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What Was the KGB?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Komitet Gosundarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), or Committee for State Security, was the primary intelligence organization in the Soviet Union from 1954-1991. Many Cold War novels and thriller films feature this agency, which was the largest and possibly the most fearsome intelligence organization in the world at its peak. Organizations which are analogous to the KGB include the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6). The term is also used colloquially to discuss Russian intelligence before 1954.

The KGB had several missions. One of the primary missions of the intelligence organization was the protection of the Soviet state, through the ruthless prosecution of dissidents and enforcement of border security. The organization arose from earlier groups that had managed prison camps, and it adopted some brutal interrogation tactics and police practices in an effort to keep social unrest to a minimum. KGB border guards also protected the integrity of the state by restricting access to the Soviet Union and keeping an eye on people leaving it, as well.

In addition, the KGB managed internal counterintelligence and international espionage for the Soviet Union. Crimes against the state such as treason were also handled by the agency, which conducted extensive investigations of many Russian citizens. The size and scope of the KGB made it into an extremely powerful organization, which ended up being its downfall in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev decided that it had too much power and it needed to be reorganized.

The motto of the KGB was “the sword and the shield,” and the organization's logo featured a broadsword superimposed on a shield background. Training varied, depending on the functions that an operative was expected to fulfill, and it could get quite extensive, especially for spies who would be deployed into the West. Certainly, the organization provided training in torture and asymmetrical warfare to agents and Russian allies, and it also specialized in disinformation and propaganda.

Histories of the KGB reveal an extensive cat and mouse game between operatives and Western spies, especially in hotbeds of activity like Berlin. Mysterious assignations, peculiar packages, and complex codes were all part of the agency's activities, and they have been preserved in a number of novels that take place in the spy's proving ground between East and West. While many of these novels do stray into the realm of fancy, they have ensured that the KGB will eternally be linked with mystique and espionage.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On May 23, 2011

@ysmina-- The KGB was replaced by the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) after the fall of the USSR.

I think some of the former KGB employees continued working for one of these new agencies, but a lot of them retired or quit. They say that the Russian government wanted them to retire for the most part and gave them good benefits if they did. Others continued working and some others shifted to other fields of work, like business or academia.

By ysmina — On May 20, 2011

It's hard to believe that such a powerful intelligence organization ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. How did that happen exactly?

And what happened to the people working for the KGB? Did they continue their jobs with Russia's new intelligence agency?

By fify — On May 19, 2011

Since I had to read about this for a paper I was working on, I know that the KGB was also very active in Afghanistan in the 1970s. It is said that they plaid a big part in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the establishment of a Soviet-friendly government there.

It is not really out of the ordinary because intelligence organizations might often carry out activity promoting friendlier governments in neighboring countries. And that's what the KGB was doing as well.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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