Under Joseph Stalin and his supporters, the Soviet Union’s secret police and intelligence agencies that were first formed during the Russian Civil War grew into vast networks, allowing Stalin to control every aspect of life in the USSR. These organizations reinforced Stalin’s grip on power and squashed anti-Soviet activities, both at home and in the territories the USSR occupied. During World War II, Stalin’s operatives uncovered Axis battle plans that helped Soviet generals thwart Adolf Hitler and stole the secrets of the United States’ atomic bomb program, one of the greatest intelligence coups of the twentieth century. Stalin welcomed classified information from friends and foes alike.
Throughout his long career as supreme leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin believed that he had enemies around every corner. Tending to be paranoid and to have what historian Robert Service has called a “sociopathic personality disorder,” Stalin suspected that plots and conspiracies were perpetually brewing all around him. He assumed that all of his problems stemmed from some group that was trying to harm him, and he was resentful, vengeful, and carried grievances for years. A lifelong admirer of Ivan the Terrible, Stalin adopted Ivan’s policy of punishing not only those people he perceived to be his enemies, but also his enemies’ extended families.
As a young man, Stalin was greatly influenced by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik party, which had long classified certain people as “anti-Soviet” or “enemies of the people.” This created an atmosphere where it was acceptable–even expected–for whole groups of people to be persecuted or annihilated. To the Bolsheviks, violence, terror, and the elimination of enemies were seen as appropriate methods to maintain political control. Yet even among the Bolsheviks, Stalin was an extremist. He was a revolutionary with a legendary propensity for violence who never cared how many lives were lost as he pursued his goals. He would, without hesitation, have entire villages burned to create fear among Soviet citizens.
One key to the success of Stalin’s brutality was having an efficient, pervasive intelligence organization to carry out his orders. Stalin had one: the NKVD.
Between 1917 and 1954, the USSR’s state security and intelligence agencies were reorganized and renamed a number of times. The first security agency, Vecheka (or Cheka) was formed in December 1917 to investigate counterrevolution and sabotage, but it soon became responsible for imprisoning and executing anyone considered an enemy of the state. In 1922, Cheka was replaced by the GPU. A year later, as the OGPU, the agency helped implement Stalin’s plans to forcibly collectivize agriculture and deport wealthy peasants. The OGPU eventually controlled all security functions within the USSR until it was absorbed into the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) in 1934. Picking up the OGPU’s responsibilities, the NKVD oversaw all aspects of internal and state security. It controlled the police, criminal investigation departments, fire brigades, internal troops, and prison guards.
Throughout the 1930s, public anger had been building in the USSR against Stalin and his policies. In 1936, believing his power and position in jeopardy, Stalin took the first steps to purge the country from “anti-Soviet elements,” targeting mostly people in his own party and the military. In this period, known as the Great Terror, the NKVD, led by Nikolai Yezhov, arrested anyone believed to oppose Stalin: certain ethnic groups, religious leaders, and members of other political parties, as well as people who held offices in the government, army, politics, and other such institutions. The Terror reached its peak in 1937–1938 as the NKVD’s arrests of approximately 1.5 million people resulted in show trials, executions, and sentences in the Gulag, the NKVD’s network of forced labor camps. But fewer than half of the detainees were sent to the Gulag ; the majority were arrested, tortured, quickly tried, and shot. Yezhov’s operation carried out these orders with zeal.
In 1938, Stalin appointed Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria as director of the NKVD. Beria would retain this position until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
By World War II, the NKVD’s responsibility had grown even greater. It now oversaw convoy troops, soldiers guarding industry and state facilities, railroad and engineering corps, operational forces, and penal colonies. Its agents also apprehended army deserters, enforced discipline in the military, and “recruited” new troops. NKVD agents were posted to army units with orders to identify anti-Communists and counterrevolutionaries; army officers who made mistakes knew they could be charged with sabotage or political dissent. A special group of NKVD soldiers were stationed at the front, behind the Soviet battle lines, and tasked to shoot any Red Army troops who tried to retreat. By March 1944, the NKVD had 540,000 men protecting vital state objectives.
“We forced them [Red Army troops] to fight to the death. If they resisted or ran away we eliminated them. We shot them. That’s all. They weren’t fighters anymore. It was hard. It was bad. I understand. But what can you do?”- Vladimir Ogryzko, 1st NKVD Division
As the functional equivalent of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo and SS, the NKVD also had a vast intelligence network abroad that carried out purges in Poland and the Baltic states, mass deportations to Siberia, and executions of suspected spies, draft dodgers, and deserters.
Under Beria’s direction, the NKVD took the lead in securing captured territories so they could be integrated into the Soviet Union. It manipulated elections to give the appearance of popular support for Communist rule, and agents arrested, interrogated, tortured, deported, or murdered local citizens who opposed a Soviet-style system. An estimated 1.5 million Poles, along with four percent of Estonians and two percent of Latvians and Lithuanians, were transported to the NKVD Gulag.
The Soviet Union also maintained a military intelligence unit, the GRU or Chief Intelligence Directorate, which worked with the NKVD to gather intelligence abroad. During World War II, the GRU recruited and trained spies and conducted covert operations. GRU operative Richard Sorge was perhaps the Soviet Union’s greatest spy of the World War II era. He worked in China and Japan from the early 1930s until he was arrested by the Japanese in October 1941. Sorge warned Stalin about Operation Barbarossa , the German invasion of the USSR (June 1941), and later that year, informed him that the Japanese were not planning to attack the Soviet Union during the Battle of Moscow (October–December 1941), which allowed Stalin to shift troops westward to fight the Germans. The Switzerland-based Die Rote Drei (The Red Three) spy ring, led by Hungarian Alexander Radolfi, provided Stalin with detailed information about Hitler’s battle plans, including German preparations for the Battle of Kursk (July 1943). This intelligence allowed Soviet generals to concentrate massive forces, assign their best units, and create a maze of trenches, minefields, and underground bunkers in the area.
Even before World War II ended, spies like Klaus Fuchs had passed tens of thousands of documents to the Soviets with information about the U.S. atomic bomb program and other closely guarded secrets of the Western Allies . In 1946, when the NKVD was supplanted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the Ministry of State Security (MGB), Beria continued to oversee both agencies while also heading the USSR effort to develop an atomic bomb.
As World War II wound down, the NKVD quickly moved into territory captured by the Red Army and set up operations. They appropriated the former Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald, just outside the ancient German city of Weimar. The camp had been liberated by the U.S. Army in April 1945. The NKVD renamed it Soviet Special Camp Number Two and began using it to imprison former Nazi functionaries and others the Soviets wanted to get out of the way. An estimated 7,000 people died under the Soviet administration of the camp before it was finally closed in 1950.
“Everything around you was injustice, not only in the camp but around the camp. Everywhere where there were Russians, there was injustice, so it was just a matter of trying to survive to get this thing over with. And then as I came out immediately with the American authorities I said I’ve got a lot to report.”- John Noble, American imprisoned by the NKVD in Soviet Special Camp Number Two. Never charged with a crime, he was released in 1955 after serving nine years in Soviet detention.
As the Cold War began, secret police agents helped the Soviet Union strengthen its grip on Eastern Europe by working with local Communists to align each nation with Soviet ideals. The nations forged close economic ties with the USSR and underwent social upheaval in an attempt to emulate the Soviet Union. Communist parties in the countries quickly worked to indoctrinate their populations and, with the help of Soviet security forces, used show trials, arrests, and torture to quell adversity. Soviet military and security forces managed to subdue the nations’ populaces, although anger and hostility toward the new political regimes remained rampant. By 1955, when countries in Eastern Europe signed the Warsaw Pact (a military alliance), the Communist bloc comprised Albania, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany.
In 1954, a year after Stalin’s death, the KGB was formed as Beria and his subordinates were purged from the intelligence agencies. Over the next 35 years, the KGB grew to be the largest secret police and intelligence service in the world. The agency was responsible for foreign intelligence, domestic counterintelligence, technical intelligence, security, and surveillance on suspected dissidents. With the Communist Party and the military, the KGB ruled the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991.