Harvest of Despair



Although the Soviet secret police went through several incarnations during the existence of the USSR, its role remained the same through seven decades of Soviet power. The most important responsibilities of the secret police were to identify and root out those hostile to the Soviet regime on their own territory, to combat ‘enemies’ of the regime abroad, and foreign espionage. As such the secret police was the primary apparat of political and cultural repression on Soviet territory.

During the Revolution and Civil War, the Soviet secret police was the Cheka,  (Chrezvychaynaya Komissia – Extraordinary Committee to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage), and was the organ primarily responsible for implementing the Red Terror in the first years of established Soviet power. In 1922, the NKVD – (Narodniy kommissariat vnutrishnykh del – Peoples’ Commissariat of Internal Affairs) was formed, and the GPU – (Gosudarstvennoe politycheske upravlinnye – State Political Directorate) – the secret police, was subordinated to the NKVD. In 1923 the GPU was reorganized into the OGPU (Obyednannie gosudarstvennoe politycheske upravlinnye – Unified State Political Directorate).

The secret police played an important role during the first years of Soviet power, combating real, perceived, imagined and often fictitious enemies of the regime. However, with the rise of Joseph Stalin, the repressive organs of the state became perhaps the most important state institution. The OGPU and the NKVD were responsible for running what became, by the early 1930s, a vast economic enterprise – the GULAG network of camps. During the Famine, secret police and NKVD troops played a key role, first rounding up and dispossessing kulaks, and in 1932-33, ensuring that peasants were not hiding any grain or other food. Thus, while responsibility for the planning of the Famine must be put on the highest levels of the Communist Party leadership, responsibility for its execution and implementation rests squarely on the OGPU and the NKVD.

In 1934, the OGPU became the GUGB (Glavnoe upravlinnie gosudarstvennoe bezopastnosti – Main Directorate for State Security), under the NKVD. The GUGB and the NKVD were the state organs responsible for carrying out the Great Terror (1936-38) and countless repressions, deportations and murders during the Soviet occupation of Western Ukraine (1939-41) and WWII. In 1946, People’s Commissariats were reorganized into ministries, and the MGB – (Ministerstvo gosudarstvennoe bezopastnosti – Ministry for State Security), to which the KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennoe bezopasnosti – Committee for State Security), was subordinated. The KGB remained the Soviet secret police until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.