History of the KGB:

The KGB Sword and Shield Crest

KGB is an acronym for Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti, which translates to Committee for State Security.[i]  The KGB is the organization which covered internal security, intelligence, and the secret police in the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1991.

The Cheka was first created under Lenin to defend the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution from the White Army.  From its start the organization began suppression of counter-revolution activity by using domestic terror and international deception.  The group was renamed to the State Political Directorate.[ii]  The Soviet Union had a secret police agency from the very beginning, in 1917, and at various levels of power and connection to the central government, survived the whole length of time in which the Soviet Union lasted.  

By the time it became the KGB, the secret police and intelligence organization of the Soviet Union had helped defend the Bolshevik revolution in 1918 (at that time called the Cheka,) been a key instrument in carrying out the Great Purge of 1936-38 (then called the NKVD,) and had sent many legal and illegal spies on successful espionage operations into the West.

KGB Sword and Shield Emblem

The KGB Officially started under that name shortly after Stalin died and when the Ministry of Foreign affairs and Ministry for State Security were combined.  Fearing a coup’ d’état, Khrushchev had the leader of the State Security under Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria, purged from the Communist party and executed.[iii]  After then the Ministry of Security detached from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was renamed the Committee for State Security after it was dropped from cabinet to committee level.

The KGB had a crucial port in the conspiracy against Khrushchev while under the leadership of Vladimir Semichastny, and with Alexander Shelepin, former KGB head, exercising great influence towards the whole ordeal. Under Brezhnev's rule, the KGB infiltrated most, if not all, anti-government organizations, which ensured that there was little to no opposition against him or his power base.  The KGB regained much of its powers they had under Stalin, but did not replicate the purges.[iv] 

A map of the Soviet Invasion on Kabul, Afghanistan.

The KGB during Brezhnev’s regime offered up the intelligence that would give the approval towards the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.[v]  Under disguise, KGB and GRU operatives led an assault on Tajbeg Presidential Palace, leading up to the assassination of Afghan Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin.[vi]

The KGB favored what they would call “Active Measures,” or disinformation, propaganda, counterfeiting official documents, assassinations, and political repression, such as penetration of churches, and persecution of political dissidents.[vii]

Map of the Soviet Invasion on Kabul, Afghanistan/

An important aspect of the KGB’s workings was the anti-corruption investigations into Moscow Trade Unions during the 1980’s. This started when Yuri Andropov, former director of the KGB, became general secretary of the party in 1982. The KGB uncovered the bribery and favoritism among party members who were connected with the trade unions, and yet as the organization seemed at its peak again, it only declined in power from there.[viii] 

A crowd watches the statue of KGB founder Dzerzhinsky being toppled in Lubyanskaya Square in Moscow, on August 22, 1991.

Its violent methods for interrogating and “purging” were reminiscent of the NKVD era, which was criticized and ultimately led to its downfall in 1991 when the KGB was discovered to be intricately involved in a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.

The ministries and organizations that adopted the duties of the KGB in 1991 delegated thier powers and responsibilities into The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) in 1995, thus creating a pseudo-KGB organization that is still in action today.[ix]

A crowd watches the statue of KGB founder Dzerzhinsky being toppled in Lubyanskaya Square in Moscow, on August 22, 1991.

[i] Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield (New York: Basic Books 1999) p. 28

[ii] ibid

[iii] Tompson, William J. (1995), Khrushchev: A Political Life, St. Martin's Press, p. 123

[iv] Service, Robert, History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-first Century (New York, Penguin 2009) p. 382

[v] Andropov-Gromyko-Ustinov-Ponomarev Report to CC CPSU on the Situation in Afghanistan, June 28, 1979

Source: Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 152-153.

[vi]  Braithwaite, Rodric, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–1989 (Boston, Oxford University 2011) p. 99.

[vii] Vasili  Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (London, Gardners Books 2000)

[viii] Luc Duhamel, The KGB Campaign against Corruption in Moscow, 1982-1987 (Philadelphia: University of Pittsburgh Press 2010)

[ix] Edwin Bacon and Bettina Renz, “Return of the KGB,” The World Today, Vol. 59, No. 5 (May, 2003), p. 26-27

This website was created by students in Dr. Gleb Tsipursky's history class at The Ohio State University, Newark Campus.