Russia: Death and resurrection of the KGB
Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization
"We represent in ourselves organized terror - this must be said very clearly."
- Cheka founder Feliks Dzerzhinsky
The roots of all of the most efficient political police systems in modern history can be traced to December 20, 1917. On that day, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia created a political police system so ruthless, skillful, and comprehensive that it became the standard for totalitarian movements around the world.
The system was so effective that even the Soviets’ fellow totalitarian archenemies carefully studied it, emulated it, and refined it to help them seize power, consolidate their control once in power, and ultimately remain in power. By whatever name—Cheka, NKVD, KGB, or the dozen other acronyms used over the years—the Soviet and Russian secret police are the most infamous and enduring of any political enforcement system ever devised. They became the matrix for communist regimes from Poland to Mongolia, Ethiopia to Cuba; for pro-Soviet revolutionary governments in Africa and Nicaragua; for non-communist, one-party states in Libya, Syria, and Iraq; and for the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China, as well as the antithetical communist People’s Republic of China.
All of this would be history, except that despite remarkable economic and political reforms, post-Soviet Russia has preserved and rehabilitated—not repudiated—the entire legacy of the Bolshevik secret police. There was little serious attempt and no strategy to expose excesses and crimes or to prevent such a system from emerging again. The KGB survived as a continuum with the Soviet past. By the 2000 presidential election, being an unrepentant career KGB officer had become a political asset instead of a liability. At present, the former KGB is fully institutionalized throughout the Russian government, different from before in style and structure, but in greater control of the instruments of state power than even the Soviets allowed. For an appreciation of the nature of the security apparatus in today’s Russia, one first must review what the Cheka was, what it did, what it stood for, and what it begat.
Rise of the Cheka
One of the first Bolshevik acts after seizing power in the communist coup d’etat of November 1917 was the creation of a centralized machine to destroy all opposition. The Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution, known by its initials VChK or “Cheka,” was endowed with the following responsibilities in its founding decree of December 20, 1917:
The Cheka began with a rather modest goal: to suppress “former exploiters [who would number] fifty to a hundred financial magnates and bigwigs,” and would quickly expand to “several hundred, at most several thousand, in the whole of Russia.”2 The earliest summary executions were of criminal elements outside the Cheka’s own ranks. However, the state-sponsored killing quickly spread to include political and military opponents of the Bolshevik party, a
1.To persecute and liquidate all attempts and acts of counterrevolution and sabotage all over Russia, no matter what their origin.2.To hand over to the Revolutionary Tribunal all counterrevolutionaries and saboteurs and work out measures of struggle against them. 3.The Commission is to make preliminary investigations only in so far as that may be necessary for suppression . . . . The Commission is to watch the press, sabotage, etc., of the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, saboteurs, and strikers. Sanctions—confiscation, confinement, deprivation of food cards, publications of lists of enemies of the people, etc.1