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.

31 May 2011

NKVD and the Other Security Services

An security services sergeant posing in front of an OGPU award
flag. A viewer pointed out that though the flag is certainly from
the OGPU, the uniform the sergeant is wearing is post WWII. 
Therefore, for some reason an older flag is being used as a for
the soldier to pose in front of though it will always make a good 
backdrop for any Soviet photo. Notice that there are only six
republics represented on the state seal which makes this a very
early, pre-WWII flag, though a post war photo. Also note that
he is not wearing a pistol as nearly all NKVD officers did -
though in posed photos, most officers from any branch of
security service is seldom seen armed. 
(Submitted photo)
The NKVD as opposed to the KGB and earlier security services incarnations of the Soviet Union were two equal but separate organizations. The lines between their specific duties were often blurred - especially during the Stalin years. The lines were even more obscure shortly before and especially after the USSR officially joined the fray of WWII. The OGPU ("All-Union State Political Directorate" and nearly immediate successor to the Cheka) as a whole was incorporated as a division/directorate of the NKVD. This included their specially trained military support units as well as all foreign intelligence agents.  

A small group of NKVD agents while taking a break in the field in 1944.* The NKVD political
branch had uniforms with bright colors - royal blue and crimson red, particularly on the caps.
They did this so that if they were running through a group of khaki-covered "simple Red Army"
sea of people in a charge of a battle, they would always be visible and distinct from the "mere"
or "average" soldier during WWII. The NKVD border guards's uniforms were more blended to
their surroundings and were only easily distinguished by the bright green caps they wore. Soviet
Security service/political police felt and were taught that they were superior to anyone who was not in the Cheka-KGB family. Considering the "perks" political agents received for being members of any of the Soviet security agencies, throughout the 70 plus years of the Soviet Union, were apparently worth the trade-off of losing friends, neighbors and sometimes family, and the loss, even temporarily for some, of the compassion that makes people human. 
Two different types of NKVD caps.
The one on top is for an agent/young
officer of the state security side of the
organization. The one beneath it is for
the NKVD border guard. Both caps in
remained in use until the entire NKVD
broken back up into the MGB and the
MVD in the late 1940s and earlier
part of the 1950s as the MVD donned
new uniforms as did the MGB-KGB. 
Eventually, only the colors remained
on the respective uniform cap.

However, in order for most citizens of modern democracies to comprehend the differences between the NKVD (later the MVD - Ministry of Internal Affairs) while Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria had control over them just before, during and more or less up until Stalin's death on March 5 of 1953 and the state security organizations of the Soviet Union, they have to be able to relate to these organizations in terms of their own country's security agencies. After Stalin's death in 1953 Beria subordinated the MGB to his MVD which made many state officials in the Kremlin extremely uncomfortable. In 1954, after Beria was arrested, tried and executed as the post-Stalinist fervor grew, the MGB (Ministry of State Security) was changed to the more renowned KGB (Committee for State Security – a post Stalin-Beria move to "demote" the massive and powerful MGB as separate from the MVD – again) from fear of what such an organization was capable of at the ministry level.

In the United States, the closest comparison to the NKVD would be the Federal Bureau of Investigation – if it were given free reign and powers of not only arrest, but trial and execution. The NKVD's "jurisdiction" superseded any local law enforcement or regional agency and, like the FBI, was supposed to only operate within the borders of the country. In fact, most militias (police departments) and fire departments were part of the NKVD itself.

On the other hand, the Cheka-KGB was charged with many tasks similar to the US Central Intelligence Agency and, like the CIA, was supposed to operate exclusively outside of the country except in cases of counterintelligence, counterrevolution and/or counterterrorism. However, the CIA alone is not a sufficient equivalent to the state security services of the Soviet Union. If the US National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security were combined with the CIA and the National Security Council to give indirect orders, then the comparison is a bit better. In fact, the CIA was the first dedicated and independent of the military security agency ever to exist in the United States and it did not come about until then President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 and completed the plans of his presidential predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt who saw the urgent need for a permanent foreign intelligence service in the US, especially for a young country with high aspirations.

As mentioned above, the state security and political police (OGPU) was subordinated to the NKVD at Beria's request and Stalin's order shortly before war was officially declared on Germany by the Soviet Union. For a brief period in 1941, the OGPU (then renamed the NKGB, or "People's Commissariat for State Security) was made autonomous again, but shortly thereafter Stalin and Beria perceived the need to re-subordinate them into the NKVD. The power-hungry Beria, the last head of the NKVD and briefly of the newly named MVD, had hopes of eventually replacing Stalin; in fact, a rumor circulated among the Party elite in the Kremlin that Beria had poisoned Stalin to speed along his own plans to assume the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee – a.k.a. "dictator for life." This rumor was not publicly pursued, particularly since Beria was executed only nine months after Stalin's death. Just as in many cases of "disappeared" persons, there was little, if any fanfare at the announcement of Beria as an "enemy of the people” – a title befitting one who was an enemy of all people who were not Beria and who used the same term to have a large number of Soviet citizens imprisoned or killed (precisely how many people is impossible to say given the “Top Secret” status of many related documents, even to this day).

A photo of the 158th Rifle Division of SMERSH taken most
likely immediately after their graduation from a specialized
academy - training course - for SMERSH agents. This was a
a new experiment in warfare and control over some
morally deficient SMERSH agents and their units was not
established. As a result, atrocities were committed sometimes in
conjunction with the NKVD. Please note that many of the
agents pictured above are women. The Red Army saw no
problem with women carrying a rifle into battle.  However,
though even to this day two years of service in the military is 
compulsory, women are exempt from conscription during 
times of peace.** 
The last group that needs to be mentioned is SMERSH (a semi-acronym for the Russian phrase "Death to Spies" or СМЕРть Шпионам [emphasis on the pasts of the two words used]). At least for the edification of the public and any other more observant citizen of the young country, the organization was created to capture and/or prevent the work of, for the purposes of propaganda, German spies and saboteurs. It was not long before they were working either without official orders or with the help of military intelligence (GRU).

The military intelligence division of the Red Army could not compete with the effectiveness of the OGPU and NKVD. Part of this gap in successful operations was in part due to the fact that a majority of the GRU officers were loyal to their superiors and bound by the Red Army's "Code of Military Conduct." However, there are a significant number of documented operations performed by GRU officers that are no better than the things the NKVD agents have been accused of by people who survived the Great Patriotic War only to find themselves fighting daily to stay alive in a Gulag and survived that as well, only finally enjoy their old age and government pension, if lucky enough to be re-approved for the pension and a decrease in their monthly money since inflation had made many pensions nearly worthless after 1991.

Agents with SMERSH had the same powers of arrest, trial and execution of anyone found to either be a collaborator during the Great Patriotic War with any of the invading fascist militaries, or had helped soldiers with these armies (particularly the Germans) in any way.

There is an entire chapter coming soon that deals entirely with SMERSH and their activities during the GPW, especially since they were often the first in a chain of events that typically ended with the NKVD, either interrogating and/or torturing of prisoners, or forming the troikas which were infamous for convicting a prisoner even before a word was spoken. Eventually, SMERSH agents too often did not like the public credit going to the NKVD for the extensive work, typically undercover work as a member of the same region the spy was sent to for the purposes of observation and infiltration of even the tiniest organization or group of dissidents. Once the leaders of such groups were identified based on an agent's reports, they were captured and normally killed by either members of the NKVD or SMERSH.

More coming soon on the SMERSH, NKVD-MVD and MGB-KGB pursuits of spies and saboteurs - though more realistically, they were usually after rebels hiding out in various parts of the incredible amount of uninhabited land across the Soviet Union, which reached from the border of Germany to the Pacific Ocean via Soviet regions north of (and including) Mongolia.  

* Bekesi, Laszlo. KGB & Soviet Security Uniforms & Militaria 1917-1991. Photos by Gyorgy Torok. The Crowood Press, Ltd., United Kingdom, 2002.
** Photo: There are copyrights by the "Group of Authors," the FSB Central Archive, an "artist" and layout designer and some other folks all working for the FSB on this book. Since there is no direct attribution of a copyright or a publisher, and after reading the very specific and frightening explanation of what can happen to someone who reprints the materials inside the book, I will only post one photo that hopefully has reached public domain status due to age. The copyrights listed inside the book were all taken out in 2003.


  1. Very nice article! I learned so much useful information in reading this post. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you for the comment and forgive my very tardy reply. You will get much more out the site is you start with the oldest first i.e., "Introduction" and read forward chronologically since this will all be a book eventually (at least that's the plan).