Secret Police From the beginning of their regime, the Bolsheviks relied on a strong secret
From the beginning of their regime, the Bolsheviks relied on
a strong secret, or political, police to buttress their rule.
The first secret police, called the Cheka, was established in
December 1917 as a temporary institution to be abolished once
Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks had consolidated their power.
The original Cheka, headed by Feliks Dzerzhinskii, was empowered
only to investigate "counterrevolutionary" crimes. But it soon
acquired powers of summary justice and began a campaign of terror
against the propertied classes and enemies of Bolshevism.
Although many Bolsheviks viewed the Cheka with repugnance and
spoke out against its excesses, its continued existence was seen
as crucial to the survival of the new regime.
Once the Civil War (1918-21) ended and the threat of
domestic and foreign opposition had receded, the Cheka was
disbanded. Its functions were transferred in 1922 to the State
Political Directorate, or GPU, which was initially less powerful
than its predecessor. Repression against the population
lessened. But under party leader Joseph Stalin, the secret
police again acquired vast punitive powers and in 1934 was
renamed the People's Comissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD.
No longer subject to party control or restricted by law, the NKVD
became a direct instrument of Stalin for use against the party
and the country during the Great Terror of the 1930s.
The secret police remained the most powerful and feared
Soviet institution throughout the Stalinist period. Although the
post-Stalin secret police, the KGB, no longer inflicted such
large-scale purges, terror, and forced depopulation on the
peoples of the Soviet Union, it continued to be used by the
Kremlin leadership to suppress political and religious dissent.
The head of the KGB was a key figure in resisting the
democratization of the late 1980s and in organizing the attempted
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