Useful Notes / Moscow Centre
We're asking the questions here.
The KGB (Комитет Государственной Безопасности, Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti
= "Committee for State Security"), not to be confused with the Centre of Moscow, that is only a nickname for the part of Moscow within Sadovoye (Garden) Ring) and its predecessors, the State Sec
of the USSR as well as its (technically) civilian foreign intelligence agency, though it used a military ranking system.
The name of this title is the way Soviet intelligence is referred to in the works of John le Carré
, but was also an internal name used by the KGB. Soviet spies in other countries, like Stirlitz from Seventeen Moments of Spring
, used the "Centre" moniker to denote their bosses in Moscow.
The first thing you'll need to know is that the Soviet state security service was named "KGB" only after 1954.
It was originally formed in 1917 as the Cheka/VCheKa ("Extraordinary Commission"/Vserossiyskaya Cherezvychaynaya Komissiya
), shortly after the October Revolution and led by Felix Dzerzhinsky. It was originally supposed to be a temporary body to ensure security during the 'extraordinary" circumstances of the Russian Civil War (hence the name). But, by the end of the war, it had grown powerful enough to make itself... somewhat less temporary under 'Iron Felix' Dzherzhinsky. Indicative of Iron Felix's status within the party was that he was the only one who ignored Lenin's smoking ban (in party meetings) and got away with it. Fortunately for the country, Dzherzhinsky's unfortunate death from a heart attack in 1926 prevented the organisation from amassing even more power. Also, it originally dealt only with suppressing dissidents, but acquired a foreign intelligence section in 1920.
During Stalin's time, the OGPU ("Joint State Political Directorate/gosudarstvennoye politicheskoye upravlenie
") later merged into the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs/Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del
), which played a central role in the Purges. After the purge of NKVD Chief Yagoda in the first show trials of '36, the purges were extended to wider society in the so-called "Yezhovshchina" or Great Purges after the replacement NKVD chief Nikolai "The Bloody Dwarf"
Yezhov. To fulfill the inflated quotas set by overzealous local leaders and approved by senior leaders (including, ultimately, Stalin in Order 00447), several branches of the NKVD resorted to pulling in just about everyone who was using a fake passport or had a criminal record. Once it became clear that they had interrogated and imprisoned, or even executed, at least a hundred thousand people who had not been guilty of the specific crimes they were accused of, numerous NKVD officers were imprisoned or executed for their crimes in turn.
By 1938, Stalin realized that Yezhov's purges had been killing off an irreplaceable amount of the expertise needed for national defense and industrial production, especially against a certain
growing threat to the west. Cue the latter's removal
, and replacement with trusted subordinate Lavrentiy Berianote
within two years.
During the purges themselves, people from the persecuted classes (criminals, intellectuals, 'Kulaks' and their family members) felt that almost any one of them could be taken at any time. Consequently, many of them liked to believe that denunciations were important in determining whom the NKVD arrested. In fact, denunciations were irrelevant. The NKVD decided who to arrest independently of denunciations, and paid heed to or ignored them entirely as they wished. Believing in the power of the denunciations was a psychological defense mechanism by which people from persecuted demographics could feel that they had some measure of control over the fates of themselves and those close to them.
In the 1970s the popular historian Robert Conquest heard that one man had denounced 69 individuals and another had denounced an entire factory with 250 employees. He told his readers that they had probably all been arrested as a result. Closer examination has led to the conclusion that in reality, the insane ramblings of both men were entirely ignored in both cases. Denunciations meant nothing. Prior convictions, on the other hand, were critical.
Beria was less trigger-happy but, unfortunately, completely insane
. That said, another take on Beria views him as a pragmatic man (and also a serial rapist) who was brought in specifically to do something with the unholy mess the Great Purges turned into.
Stalin never trusted or liked Beria
, who had a well-deserved reputation as a depraved sexual predator
, even if he did consider him a useful attack dog. Stalin once went crazy with worry upon hearing that his own beloved daughter was alone in a house with the NKVD chief, and sent armed men to escort her away. Even as early as 1942, he told Beria's personal aide to "Send me everything this asshole writes down," just in case the need arose to have him purged like his predecessors.
Luckily, Beria proved to be a ruthless, but efficient administrator, and quickly cleaned up the house
and reined the purges in, even starting a judicial review on the cases tried during his predecessors. In fact, some people who suffered the Great Purges were rehabilitated during Stalin's regime. After that, Beria continued to serve as a Stalin's right hand man,note
using his sinister reputation as a motivational tool. It proved to be his undoing later
As for the NKVD itself, after the war it became the MGB (Ministry for State Security) in 1946. It lost foreign intelligence for a while and in 1953 was merged into the Ministry for Internal Affairs for a year by Beria. After Stalin's death Beria, as well as many other Politburo members, took part in a fierce competition to get supreme power. The first part of this consisted of everyone joining forces against Beria, who was considered too dangerous to live, let alone rule the USSR. After he was safely dead, the remaining Politburo members could have a nice, civilized power struggle in which the losers were merely disgraced and demoted, as opposed to being shot.
It's said that Beria begged for his life before he was shot
, something people considered a kind of poetic justice given that he sent so many others to their deaths without mercy. Another rumor is that during his arrest he, surprised and agitated, was personally shot by Marshal Georgy Zhukov
, whom Khruschev reportedly brought specifically in case of him resisting, and his later public process was actually a sham. This rumor probably inspired the similar scene in David Weber
's Ashes of Victory
, with Admiral Theisman shooting the Committee of Public Safety Chairman and State Sec's head Oscar Saint-Just, allegedly based in large part on Beria
Becoming the KGB in 1954, the body spent the rest of its time conducting internal repression and foreign espionage (though internally it was not all repression — KGB handled high-profile crime the same way the FBI does). Its head from 1967-82, Yuri Andropov, would become leader of the USSR for two years from 1982 until his death in 1984.
Soviet intelligence engaged in some very successful intelligence operations against the West before and during the Cold War
- Getting key information on the Manhattan Project,
- Getting five agents, the Cambridge Five, into pretty high positions in British intelligence, including almost getting one, Kim Philby, to the head of SIS itself, before he defected to the USSR.
- Mole John Anthony Walker, who offered information on US naval technology that helped make the "Victor III" and "Akula" classes significantly quieter than their predecessors
- Finding and assassinating Leon Trotsky, one of the original leaders of the October Revolution, who just wouldn't shut up in his criticism of Stalin. Stalin was convinced that Trotsky was an all-powerful leader with an army of revolutionaries who was going to kick his ass, when really, he was just an old man whose son's chief adviser was himself a KGB agent. Still he was noisy as hell and extremely politically inconvenient when Stalin was trying to improve the USSR's foreign relations.
The KGB also engaged in some assassination operations, mainly of defectors, working with other allied organisations to do this. The most infamous was the 1978 assassination of Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian living in London, involved an umbrella firing pellets filled with ricin. The statute of limitations recently expired on that case, with no one being brought to justice. They may
have been behind the attempted assassination of (Polish) Pope John Paul II in 1981. Allegations that Lee Harvey Oswald was in the KGB's employ have little to substantiate them. The service itself, however, naturally denied all these accusations, stating that they renounced such methods since just after the war. But then, they would say that, wouldn't they.
After its role in the failed August 1991 coup, the organisation was dissolved, being separated in several independent agencies, such as FSO (Federal Protection Service), FSK (Federal Counterintelligence Service), etc. This model, however, proved largely unworkable, and most of these services were later reamalgamated into one. This KGB's successor is now the main domestic security service, the FSB (Federal Security Service). Foreign intelligence, on the other hand, remained independent, and is now called SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), something that fiction writers tend to forget.
The FSB also inherited the Border Guard service from the KGB, including its maritime component, and as such is also responsible for Coast Guard duty. This FSB's pocket navy is not that big and is armed with relatively small warships, but most of them are quite modern and well equipped, compared with the Navy proper, as the FSB tended to be better financed and had lower operational expenses, so it could afford ordering new ships. Same is the situation with the land component, the Border Troops. In times of war both are to be folded into the regular military.
The current President of Russia, Vladimir Putin
, was a KGB officer; he has brought many of his ex-KGB colleagues into powerful positions in government. Ever since Putin took power, the joke about the SVR and FSB (and especially the FSB) has been "new name, same friendly service."
By the way, the Belarussian
branch of KGB wasn't dissolved. It still exists under this very name
. Contrast with neighboring former Soviet republic Lithuania, which has turned their old KGB building into a museum of sorts against such forces (having been subject to the Okhrana
, the Gestapo
the KGB will give you a healthy distaste for secret police).
The KGB was run by the Chairman of the KGB, who led a Collegium that included a number of First Deputy and Deputy Chairmen, as well as Directorate heads.
Key units in the KGB included:
Not to be confused with the GRU
- First Chief Directorate (Foreign Operations): Dealt with foreign operations.
- Possibly included Vympel, a special operations group dealing in things like sabotage.
- Second Chief Directorate: Internal political control.
- Third Chief Directorate: Monitoring the armed forces.
- Seventh Directorate (Surveillance): Monitoring foreigners and suspect Soviets.
- Included the still-existing Alfa Group, the KGB equivalent to Spetsnaz GRU, responsible for counter-terrorist operations and other stuff of that nature, including storming the Presidential Palace in Kabul in the opening attacks of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.
- Officially named simply "A" Directorate (originally it was the "A" Team of the 7th Main Directorate) in 1972 after the Munich Olympics attacks, when it became apparent that the terrorist threat would only increase.
- Border Troops Directorate: Patrolled the borders, including with frigates.
It is important to not to confuse the KGB with the GRU
(Glavnoje Razvedyvatel'noje Upravlenije
- Main Intelligence Directorate). The latter, still existing, is a military intelligence service and existed partly as a military check on the power of the KGB. The GRU primarily focused on external intelligence and security, while the KGB dealt with the internal, but there are exceptions to this rule in both camps. Regardless, the KGB gets more attention in fiction.
The difference is similar to the difference between the CIA and the NIS (Naval Intelligence Service) or USAMI (US Army Military Intelligence). The two services also notoriously don't get along
, largely because GRU considers itself the heir to the old Tsarist military intelligence (given how large a percentage of the former Tsarist officers joined the Red Army, bringing their institutional experience, it isn't much of a stretch), while KGB/FSB were/are "those Bolshevik upstarts". For their part, during the early Soviet period the Cheka/NKVD regarded the GRU as "those bourgeois remnants", and so the mutual hostility was born.
The KGB and its predecessors have featured in thousands of works of fiction, mostly set during the Cold War
. Naturally, they are Villains by Default
. The only time KGB agents aren't evil is when they're fighting a Renegade Russian
KGB agents have a reputation for ruthlessness and a distinct lack of scruples. Their ladies are often a Honey Trap
or The Baroness
and the organisation attracts assassins like rotten meat attracts flies. Torture is definitely on the menu.
Operatives can often be found in the refugee community, often in the role as "illegals", with fake identities and "legends" (entire falsified backgrounds).
Anime and Manga
- In Black Lagoon, a former KGB officer shows up as a contact of Belalika during the yakuza arc. Since she's a former Soviet army officer, she hates his guts and ends up framing him for some of her activities against the yakuza she's fighting. When they then kill him, she's able to justify escalating her actions against the yakuza to her superiors.
- Supervillain KGBeast from the DC Universe.
- And then of course, there's his protégé, NKVDemon.
- Spirou and Fantasio In Moscow has the duo "recruited" to help KGB track down Fantasio's cousin Santafio, who is posing as the rightful Heir to the Czar.
- Marvel's Black Widow was an ex-KGB agent.
- A great number of James Bond villains (in the books anyway) are Soviet agents of some sort. In the films, the KGB-affiliated bad guys are usually renegades — General Gogol, the head of the KGB for most of the Roger Moore era, only goes as far as Friendly Enemy status in For Your Eyes Only, and in A View to a Kill he even gives Bond a medal.
- The antagonists in many of John le Carré's novels, particularly the Smiley books, work for Russian intelligence, which is referred to as "Moscow Centre" throughout, as mentioned above.
- A majority of Tom Clancy's fictional works involve the KGB or its successors. Until the The Sum of All Fears, people of Moscow Centre were always cast as the antagonists, though infrequently as outright villains.
- In Harry Turtledove's Worldwar, several of the Soviet characters have to deal with NKVD interference During the War. As this is an Alternate History, the butterfly effect means that the service is still called the NKVD by the 1960s, at which point its leader Lavrenti Beria launches an unsuccessful coup.
- Appear in various roles in Martin Cruz-Smith's Gorky Park series of books, particularly the earlier ones that took place during the Cold War. Notably, in the second book, Polar Star, Renko discovers that a suspect in his investigation works for the GRU, and once he gets him alone, is able to get him to spill everything he knows simply by implying that he is with the KGB by using what is implied to be their catchphrase note
- A quite sympathetic, if indirect, portrayal of a Soviet secret police officer in Doctor Zhivago. Zhivago's half brother, Yevgraf, is a high-ranking secret police official. His help is indispensable in ensuring Zhivago's survival.
- The KGB plays a key role in Airwolf, stealing the titular chopper in the pilot and making several attempts to steal it again through the series.
- Irina Derevko in Alias was a KGB agent on a deep cover mission, sent to seduce and marry Jack Bristow.
- The main characters in The Americans are deep cover KGB agents in early 1980s USA.
- Former KGB agents show up all the time in Burn Notice; most frequently, they are no longer in government service (typically as freelance assassins, "security consultants", or gangsters, although sometimes they show up in association with The Cartel, especially if the Cartel in question is Venezuelan). A few show up as legitimate or only half-shady business owners (the businesses usually being nightclubs). The Russians who are in government service tend to be portrayed much more sympathetically.
- One episode of Deadliest Warrior featured agents of this group versus that of the CIA.
- The Assets prominently features the KGB, as they manage their American asset Aldrich Ames and arrest all the spies that Ames betrays to them.
- Metal Gear Solid 3: Ocelot is a KGB double agent spying on GRU's Colonel Volgin. Except he's really a CIA agent spying on both of them.
- In addition, a lot of the political strife comes from Volgin's section of GRU seceding from the Soviet Union in an attempt to take power. The KGB (embodied in the few soldiers guarding Sokolov in the Virtuous Mission) don't want that, but because the GRU is vastly superior to them, they can't do anything about it.
- Alpha Protocol: Alexi Dravic. He is only mentioned in one paragraph in the Alpha Protocol dossier, but he is (was?) apparently ex-KGB and a major rival of Yancy Westridge. He is seemingly a legend amongst the espionage community, enough to earn him the moniker of "Red Baron of modern espionage".
- Covert-81 features a fictional black ops section of the KGB called Chameleonnote . It is placed under the Fifteen Directorate (Security of Government Installations) for concealment reasons.