Secret Police

The secret police has gone through various incarnations in Russian/Soviet/post-Soviet history, from Nicholas I's Third Section to the dreaded Okhrana of the later imperial era; one of Lenin's first acts after the Bolshevik coup d'état was to create the CHEKA (Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-Revolution, Sabotage, and Speculation) headed by Felix Dzherzhinsky. The CHEKA transmogrified into the GPU/OGPU, the NKVD, the MVD, and the KGB (Committee of State Security.) The KGB did not exist until 1954, but its predecessors and antecedents enjoyed a long if infamous history. Below is a "Rogues' Gallery" of secret policemen of the Soviet period. The KGB collapsed with the Soviet Union but a secret police re-emerged almost immediately, the FSB (Federal Security Bureau.)
Lenin appointed Felix Dzerzhinsky (left) to head the CHEKA in December, 1917, within days of the Bolshevik coup. Like Lenin, he had supported revolutionary causes, was hounded by the Okhrana, spent a number of years in tsarist prisons and Siberian exile; he was released from Butyrki Prison in the Provisional Government's amnesty, February-March 1917. A Polish communist, Dzherzhinsky attracted Lenin's attention for his ideological commitment, zeal, and dedication. Under him, the much feared CHEKA became an agency "notorious for large-scale...abuses, including torture and...executions...during the Red Terror..." ("Felix Dzerzhinsky"). Dzherzhinsky played a major role in the Civil War and, indeed, boasted of his exercise of terror. He brought to the Revolution impressive "organizational ability and willingness to take on unwelcome and difficult tasks..." ("Felix Dzerzhinsky"). In the power struggle following the death of Lenin in 1924, he joined the faction opposed to Trotsky.
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Stalin's Secret Police/Dzhershinsky < >

As evidence of his high status within the Party apparatus, Dzherzhinsky was a pall bearer at Lenin's funeral. Maybe everyone was afraid of him?

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In 1922 (a big year [X Party Congress, NEP, "On Party Unity," appointment of Stalin as General Secretary of the CPSU,]) Lenin reorganized the police apparatus, replacing the CHEKA with GPU/OGPU (the Joint State Political Directorate); Dzherzhinsky remained its head and expanded the prison camp network known as the Gulag. When Dzherzhinsky died in 1926, Stalin appointed Vyacheslav Menzhinsky as OGPU's head (Menzhinsky/right). Menzhinsky seems to have died from natural causes, though Yagoda confessed to poisoning him at the famous Trial of the Twenty-One in 1938.

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Menzhinsky led the OGPU until his death in 1934. He directed the dramatic expansion of the Gulag during the First Five Year Plan and de-kulakization (both of which filled the labor camps.) Menzhinsky (and Stalin) increased intelligence-gathering, torture, and murder of dissidents. OGPU took on responsibility for "the administration of corrective labor camps" (Gottfried 42). OGPU had its own army complete with tanks and airplanes. "It was the club with which Stalin beat the nation into submission" (43). Harsh labor in difficult climate and terrain characterized Gulag locations. In the image (left) convicts work on the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal.

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In another re-organization, OGPU gave way to the NKVD in 1934*
(The People's Commissariat of Internal Affiars,) which took over
administration of the Gulag, suppressed real or imagined resistance,
and "conducted mass, extra-judicial executions" ("NKVD").

*The Terror is about to begin!

Genrikh Yagoda headed the fearsome NKVD 1934-1936, as the Terror picked up steam. He rose through the ranks of the CHEKA, earning his "stripes" as Dzherzhinsky's deputy. He may have been involved in the 1934 murder of Kirov. Yagoda oversaw the show trials that sent Zinoviev and Kamenev to their deaths. He contributed to the expansion of the Gulag prison camp network, which sucked into its maw Eugenia Ginzburg and later Aleksandr Solzhinitsyn. Yagoda was himself arrested in 1937, found guilty of "treason and conspiracy against the Soviet government..." ("Genrikh Yagoda"). Yagoda had the dubious honor of being one of the accused in the "Trial of the Twenty-One"; though he begged for mercy, he was given no less than he gave; he was executed in 1938.

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Nikolai Yezhov replaced Yagoda at the NKVD; he ordered "the guards to strip Yagoda naked and severely beat him...before his execution..." ("Genrikh Yagoda"). Bukharin said of Yezhov, "'In the whole of, I have never met a more repellent personality than Yezhov's'" ("Nikolai Yezhov"). At Stalin's bidding, Yezhov oversaw the worst of the Terror, the Yezhovschina and the show trials of Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky, and others. The purge of the military, including the execution of Civil War hero, Tukhachevsky, occurred on Yezhov's "watch." 650 generals and admirals died, as did 84% of the "armed forces strategic commanders..." (DeMersseman 3): "...the Gulag population grew by 685,201..." and "682,692 were shot for crimes against the state" ("Nikolai Yezhov") He headed the NKVD, beginning in January, 1937, to give way to the even more terrifying Lavrenty Beria the next year..

Yezhov fell from power in 1938, was arrested and imprisoned in 1939, subjected to torture, and confessed to a wide variety of disgusting crimes. He was executed in 1940, erased from life as he was erased from history, as you can see ("Nikolai Yezhov"). His execution was kept secret for many years.

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As the Great Terror escalated, Stalin surrounded himself with Georgians like Grigori "Sergo" Odzhonikidze and the despicable Lavrenty Beria. Like many of the Old Bolsheviks, Sergo did not survive the Terror; the circumstances of his death (heart attack? murder? suicide?) remain murky. Sergo opposed-- not a good strategy in Stalinland--the death penalty for Ryutin in 1932 and spoke against the repressions of the First Five Year Plan and de-kulakization. By 1937, Stalin was increasingly reliant on Beria; those who had known Stalin in the past, i.e. knew too much, were doomed, even old comrades like Sergo.

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death of Ordzhonikidze as portrayed in 1992 movie, Stalin
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The parade of Stalinist hatchet men would not be complete without Lavrentiy Beria, perhaps the most grotesque of Stalin's henchmen (though Yezhov, "the dwarf"--at 5 feet tall--was pretty bad,) Beria took over the NKVD in 1938. Alhough he gave up that position to Kruglov in 1945, Beria remained a powerful figure in the Stalin era. Everyone feared him. Like Yagoda and Yezhov, he was a Chekist by career choice; he had Stalin's support, possibly because of their shared Georgian antecedents. The Yezhovschina, by 1938, had so devastated the Soviet economy, that Beria was brought in to bring order into its chaos (you'll remember that conditions for Eugenia improved under Beria.) According to Anne Applebaum's Gulag, Beria wanted the penal system to pay its way rather than be a drain on the struggling, wartime economy. The situations for those in prison or the camps marginally improved.


What made Beria so frightening was his close friendship with Stalin and his daughter Svetlana. Nadya/Nadezhda, Stalin's wife,was terrified of Beria. When records were de-classified after the fall of the Soviet Union, information about Beria's night-time forays and rapes became known. A Stalin biographer wrote that Beria, was " a sexual predator who used his power to indulge himself in obsessive depravity (Sebag-Montefiore, quoted in "Lavrenty Beria").

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Given Beria's creepy predeliction for nubile young girls, snatched from the streets, it is no wonder that Nadezhda was none too pleased with Beria's close friendship with her husband. Aware of Beria's reputation, apparently Stalin was reluctant to leave Svetlana alone in the house with him. Voroshilov's wife and Molotov's daughter-in-law were also frightened of Beria. He kept a list, or record, of his conquests--willing or unwilling. Yuck! Shortly after Stalin's death in March, 1953, the comrades (Bulganin and Khrushchev) moved against Beria, who was arrested, tried, convicted on charges of treason and terrorism, and shot in December, 1953 ("Lavrenty Beria").

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There were plenty of other Stalinist flunkies who sent thousands, perhaps millions, to prison, the camps, or death; one more merits attention, Lazar Kaganovich. His administrative gifts "went with a total lack of the restraints of humanity" (Conquest 35). He served as one of Stalin's right-hand men and held a variety of positions and offices from about 1922 until the wave of anti-semitism that gripped Stalin (again) in the 1950s caused him to lose status; had it been the 1930s, he'd be dead. Kaganovich was a harsh enforcer of collectivization in Ukraine; he oversaw the construction of the Moscow Subway system (using convict labor) and the demolition of some of Moscow's historic churches. In something of a miracle, given his close ties to Stalin, Kaganovich outlived them all, dying of natural causes at the age of 97 in 1991! (Clines)

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Clines, F. X. "L. M. Kaganovich--Stalwart of Stalin--Dies at 97." The New York Times, 27 July 1991. Online available.
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Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. New York: Collier Books, 1968

Gottfried, Ted. The Stalinist Empire. Brookfield, Connecticut: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.

Kripreyeva, Alyona. "Prominent Russians--Grigori Odzhonikidze." RT: Russiapedia. Online available.
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Medvedev, Roy. All Stalin's Men. Tr. Harold Shulman. Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984.

Prodan, Olga. "Prominent Russians--Lazar Kaganovich." RT: Russiapedia. Online available.
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"Prominent Russians--Lavrenty Beria." RT: Russiapedia. Online available.
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Riasanovsky, Nicholas and Mark Steinberg. A History of Russia, 7th edition. New York
and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wikipedia contributors. "Felix Dzherzhinsky." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the Free
Encyclopedia. Online available. < >

Wikipedia contributors. " Genrikh Yagoda." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the
Free Encyclopedia. Online available. < >

Wikipedia contributors. "Lavrenty Beria." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia,
the Free Encyclopedia. Online available. < >

Wikipedia contributors. "Lazar Kaganovich." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the
Free Encyclopedia. Online available. < >

Wikipedia contributors. "Nikolai Yezhov." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the
Free Encyclopedia. Online available. < >

Wikipedia contributors. "NKVD." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, the
Free Encyclopedia. Online available. < >

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