KGB (transliteration of "КГБ") is the Russian abbreviation of Committee for State Security (Komityet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosty), which was the official name of the umbrella organization serving as the Soviet Union's premier security agency, secret police, and intelligence agency, from 1954 to 1991.
The KGB's function was illustrated by its official emblem: bearing both shield and sword, the KGB was an organization with a military hierarchy aimed at providing national defense, specifically the defence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). It was similar in function to the United States' CIA, with additional tasks of counter-espionage and national defense of the FBI, or by the twin organizations MI5 and MI6 in the United Kingdom.
On December 21 1995, the President of Russia Boris Yeltsin signed the decree that disbanded the KGB, which was then substituted by the FSB, the current domestic state security agency of the Russian Federation.
Most of the information about the KGB remains secret, although there are two sources of documents of KGB available online.
The KGB was dissolved when its chief, Colonel-General Vladimir Kryuchkov, used the KGB's resources to aid the August 1991 coup attempt to overthrow Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. On August 23, 1991 Colonel-General Kryuchkov was arrested, and General Vadim Bakatin was appointed KGB Chairman—and mandated to dissolve the KGB of the Soviet Union. On November 6, 1991, the KGB officially ceased to exist. Its services were divided into two separate organizations; the FSB for Internal Security and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) for Foreign Intelligence Gathering. The Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (FSB) is functionally much like the Soviet KGB. Vladimir Kryuchkov died in 2007 from an unspecified illness in Moscow
From its inception, the KGB was envisioned as the "sword and shield" of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The KGB achieved a remarkable string of successes in the early stages of its history. The then-comparatively lax security of foreign powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom allowed the KGB unprecedented opportunities to penetrate the foreign intelligence agencies and governments with its own ideologically-motivated agents such as the Cambridge Five. Arguably, the Soviet Union’s most important intelligence coup, the Cambridge Five, detailed information concerning the building of the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project), which occurred due to well-placed KGB agents within that project such as Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall. The KGB also pursued enemies of the Soviet Union and of Joseph Stalin. These include people such as Leon Trotsky and groups like the counter-revolutionary White Guards, eventually achieving Trotsky's assassination.
During the Cold War, the KGB played a critical role in the survival of the Soviet one-party state through its suppression of political dissent (termed "ideological subversion") and hounding of notable public figures such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. It also achieved notable successes in the foreign intelligence arena, including continued gathering of Western science and technology (including much of the technical information regarding the Concorde, which the USSR copied for the Tupolev Tu-144) from agents like Melita Norwood and the infiltration of West Germany’s government under Willy Brandt, alongside the East German Stasi. However, the double blow of the compromise of existing KGB operations through high-profile defections like those of Elizabeth Bentley in the United States and Oleg Gordievsky in Britain, as well as the drying up of ideological recruitment after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the 1968 Prague Spring, resulted in a major decline in the extent of the KGB’s capabilities. However, the KGB was assisted by some mercenary Western defectors such as the CIA mole Aldrich Ames and the FBI mole Robert Hanssen, helping to partly counteract its own hemorrhage of skilled agents.
Most experts agree that the KGB then was the world's most effective intelligence agency. Like most such agencies, the KGB operated legal and illegal residencies in its target countries. The legal residencies operated from the Soviet embassy via diplomatic immunity, thus, if caught or discovered spying, legal residents were free from prosecution. At best, the legal resident’s intelligence gathering would be compromised; either the KGB recalled the legal resident to home or the host country would expel him or her. Whereas, illegal residents spied without diplomatic immunity from prosecution (like the CIA's non-official cover). Especially in its early years, the KGB often valued illegal residencies more than legal residencies, primarily because the illegals operate undercover more readily to infiltrate the targets.
Using the ideological attraction of the first worker-peasant state, and later fighting fascism and the Great Patriotic War, the Soviets successfully recruited high-level spies, however, the 1939 signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the defeat of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, and the 1968 Prague Spring mostly exhausted ideological recruitment; young radicals were repelled by the Red Army’s violations of sovereignty and the geriatric Brezhnev’s leadership. Instead, the KGB turned to blackmail and bribery to recruit Western agents.
At legal residencies, operations were divided into four major sectors: political, economic, military strategic intelligence, and disinformation, called active measures in espionage parlance (PR Line), counter-intelligence and security (KR Line), and scientific and technological intelligence (X Line), which took on increasing importance throughout the Cold War. Other major operations included the collection of SIGINT (RP Line), illegal support (N Line), and a section dealing with émigrés (EM Line). Illegal residencies tended to be more decentralized and lacked official organizational structures.
The KGB, like its Western counterparts, divided its intelligence personnel into agents, who provided the information, and controllers, who relayed the information to the Kremlin and were responsible for keeping track of and paying the agents. Some of the most important agents, like the Cambridge Five, had multiple controllers over their espionage careers. Ironically, Kim Philby, who had thought of himself as a KGB officer, was rudely informed of this distinction when he defected to the Soviet Union; as a foreign agent, he was not even allowed to enter KGB headquarters.
To give cover for its illegals who were often born in Russia, the KGB constructed elaborate legends for them, involving them assuming the identity of a "live double," who handed over his or her identity to assist in the fabrication, or a "dead double," whose identity was based on a real (though deceased) person but was heavily altered by the KGB itself. These legends were usually supplemented by the agent living out the role given to him by the KGB in a foreign country before arriving at his final destination; one of the KGB’s favorite tactics was to send agents bound for the United States through its Ottawa residency in Canada.
KGB agents practiced standard espionage craft such as the retrieval and photographing of classified documents using concealed cameras and microfilm, code-names in communication to disguise agents, contacts, targets, and the use of dead letter boxes to relay intelligence. In addition, the KGB made skillful use of agents provocateur, who infiltrated a target’s entourage by posing as sympathizers to the target’s cause or group. These agents provocateur were then used to sow dissent, influence policy, or help arrange kidnapping or assassination operations.
The evolution of the KGB originates with the establishment of the Cheka six weeks after the 1917 October Revolution in order to defend the nascent Bolshevik state from its powerful, "bourgeois" enemies, chief among them the White Army. The Cheka set out to brutally suppress dissent by interrogating and torturing suspected counter-revolutionists and was credited by Lenin as playing a key role in the new regime’s survival. With Lenin’s approval, a new foreign intelligence department of the Cheka, the INO (Innostranyi Otdel) was established on December 20, 1920; it was the precursor to the First Chief Directorate (FCD) of the KGB. The Cheka itself was renamed the State Political Directorate (OGPU), a name it would retain throughout much of Stalin’s early reign (1920s-30s).
The OGPU continued to expand its operations at home and abroad; however, the growing paranoia of Stalin, which would foreshadow the later period of the purges, strongly influenced the performance and direction of the intelligence agency. Under Stalin, the pursuit of imaginary conspiracies against the state like that of the Trotskyists became a central focus of intelligence. As Stalin acted as his own intelligence analyst, the role of intelligence processing was subordinated to that of collection, and often reports submitted to Stalin were designed to reflect only what he wanted to hear. Of the many agents OGPU offered, only Nikolai Vlasik was chosen as Stalin's longtime bodyguard. This was only a slight nod to the organization as a whole. This period in the KGB’s history culminated in the eventual liquidation of many intelligence officers and chaos within the organization’s internal and external operations during the Great Purge, such as the conviction of former KGB chairman Genrikh Yagoda of treason and conspiring with Trotskyists, and of former KGB chairman Nikolai Yezhov, on similar charges, who ironically had denounced Yagoda and carried out the Terror under Stalin’s orders from 1936 to 1938.
The agency, now called the NKGB and later part of the NKVD, sought to rebuild itself after the disaster of Stalin’s purges. Under Lavrentiy Beria, it continued its sycophantic role of producing intelligence to corroborate Stalin’s own conspiracy theories while simultaneously achieving some of the deepest penetration of Western powers ever achieved by any intelligence agency. The next major organizational shuffle was to come in 1947 in the form of the KI (Komitet Informatsii), the brainchild of Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, which would centralize the intelligence system by combining the foreign intelligence services of the agency, renamed the MGB, and the GRU, and place the ambassador in an embassy at the head of the both the MGB’s and the GRU’s legal residency. The KI unraveled after Molotov fell out of favor with Stalin.
Meanwhile, Beria, now the head of the MVD, had been consolidating his power with the ambition to succeed Stalin as leader of the Soviet Union. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Beria merged the MGB into the MVD. Fearing an attempt at a coup d'état, Beria’s colleagues in the Presidium united against him and he was charged with "criminal anti-Party and anti-state activities" and executed him for treason. The MGB was split off from the MVD and underwent its final renaming to become the KGB.
The next KGB chairman to possess high ambitions was the relatively youthful Aleksandr Shelepin (chairman from 1958–61), who helped in the coup against Khrushchev in 1964. His protégé at the KGB, Vladimir Semichastny (1961–67), was sacked, and Shelepin himself was sidelined from the powerful post of chairman of the Committee of Party and State Control into the unimportant chairmanship of the Trade Union Council by Brezhnev and the Communist Party, whose memories of Beria were still fresh in their minds.
In 1967, Yuri Andropov, the longest serving and most influential KGB chairman in its history, began his tenure at the head of the KGB. Andropov would go on to make himself heir-apparent to Brezhnev, helped by the general secretary’s growing feeble-mindedness, and succeeded him in 1982. Andropov’s legacy at the KGB was an increased focus on combating ideological subversion in all its forms, no matter how apparently minor or trivial.
Vladimir Kryuchkov, the last of the KGB chairmen, grew dismayed at Gorbachev’s efforts to open up Soviet society (glasnost) and was one of the principal organizers of the 1991 coup. However, declining respect for the KGB and other factors had fatally weakened the Soviet regime, and following the coup’s failure, the KGB was disbanded, officially on November 6, 1991. Its successor agency, the FSB, now performs most of the functions of the former KGB, though the largest, most important directorate of the KGB, the FCD, was broken off to become the SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki).
Former Russian President and current prime minister Vladimir Putin started out his career in the KGB working in the Fifth Directorate, monitoring the activities of the students of the Leningrad University. He later worked for the KGB in East Germany.
The KGB, at that time called the NKVD, first made its presence known in 1935 with the establishment of a legal residency under Boris Bazarov and an illegal residency under Iskhak Akhmerov. The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and its general secretary Earl Browder assisted with recruitment efforts, and soon the KGB’s network was providing high-grade intelligence from within the United States government and defense and technology firms.
Among the most important agents gathering political intelligence recruited during this time period were Laurence Duggan and Michael Whitney Straight, who passed classified State Department documents, Harry Dexter White, who performed a similar role in the Treasury Department, and Lauchlin Currie, an economic adviser to President Roosevelt. A notorious spy ring, the Silvermaster Group, run by Greg Silvermaster, also operated at this time, though it was somewhat detached from the KGB itself. The KGB thus succeeded in penetrating major branches of the United States government at a time when the US had no significant countervailing espionage operations in the Soviet Union. When Whittaker Chambers, a former courier for Hiss and others, approached Roosevelt with information fingering Duggan, White, and others as Soviet spies, his claims were dismissed as nonsense. At the Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam Conferences during World War II, Stalin was vastly more knowledgable about what cards the United States held in its bargaining deck than Roosevelt, or his successor Truman, were about Stalin and Soviet intelligence.
In scientific intelligence, the KGB achieved an even more spectacular success. British physicist Klaus Fuchs, recruited by the GRU in 1941, was part of the British team collaborating with the United States in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. Fuchs was the most prominent agent involved in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's spy ring. The New York City residency also infiltrated Los Alamos National Laboratory (where much of the work on the atomic bomb program was done) with its recruitment of then nineteen-year-old Harvard physicist Theodore Hall in 1944; Lona Cohen served as his courier. The stealing of the secrets to the atomic bomb was only the capstone of the Soviet espionage effort in the American scientific community. Soviet agents reported back information on advancements in the fields of jet propulsion, radar, and encryption, among other concepts.
The unraveling of the KGB’s network came about as a result of some key defections, like that of Elizabeth Bentley and Igor Gouzenko, and the Venona project decrypts. Bentley, a courier to the Silvermaster group, had fallen out with Akhmerov and started informing on her former spy colleagues to the FBI in 1945. Her efforts, and the resulting "spy mania" in the United States, led to the recall of most of the senior KGB staff, leaving the spy network temporarily headless in the US. Information on VENONA, which threatened to compromise the entire spy network, caused shock and panic within KGB headquarters. However, damage was minimized as KGB agent Bill Weisband and then-SIS Washington Kim Philby passed on information about VENONA and agents it identified from 1947 onwards, five years before the CIA was informed. Still, the KGB had to rebuild most of its operations from scratch, and never again would achieve such thorough penetration of a foreign power.
Legal residencies became more successful in the absence of illegals. The KGB’s recruitment efforts turned towards mercenary agents recruited because of monetary, not ideological, reasons. It was particularly successful in gathering scientific intelligence, as firms such as IBM retained lax security while security within the government tightened. The one notable and significant exception was the highly successful Walker spy ring, which enabled the Soviets to decipher over one million classified US messages, and directly led to the development of the Akula class submarine, which addressed a significant advantage over what the US had in submarine technology. As the Walkers were taken offline in 1985, the KGB scored its most important intelligence coup of the Cold War with the walk-ins of Aldrich Ames (that same year) and Robert Hanssen (who started spying in 1979), who compromised dozens of undercover Soviet agents, including Gordievsky, who was now on the verge of being appointed as head of the British legal residency. Walker, Ames, and Hanssen began their careers by simply walking into the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, and volunteering their positions in exchange for money. They were paid millions of dollars each for their efforts.
When Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963, some observers suspected that he was acting at the behest of the KGB. But investigators were never able to find evidence to support this.
The KGB, along with its satellite state intelligence agency allies, monitored extensively public and private opinion, subversion, and possible revolutionary plots in the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War. It played an instrumental role in the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the destruction of the 1968 Prague Spring and "socialism with a human face," and general operations to prop up Soviet-friendly puppet states in the Bloc.
During the Hungarian uprising, KGB chairman Ivan Serov personally visited Hungary in order to supervise the "normalization" of Hungary following the invasion of the Red Army. The KGB monitored incidences of "harmful attitudes" and "hostile acts" in the satellite states as minute as listening to pop music. But it was during the Prague Spring that the KGB was to have the greatest role in bringing down a regime.
The KGB began preparing the way for the Red Army by infiltrating Czechoslovakia with a large number of illegals posing as Western tourists. In classic KGB fashion, they attempted to gain the confidence of some of the most outspoken proponents of the new Alexander Dubček government in order to pass on information about their activities. Additionally, the illegals were tasked with planting evidence, in order to justify a Soviet invasion, that rightist groups with the help of Western intelligence agencies were planning to overthrow the government. Finally, the KGB prepared hardline, pro-Soviet members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPC), such as Alois Indra and Vasil Biľak, to assume power following the invasion. The betrayal of the often courageous leaders of the Prague Spring did not leave untouched the KGB's own agents, however; the famous defector Oleg Gordievsky would later remark "It was that dreadful event, that awful day, which determined the course of my own life" (The Sword and the Shield, 261).
The KGB’s success in Czechoslovakia would be matched by a relatively unsuccessful suppression of the Solidarity labor movement in Poland in the 1980s. The KGB had forecast future instability in Poland with the election of the first Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla, known better as Pope John Paul II, who had been categorized as subversive through his sermons criticizing the Polish regime. Though it accurately foresaw the coming crisis in the Polish government, the KGB was hindered in its attempts to crush the nascent Solidarity-backed movement against the one-party state by the Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP) itself, who feared an explosion of bloodshed if they imposed martial law like the KGB suggested. The KGB, with the help of their Polish counterparts in the Służba Bezpieczeństwa (SB), succeeded in installing spies in Solidarity and the Catholic Church, and coordinated the declaration of martial law along with Wojciech Jaruzelski and the PUWP (Operation X). However, the PUWP’s vacillating, conciliatory approach had blunted the KGB’s effectiveness, and the movement would fatally weaken the PUWP government later on in 1989.
One of the KGB’s chief preoccupations during the Cold War was the suppression of unorthodox beliefs, the persecution of the Soviet dissidents, and the containment of their opinions. Indeed, this obsession with "ideological subversion" only increased throughout the Cold War, primarily due to the rise of Yuri Andropov in the KGB and his appointment as chairman in 1967. Andropov declared that every instance of dissent including all and every religious movements which rejected the Communist Party and did not worship the Secretary General were a threat to the Soviet state that must be challenged and he mobilized the resources of the KGB to achieve this goal. Soon after Yuri Andropov's appointment one of the KGB departments was assigned to deal with religious leaders, churches and its members. Most dissidents were apprehended by the KGB and sent to gulags for indefinite periods, where their dissent would lack the strength it might have had in public. Documents from the archive of Yale University indicate the principal role of the heads of KGB, Yuri Andropov and then Vitali Fedorchuk, was the repression of dissidents.
Under Khrushchev, the tight controls over subversive beliefs had been partially relaxed following his denunciation of Stalinist-era terror in a secret speech. This resulted in the reemergence of critical literary works, most notably the publication in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. However, following Khrushchev’s fall from power, the Soviet state and the KGB quickly moved to crack down on all forms of dissent. The KGB routinely searched the homes and monitored the movements of prominent dissidents in an attempt to find incriminating documents. For example, a search in 1965 of Moscow dissidents turned up manuscripts given by Solzhenitsyn (codenamed PAUK, or spider, by the KGB) to a friend that contained allegedly "slanderous fabrications."
The KGB also tracked down writers who published their work anonymously abroad. The infamous case of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, who were put on trial in 1965 for their writing of subversive texts, illustrates the reach and obsession of the KGB in its ideological war. Sinyavsky, going by the pseudonym of "Abram Tertz," and Daniel, using the alias of "Nikolai Arzhak," were caught by Soviet surveillance of their apartment flats in Moscow after a tip-off from a KGB agent planted within the Moscow literary world.
Soon after the Prague Spring, Andropov set up a Fifth Directorate whose express purpose was to monitor and crack down on dissent. Andropov was especially concerned with the activities of the two leading Soviet dissidents, Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, both declared to be "Public Enemy Number One" (The Sword and the Shield, 325) by Andropov. Andropov was unsuccessful in expelling Solzhenitsyn until 1974, while Sakharov was exiled to the closed Soviet city of Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in 1980. The prevention of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Sakharov in 1975 (which failed) and the same award being given to Yuri Orlov in 1978 (which succeeded, but probably not due to the KGB’s efforts) were missions of the highest importance and personally overseen by Andropov himself.
The KGB employed multiple methods to infiltrate the dissident community. It planted agents who appeared to sympathize with the dissidents’ cause, employed smear campaigns to discredit the more public figures like Sakharov, and prosecuted dissidents in show trials or harassed the more prominent ones. In prison, Soviet interrogators attempted to wear down their charges while sympathetic KGB informants tried to gain their confidence.
Eventually, with the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of glasnost, persecution of dissidents was given relaxed priority in the KGB, as Gorbachev himself began to implement some of the policy changes first demanded by the dissidents.
James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's counter-intelligence chief from the 1950s to the 1970s, acting on information provided by KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn, feared that the KGB had moles in two key places: (i) the CIA's counter-intelligence section, and (ii) the FBI's counter-intelligence department. With those moles in place, the KGB would be aware of and therefore could control US counter-spy efforts to detect, capture, and arrest their spies; it could protect their moles by safely redirecting investigations that might uncover them, or provide them sufficient advance warning to allow their escape. Moreover, KGB counter-intelligence vetted foreign sources of intelligence, so that moles in that area were positioned to stamp their approval of double agents sent against the CIA.
In retrospect, in the context of the capture of the Soviet moles Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, it appears Angleton's fears—then deemed excessively paranoid—were well-grounded, although both Ames and Hanssen operated and were exposed long after Angleton left the CIA in 1974. Still, his officially disbelieved assertions cost him his counter-intelligence post in the CIA.
Occasionally, the KGB conducted assassinations abroad, mainly of Soviet Bloc defectors, and often helped other Communist country security services with their assassinations. An infamous example is the September 1978 killing of Bulgarian émigré Georgi Markov in London, where Bulgarian secret agents used a KGB-designed umbrella gun to shoot Markov dead with a ricin-poisoned pellet.
The highest-ranking Soviet Bloc intelligence defector, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, described his conversation with the head of the Romanian Communist Party Nicolae Ceauşescu who told him about "ten international leaders the Kremlin killed or tried to kill": "Laszlo Rajk and Imre Nagy of Hungary; Lucretiu Patrascanu and Gheorghiu-Dej in Romania; Rudolf Slansky, the head of Czechoslovakia, and Jan Masaryk, that country’s chief diplomat; the shah of Iran; Palmiro Togliatti of Italy; American President John F. Kennedy; and China's Mao Zedong." Pacepa provided some additional details, such as a plot to kill Mao Zedong with the help of Lin Biao organized by KGB and noted that "among the leaders of Moscow’s satellite intelligence services there was unanimous agreement that the KGB had been involved in the assassination of President Kennedy."
Collegium—a Chairman, deputy chairmen, Directorate chiefs, and one or two republic-level KGB organization chairmen—affected key policy decisions.
(as depicted in The Sword and the Shield, page xv)
|February 1922||Incorporated into NKVD (as GPU)|
|July 1934||Reincorporated in NKVD (as GUGB)|
|July 1941||Reincorporated in NKVD (as GUGB)|
|October 1947 – November 1951||Foreign Intelligence transferred to KI|
|March 1953||Combined with MVD to form enlarged MVD|
(as depicted in The Sword and the Shield, Appendix A)
|Cheka/GPU/OGPU||Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky||1917–1926|
|OGPU||Vyacheslav Rudolfovich Menzhinsky||1926–1934|
|NKVD||Genrikh Grigoryevich Yagoda||1934–1936|
|Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov||1936–1938|
|Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria||1938–1941|
|NKGB||Vsevolod Nikolayevich Merkulov||1941 (February–July)|
|NKVD||Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria||1941–1943|
|NKGB/MGB||Vsevolod Nikolayevich Merkulov||1943–1946|
|MGB||Viktor Semyonovich Abakumov||1946–1951|
|Semyon Denisovich Ignatyev||1951–1953|
|Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria||1953 (March–June)|
|Sergei Nikiforovich Kruglov||1953–1954|
|KGB||Ivan Aleksandrovich Serov||1954–1958|
|Aleksandr Nikolayevich Shelepin||1958–1961|
|Vladimir Yefimovich Semichastny||1961–1967|
|Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov||1967–1982|
|Vitali Vasilyevich Fedorchuk||1982 (May–December)|
|Viktor Mikhailovich Chebrikov||1982–1988|
|Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kryuchkov||1988–1991|
|Vadim Viktorovich Bakatin||1991 (August–November)|
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