Saturday, January 6, 2018

Soviet Chekists Weren’t the Professionals Putin Wants Russians to Think They Were, New Book Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 6 – The KGB and its predecessors were not the highly disciplined professionals and successful managers Vladimir Putin wants Russians to believe, according to a new book on the organs between 1917 and 1941. Instead, they were as roguish and criminal as any security service in history.

            Instead, 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 Soviet secret services, the historian told Svoboda’s Dmitry Volchek, “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 justified [their] crimeas.”

            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 travelling to Kyiv to research them that the biggest problem is that the reading room for them is too small – only ten desks.

            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 secruty officers. More than 70 percent were removed by 1940, but “only part of them were repressed.” Most were given other, lesser jobs in the GULAR. 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 Dzerzhinsky.  In fact, the historian says, in the initial period, many of its 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 party they were supposed to serve.

            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, he says, “present-day special servies 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.

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