Мonument to Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky on Shpalernaya Street, near the Smolny, Petersburg city hall. Photo courtesy of yakaev.livejournal.com
How the Cheka Became the FSB
The notion of the Cheka’s superiority is one hundred years old
December 20, 2017
On December 20, 1917, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (VChK) aka the Cheka was established. Its successors will mark its centenary today. Numerous reforms of the secret services and the transition from socialism to capitalism have had little impact on how the leaders and officers of the secret services view their mission and social standing. The notion of Chekism, the superiority of state and official necessity to the law and justice, have proven tenacious. But if they were previously justified by the interests of the Party, they are nowadays often used to achieve personal ends.
Initially, the Cheka’s powers were insignificant. They were supposed to conduct preliminary investigations of crimes and refer the cases to tribunals. Soon, however, the Chekists were endowed with the right to carry out extrajudicial actions.
As Cheka deputy chair Martin Lācis said in 1919, “The Cheka is not a court, but the Party’s combat unit. It destroys [criminals] without trial or isolates [them] from society by imprisoning [them] in concentration camps. Word and law are identical.”
But we should not exaggerate the degree to which the Chekists were independent. As follows from a 1919 Central Committee decree, “The Chekas [sic] have been established, exist, and function only as direct agencies of the Party, guided by its directives and under its oversight.”
After the Russian Civil War, the commissars of justice, first Dmitry Kursky and later Nikolai Krylenko, spoke of the need to limit the powers of the Cheka. (In 1921, it was renamed the Joint State Political Directorate or OGPU.)
Dzerzhinsky insisted, however, that “our right to shoot [people] is our reserve. On the ground, we must conspire with court chairmen.”
The interests of state and revolution were placed above the rights of Soviet citizens to freedom of opinion and protection from illegal prosecution. Specific notions of revolutionary duty and the good of the revolution generated numerous provocations and trumped-up cases against “socially dangerous elements.” The Chekists honed the techniques of mass arrests and falsified cases during the trials of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The scope of the work done by the secret services gradually expanded. In April 1930, the OGPU established the Gulag (Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps) and was given control of the militia (i.e., the Soviet regular police). In July 1934, the OGPU was transfigured into the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs or NKVD, which was given control of the archives and civil registry offices. In 1936, Genrikh Yagoda, a career Cheka officer, was replaced as the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs by Nikolai Yezhov, a Stalin appointee and Party functionary who would play a key role in carrying out the Great Terror of 1937–1938.
Yagoda (middle) inspecting the construction of the Moscow-Volga canal. Behind him is Nikita Khrushchev. Courtesy of Wikipedia
The Chekists competed in their cruelty to detainees and demanded that quotas on executions and arrests be raised. Moscow’s directives were magnified by initiative from the regions.
“The Central Committeee has explained that the use of physical coercion in the practice of the NKVD has been allowed since 1937 at the behest of the Central Committee. […] The method of physical coercion was contaminated by the scoundrels Zakovsky, Litvin, Uspensky, and others. […] But this in no way discredits the method itself, since it is applied correctly in practice,” Joseph Stalin noted in a signed coded telegram, dated January 1939. So when Laventri Beria replaced Yezhov, the overall crackdown abated, but not cruelty to defendants.
In February 1941, the NKVD was divided into two people’s commissariats, the NKVD per se and the People’s Commissariat for State Security. Led by Vsevolod Merkulov, it took over foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and protection of high-ranking officials. The NKVD remained in charge of interior troops, border troops, and prisoner escort troops, as well as the concentration camps and the militia. The organizational reforms were kept up even during the Second World War. In July 1941, the two people’s commissariats were merged, but in April 1943 they were divided once again.
The powers of the security forces were considerably limited after the death of Stalin and execution of Beria in 1953. In 1954, the Ministry of State Security or MGB was replaced by the Committee for State Security or KGB, formally overseen by the USSR Council of Ministers. In the reality, the security services were subordinated to the Politburo, but they were stripped of their control of Interior Ministry troops, the penal enforcement agencies, the state archives, and the civil registry offices. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods, crackdowns were selective and isolated, but this had no impact on the confidence of Chekists in their own rightness in the battle against dissidents and the prevention of potential “anti-Soviets.” The KGB was still the “armed detachment of the Party” that the VChK had been under Felix Dzerzhinsky.
In the early post-Soviet years, the secret services underwent a number of large-scale reorganizations. The KGB was initially renamed the RSFSR Federal Security Agency, and then the Russian Security Ministry, and an attempt was made to merge it with the Ministry of the Interior or MVD. (The Constitutional Court overruled Boris Yeltsin’s decree to this effect in January 1992.) It was then split up into a foreign intelligence service, a border guards service, a counterintelligence service, a government information service, and a bodyguard service. More important, however, were not these structural changes, but their implication that the lack of oversight over the secret services had been called into question, as well as their alleged right to intervene extrajudicially in the lives of people and the life of society. Numerous documents, demonstrating the lawlessness and tyranny of the Chekists during the Soviet years, were declassified.
However, after a cohort of former secret service officers came to power, the circumstances changed radically, and the new leaders of the secret services have once again claimed exclusivity. Former Federal Security Service (FSB) director Nikolai Patrushev’s statement about a “new gentry,” uttered long ago, in 2000, was implemented with extreme alacrity. Former FSB officers have taken up key posts in many sectors of the government and economy. The FSB has regained control of the border guards and FAPSI (Federal Agency for Goverment Communications and Information), has stripped juries of the right to hear terrorism and espionage cases, and forced the adoption of new, expanded interpretations of laws governing the violation of state secrets. Today’s Chekists have learned to protect state interests in a way that bolsters their own standing and material well-being. They will mark their professional holiday today with complete confidence in the future.
Translated by the Russian Reader
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