The bloody birth of the most murderous secret police in history occurred 96 years ago and is being celebrated across Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Always feared, the KGB is now revered.
“In the past, the services worked for the Communist Party and the party ran the state,” says Michelle Van Cleave, former head of U.S. counterintelligence. “Now, the intelligence services are the state. That’s a very different government structure than we’re accustomed to.”
Nicknamed Cheka, the All-Russian Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage existed to smash any and all opposition to Vladimir Lenin’s creation of a utopian socialist society. “We represent in ourselves organized terror — this must be said very clearly,” proclaimed its first leader, Feliks Dzerzhinsky.
The Cheka became the world’s prototype for industrial-scale mass persecution, torture and human slaughter. For Dzerzhinsky, Lenin and the other Bolsheviks, “extermination” of all opponents was an explicit and planned policy.
As the Cheka evolved under different names — with its officers always calling themselves Chekists — others would study it and copy it.
Building Hitler’s dictatorship in 1930s Germany, the Nazis were fascinated by the Chekists’ ruthlessness and efficiency. Historian Edward Crankshaw wrote that in the early years of Soviet collaboration with Nazi Germany, SS Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller visited the Soviet Union to study how the Chekists operated, and borrowed that system to design the Gestapo.
Instead of mourning the anniversary of what arguably was the greatest tragedy of Russia’s 1,000-year history, President Putin is celebrating it. To KGB veterans like Putin, the Cheka represents the essence of what is Russia and serves as the ultimate instrument of power. Even today, the official seals of the Russian security services feature the Cheka’s sword-and-shield emblem.
“The Cheka tradition has thoroughly infiltrated the upper levels of the Russian elite,” says British historian Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security and organized crime and a professor at New York University.
Putin spent part of his KGB career in the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic (GDR), working closely with the Communist secret police known as Stasi.
After Reuters unearthed documents in 2001 from the Stasi office in Dresden, where Putin worked, the Moscow Times reported that the Stasi awarded Putin a commendation for his contribution to “fraternal cooperation between the GDR’s Chekists and the Soviet security organs against the common enemy.”
Years later, when the U.S. uncovered 11 Russian sleeper agents and sent them back to Moscow, “Putin greeted them and led them in singing the KGB anthem, the same song from the old Chekist days,” a former senior intelligence officer tells the American Media Institute.
“Putin has honed what was the KGB (now known as the foreign SVR and domestic FSB) into an operational government,” according to John J. Dziak, a retired senior U.S. intelligence officer and author of “Chekisty,” a definitive history of the Russian intelligence services.
“Russia’s great strength is because it breaks the rules and gets away with it,” says Galeotti. “Internationally, Putin has an extraordinarily nuanced grasp of just how far he can push.”
Western countries don’t push back, Galeotti says, because they know the Russian elites will take reprisals. “Under Putin, the West realizes that there will be a very strong backlash, and would rather not risk it.”
That attitude only invites more pushing, say American intelligence officials. “Our president rushing to make nice just reinforces Putin’s illusion and fantasy that Russia is a great power and it matters as much as it used to,” says former CIA director Michael V. Hayden.
Russia continues an intensive, aggressive espionage campaign around the world, and particularly against the United States. Van Cleave, National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX) in the George W. Bush administration, is blunt:
“Today, there are more Russian intelligence personnel operating in the United States than there were at the height of the Cold War.”
By law, the Office of the NCIX must submit annual reports to Congress about foreign intelligence threats. However, that office has not issued such a report for the public since 2011. While the office has sent classified reports to Congress, their secrecy has all but erased the issue from public awareness.
“I don’t think the American public realizes the extent of Russian espionage,” laments Robert W. Stephan, a Russia expert who served nearly 20 years in the CIA.
Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has encouraged the intelligence community to alert the public about threats from Russia.
In testimony before Feinstein’s committee last March, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper reported that Russian espionage is as urgent a threat as terrorism and international organized crime. “These foreign intelligence methods employ traditional methods of espionage and, with growing frequency, innovative technical means,” he said.
As if aggressive espionage against free societies wasn’t enough, the Chekists have another asset: thieves of highly classified U.S. intelligence information such as four-month National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Moscow earlier this year with four laptop computers crammed with highly classified material.
He has been an intelligence and propaganda boon for Putin and the former KGB. “They have happily taken him into their embrace, and there’s no reason to think they have not gotten everything he had,” Van Cleave says.
In addition to the incalculable loss of intelligence information that Snowden is believed to have handed the Chekists, the American defector provided Putin with a propaganda bonanza.
Snowden’s leaked information that the NSA was eavesdropping on foreign leaders — including the private cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel — has driven wedges between the U.S. and longtime loyal allies. “They’ll use every opportunity they can find to try to separate the U.S. from our allies in Western Europe and elsewhere,” Van Cleave observes. “If they can undermine confidence or spread suspicion about the United States, they will do that.”
As they were when they looted Russia’s wealth in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chekists today are an organized criminal syndicate unto themselves, experts say. “In Russia,” Clapper testified, “the nexus among organized crime, some state officials, the intelligence services, and business blurs the distinction between state policy and private gain.”
Putin’s political rise illustrates the transformation of Russia. He went from being a simple KGB officer earning roughly $100 a month to become one of the wealthiest men in Russia — without ever holding a private-sector job.
Upon leaving East Germany for his native St. Petersburg, Putin was one of several KGB officers who surrounded the city’s reformist mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. Victor Yasmann, then of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute, reported at the time that Putin handled hard currency operations for the city — a job that put him in charge of huge quantities of fungible cash with little oversight.
During the Soviet collapse, the KGB made sure its officers were integrated into the emerging economy as tightly as possible. Soviet law required all joint ventures with foreign companies to have a KGB officer as a corporate vice president. Soon, Chekists would be vice presidents of factories, service companies, construction enterprises, hotels and banks that had Western investors.
The success of economic reformers in St. Petersburg attracted the attention of Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin. While Yeltsin was instrumental in bringing down the Communist Party, he lacked a political base of his own, and threw in his lot with the KGB. He placed Chekists in key posts, naming Putin head of the Presidential Property Administration, in charge of a vast network of buildings, land and other assets.
In a short time, Putin had taken control of the country’s internal security apparatus, the Federal Security Service — which had been the domestic control machinery of the KGB.
Yeltsin, by now ailing, named Putin prime minister and constitutional successor. Yeltsin resigned suddenly on Dec. 31, 1999, making Putin president. Alternating between the posts of president and prime minister to observe the term limits set under the new Russian constitution, Putin has remained in power ever since.
“The criminal organizations that last along generations know how to institutionalize coercion, and use violence as a last resort,” says Galeotti. “You want to use deception, co-option, and you want to use threat to deter. Those are precisely what the modern-day Cheka is very able to do.”