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Monday, December 22, 1997 Published at 15:28 GMT

World: Analysis

Russia: 80 Murky Years Of The KGB

The secret police looked for dissidents opposing the Communist Party line

This month sees the 80th anniversary of the founding of the first Soviet secret police force, the Cheka. During Soviet times, the secret police, under its various designations, earned a notorious reputation as the eyes and ears - and often executioner - for the state. The BBC's Russian Affairs Analyst, Stephen Dalziel, looks at the history of the organisation still thought of by many as the KGB.

[ image: The Cheka was set up shortly after the revolution]
The Cheka was set up shortly after the revolution
Eighty years ago, the first Soviet government, the Council of People's Commissars, approved the creation of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, known by its acronym, the Cheka. The name suggests that it was to be only a temporary body. But it became one of the principal pillars of the Soviet system.

The Communist Party insisted that it had all the answers to life's problems, and thus could tolerate no dissenting views. The main domestic role of the secret police became to seek out any views which did not fit the party line, and ensure that those holding them were dealt with. This reached its most horrific, if, in a macabre way, logical, point in the 1930s, when the NKVD, as it was then called, was responsible for the death and incarceration in prison camps of millions of Soviet citizens for real or imaginary dissent.

After Stalin's death in 1953, the new leadership took a cautious look at the secret police. Stalin's last security chief, Lavrenty Beria, was arrested and later executed. And in 1954, the secret police was downgraded from a Ministry to a Committee - the Committee for State Security, or KGB.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the KGB waged a war on dissidents who became household figures worldwide, such as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Bukovsky. But international criticism was largely ignored in Moscow. It was a significant development in the march towards the collapse of the USSR and the socialist system, when, under Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies, people stopped being afraid of the KGB.

[ image: Boris Yeltsin: highlighted the spying role of the secret police]
Boris Yeltsin: highlighted the spying role of the secret police
But the secret police have also had an important foreign role, too, spying for the Soviet Union and Russia abroad. In a radio address to the nation recently, President Boris Yeltsin highlighted this aspect of the work of the secret police, saying that Russia still faced a threat from abroad, and claiming some notable recent successes in counter-espionage.

Mr Yeltsin compared this with successes in beating German intelligence in the Second World War. Ironically, though, the secret police's greatest piece of foreign intelligence was ignored. Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy in Japan, learned the exact date and time of the German attack on the USSR in 1941. But Stalin pinned his faith in the Nazi-Soviet Pact - once again at great cost to the lives of his countrymen.

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