What Is the KGB? A History of the KGB and Its Origins

What Is the KGB? A History of the KGB and Its Origins
What is the KGB? What is the history of the KGB? And does the KGB still exist today? Let’s find out!

What Is the KGB?

For three simple initials, the acronym KGB conveys a surprising amount of power, danger, and intrigue. And while it no longer technically exists (although aspects of it have branched off to form similar departments), the mere mention of the KGB still strikes a chord. Any fan of 80’s spy thrillers will know the KGB as the enemy: a dark and mysterious organization that served as a key ingredient in the decades-long Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. But how many really understand what it was, or where it all began?

The History of the KGB

The KGB came into being in 1954, but most of its components already existed in one form or another long before that. In 1917 Lenin formed “Cheka”, an organization empowered with thwarting counter-revolution, or at least anything he saw as such. Cheka quickly became known for its brutal tactics and remorseless executions. In 1923 it morphed into “OGPU”, basically the same thing except with a slightly less aggressive name (both Russian acronyms translate into long, clunky names), making it sound a little bit more political and less militant. A few uncharacteristically quiet years followed, although OGPU did preside over the advent of the forced labor camps known as “gulags.”

Meanwhile, in 1934, Joseph Stalin created the NKVD, essentially an internal army of secret police he used to clear out political opposition and strike fear into the people. It only existed for 12 years until 1946, but in that time it wreaked havoc across the country. Millions were executed, millions more put into gulags, and entire ethnicities were forcibly relocated to remote regions of the Soviet Union.

Between the end of World War II and the death of Stalin in 1953, chaos reigned within upper-level Soviet security organizations. Then, following the death of the dictator, multiple agencies – including the MGB (Ministry for State Security), the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for State Security) and SMERSH (short for a Russian phrase that meant “death to spies”) – all gave way to a single, fearsome organization: the KGB (Commissariat for State Security). While it would later become extensively involved in international espionage, for a long time its main focus was controlling and directing states within the U.S.S.R. Among its more notorious projects was suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968, as well as introducing a communist government in Afghanistan in 1979.

The Cold War

Throughout this time, all the infamous cloak and dagger of the Cold War spy games were taking place between the KGB and its American counterpart, the CIA. Elaborate operations to steal information, sabotage technological advancement, spread propaganda, and promote dissent were commonplace. Arms dealing became big business, and the international game of nuclear one-upmanship was well on its way, eventually leading to Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative.

The Evolution of the KGB

While the KGB would never have been described as liberal, things got seriously oppressive following the arrival of Leonid Brezhnev in 1964 and Yuri Andropov as head of the KGB in 1967. From that point on, even the slightest murmur of dissent or dissatisfaction with the government, the system or, most importantly, the KGB, was quashed mercilessly. The atmosphere of fear and suspicion steadily grew.

The Decline of the Soviet Union

Many factors contributed to the failing fortunes of the U.S.S.R. throughout the 1980’s. An expensive and disastrous war in Afghanistan. The rapidly escalating cost of the arms race with the United States. Widespread food and supply shortages, uncontrollable inflation, and political discord in seemingly every corner of the Soviet Union forced Mikhail Gorbachev to soften his stance on political opposition and restructure the economy and government in an attempt to salvage things. The KGB, unsurprisingly, were opposed to any and all capitulation, and in 1990 attempted a full-scale coup, which was barely rebuffed by new president Boris Yeltsin. A mere four months later the Soviet Union was disbanded, and the KGB along with it.

The KGB Today

While it has not officially existed for nearly thirty years now, the influence of the KGB is still felt in every aspect of the Kremlin. It was broken down into a pair of organizations loosely similar to the FBI and CIA, known as the FSB (Federal Security Service) and SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service). However, probably the most compelling argument that KGB influence remains is the fact that current President Vladimir Putin was a member of the KGB from 1975 until its dissolution in 1990. His political views and ruthless style are sure indications that the spirit of the KGB is still alive and well in Russian politics.

How many of the former Soviet states do you think you can name?