Soviet chekists weren’t the professionals Putin wants Russians to think they were, new book says

'NKVD Killing Ground in Butovo' by Egils Veidemanis. Butovo was a former estate south of Moscow taken over by the secret police after the revolution and used as an agricultural colony, shooting range and site for executions and mass graves. The executions took place here from 1935 to 1953, but mostly in the years of Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Butovo Shooting Range is known as Moscow’s main killing field.

'NKVD Killing Ground in Butovo' by Egils Veidemanis. Butovo was a former estate south of Moscow taken over by the secret police after the revolution and used as an agricultural colony, shooting range and site for executions and mass graves. The executions took place here from 1935 to 1953, but mostly in the years of Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Butovo Shooting Range is known as Moscow’s main killing field. 

Analysis & Opinion, History, Russia

The KGB and its predecessors were not the highly disciplined professionals and successful managers Vladimir Putin and the numerous state-controlled media outlets want Russians to believe, according to a new book on the organization’s activities between 1917 and 1941. Instead, they were as roguish and criminal as any security service in history.

Aleksey Teplyakov, Russian historian specializing in Soviet secret police

Aleksey Teplyakov, Russian historian specializing in Soviet secret police

Instead, as historian Aleksey Teplyakov writes in his new book, The Activity of the Organs of the Cheka-GPU-NKVD (1917-1941) (Novosibirsk, in Russian),

they were “unprofessional and acted primarily with the help of terror and torture, the use of a mass of agents in the population, extra-judicial courts, and the widespread use of forced labor.”

Moreover, the Soviet secret police took care of their own, who suffered far less seriously than those on whom they inflicted suffering, not having 20,000 of their officers executed during the Great Terror as some now claim but rather a tenth or even less than number, Teplyakov says the archives show.

The historian told Radio Liberty’s Dmitry Volchek,

the secret services “are now again in power and do not want that outsiders study their history. The archives are closing for researchers, the length of classification is being extended, and recently ever more loudly voices are being heard directly or indirectly justifying [their] crimes.”

That makes the study of these agencies now especially important, Teplyakov says. And thanks to Ukraine’s decision to open the Soviet intelligence service archives in its possession, researchers can do a great deal. Now, so many are traveling to Kyiv to research them that the biggest problem is that the reading room for them is too small – only ten desks.

'Stalin's Repressions' by Igor Obrosov

‘Stalin’s Repressions’ by Igor Obrosov

Among the many details Teplyakov provides in the course of this 2500-word interview, the following is especially intriguing. He notes that in January 1937, there were 25,000 state security field officers. More than 70 percent were removed by 1940, but “only part of them were repressed.” Most were given other, lesser jobs in the GULAG. Fewer than 2,000 were executed.

Besides the trope that the chekists suffered the way the population did, another falsehood now widely promoted is that all the officers were like Felix Dzerzhinsky [the first head of the Soviet secret police — Ed.]. In fact, the historian says,

in the initial period, many of Cheka’s operatives were recruited from the criminal element of society and they carried their values into their new work, including a propensity for sadism.

Another point Teplyakov makes is “the further from the center, as a rule, the more cruel and uncontrolled were the chekists. This relates to Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.” When the center was weak, the chekists away from Moscow behaved in the most horrific way, often frightening the political branch of the Soviet government they were supposed to serve.

'Third degree interrogation' from "Drawings from the GULAG" by Danzig Baldaev, a former NKVD guard

‘Third degree interrogation’ from “Drawings from the GULAG” by Danzig Baldaev, a former NKVD guard

He also observes that one of the reasons “serious repressions were stopped immediately after the death of Stalin” was the fear that the organs might be used against his successors.

But perhaps Teplyakov’s most important observation concerns how the Soviet traditions of the chekists continue to this day.

Like their predecessors, “present-day special services do not always consider it necessary to be bound by the law, actively engage in political actions, and this interferes with the development of civil society.”

Moreover, he continues, the special services are viewed as being so important that they are far more actively used than they need to be. “The prospects in this sense aren’t really very happy ones.” Studying the past of these organs is one way, Teplyakov says, to fight this dangerous trend.

Chronology of the Soviet Union Renaming Its Secret Police Structure

Organization Dates
Cheka
(All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage)
1917–1922
GPU
(State Political Directorate)
1922–1923
OGPU
(Unified State Political Directorate)
1923–1934
NKVD
(People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs)
1934–1941
NKGB
(People’s Commissariat for State Security)
Feb–Jul 1941
NKVD
(People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs)
1941–1943
NKGB
(People’s Commissariat for State Security)
1943–1946
MGB
(Ministry for State Security)
1946–1954
KGB
(Committee for State Security)
1954–1991

 

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Edited by: A. N.

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  • Ihor Dawydiak

    To understand Putin and almost every Russian or “wannabe” Russian leader before him and their desperate need to concoct “fairy tales” (including absolute drivel detailing the “nobility” of their higher policing agencies and by extension excusing their crimes against the people), all that needs to be understood is a simple equation that has almost always described the strong majority of Russians (mostly in Russia proper). Bullies are cowards and cowards are people with a deeply rooted inferiority complex. In addition, senior bullies are needed to guide the lesser cowards (the masses) since the even more feared alternative would expected to be chaos and anarchy. So there it is. Russia 101 in a nutshell.

    • zorbatheturk

      Superlative comment.

  • laker48

    Merry Christmas to all Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Christians! We believe in the same God and share the same Christian Values. May Ukraine be blessed with peace, unity and prosperity!

    • Микола Данчук

      Різдвом Христовим

  • Mephisto

    basically state mafia operating outside law

    • zorbatheturk

      Not much law in RuSSia to operate outside of.

      • Dagwood Bumstead

        The only law that has any meaning in Dwarfstan is Newton’s Law of Gravity………

        • zorbatheturk

          LOL.

  • zorbatheturk

    KGB/FSB/Cheka must go the way of the Stasi.

  • Dagwood Bumstead

    The chekisti didn’t have to be professionals. They could- and did- arrest anyone and charge him with the most absurd crimes, knowing that the arrested would be found guilty of the most absurd charges, even if there wasn’t a shred of evidence. Once in their clutches there was no way out, except a bullet or a long term in the Gulag- there were no innocents according to the warped logic of the Soviet leaders, the Cheka and its successors. The many show trials- from Metro-Vick to Bukharin and beyond- are proof of that.