KGB: History, Structure and Operations


The Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) was the ‘Committee for State Security’ within the Soviet Union from 1954. It acted as the primary domestic and international security and intelligence service up until the dissolution of the USSR. The KGB have a notorious legacy of deception, ruthlessness and totalitarian surveillance, which has been built up by Western media and the confessions of their own agents.

However, beyond this history, the KGB also played an integral part in the power politics of the USSR, playing a decisive role in the succession battles of the Politburo. Arguably, the KGB’s legacy still looms over Russia today. The growing authoritarianism and the increasing power of the ‘security men’ within Putin’s Russia can all trace its roots back to the social, cultural and political impact of the infamous intelligence agency. As Putin, a former operative himself, said in 2004 “There is no such thing as a former KGB man”.

1 KGB Origins

KGB founder Ivan Serov
Nikita Khrushchev (Left) and Ivan Serov (Right)

1.1 1917-1934 (Cheka and OGPU)

The KGB was the final incarnation of numerous security and intelligence agencies formed following the creation of the Soviet Union. Its oldest Soviet predecessor, the Cheka, was established two months after the October Revolution in 1917. Its aim was to investigate, arrest, imprison and execute enemies of the revolution and the new Bolshevik state. In total, historians estimate the Cheka to be responsible for the execution of over 140,000 people, under the direction of Lenin and its chief Feliks Dzerzhinsky. The OGPU (Unified State Political Administration) replaced the Cheka, in an effort to scale back the terror of Soviet forces. It was under the OGPU that Soviet state security gained the additional tasks of population surveillance and labour camp administration.

1.2 1934-1953 (NKVD and MGB)

Under Stalin, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) absorbed the OGPU in 1934. In between 1936-1938, the NKVD became integral to Stalin’s consolidation of power during the Great Purge. This involved the execution of over 750,000 people between 1937-1938 alone. The victims of the Great Purge included over half of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee and even the NKVD’s first two heads. Lavrentiy Beria succeeded as the head of the NKVD in 1938, and oversaw the transferral of state security responsibilities to the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for State Security) in 1941, and then the MGB (Ministry of State Security) in 1946.

During this time these intelligence agencies engaged in significant espionage activities in the West. This included collecting information on the US and UK projects to develop atomic weapons. Moreover, the “Red Orchestra” network had hundreds of informers and operatives in key positions throughout Nazi occupied Europe, including in several German ministries.

Following the operations focusing on Soviet security and advantage during World War Two, under the direction of Stalin the MGB began a new purge of all suspected opposition. It is estimated that by 1953 approximately 2,750,000 citizens of the Soviet Union were in labour camps or prison.

1.3 1954- (KGB)

After the death of Stalin in March 1953, while still under the leadership of Lavrentiy Beria, the MGB merged into the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs). However, an internal power struggle led by Nikita Khrushchev resulted in the arrest and execution of Beria in December 1953. As a means of restructuring state security and purging Beria’s previous allies and supporters, the Soviet leadership founded the KGB in 1954. Ivan Serov, who had served as Beria’s Deputy Commissar of the NKVD, became the first chairman of the KGB after conspiring against Beria during the post-Stalin power struggles. The purpose of the KGB was to be the “sword and shield of the Communist Party“. The primary responsibilities of the organisation included: counterintelligence, foreign intelligence collection and offensive activities, technical intelligence gathering and the defence of the party and political leadership.

2 Structure

Official government sources from the USSR do not divulge the KGB’s structure. However, it has been estimated that there were 20 directorates. Information regarding a number of these directorates have been provided by Soviet defectors and informants.

  • First Chief Directorate: Responsible for all foreign espionage operations. This directorate was divided into various departments. These departments focused on practical services, such as managing covert agents and intelligence collection and analysis. Additionally there were geographic departments, focusing on regional intelligence management.
  • Second Chief Directorate: Responsible for the political and social control of Soviet citizens and domestic foreign citizens.
  • Third Chief Directorate: Responsible for Military counter-intelligence and surveillance. This directorate focused on the surveillance of all Soviet military sections, ensuring their loyalty to the State.
  • Fifth Chief Directorate: Subsumed some of the responsibilities of the Second Chief Directorate. This Directorate took responsibility for countering political dissent within the USSR. Departments within the Directorate focused on religious, minority, artistic and intelligentsia dissension.
  • Seventh Chief Directorate: Responsible for surveillance operations within the Soviet Union, targeting both citizens and foreign nationals.
  • Eighth Chief Directorate: Responsible for managing sensitive communications, ensuring they were encoded. They were additionally responsible for surveillance of foreign communications.
  • Ninth Chief Directorate: Responsible for the security of senior Party figures and their families, as well as main government facilities.
  • Sixteenth Chief Directorate: Responsible for the maintenance of communication lines used by State agencies, including telephone and radio.

3 Notable KGB Operations

The KGB engaged in countless operations, some of which will never be divulged. However, there are a few operations that stand out, due to either their impact or their audaciousness.

3.1 Operation Denver

This KGB operation was part of an ‘active measures’ campaign to spread disinformation that the US Government had engineered HIV. Operation Denver was conducted with the aim of tarnishing the international reputation of the US and potentially to exploit social divisions within it. ‘Patriot’, a Soviet disinformation front in India, published an article in 1983 accusing the US of creating HIV as a biological weapon in Fort Detrick. Two years later, Operation Denver received approval. The operation intended to spread this disinformation regarding the manufacturing of HIV internationally. The KGB achieved this through the publication and international dissemination of an article in the Literaturnaya Gazeta titled “Panic in the West, or what is hiding behind the sensation surrounding AIDS”. For this operation, the KGB worked in cooperation with the KDS (Bulgarian Committee for State Security) and the Stasi (East German State Security).

3.2 Operation Storm-333

“Zenith” and “Grom” groups, Afghanistan, December 1979

Following the assassination of the pro-Soviet leader Nur Muhammad Taraki, the USSR decided to intervene in Afghanistan. Operation Storm-333 aimed to assassinate the new Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin and take over Afghanistan. As such, it was part of a larger operation, Baikal-79, which had the objective of seizing key buildings throughout Kabul. At the time, Soviet leadership believed that Amin was secretly colluding with the US and therefore perceived his premiership as a threat to Soviet geopolitical interests. An assault team of 30 KGB operatives assisted by 25 men from the KGB’s ‘Alpha Group’ of elite forces, and over 600 troops, raided Tajbeg Palace on December 27th 1979. The operation was successful and took approximately 40 minutes, resulting in the deaths of approximately 200 Afghans including Amin. Five KGB operatives were killed, including the unit’s commander, as well as 15 Soviet troops.

3.3 Assassination of Georgi Markov

Georgi Markov, Berlin, 1967

Markov became a target of Bulgarian intelligence after producing reports critical of its communist regime. Following his defection from Bulgaria, he became a journalist and broadcaster for Radio Free Europe (RFE). His ‘In Absentia Reports’, broadcast on RFE, detailed life in Bulgaria and criticised its leader, Todor Zhivkov and his regime. Because of this, Zhivkov requested the KGB to approve of, and aid with, the assassination of Markov.

The KGB chief at the time, Yuri Andropov, who later became the premier of the USSR, initially refused. However, in order to avoid personally insulting Zhivkov, Andropov later approved of the assassination. Additionally, Andropov ordered it to be carried out on Zhivkov’s birthday, September 11th 1978, as a gift. The KGB provided Bulgarian intelligence the relevant equipment and trained KDS operatives to carry out the assassination. On Zhivkov’s birthday, a KDS operative walked past Markov on Waterloo Bridge, London, and pricked him in the thigh with the end of an umbrella. Unbeknown to Markov, the umbrella had inserted a small pellet of ricin, a fast-acting poison with no antidote into his thigh. He died four days later, after telling doctors what he recalled about the unassuming incident that occurred on Waterloo Bridge.

4 Notable KGB Agents

Researchers estimate the KBG to have had over 480,000 members at its peak. Being such a sizeable and impactful organisation, it is a difficult task to list its most significant operatives. However, below is a list of those we consider the most consequential and/or famous KGB operatives.

4.1 Vasili Mitrokhin

Vasili Mitrokhin, 1992

The MGB recruited Mitrokhin in 1948, placing him in foreign operations between 1952 to 1956. After mishandling an operation, the KGB transferred Mitrokhin to the First Chief Directorate’s archives. After hearing Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956, denouncing the excesses of Stalinism, he became disillusioned with the Soviet state and its intelligence operations. As a result, to record the activities of the regime, he began smuggling documents from the archive, copying each one by hand and burying them in his garden and hiding them under the floorboards. He did this for 12 years.

In 1992, eight years after Mitrokhin retired from the KGB, he offered to provide these copies to western intelligence services. After the CIA rejected his offer, MI6 quickly accepted it, bringing him to the UK under the protection of intelligence services and sending operatives to dig up the documents at Mitrokhin’s home in Russia. These documents became the subject of Mitrokhin’s book ‘The Sword and the Shield’ (1999). This was arguably the first in-depth and verifiable works on KGB operations published in the West.

4.2 Aldrich Ames

Aldrich Ames, FBI mugshot, 1994

Ames followed the career path of this father and joined the CIA in the late 1960s. After several postings in the CIA including in Turkey, the Soviet-East European Division and Mexico City, the CIA promoted Ames to the position of counterintelligence branch chief in Soviet operations in 1983. In this position, he had access to highly sensitive information. This included the names of CIA operatives working undercover in the USSR. Due to Ames’ dire financial situation, due to an expensive divorce settlement and his partner incurring large amounts of debt, Ames turned to the KGB in 1985. The KGB offered $50,000 for double agents willing to provide secret information. By the time the FBI caught Ames, he had been paid approximately $4,000,000 by the KGB. For this payment, Ames had revealed 25 CIA agents to the KGB. 10 of these operatives were sentenced to death.

4.3 Yuri Andropov

Yuri Andropov (Right) with Fidel Castro

Andropov worked his way up the ladder of the party apparatus to the top position. Starting as a loader, clerk and sailor in his teenage years, by the age of 67 (in 1982) he was General Secretary of the Communist Party. After several Communist Party organisational positions, he became the Soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1954. During his ambassadorship, he convinced Khrushchev of the need for military intervention during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. This experience deeply affected Andropov, as he saw first-hand how quickly the perceivably invincible Soviet power could be toppled. Consequently when the Politburo appointed Andropov as Chairman of the KGB in 1967, his policies reflected his ‘Hungarian Complex‘.

During the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, Andropov was one of the primary proponents of military intervention. Moreover, Andropov’s obsession with crushing dissent led to his creation of the KGB’s Fifth Chief Directorate in 1967. In 1979 he began to advocate for the invasion of Afghanistan within the Politburo, after the assassination of Taraki. He believed that the CIA had recruited his successor, Hafizullah Amin, to seize power for Western interests. In 1982, following the death of Brezhnev, Andropov gained the position of General Secretary. He was both the longest serving chairman of the KGB and the first KGB chairman to become premier of the Soviet Union.

4.4 Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin, circa 1980

Putin worked for the KGB for 15 years, resigning in August 1991 following the August coup (See below). Signing up in 1975, senior ranks initially assigned him to the Second Chief Directorate. However, he was quickly transferred him to the First Chief Directorate. His job during this time focused on conducting surveillance on foreign nationals living and working in Leningrad.

Despite not being officially verified, multiple reports indicate that Putin worked undercover in New Zealand in the early 1980s. By 1985, KGB bosses assigned Putin to East Germany. Multiple reports indicate that in East Germany his job included the menial task of gathering press clippings. However, others indicate that this minimisation of Putin’s position is a cover for his support of Red Army Faction units hiding in East Germany.

Putin came back to Russia in the late 1980s, undercover as a university assistant for approximately a year. Following his stint in the KGB, and the demise of the USSR, Putin became a principal advisor to St. Petersburg’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Following this, Putin worked for the presidential administration for under two years from 1996. In 1998, President Yeltsin promoted Putin to the position of Director of the FSB (Russia’s new domestic intelligence service). Then in 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin as Russia’s prime minister. By 2000, he was Russia’s new president, following Yeltsin’s resignation.

5 Demise of the KGB

Soviet soldier pulled out of a tank by a protestor in the August 1991 coup

After the succession of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 to the premiership of the USSR, the USSR underwent a radical process of reform. Gorbachev’s policies of ‘Glasnost’ (Openness) and ‘Perestroika’ (Restructuring) provoked the ire of many hard-line Communists, ideologically committed to authoritarian communism, including the chiefs of the KGB. In an effort to prevent the disintegration of the Soviet Union, due to the increasing autonomy and nationalist sentiment of Eastern Bloc states, and to prevent the growing ideological deviation from Marxist-Leninism, these hardliners launched a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991.

Organised by the heads of the KGB and the Soviet military, the coup attempted to seize control of the USSR. They aimed to achieved this through detaining Gorbachev and declaring a state of emergency. Holding Gorbachev as his vacation villa in Crimea, they unsuccessfully pressured him to resign. Consequently, the coup leaders stated that Gorbachev was severely unwell and declared a state emergency in an attempt to take control over the organs of power.

Calling on the Russian people to engage in a general strike, Boris Yeltsin and numerous reformist members of the Russian parliament successfully fought against the efforts of the coup leaders.

The failure of the coup was effectively the last gasp of the ‘Stalinist’ elements of the Soviet Union. This included the KGB. Due to the KGB’s significant role within the coup, it was gradually disassembled and became extinct by November 1991.

6 The KGB’s Lingering Spectre

President Putin meeting with State Duma leaders and party faction heads.

Despite the KGB not officially existing since 1991, its influence in contemporary Russian politics is unmistakable. This is most obvious with regards to a former KGB operative, Putin, being the de facto leader of Russia for the past 22 years. The KGB’s ideological influence on Putin and the regime as a whole is extremely powerful. This is evident through Putin’s belief in a Western conspiracy to weaken and divide Russia through clandestine CIA operations. Moreover, Putin’s willingness to engage in assassinations, coups and disinformation campaigns abroad, is arguably a legacy of ‘KGB culture’.

Additional to the impact of the KGB on Putin, the KGB also have a tangible structural impact on contemporary Russia. In the early 1980s, the KGB anticipated reform or collapse of the USSR, due to the worsening economic conditions. As a result, they developed a shadow economy, importing banned Western technology goods into the Soviet Union. This black market helped them develop a degree of financial autonomy from the state. By doing such the KGB was able to finance and provide technology to many entrepreneurs, in limited business ventures, after perestroika reforms.

6.1 A Rigged Economy

After the collapse of the USSR, these entrepreneurs exponentially increased their wealth, through the diversification of their businesses. Moreover, these entrepreneurs bought previously state owned enterprises in rigged auctions and the failed voucher privatisation scheme. Therefore, Russia’s emerging oligarchs owed much of their wealth to the initial backing of the KGB. This gave former KGB operatives, such as Putin, both influence and leverage over the new titans of the Russian economy.

Putin’s rise to power only compounded the influence of the KGB in post-Soviet Russia, both politically and economically. Due to widespread corruption, many of Putin’s allies, who happen to be ex-KGB, are given control over state assets. This allows ex-KGB members to build massive amounts of wealth and power within contemporary Russia. Moreover, politically, the ‘Siloviki’ (Strongmen), have become the dominant political faction within the Russian establishment, due to Putin’s support. This faction is made up of former intelligence and security officials and operatives from the KGB, FSB, GRU and SVR.

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