by Gabriele Faggioni

Countless publications of all kinds have been devoted to the subject of intelligence services and their intrigues and conspiracies. It proves difficult to be original, yet this article aims to highlight the fascinating history of the Soviet Union's intelligence agencies, particularly the State Security Commissariat (better known as the KGB) founded in 1954. For 37 years it was the USSR's best-known intelligence service; but it was disbanded shortly after the failed coup against Gorbačëv involving senior KGB leaders in the summer of 1991.

Background from the Čeka to the OGPU

The revolutions of 1917 marked the end of the Tsarist Empire and the efficient Ochrana secret service, its reliable and well-trained agents were able to infiltrate all subversive movements in the country. In December 1917, the Bolshevik regime established the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage, known as Čeka, which was responsible for "rooting out the enemies of the revolution" and carrying out espionage missions abroad. Feliks Dzeržinsky, founder of the Čeka, played a leading role in the Russian Civil War (1918-20) and helped suppress every possible counterrevolutionary manifestation. By 1921 it had a staff of more than 250,000 officials and is held responsible for the execution of more than 140,000 people considered enemies of the state. On Feb. 6, 1922, the Čeka was replaced by the GPU (State Political Directorate) in an attempt by the Communist Party to give its intelligence services a new image and put an end to the excesses committed by its "officials." Dec. 30, 1922 saw the birth of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, as desired by the leaders of the revolution to reshape the nation. The GPU was in turn replaced in November 2023 by the OGPU (Unified State Political Directorate), which was given new tasks, including the management of "corrective" labor camps and population surveillance. In January 1924 the leader of the Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Lenin, died, and this generated a murky power struggle to choose the new strongman, which saw Josef Stalin as the winner.

Stalin's Secret Service

talin, an ambiguous and power-hungry personality, used OGPU officials to suppress any dissent to policies aimed at modernizing the USSR, such as the forced collectivization of agriculture. Stalin caused a severe famine that cost the lives of millions in 1932-1933 in Ukraine to achieve his goals. The OGPU carried out covert operations abroad to sabotage the activities of the regime's opponents.

In July 1934 the OGPU was transformed into the Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB) and integrated into the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). The NKVD helped Stalin consolidate his power by carrying out "purges." In 1937-1938 alone, more than 750,000 people were executed, including tens of thousands of Party members, senior officials and state leaders. Among the victims were more than half of the Communist Party Central Committee members and the first two heads of the NKVD, Genrich Jagoda and Nikolai Ežov. The latter was replaced by Lavrentij Berija, who remained in charge for fifteen years (1938-1953).

On February 3, 1941, the Supreme Soviet Presidium decided to separate the Main Directorate for State Security (i.e. GUGB) from the NKVD with the establishment of the People's Commissariat for State Security known by the acronym NKGD headed by Vsevolod Merkulov. Due to the German invasion of the USSR, Stalin decided to cancel the February 1941 change and thus the NKVD regained its previous duties. In 1943 the temporarily suspended changes went into effect. Thus the NKGB took charge of internal security, civil and military counterintelligence, administered the notorious Gulags. It supervised the deportation to Siberia and Central Asia of groups suspected of disloyalty, including more than a million Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and Italians, and other Caucasian peoples. He also gathered information on anti-Soviet resistance movements in the Baltics and western Ukraine. Soviet foreign intelligence in the last decade of Stalin's life achieved spectacular results thanks to the information relayed by the five Cambridge spies, well-known Western scientists (Klaus Fuchs), who worked for the Manhattan Project (development of the atomic bomb), the infamous couple Morris and Lona Cohen, the network of spies in the territories under Nazi-Fascist control (e.g., the "Red Orchestra," included several hundred agents and informants, who worked inside German ministries), the actions of German NKVD recruited Richard Sorge in Tokyo, crucial to Soviet strategy during the Nazi invasion. Declassified Russian and American documents indicate that Soviet intelligence had placed at least 250 spies in U.S. government offices and others in the U.K. administration, including Kim Philby, a senior British intelligence officer. Most of these spies, active in the United Kingdom and the United States, were members of local Communist parties.

In March 1946, all people's commissariats became ministries, and thus the NKVD and NKGB took on the names Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ministry of State Security (MGB), respectively. The former Ministry supervised and administered the uniforms-police, fire brigade, prisons, labor camps, and internal troops. Through the study of documentation preserved in Russian archives, it was possible to estimate that in 1953 about 2,750,000 Soviet citizens were in prisons or forced labor camps, and about the same number had been deported to Siberia. Soon after Stalin's death in March 1953, the MGB was merged back into the Ministry of Internal Affairs, again under the leadership of Berija. Before the end of the summer, the post-Stalinist leadership led by Nikita Khrushchev turned against power-hungry Berija, who was deposed and executed. Soon after, millions of political prisoners were able to return to their homes after being released from the Gulag or from internal exile.

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The State Security Committee, better known by its acronym KGB, was created in 1954 to serve as the "sword and shield of the Communist Party." The new security service, which played an important role in the purge of Berija supporters, was designed to be closely controlled by senior Communist Party officials. It was divided into about twenty directorates, the most important of which were those responsible for foreign intelligence, domestic counterespionage, technical intelligence, protection of the political leadership, and security of the country's borders. In the late 1960s, an additional directorate was created for surveillance of suspected dissidents in the churches and intelligentsia. Over the next twenty years the KGB became increasingly zealous in persecuting political enemies, arresting and sometimes exiling human rights advocates, Christian and Jewish activists, and intellectuals deemed disloyal to the regime. Among its most famous victims were the Nobel Prize laureates Aleksandr Solženicyn and Andrei Sakharov.

As the Cold War intensified, the State Security Committee was seen as the main antagonist of the Central Intelligence Agency. Unlike the U.S. agency, the KGB conducted most of its activities against Soviet citizens. Abroad it achieved major successes thanks to the skill of its officials, who operated under diplomatic cover or as clandestine agents, managing to infiltrate many Western intelligence operations, public administrations, and well-known academic institutions. It also managed to position its agents of influence in almost every major capital city. The KGB coordinated with the Main Intelligence Directorate (the Military Intelligence Service, or GRU) to obtain from spies, active not only in the United States, valuable scientific and technological information useful for the development of the Soviet Union's military capabilities in various fields (aeronautics, missile, and naval). Cooperation was equally good with East German intelligence agencies, STASI (Ministry of State Security) and HVA (Foreign Intelligence Service), with those of other Eastern European nations, jointly defining major operations and modus operandi.

The reformist president

Mikhail Gorbačëv received the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his extraordinary achievements in international relations because he promoted a series of events that transformed the European political environment and marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev respected the work done by the KGB, but his reform program undermined its authority. In the summer of 1991, senior KGB officers, including its chairman Vladimir Krjučkov, played a leading role in the failed coup against the reform-minded president. After this event, the agency was gradually dismantled.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991, what remained of the KGB came under Russian control. The government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin reorganized the intelligence of the Russian Federation, establishing new agencies in 1992. Internal security functions were first assigned to the Ministry of Security and less than two years later to the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK). In 1995 Yeltsin renamed the agency to the Federal Security Service (FSB Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti). Its initial tasks involved counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and surveillance of the armed forces. During his tenure it gave him additional powers, allowing him to conduct intelligence activities abroad as well in cooperation with the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The Main Intelligence Directorate was the only intelligence agency that did not undergo heavy reorganization after the end of the Soviet Union. Today the Russian Federation has been ruled authoritatively for more than 20 years by Vladimir Putin, who was a senior KGB officer during the Cold War. After leaving this agency Putin was able to create a future for himself in the political arena that brought him to the top of power thanks in part to his Machiavellian intrigues.

Ricercatore storico, ha al suo attivo nove pubblicazioni in lingua tedesca e dodici volumi in italiano sulla storia militare e sullo spionaggio.

Nato in Svizzera nel 1970, ha una formazione universitaria come economista aziendale, operatore dei beni culturali e bibliotecario.