Bolshevik's Regime

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From the inception of the Bolshevik regime, the Soviet elite relied on a strong

secret police force to buttress their rule. The Communist Party's monopoly on power was

dependent on the KGB's suppression of dissent and opposition, both real and imagined.

In the name of protecting the regime, the KGB abused the civil and legal rights of

countless citizens. In many cases, the security police carried out these violations with the

authority of vaguely defined laws; however, these agents of coercion frequently

employed extralegal and unethical methods to achieve their missions. From the open

terrorism employed by Stalin, to the more subtle but equally obtrusive practices of

Brezhnev, Soviet state security served to preserve the regime by any means.

The first Soviet State Security force was established in December, 1917, six

months after the Revolution, for the purpose of defending the new Bolshevik regime from

counterrevolutionary forces. This division was known as the Cheka, an acronym

signifying its duties as the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counterrevolution,

Sabotage, and Speculation.

Headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka's main weapon

against domestic opposition was unrestricted terror (Andrew and Mitrokhin 1999, 28).

Without legal restrictions, the Cheka arrested, tried, and executed thousands deemed

"enemies of the state." Accounts of brutalities by the Cheka prompted a restriction of its

power by the party. It was reformed as the GPU (State Political Directorate) in 1922, and

renamed a year later as the OGPU (Unified Political Directorate of the USSR). In 1934,

the security police merged with the interior ministry to become the NKVD (People's

Commissariat of Internal Affairs). After Stalin's death, in an attempt to again reform the

vicious and powerful security apparatus, the powers of the NKVD were divided among

various state organs. The KGB (Committee for State Security) was the final product of

the series of reconstructions and acronyms (Sakwa 1998, 124-125). Henceforth in this

essay, for the purpose of consistency, the term "KGB" will be a general reference to the

apparatus of Soviet State Security.

The Soviet Union was a strictly controlled culture, and the KGB was the muscle

enforcing societal submission at every level. The size and structure of Soviet State

Security reflected its function: ubiquitous control at all levels of life. It was a massive

organization, centered in Moscow, with branches in every republic and city, as well as

special departments in all government institutions, factories, and enterprises. The staff of

full-time employees was at least 700,000 strong, with an equally impressive number of

informants and agents stationed abroad. As a state committee, the KGB formally

answered to the Council of Ministers, however, in practice it was controlled by the

Politburo, the real center of power concentration ( The KGB was,

essentially, a tool of the party whose responsibility it was to proactively defend the

regime from foreign and domestic threats.

As this tool of the party, the Soviet security apparatus used repressive force and

coercion to defend a regime with no legitimacy based on popular support. Without the

KGB's long-armed chokehold on Soviet society, the Communist party would have lost its

constitutional monopoly on power long before 1990. In the name of their duty to defend

the regime, the KGB often acted as a law unto themselves, without moral or ethical

restraints. The security force saw the height of its brutal authority under Josef Stalin, who

used the KGB as his personal monstrosity with which to terrorize the party and society.

The KGB agents, under Stalin's orders, conducted the notorious Great Purge, as well as

the mass murders of civilians. Some of the KGB's inhumane actions were ordained by

law, through extraordinary decrees drafted by Stalin himself. However, security

personnel equally utilized techniques, such as torture and evidence fabrications, which

were violations of Soviet law. In place of true justice, the KGB used troikas to meet

Stalin's execution quotas and bypass all legal rights of the accused. The troika was an

extrajudicial tribunal composed of three persons: a KGB officer, a party representative,

and a representative of the prosecutor's office (Gregory 2009, 205). The inclusion of the

three branches of government was for the purpose of a legitimate and balanced

appearance; in reality, the KGB official dominated the process, which was swift and

included no actual trial. During the troika proceeding, a brief case summary, prepared by

the arresting KGB officer, would be read, as well as a sentence recommendation, also

prepared by a KGB group. The tribunal would then sign off on the order, for execution or

labor camp imprisonment. Such proceedings were carried out in secret, without the

accused present, and often without a posting of the charges; the punishment was carried

out immediately, by KGB personnel (Gregory 2009, 205-207). The creation and use of

troikas exemplified the systematic oppression of human rights and the blatant distortion

of the legal process. It was a process that sent millions of Soviet citizens to imprisonment

and death.

In contrast to the extrajudicial troikas, the trials of party officials, which would

draw international attention, were devised to achieve the same results under a façade of

legality. This attempt at a legitimate appearance was achieved through the infamous show

trials, which were contrived by Stalin and executed by his security police. The targets

were Old Bolsheviks, and anyone seen as ideological or political opponents; these were

the elite victims of Stalin's paranoia and insatiable lust for power. Though guilty verdicts

were predetermined, the defendants were forced to go through the formal trial process, in

which they were to confess, thus convincing public audiences of their "terrorism."

The Law of December 1 was of crucial significance for believable and successful show

trials. This extraordinary decree extinguished many legal protections of those accused of

terrorism; the most critical measure of the decree deemed confessions to be a suitable

indication of guilt, effectively negating the necessity of objective proof (Gregory 2009,

155). This allowed the KGB to bypass a legitimate investigation process, which would

have yielded little, because many of the alleged crimes were fabricated.

The KGB interrogators extracted confessions for show trials with a variety of

illegal methods: mental and physical torture, threats to the defendant's family members,

and false promises of leniency. Physical abuse was a common method for those

unwilling to sign their dictated confession, the equivalent of signing their own execution

order. Dmitri Bystroletov, a KGB foreign intelligence agent, refused to confess to his

alleged espionage. To prompt his capitulation, two interrogators

beat him with a ball-bearing on the end of an iron rope, breaking two of

his ribs and penetrating a lung. His skull was fractured by one of the other

instruments of torture, a hammer wrapped in cotton wool and bandages,

and his stomach muscles torn by repeated kicks from his interrogators.

(Andrew and Mitrokhin 1999, 81)

Only after this torture did Bystroletov, fearing for his life, sign a confession dictated by

his interrogators. Interrogators also utilized psychological abuse to induce a confession.

A victim of this technique, in a letter retracting his coerced confession, recalled his

interrogation: "'I was forced to confess. Interrogations lasted 15-18 hours uninterrupted,

there was forced lack of sleep, strangulation, and threat of beatings'" (Gregory 2009,

160). False promises of leniency were another favorite tactic of the agents; Lev Kamenev

is said to have confessed because of the promise to spare the life of his older son. Not

only was his older son killed by agents, but his younger boy was as well, in spite of

Yagoda's promise (Gregory 2009, 45).

Before the coerced confessions were presented in the trial, Stalin himself

proofread the scripts, often making corrections with the help of his close KGB officials

(Rayfield 2004, 275). The coercion of confessions to imaginary conspiracies became a

standard KGB procedure; to further simplify the process, a KGB officer distributed

copies of a "standardized confession" to his fellow interrogators (Gregory 2009, 209).

The entire program was a meticulously planned mockery of due process and civil


Though the abuse and coercion didn't end with Stalin's death, the overt terrorism

was replaced by more subtle, manipulative methods of coercion. Khrushchev denounced

the excesses of Stalin and his security police and complied with demands for legal

reform. New codes of criminal law and procedure were enacted in an attempt to restore

due process and prevent the extrajudicial, extralegal process that characterized the

previous era (Smith 1996, 53-55). The legal reforms attempted to provide a democratic

gloss to a regime whose survival was still dependant on social repression. As the official

apparatus of social repression, the KGB simply exerted control and coercion with more

subtle mechanisms; furthermore, agents continued to circumvent the laws if the result

would benefit the party.

The new laws against dissenters were broadly defined for optimum use against

society, and though the KGB couldn't kill all threats to the regime, they could crush their

will to oppose through less visible methods: harassment in the form of threats, job

termination, slander, and victimization of family members. A preliminary measure

against potential dissent involved a summons of the individual to KGB headquarters for a

"chat," during which they were warned, or threatened, to discontinue their nonconformity

(Sakwa 1998, 205). The KGB also threatened or harassed acquaintances and family

members of dissenters to destabilize their lives. Employers were sometimes instructed to

terminate the individual, and potential employers were discouraged of hiring them.

(Deriabin and Bagley 1990, 142). Employers were also utilized by the KGB in their

surveillance and manipulation of a dissident, as in the case of Andrei Sinyavsky; he was

targeted for alleged anti-Soviet elements in his fictional work. The Gorky Institute, his

employer, was ordered to send Sinyavsky away for business, giving agents the

opportunity to search his apartment for compromising materials and plant bugging

devices. However, Sinyavsky's flat was occupied by his family, who also became subject

to extralegal manipulation: "a KGB officer, posing as a relative of a neighbor, succeeding

in staying in the flat, taking wax impressions of the keys and creating an opportunity for a

detailed search" (Andrew and Mitrokhin 1999, 308).

The family members of supposed opposition were also targeted and harassed

directly. The family of Andropov's personal target, Andrei Sakharov, was subject to

constant threats and mysterious packages. His wife Elena Bonner, also a rights activist,

received graphic photographs of eye injuries shortly before she was to have eye surgery.

One Christmas, the Sakharov family received a disturbing threat, courtesy of the KGB:

"dozens of envelopes containing photographs of car accidents, brain surgery, and

monkeys with electrodes implanted in their brains" (Andrew and Mitrokhin 1999, 319-


The level of intimidation by KGB agents escalated to violence if opponents

continued to pose a threat in the eyes of the regime. However, violence was carried out

through more inconspicuous means in the post-Stalin era. Kidnapping was favorite

technique to disrupt meetings or rallies for human rights (Van Der Rhoer 1983, 294-295).

The KGB agents became quite skilled at disguising violence against opponents in the

form of accidents, which allowed them to bypass the legal process and still achieve the

intended result: silencing critics of the regime. These "accidents" were disguised as auto

accidents, suicides, and muggings; plainclothes KGB agents were likely to pose as

thieves and hooligans. Peter Derabian, a former KGB agent, recalled that KGB killings

were not always disguised faultlessly. The case of Father Bronius Laurinavicius indicated

such faults; he was run down and killed by a truck a few days after the regime accused

him of "pernicious influence on youth" for his criticism of human rights violations.

Before his death, he told friends of two other trucks attempting to hit him (Deriabin and

Bagley 1990, 216-217).

Show trials were still utilized against a few prominent ideological dissidents,

however, such a process drew foreign attention and scrutiny. To sidestep the theatrics of a

trial, as well as the possibility of failure to achieve the desired conviction, KGB agents

confined opponents in psychiatric wards. Psychiatric confinement saw widespread use

against high-profile dissidents as well as minor violators of the law; the fact that it was a

blatant abuse of law, human rights, and psychiatry was of no matter to the lawless KGB.

The regime rationalized the process by asserting that unorthodox political or social views

constituted insanity. The KGB recruited a team of psychiatrists at the Serbsky Institute

for Forensic Psychiatry, who were explicitly instructed to diagnose political dissidents as

"paranoiac schizophrenics" (Andrew and Mitrokhin 1999, 546-547). Perfectly sane

individuals were incarcerated for indefinite periods , during which they were subject to

injections of drugs to destroy their will and health (Deriabin and Bagley 1990, 66-69).

Alexander Tarasov was one of countless victims subjected to this treatment; he was

arrested in 1975 for criticism of the regime. At age 17, he was committed to a psychiatric

hospital by the KGB, where he was subjected to electroshock treatment and insulin

injections, which reduced him to a coma-like state. Tarasov freed just one year later,

without any charges filed against him (Russia Project). Situations such as Tarasov's were

common and well documented instances of flagrant abuse of power and law against

ideological opponents.

Coercive measures, with and without the authority of law, were absolutely

necessary for the survival of the regime. The Soviet security police force was the

executor of this coercion and, as such, the muscle of the party. From the mass, blatant

operations of Stalinist security, to the disguised, manipulative methods of the post-Stalin

KGB, the regime was always buffered by state-sponsored terror. No one, not even the

party, was safe from the omnipotent reach of the KGB, as Alex Solzhenitsyn knew too

well: "…What we thought was an untroubled sky overhead was actually the enormous

observation dome of the KGB…They can see it all-all our antlike scurryings-and we are

in their hands"(Deriabin and Bagley 1990, 145).

Reference List

Andrew, Christopher and Vasili Mitrokhin. 1999. The sword and the shield: the Mitrokhin archive and the secret history of the KGB. New York: Basic Books.

Deriabin, Peter and T.H. Bagley. 1990. KGB: masters of the Soviet Union. New York : Hippocrene Books. 2000-2009. Organization for the Committee of State Security. (accessed April 12, 2010).

Gregory, Paul R. 2009. Terror by quota : state security from Lenin to Stalin : an archival study. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rayfield, Donald. 2004. Stalin and his hangmen : the tyrant and those who killed for him. New York: Random House.

Russia Project. Where Have All the Soviet Dissidents Gone? 2001. The Stanley Foundation. (accessed April 28, 2010).

Sakwa, Richard. 1998. Soviet Politics in Perspective. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge Press.

Smith, Gordon B. 1996. Reforming the Russian Legal System. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Van Der Rhoer, Edward. 1983. The shadow network. New York: Scribner.