From 13 March 1954 to 6 November 1991, the KGB served as the primary security agency for the Soviet Union, handling the state’s foreign intelligence and domestic security operations.
At its height, the KGB had a reputation for being a highly powerful and secretive organisation which employed hundreds of thousands of people in the Soviet Union and across the globe. It was primarily responsible for internal security, public surveillance and military advancement, but was also employed to crush dissent and further the aims of the Soviet government – at times through violent means and covert operations.
Though it was disbanded along with the collapse of the USSR in December 1991, the KGB was a closely-guarded organisation. As a result, there is much we will likely never know about the KGB. What cannot be denied, however, is the historical imprint left upon Russia from the years of KGB surveillance and power, and the extent to which its efficacy contributed to the Red Scare and fears of communist infiltration in the West.
Here are 10 facts about the KGB.
1. It was founded in 1954
Following the fall of Lavrentiy Beria – the longest-lived and most influential of Stalin’s secret police chiefs, particularly before, during and after World War Two – the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the USSR (MVD) was restructured. The result was the formation of the KGB under Ivan Serov in March 1954.
2. ‘KGB’ is an initialism
The letters KGB stand for ‘Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti’, which roughly translates in English to ’Committee for State Security’. It marked a purposeful rebrand of the Stalinist NKVD. After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the founding of the KGB, the Soviet government promised that its secret police would be subject to collective party scrutiny on all levels as a way of preventing rulers from using secret operatives against each other.
3. Its headquarters were located on Lubyanka Square, Moscow
The KGB headquarters were located in a now-famous structure on Lubyanka Square in Moscow. The same building is now home to the inner workings of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, or FSB. The FSB serves a similar function to the KGB, though its reputation is much less notorious.
4. Vladimir Putin was once a decorated KGB agent
Between 1975 and 1991, Vladimir Putin (who would later become head of state for the Russian Federation) worked for the KGB as a foreign intelligence officer. In 1987, he was awarded the gold medal for ‘Distinguished Service to the National People’s Army of the GDR’, and later, in 1988, was awarded the ‘Medal of Merit of the National People’s Army’ and then the Badge of Honour.
5. The KGB was the world’s largest espionage organisation at its peak
At its greatest extent, the KGB ranked as the world’s largest secret police and espionage organisation. It is estimated that at any given time, the KGB had some 480,000 agents in its ranks, including hundreds of thousands of border guard soldiers. It is also estimated that the Soviet Union utilised potentially millions of informers over the years.
6. The KGB had spies across the world
It is thought that the KGB infiltrated all intelligence agencies in the West and may have even had an agent in almost every Western capital city.
It’s said that the KGB’s spy network was so effective during World War Two that Stalin knew far more about the military activities of his allies – the United States, Great Britain and France – than they knew about the Soviet Union’s military.
7. The CIA was suspicious of the KGB
America’s first CIA director Allen Dulles 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.”
Suspicion of the KGB and the Soviet Union in general was more pronounced during the ‘Red Scare’, in which a widespread fear of communism took hold in the West, especially in the United States.
8. The KGB was dissolved in 1991
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB was dissolved and replaced by a new domestic security service, the FSB. The FSB is located in the same former KGB headquarters in Moscow, and is alleged to perform many of the same tasks as its predecessor in the name of protecting the interests of the Russian government.
9. The KGB Security Troops became the Federal Protective Service (FPS)
In 1989, the KGB security troops numbered around 40,000. Under Boris Yeltsin, whose Russian presidency ran from 1991 to 1999, the KGB Security Troops were renamed and rebranded to the Federal Protective Service. The FPS is tasked with protecting high-ranking officials and public figures.
10. Belarus still has a ‘KGB’
Belarus is the only former Soviet Union state where the national security organisation is still named the ‘KGB’. Belarus is also where a group called the Cheka – a Bolshevik security agency that existed before the days of the MVD or the KGB – was founded.