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Gorbachev Era

After gaining the post of general secretary in March 1985, Gorbachev moved with unprecedented speed to implement personnel changes in the party and government. His success in getting rid of so many potential political opponents in such a short time surprised Western Soviet experts, particularly because Gorbachev did not have a substantial power base or patronage network of his own when he took office. Gorbachev apparently relied on the same bases of support that Andropov had used in his ascent to the top, which included the KGB. According to Western experts, Gorbachev appealed to the KGB for help in purging the Brezhnev old guard. The main vehicle used by Gorbachev in carrying out these purges was the anticorruption campaign. By the late summer of 1985, hardly a day passed without a report in the press on cases on bribery, embezzlement, or other forms of economic crime. In addition to high-level party and state officials, MVD and Procuracy employees came under fire for their failure to uncover crimes. Even MVD chief Vitalii Fedorchuk fell victim to Gorbachev, losing his post in early 1986. Fedorchuk's replacement, Aleksandr Vlasov, was a former party apparatchik (see Glossary) with no experience in law enforcement.

Although the regular law enforcement agencies were subjected to sharp attacks for their failure to combat crime, the KGB remained unscathed, despite the fact that it was empowered by law to investigate certain types of economic crime. There was some turnover in key KGB posts, but these changes were not nearly as widespread as were the changes in the CPSU apparatus and in other state agencies.

Numerous signs pointed to the fact that the Gorbachev leadership was cultivating good relations with the KGB by maintaining its high prestige and political status. KGB chairman Chebrikov was promoted to full membership in the Politburo just a month after Gorbachev came to power. He also figured prominently in the Soviet media. At the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in February-March 1986, for example, he delivered a speech that was an unprecedented assertion of the power and authority of the KGB.

Although Gorbachev continued to rely on the KGB in his drive to purge the party and state apparatus of corrupt officials, toward the end of 1986 signs indicated that his relations with this organization were becoming strained. The KGB cannot have been pleased about the reformist polices promoted by Gorbachev, in particular openness in the media and liberalization of cultural norms. Calls for reform of the judicial and legal systems, voiced with increasing frequency in the autumn of 1986, signified that the Gorbachev leadership was attempting to curtail arbitrary KGB actions against citizens. This attempt became even more apparent in January 1987, when Chebrikov acknowledged, on the front page of Pravda, that employees of the KGB had committed illegalities. Such an acknowledgment of KGB abuses was unprecedented. Even during the Khrushchev era, when the crimes of Stalin's security police were exposed, the KGB was never criticized in the press. Observers speculated that, having depended initially on KGB support to purge the Brezhnevites, Gorbachev decided by early 1987 that he was strong enough to embark on reforms that might antagonize this institution.

It was not long, however, before signs of opposition to Gorbachev's policies arose, and a "conservative backlash" occurred. Although the opposition appears to have been led by disgruntled party leaders such as Egor K. Ligachev, the second-ranking member of the Politburo, the KGB probably joined forces with these conservatives. Chebrikov's comments, in particular his strident speech delivered in September 1987, made it clear that the KGB would not allow the democratic reforms to go too far: "There must be a clear awareness that the restructuring is taking place in our state and society under the leadership of the Communist Party, within the framework of socialism and in the interests of socialism. This revolutionary process will be reliably protected against any subversive intrigues." The subsequent ouster of a leading proponent of Gorbachev's reforms, Moscow party chief Boris El'tsin, was an indication of the strength of the opposition to Gorbachev.

Although he made some strategic retreats in early 1988, Gorbachev continued to pursue his policy of perestroika, and exposures of illegal KGB activities continued. Even more threatening for the KGB were unprecedented revelations about security police terror under Stalin. Although the role of the police in the purges had been discussed since the Khrushchev era, glasnost' resulted in a much more devastating critique of the role of the police during this period. Ethnic unrest of various nationalities, together with increasingly bold political demands by the Soviet intelligentsia, also presented the KGB with significant challenges. In a speech delivered in mid-April, Chebrikov expressed concern that things were going too far and that some individuals were "unleashing a wide-ranging arsenal of methods of social demagoguery and substituting bourgeois liberalism for the essence of the concept of socialist democracy." Subsequently, in October 1988 Chebrikov lost his position as chief of the KGB and was replaced by Vladimir Kriuchkov.

Data as of May 1989

Sources and Methods

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