The Narodniy Kommissariat Vnutrenikh Del (NKVD) or People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, as it was euphemistically called, was but one of several incarnations of the Soviet secret police, most familiar as the KGB. Under Stalin it became synonymous with the worst years of the Great Terror, as the official machinery that implemented political repression and hunted down that vast army of plotters, spies, and counterrevolutionaries that Stalin had insisted was seeking to undermine Soviet society.
The Soviet secret police began life as the Cheka in 1917, set up to deal with acts of sabotage and counterrevolution. It mutated through several name changes over the next twenty-seven years, each time extending its jurisdiction, until it arrived at its most familiar acronym—the KGB—in 1954. Between these dates, it was variously known as the OGPU (1923–34), the NKVD (1934– 1943, when it acquired far-reaching investigative powers and staged the major Moscow Show Trials), the NKGB (1943– 1946), the MGB (1946–1953), and the MVD (1953).Three successive heads of the organization were themselves devoured by their own monster (Genrikh Yagoda in 1936, Nikolay Ezhov in 1938, and Lavrenty Beria in 1953).
The location for many of the most gruesome acts of torture (the use of which was officially endorsed by the Central Committee in 1937), which were carried out in the course of extracting the required confessions that Stalin rigorously insisted upon, was the NKVD headquarters in Moscow— the Lubyanka on Dzerzhinsky Square. In time, mention of the name alone would be enough to instill fear into people. Only a few people taken there under arrest would ever come out again. The building itself had once been the rather grand premises of the Rossiya Insurance Company (on Lyubyanskaya Square as it was then called—and the name to which it has now reverted).While the square itself was renamed by the Bolsheviks after the founder of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky (whose imposing statue, which stood in the center of the square, was one of the first casualties of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), the Lubyanka building itself always retained its name. Under the Soviets, new monolithic wings were added to its original structure, turning the NKVD building into one great impenetrable fortress.
When Stalin rose to power after the death of Lenin in 1924, the OGPU was carefully cultivated by him as a major organ of political and social control. When its head Dzerzhinsky died in 1926, the “epoch of romantic terror,” as it has been called, died with him and a new and far-reaching epoch was inaugurated. The OGPU was given a budget of 4 million rubles per year, and the loyalty of its officers was bought with access to their own officers club (Yagoda later even introduced expensive dress uniforms for senior officers in 1936), special goods, and privileges. As members of the chosen few, the officers of the OGPU, under Stalin’s watchful eye, built up a state within the state, administered by hundreds of thousands of lesser servants, that was answerable only to Stalin. NKVD officers now watched and controlled every aspect of Soviet life through a vast network of informers, as well as vetting the appointment of all Communist Party officials. Even the NKVD rank and file were themselves not above suspicion, and a secret inner section monitored their activities.
At the height of its power the NKVD also controlled the Soviet spy network and agents provocateurs abroad. But a greater part of its work was taken up with the administration of the Gulag system and the exploitation of its slave labor, which had become a major contributor to the Soviet economy. One of the NKVD’s first, great showpiece projects to exploit this labor was the construction of the White Sea–Baltic Canal in 1931.
During the years of the Great Terror, the NKVD reverted to history by organizing terror on the grand scale. Terror, condoned by Lenin and Leon Trotsky, had been a natural element of the revolution and had been exercised with great brutality by the Bolsheviks during the period known as the “Red Terror,” which was unleashed in September 1918 after an attempt on the life of Lenin.
Toward the end of the Great Terror, such had been the level of diligence in the betrayal and denunciation of friends and families of each other, that in 1937 senior minister Anastas Mikoyan could confidently announce that “every citizen in the U.S.S.R. is an employee of the NKVD.” For his services in the suppression of counterrevolution and espionage, NKVD head Nikolay Ezhov was awarded the Lenin Prize. It was also by this date that prisoners were denied the last vestiges of legal process. From July 1937, three-man boards of NKVD and Party officials were empowered to pass sentence of death after a mere 10 minutes of ritual paper shuffling, after which the accused would be taken away and summarily shot.
On the eve of World War II, the NKVD arranged the mass deportation and murder of thousands of Ukrainians, Poles, and people from the Baltic states. During the war the NKVD efficiently deported many more thousands of ethnic minorities from their homelands, including the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars, and ethnic Germans from the Volga region. The NKVD was also responsible for the massacre in 1940 of 4,000 Polish officers, whose bodies were found at Katyn, and the systematic murder between 1937 and 1941 of over 250,000 Belarussians, who were taken to the Kuropaty Forest near Minsk in truckloads (as many as sixteen trucks a day), where they were shot and their bodies dumped into mass graves.
The NKVD/NKGB (the roles of the two became difficult to separate) fulfilled an important role during the war years, enforcing political control in the army, censoring mail, and ensuring that Stalin’s orders forbidding retreat and surrender were adhered to. They formed special units that followed frontline troops into battle and saw to it that anyone who turned back was shot. An NKVD Special Department dealt with cases of desertion, anti-Soviet activity (such as being caught reading German propaganda leaflets), and counterrevolutionary propaganda, usually off-the-cuff remarks made by Red Army soldiers that were critical of the Stalinist regime. Such a momentary lapse of caution sent writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the Gulag in 1945.
In 1945 the NKVD had a major hand in one of the most contentious events in the history of World War II—the repatriation of prisoners of war (POWs), slave laborers, and other Russian émigrés and Soviet nationals from German-occupied Europe. Under Stalin’s instructions, the NKVD set up at least 100 holding camps where these people were investigated and interrogated. More than 5 million people were to be dealt with in this way, and they were not given the option of remaining in Western Europe, even if they had valid claims for political asylum. As a result, only about 20 percent ever made it back to their homes and villages in the Soviet Union. Many of the Cossacks and other Russians who had fought for the Nazis in General Andrey Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army (made up of Russian POWs and slave laborers who had been taken to Germany) were summarily shot by the NKVD on their arrival, by sea, at either Odessa or Murmansk. Others were dispatched directly to the Gulag in Siberia on sealed trains to suffer and die as slave laborers long before their ten- and even twenty-five-year sentences were up. In this way, the NKVD oversaw the “repatriation” straight to the Gulag of as many as 2.5 million people.
And then, of course, there were the individual deaths and assassinations of more prominent Soviet figures. Historians are divided on the level of NKVD involvement, and there is no tangible evidence to prove it, but Stalin’s controlling influence can be discerned in the circumstances of the suspicious deaths of Sergey Kirov, Maxim Gorky, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, and others.
The NKVD itself was by no means immune from purges within its own ranks. Each time its leadership changed, the previous executioners were themselves eliminated. When Yagoda fell from power in 1936, the remaining Leninists from the original Cheka were purged from the NKVD’s ranks by Yagoda’s successor Ezhov. Inevitably, when Ezhov was purged in 1938, as a result of his excessive zeal in overfulfilling arrest and execution quotas between 1936 and 1938, many of his equally diligent lieutenants also found themselves taken away to receive a bullet in the back of the head, administered, in many cases, in their own former workplace in the basement of the Lubyanka.
One of the final, major acts of political repression by Stalin’s secret police was its purge and executions of members of the Leningrad Communist Party in 1948 and the stage-managing of the so-called Doctors’ Plot of 1953. By now the Soviet secret police had extended its surveillance over the Communist satellites of Europe, instituting its own purge trials among the various national Communist Parties, in particular, that in Czechoslovakia, which resulted in the trial and execution of Vice-President Rudolf Slansky in 1952. By the time of Stalin’s death in March 1953, current head of the MGB Lavrenty Beria had built himself a considerable power base as a latter-day mafioso, from which he launched his own bid for the leadership, only to be arrested as an imperialist agent, taken to the Lubyanka, and shot in December 1953.
Further reading: Robert Conquest. Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936–1939. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1985;
Amy Knight, Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993;
Boris Levytsky. The Uses of Terror: The Soviet Secret Police, 1917–1970. New York: Coward, McGann & Geoghegan, 1972.