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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.1 (2004) 39-57

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Russia's Security Services

Richard F. Staar and Corliss A. Tacosa

A strong belief prevails within the Russian security services that post-Soviet changes in Russia since the 1990s have made the country more vulnerable to foreign espionage.1 According to Nikolai P. Patrushev, current Federal Security Service (FSB) director, intelligence organizations of foreign governments have made significant efforts to expand their operations in Russia and their activities are more coordinated than ever.2 Despite the end of the Cold War and the alleged partnership between Russia and the United States, Moscow feels threatened. Whereas it basically has dismissed the possibility of an invasion of its territory, Russia still perceives that foreign intelligence services represent a threat to its security. As a result, emphasis on counter-intelligence has increased.


The origin of the Russian security services dates back to World War I. Six weeks after a Bolshevik-led coup in Moscow, the Cheka, or All-Union Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-revolution and Sabotage, was created on 20 December 1917. The purpose of the Cheka, as expressed [End Page 39] by its first director, Feliks Dzerzhinskii, was to suppress an imminent strike by government employees. On orders of Vladimir Lenin, the Cheka answered only to the ruling Communist Party through the Council of People's Commissars, originating the tradition of party control over the government in the USSR.3

Sixteen men had served successively as the head of the USSR's security apparatus until the demise of the USSR in 1991. Several of them were executed, and only three of the last seven could be called career security officers. The vast majority of these men had previously worked as career Communist Party functionaries, suggesting tight political control. Interestingly enough, while its first director, Dzerzhinskii, died a natural death, as did his successor (see table 1 for names of secret police chiefs), the next five, serving between 1936 and 1951, were executed as "enemies of the people." They included the infamous L. P. Beriia, who had attempted to seize power following the death of Stalin and was executed in 1953. One of his successors, General Ivan A. Serov, a career intelligence officer, was followed by a former Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) leader, Aleksandr N. Shelepin, in an attempt to project a less threatening image.

Over the years, the name of the Russian secret police changed repeatedly. Five years after the Cheka was launched, it became the State Political Directorate (GPU) and was subordinated to the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). In 1924 the Unified State Political Administration (OGPU) of the USSR superseded the GPU, which then became separated from the NKVD.

Ten years later, the OGPU was absorbed by the NKVD and renamed the Main Directorate of State Security (GUGB). Though briefly separated from the NKVD in early 1941, and redesignated the NKGB, it was reabsorbed after the German invasion on 22 June of that year. In 1946, the GUGB was removed from the NKVD and renamed the Ministry for State Security (MGB), while the NKVD became the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Eight years later, after a brief merger of the MGB and MVD, the MGB was [End Page 40]

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Table 1
Heads of Soviet/Russian Secret Police

[End Page 41]

again separated and became the Committee on State Security, or KGB. By 1991, it had 420,000 personnel on its payroll.

After the failure of the August 1991 coup, Boris Yeltsin signed a special decree that the Russian KGB (which had been formed in May 1991) represented the legal successor of the Soviet KGB. Henceforth, the new Russian KGB, MVD, and GRU (Main Intelligence Unit of the armed forces) became legally subordinated to his office. These three were designated as elite federal organs, with directors who had personal access to the president. In December 1991, the KGB and the MVD were merged into the Ministry for Security and Internal Affairs. After some disillusionment and threatened resignations, the Constitutional Court declared the merger unconstitutional. The KGB...


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