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