Getting to grips with . . .

A history of the KGB

Security agency’s grim history leaves a legacy of terror for political opponents

Roman Protasevich, the dissident Belarusian journalist arrested after a Ryanair flight was diverted to Minsk last month, is said to be holed up in a KGB pre-trial detention centre.

It would have been the Russian state’s security service that “monitored his activities and made sure Minsk knew which aircraft to target”, says The Spectator. And when his plane was forced down, “there were other Belarusians on that Ryanair flight who quietly sifted out of sight” – these were “presumably members of the KGB”, says the magazine.

As he is an “enemy” of Belarus’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, and an opponent of the government’s regime, there are now concerns for Protasevich’s safety and his mother has called on the international community to “save” her son. The Spectator says the detention centre where he is being held, SIZO KGB, “known ironically as the ‘Amerikanka’”, is where “fellow political prisoners face a brutal regime with minimal access to lawyers and visitors, and regular psychological or physical abuse”.

Suppressing opposition to the state has been central to the KGB’s duties since its formation in the early 20th century.

How it began

Vladimir Lenin created Russia’s first security agency, the Cheka, in 1917 after the Bolsheviks seized political power in the October Revolution of that year, says Britannica

The original Cheka primarily monitored threats of counterrevolution and sabotage. Against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War, the agency carried out the arrests, imprisonments and executions of an estimated more than 100,000 suspected enemies of the state during a campaign known as the Red Terror. The period “charted a macabre course for Russia” and “due to secrecy, censorship, and the summary nature of many of the executions, the true extent of the Red Terror will likely never be known”, says National Geographic.

The Cheka became the GPU (State Political Administration) in 1922 and then, following the formation of the Soviet Union, was recast as the OGPU (Unified State Political Administration) in 1923.

Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin from 1924, and with powers across the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the agency managed labour camps and carried out the policy of agricultural collectivisation. Informers played an integral role in the OGPU’s surveillance activities, operating in factories and government offices to detect and identify potential political opponents. 

The OGPU was subsumed by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) in 1934, and carried out “The Great Purge” during Stalin’s rule. The NKVD staged public trials of prominent founders and members of the Communist Party, who were suspected opponents of Stalin’s regime. Fear spread across the USSR as millions of people were sent to gulags, accused of being criminals or political prisoners.

The USSR’s security agency took several forms until Stalin’s death in 1953 and, later that year, the execution of Lavrenty Beria, who had been chairman of the organisations in their various guises (including the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Internal Affairs) from 1938. 

A short history

The KGB (Committee for State Security) was established in 1954 and, at its height, became the world’s largest secret police and intelligence organisation. The agency was organised into directorates and each was responsible for separate security concerns, including the safety of political leaders, foreign intelligence and internal counterintelligence.

Yuri Andropov became head of the KGB in the 1960s, and the security agency began surveillance of dissidents involved in the church. It also stepped up the persecution of human rights advocates, religious activists and intellectuals, and played a part in suppressing anti-Soviet protests during the Prague Spring in 1968. 

As a reflection of the political power he held while KGB head, Andropov became a member of the Politburo in 1973 and later the leader of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party in 1982. 

As the USSR battled with foreign forces during the Cold War, overseas espionage was central to the KGB’s repression of Soviet opposition. Spies and double agents gathered intelligence and were known to abduct or kill those who were seen as a threat to the regime. America’s Central Intelligence Agency even pinned Leon Trotsky’s death on the KGB in a 1993 report entitled Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping

Soviet security forces made their presence felt in Asia too, sending 30,000 troops into Afghanistan in 1979 to support the then Communist government against anti-communist uprisings. 

Defectors from the Soviet regime informed Western powers of the KGB’s tactics, including its penchant for difficult-to-detect poisonings. But its power wasn’t only wielded physically. In a 1984 interview, defector Yuri Alexandrovich Bezmenov said that 85% of KGB work was “psychological warfare” or “brainwashing”, Big Think reports.

The KGB’s domestic and foreign surveillance and suppression tactics became less aggressive after Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1990 and presided over the USSR’s dissolution in 1991.  

Today’s state of play

The end of the USSR brought the KGB under Russian control, with former Soviet states forming their own security agencies. The Belarusian KGB residence is on Independence Avenue in Minsk, and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is located in the former KGB headquarters on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.

Similarly to the FSB, the Belarusian KGB hasn’t shaken off its violent legacy. Al Jazeera’s Tatyana Margolin writes that “since the most recent fraudulent election in Belarus in August [2020], Lukashenko imprisoned and tortured thousands of Belarusians”.

Measures introduced in 2012 gave the FSB new powers to warn Russians against “creating the conditions for crimes”. The BBC reported at the time that alarm bells were ringing for human rights activists, who feared a return to the KGB’s methods of persecution.

News that the Kremlin had classified the oppositional stance of Alexei Navalny’s nationwide organisation as a criminal offence earlier this year similarly marked “a big step back toward the Soviet Union”, said The Washington Post’s Vladimir Kara-Murza.

In Belarus, attitudes towards opposition voices are equally dangerous. Al Jazeera’s Margolin notes that Protasevich could face the death penalty if he is charged with terrorism in Belarus. The journalist’s arrest took place shortly after the independent Belarusian news outlet tut.by was raided by national authorities on 18 May. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin was in charge of the FSB before coming to power in 2000, and its leader now reports directly to him. The agency is central to Russia’s campaign of information warfare, and has been accused of digital data hacking by the US among other foreign powers. It is said to keep close tabs on domestic internet activity, including tracking emails and phone calls.

Neither Belarus nor Russia are members of the European Union, and although the organisation can bring sanctions against non-member states in order to “prevent conflict or respond to emerging or current crises”, it’s unlikely this power would be great enough to redress domestic or foreign security concerns pertaining to either country. As such, experts have expressed doubts that punitive measures for the Ryanair flight hijacking would “pose any threat” to Lukashenko, Ryhor Astapenia, from the Chatham House think tank, told CNBC

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