The KGB was the primary security and intelligence agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 until the nation collapsed in 1991. The KGB served a multi-faceted role outside of and within the Soviet Union, working as both an intelligence agency and a force of “secret police.” It was also tasked with some of the same functions as the Department of Homeland Security in the United States today, safeguarding the country from domestic and foreign threats.
What Is the KGB?
KGB stands for Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, which translates to “Committee for State Security.”
The KGB headquarters occupied what is now a famous structure at Lubyanka Square—and not Red Square—in Moscow. That same building is now home to the FSB, or Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, which serves a similar function as the KGB once did, and its reputation is becoming almost as notorious.
Notably, current Russian Federation head of state Vladimir Putin also worked for the KGB as a foreign intelligence officer from 1975 to 1991.
Although the KGB did not work directly in the satellite republics that were part of the Soviet Union at the time (the Soviet or Communist Bloc, which included, for example, Ukraine, Georgia and Latvia), each of these countries had its own versions of the agency, which were designed in much the same way and carried out many of the same duties.
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KGB in the United States
The KGB was established under the leadership of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Its precursor was the People’s Commissariat for State Security, or NKGB, which operated immediately prior to and during World War II when Joseph Stalin was the head of state.
In fact, it was said that NKGB spies were so effective that Stalin knew far more about the military activities of his allies in World War II—namely the United States, France and Great Britain—than they knew about the Soviet Union’s military.
Although U.S. officials and leaders within the Office of Strategic Services, the agency that ultimately morphed into the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), were concerned about Soviet espionage activities during the war—NKGB spies were said to have infiltrated the nuclear weapon research facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico—these worries became more pronounced after the war ended.
In fact, the KGB’s influence on world affairs arguably reached its height during the early part of the Cold War, the period of diplomatic and strategic acrimony between the Soviet Union and the United States and its Western European allies.
Soviet spy services under any name struggled to get a foothold in the United States in the early postwar period. This was due in part to the investigations spurred by the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s, during which time U.S. officials and law enforcement leaders became particularly concerned about communist infiltration into American affairs, both in the United States and abroad.
The Red Scare led to the Congressional hearings spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who attempted to identify, and thwart, communist influence in American society. These events, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), are credited with bringing down much of the U.S. branch of the Communist Party, hampering KGB recruitment.
Despite this resistance, the Soviets were not easily deterred, and they would ultimately succeed in recruiting U.S. naval officer John Anthony Walker Jr. into the KGB in the late 1960s.
He would later be accused and convicted of providing information to the Soviets, including classified naval communications, which allowed them to track ship movements and other activities. Walker worked for the KGB until well in the 1980s, when he was arrested.
The KGB also recruited CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who divulged the locations and activities of multiple CIA officers stationed all over the world before he was arrested and convicted of espionage in 1994. Ames remains in prison to this day.
KGB in the Soviet Union
As notable as the KGB’s activities were on foreign soil, the agency is perhaps most infamous for its activities within Russia and Soviet bloc nations.
Its primary role within Russia and the satellite republics of the Soviet Union was to quell dissent, by first identifying dissidents promoting anti-communist political and/or religious ideas and then silencing them. To perform this task, KGB agents often used extremely violent means.
Indeed, the KGB’s primary domestic function was to protect the leaders of the Communist Party within the Soviet Union, and thus maintain political order.
The KGB famously crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, by first arresting the leaders of the movement prior to scheduled negotiations with Soviet officials in Budapest. Twelve years later, the KGB took a lead role in crushing similar reform movements in the country then known as Czechoslovakia.
These latter events, known as the Prague Spring, which occurred in 1968, initially resulted in changes in how Czechoslovakia was governed. However, Soviet troops were ultimately sent into the country to re-establish Communist Party control.
KGB officers then targeted dissidents, including those staging non-violent acts of protest, jailing and, reportedly in some cases, executing them.
Among the hallmarks of KGB operations were the use of “agents provocateur” to infiltrate dissident groups. These agents would appear to sympathize with the cause while later informing on the activities of the group and its leaders.
America’s first CIA director, Allen Dulles, once said of the KGB: “[It] is more than a secret police organization, more than an intelligence and counter-intelligence organization. It is an instrument for subversion, manipulation and violence, for secret intervention in the affairs of other countries.”
Still, despite its heavy handedness, it failed to defeat a worker-led reform movement in Poland, then a Soviet satellite republic, in the 1980s. It is said that the successful efforts on the part of the anti-Soviet reformers in Poland may have ultimately spurred the downfall of the Communist Bloc.
READ MORE: How the KGB Silenced Dissent During the Soviet Era
KGB Becomes the FSB
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB was dissolved and replaced by a new domestic security service, the FSB. The FSB occupies the former KGB headquarters in Moscow, and some allege it performs many of the same tasks as its predecessor, in the name of protecting the interests of the Russian government and its leaders.
Although relations between Russia and America have improved somewhat since 1991, the year the Cold War is said to have ended, the FSB and other Russian groups have drawn renewed attention after allegations of meddling in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
In recent years, the FSB has been accused of adopting the same nefarious tactics once employed by the KGB.
In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer, died after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium while meeting with Russian agents in London. In 2020, Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was hospitalized after being poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent. Numerous investigations implicated the FSB in Navalny’s poisoning and in several other poisonings and murders.
“What is the KGB? Vladimir Putin ‘set to bring back the secret Soviet spy force.” Express.co.uk.
“Putin Has Finally Reincarnated the KGB.” Foreignpolicy.com.
Allen W. Dulles. The Craft of Intelligence: America’s Legendary Spy Master on the Fundamentals of Intelligence Gathering for a Free World.
Poisoned umbrellas and polonium: Russian-linked UK deaths. The Guardian.
‘We don’t realize how strong we actually are’: How Alexey Navalny became Russia’s opposition leader. CNN.