating back to Tsar Ivan IV, more commonly known as “Ivan the Terrible,” and his creation of the Oprichnika in 1565. Ivan’s 6000 member political police got their name because they were formed to enforce Ivan’s will on a portion of Russian territory ruled by the Tsar at the time known as Oprichnina from the now archaic Russian word meaning “exempt” or “except.” Though the Oprichnika are historically responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of Russians that included peasants and other nobles alike who opposed Ivan’s will, they were disbanded after only eight years because they were ineffective in achieving political success for Ivan. However, the same name was used by later tsars when they had need of a secret political police. The origin of the name Oprichnika is significant because of the foreboding coincidence that the security/political police of the Soviet Union was “exempt” or operated separately from the rest of the government and to some degree outside of the socio-political structure itself. Although the tsarist political police was ruthless and unscrupulous, the Cheka greatly surpassed its predecessors in terms of terror and violence. At the same time, however, it also succeeded where the Oprichnika failed. The Bolsheviks allowed the Cheka almost unrestricted powers to persecute those who were perceived as “class enemies” or “enemies of the revolution.” As the powers of the Cheka grew and expanded unchecked, for the most part, seemingly more with each new name change, it is relatively easy to see how such a powerful organization could and would eventually be abused under the brutal Stalinist police state. Millions of people were executed or exiled under the purges of the “Great Terror” of the 1930s and 40s by another leader who sought to impose his personal will upon the people he ruled.

In 1922, the Cheka was reorganized under the title of the State Political Directorate - Gosudarstvennoye Politicheskoye Upravlenie - or GPU. The name was soon changed again to the OGPU -  or All-Union State Political Directorate, emphasizing its significant role as the security service for the entire Soviet Union.

Dzerzhinsky and Chekist Shield in 1938 Moscow parade*
YouTube link:
for footage of the full "Blooming Youth Sports Parade"
Dzerzhinsky died in 1926 officially of natural causes, though some historians have questioned this conclusion. Though admired by many and feared by many more while living, Dzerzhinsky achieved a cult-hero status among a significant number of Soviet citizens after his death. This was due in large part to propaganda disseminated by the Soviet state security bodies that continued to evolve and change names until the most renown, the KGB, was officially formed on 1 January 1954 – though this was not the last name change. His statue was a common sight in Red Square until 1991 and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dzerzhinsky is still a symbol of current security organizations in the Russian Federation from the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) to the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and the FSB (Federal Security Service). The last two agencies were originally united under the KGB. The SVR is essentially the former First Chief Directorate (FCD) of the KGB whereas the FSB encompasses the remaining directorates responsible for state security on Russian soil. The FCD is perhaps the most well known aspect of the KGB by anyone who lived outside of the Soviet Union during the Cold War because this is the department under which Soviet spies operated across the rest of the world with a special emphasis on the “Main Adversary” – the code name given to the United States by the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union (the uppermost body of government and the one to which the KGB answered) even before the US had a non-military foreign intelligence service of its own.
This is of course a simplified version of an extremely complex series of dismantling and reassembling of various structures within the KGB after the organization was officially dissolved in 1991 by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. It is possible that the KGB would still exist basically in its original form had not some of its highest ranking members participated in the attempted coup in August 19-21, 1991.
Note: The link to the SVR official Russian Federation website is under the list of "Links" in the margin.
* Photo of Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky from Wikimedia Commons public domain images.

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