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Soviet Predecessor Organizations, 1917-54

The Bolshevik regime created a police system that proved to be far more effective than the tsarist version. It swept away the tsarist police, so despised by Russians of all political persuasions, along with other tsarist institutions, and replaced it with a political police of considerably greater dimensions, both in the scope of its authority and in the severity of its methods. However lofty their initial goals were, the Bolsheviks forcibly imposed their rule on the people. They constituted a dictatorship of a minority that had to establish a powerful political police apparatus to preserve its domination.

The first Soviet political police, created in December 1917, was the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage (Vserossiiskaia chrezvychainaia komissiia po bor'be s kontrrevoliutsiei i sabotazhem--VChK; also known as the Vecheka or the Cheka). The Vecheka was very much an ad hoc organization, whose powers gradually grew in response to various emergencies and threats to Soviet rule (see table 56, Appendix A). No formal legislation establishing the Vecheka was ever enacted. It was to serve as an organ of preliminary investigation, but the crimes it was to uncover were not defined, and the procedures for handling cases were not set forth. This situation was the result of the extralegal character of the Vecheka, which was conceived not as a permanent state institution but as a temporary organ for waging war against "class enemies." Given its militant role and supralegal status, it is not surprising that the Vecheka, which was headed by Feliks E. Dzerzhinskii, acquired powers of summary justice as the threat of counterrevolution and foreign intervention grew. After an attempt was made on Lenin's life in August 1918, the Vecheka unleashed its violence on a wide scale--the so-called Red Terror--which continued until 1920 and caused thousands to lose their lives.

The end of the Civil War (1918-21), the demobilization of the Red Army, and the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921 brought about a changed atmosphere that seemed incompatible with a terrorist political police. Lenin himself spoke of the need for a reform of the political police, and in early 1922 the Vecheka was abolished and its functions transferred to the State Political Directorate (Gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie--GPU). When the Soviet Union was formed in December 1922, the GPU was raised to the level of a federal agency, designated the Unified State Political Directorate (Ob''edinennoe gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie--OGPU), and attached to the Council of People's Commissars. On paper it appeared that the powers of the political police had been reduced significantly. Indeed, police operations during the NEP period were considerably less violent, and the staff and budget of the political police were reduced. Initially, the OGPU was subject to definite procedural requirements regarding arrests and was not given the powers of summary justice that its predecessor had. But the legal constraints on the OGPU were gradually removed, and its authority grew throughout the 1920s. The OGPU was drawn into the intraparty struggles that ensued between Stalin and his opponents and was also enlisted in the drive to collectivize the peasantry by force, beginning in late 1929, an operation that resulted in the death of upwards of 5 million people.

In July 1934, the OGPU was transformed into the Main Directorate for State Security (Glavnoe upravlenie gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti--GUGB) and integrated into the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennykh del--NKVD), which had been given all-union (see Glossary) status earlier that year. The functions of the security police and those of the internal affairs apparatus, which controlled the regular police and the militia, were thus united in one agency. The NKVD was a powerful organization. In addition to controlling the security police and the regular police, it was in charge of border and internal troops, fire brigades, convoy troops, and, after 1934, the entire penal system, including regular prisons and forced labor camps, or the Gulag (see Glossary). During the period from 1934 to 1940, the NKVD took charge of numerous economic enterprises (see Glossary) that employed forced labor, such as gold mining, major construction projects, and other industrial activity. In addition, the Special Board, attached to the NKVD, operated outside the legal codes and was empowered to impose on persons deemed "socially dangerous" sentences of exile, deportation, or confinement in labor camps. The Special Board soon became one of the chief instruments of Stalin's purges.

Stalin's domination over the party was not absolute at this time, however. Dissatisfaction with his policies continued to be manifested by some party members, and elements existed within the leadership that might have opposed any attempt to use police terror against the party. Among Stalin's potential challengers was Sergei Kirov, chief of the Leningrad party apparatus. Conveniently for Stalin, Kirov was assassinated by a disgruntled ex-party member in December 1934. This provided Stalin with the pretext for launching an assault against the party. Although Stalin proceeded cautiously, the turning point had been reached, and the terror machinery was in place. From 1936 to 1938, the NKVD arrested and executed millions of party members, government officials, and ordinary citizens. The military also came under assault. Much of the officer corps was wiped out in 1937-38, leaving the country ill prepared for World War II. The era in which the NKVD, with Stalin's aproval, terrorized Soviet citizens became known in the West as the Great Terror (see Glossary).

The war years brought further opportunities for the political police, under the control of Lavrenty Beria, to expand its authority. The NKVD assumed a number of additional economic functions that made use of the expanding labor camp population. The NKVD also broadened its presence in the Red Army, where it conducted extensive surveillance of the troops. Toward the end of the war, the political police moved into areas formerly under German occupation to arrest those suspected of sympathy for the Nazis. They also suppressed nationalist movements in the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and western Ukrainian republics.

Beria himself steadily gained power and authority during this period. In early 1946, when he was made a full member of the Politburo and a deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers (the new name for the Council of People's Commissars), he relinquished his NKVD post, but he apparently retained some control over the police through his protégés in that organization. In March 1953, following Stalin's death, Beria became chief of the MVD, which amalgamated the regular police and the security police into one organization. Some three months later, he made an unsuccessful bid for power and was arrested by his Kremlin colleagues, including Khrushchev.

The "Beria affair" and the shake-up in the Kremlin that followed his arrest had far-reaching consequences for the role of the police in Soviet society. The party leadership not only arrested and later executed Beria and several of his allies in the MVD but also took measures to place the political police under its firm control. Henceforth, violence was no longer to be used as a means of settling conflicts within the leadership, and widespread terror was not employed against the population at large.

Data as of May 1989

Sources and Methods

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Updated Wednesday, November 26, 1997 5:56:23 PM