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NKVD - People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs
(Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennykh del)

In July 1934, the OGPU was transformed into the Main Directorate for State Security (Glavnoe upravlenie gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti—GUGB) and integrated into the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennykh del — NKVD), which had been given all-union status earlier that year. The functions of the security police and those of the internal affairs apparatus, which controlled the regular police and the militia, were thus united in one agency. NKVD officers would arrive in black cars (known as voronki) and quietly, without much ado, arrest people.

In 1936 Genrikh Yagoda was replaced as head of the Soviet Secret police by Nikolai Yezhov, popularly known as the bloodthirsty dwarf. Yezhov supervised the Great Purge in 1937. Yezhov was only 5 foot tall, but he used to threaten his victims by making a strangling gesture and saying, “I may be small but I have hands of steel, because they are the hands of Stalin.”

Yezhov was a member of the Organising Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPSU(b) (1934-1939), secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU (b) (1935-1939), candidate member of the Politburo of the CPSU(b) (1937-1939). People's Commissar of Internal Affairs of the USSR (1936-1938), People's Commissar of Water Transport of the USSR (1938-1939). While serving as the people's commissar of internal affairs Yezhov was the main organizer of the mass repression of 1937-1938, also known as the "Great Terror". This led to Yezhov and the NKVD to become a symbol of repression, and the period for which the peak of repression fell Soviet times, was named Yezhovshchina. In 1939 he was arrested, and a year later was executed 04 February 1940 on charges of preparing an anti-Soviet coup.

The NKVD was a powerful organization. In addition to controlling the security police and the regular police, it was in charge of border and internal troops, fire brigades, convoy troops, and, after 1934, the entirepenal system, including regular prisons and forced labor camps, or the Gulag. During the period from 1934 to 1940, the NKVD took charge of numerous economic enterprises that employed forced labor, such as gold mining, major construction projects, and other industrial activity. In addition, the Special Board, attached to the NKVD, operated outside the legal codes and was empowered to impose on persons deemed "socially dangerous" sentences of exile, deportation, or confinement in labor camps. The Special Board soon became one of the chief instruments of Stalin's purges.

Stalin's domination over the party was not absolute at this time, however. Dissatisfaction with his policies continued to be manifested by some party members, and elements existed within the leadership that might have opposed any attempt to use police terror against the party. Among Stalin's potential challengers was Sergei Kirov, chief of the Leningrad party apparatus. Conveniently for Stalin, Kirov was assassinated by a disgruntled ex-party member in December 1934. This provided Stalin with the pretext for launching an assault against the party.

Although Stalin proceeded cautiously, the turning point had been reached, and the terror machinery was in place. From 1936 to 1938, the NKVD arrested and executed millions of party members, government officials, and ordinary citizens. The military also came under assault. Much of the officer corps was wiped out in 1937-38, leaving the country ill prepared for World War II. The era in which the NKVD, with Stalin's aproval, terrorized Soviet citizens became known in the West as the Great Terror.


The period of Stalin's purges began in December 1934 when Sergei Kirov, a popular Leningrad party chief who advocated a moderate policy toward the peasants, was assassinated. Although details remain murky, many Western historians believe that Stalin instigated the murder to rid himself of a potential opponent. In any event, in the resultant mass purge of the local Leningrad party, thousands were deported to camps in Siberia. Zinov'ev and Kamenev, Stalin's former political partners, received prison sentences for their alleged role in Kirov's murder.

At the same time, the NKVD, the secret police, stepped up surveillance through its agents and informers and claimed to uncover anti-Soviet conspiracies among prominent long-term party members. At three publicized show trials held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, dozens of these Old Bolsheviks, including Zinov'ev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, confessed to improbable crimes against the Soviet state and were executed. (The last of Stalin's old enemies, Trotsky, who had supposedly masterminded the conspiracies against Stalin from abroad, was murdered in Mexico in 1940, presumably by the NKVD.)

Pavel Alliluev was Stalin's brother-in-law, the beloved brother of Stalin's wife, Nadezhda, who had committed suicide six years earlier, on November 9, 1932. Alliluev died mysteriously "of a heart attack" in his office on November 2, 1938, after he found out that literally all of his subordinates had been arrested. His daughter, son, and nephew suspect he was poisoned by the NKVD.

The secret police terrorized the general populace, with untold numbers of common people punished for spurious crimes. By the time the purges subsided in 1938, millions of Soviet leaders, officials, and other citizens had been executed, imprisoned, or exiled. The reasons for this period of widespread purges remain unclear.

Coincident with the show trials against the original leadership of the party, unpublicized purges swept through the ranks of younger leaders in party, government, industrial management, and cultural affairs. Party purges in the non-Russian republics were particularly severe. The Yezhovshchina ("era of Yezhov," named for NKVD chief Nikolai Ezhov the suffix -shchina produces a word which can refer to any phenomenon associated with the word to which the suffix is attached) ravaged the military as well, leading to the execution or incarceration of about half the entire military officer corps.

Lavrenty Beria, a Georgian like his master, reportedly won Stalin's favor in the early 1930s after faking a conspiracy to assassinate the Soviet leader that he then claimed to have foiled. In 1938 Stalin rewarded Beria's dog-like loyalty by making him head of the NKVD. One account says Beria personally strangled his predecessor, Nikolai Yezhov.

Fellow senior Communists, many of them mass murderers in their own right, had nothing good to say about Beria. They described him as slippery and obsequious in front of his superiors, brutal and cunning behind their backs. He was also deeply depraved and a notorious sexual predator. At night he would cruise the streets of Moscow seeking out teenage girls. When he saw one who took his fancy he would have his guards deliver her to his house.

The War Years

The war years brought further opportunities for the political police, under the control of Lavrenty Beria, to expand its authority. The NKVD assumed a number of additional economic functions that made use of the expanding labor camp population. The NKVD also broadened its presence in the Red Army, where it conducted extensive surveillance of the troops. Toward the end of the war, the political police moved into areas formerly under German occupation to arrest those suspected of sympathy for the Nazis. They also suppressed nationalist movements in the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and western Ukrainian republics.

On 03 February 1941 the NKVD SSSR was separated into two komissariats: NKVD SSSR and NKGB SSSR. The NKGB was headed by V.N. Merkulov. In June 1941 the NKVD and the NKGB were reunited into one NKVD SSSR. On 14 April 1943 the NKVD was again divided into two organizations: the NKVD SSSR and the Narkomat gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR (NKGB SSSR) which was again headed by V.N. Merkulov).

On 3 February 1941, the State Security People’s Commissariat (NKGB) was established to take the place of the NKVD State Security Board. It was separate from the NKVD and had political functions, to ensure state security. The 3rd and 4th branches were also formed. The former 2nd Department of the NKVD State Security was restructured into a secret political department. It was one of the largest and most important departments, consisting of six branches, charged with fighting nationalist and anti-Soviet manifestations in various strata of society, anti-Soviet organisations, and searching for anti-Soviet documents. The NKVD (UGB) 3rd Department was formed into a counterintelligence department. There was also an intelligence department, the NKGB 2nd Department (records and statistics), and the 5th Department, which was in charge of encoding and guarding state secrets. The Investigations Department was given over to the NKGB. When the war broke out in 1941, part of the NKGB apparatus was evacuated to the USSR.

On 22 March 1946 the NKGB SSSR was renamed the Ministerstvo gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR (MGB SSSR))

In April 1943, the Soviet intelligence service, the NKGB (People's Commissariat for State Security) had been made independent of the NKVD (Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs).

Colonel General Dmitrii Pavlov had the misfortune of commanding the embattled Western Front while Meretskov was in prison. On July 4, 1941, Pavlov was arrested by an NKVD special group and brought to Moscow. Two days later Lev Mekhlis, the Politburo-appointed member of the Military Council of Pavlov's front and, in fact, Stalin's representative, cabled Stalin that Pavlov's six closest subordinates, all generals, should also be arrested. Stalin agreed.

Pavlov and three other generals under his command were accused of failing to follow Stalin's orders to attack the Germans. They were unable to do so simply because their own troops had already been virtually wiped out by the advancing Germans after a previous order from Moscow to resist them. Pavlov was also accused of being a plotter: ‘While part of an anti-Soviet plot and a commander of the troops of the Western Front, [Pavlov] betrayed the interests of the Motherland by opening the front to the fascists.' Pavlov was interrogated about Meretskov, and Meretskov was interrogated about him..

After the Pavlov Case, military counterintelligence seems to have gone somewhat out of control. Numerous arrests of commanders of all ranks, including generals, followed at the Western and other fronts. Many of them were sentenced under paragraphs 193-17b (abuse of power) and 193-20a (surrender of troops), and executed.

The NKVD, to be sure, had a good war. Members of the Fourth Department (special operations) and OMSBON were the most highly decorated units of the Battle of Moscow. They killed 137,000 German officers and soldiers, assassinated 87 high-ranking officials through terrorist acts, and liquidated more than 2,000 Nazi agents and collaborators. They claimed destruction of 30 enemy tanks, 20 armored vehicles, 68 troop carriers, 19 light vehicles with officers, and 53 motorcyclists. And they dispatched 212 guerilla units behind enemy lines; sent 7,316 of their own officers, trained technicians, and saboteurs to the Red Army; and parachuted 3,000 guerillas behind enemy lines.

The Soviet military establishment had a special animus toward the NKVD. Stalin encouraged rivalry between the two institutions as a way of keeping potential opposition forces weak and divided. Rivalry turned into a blood feud during the Great Terror of 1936-37. The NKVD arrested and tortured 45,000 Red Army officers and soldiers, wiping out the high command and much of the senior officer corps—15,000 were executed. Even when the enemy was at the gates of Moscow, the NKVD kept on torturing and killing members of the armed forces.


During the Great Patriotic War, the NKVD agencies in the army (the OO's - Osobye Otdely, meaning Special Sections) were checking on the loyalty of officers and men. In wartime they were renamed Smersh (Smert Shpionam -” Death to Spies), and were greatly enlarged; they operated along with the numerous newly-established military tribunals. The Smersh agencies, dreaded for their ruthlessness, recruited informers in each army unit. All oppositionist remarks or acts, which were viewed as products of the influence of the enemy, brought severe punishment, often death.

When the Soviet army crossed over into the West, Smersh, in accordance with instructions, carried out the purge of the local populations. The head of Smersh during the war was Viktor Abakumov (later head of the MGB, and executed by the post-Stalin government in December 1954). During the war the NKVD kept a strict watch over all the armed forces through the organization known as "Smersh". Its real task was not the apprehension and punishment of foreign spies; it was the detection of the slightest sign of disaffection, or even the expression of discontent, among the Soviet soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Every battalion, regiment and company of the Red Army had a Smersh representative attached to it, as did all parallel units in the Navy and Air Force. His position was quite open but he had to recruit and organize a number of secret agents to spy and report on the rest of the unit: the average number was ten to every hundred men. The Smersh representative had conspiratorial meetings with his agents as though he were running a spy network on foreign soil. Smersh agents furnished detailed reports on their comrades, noting any defeatist talk, complaints about conditions, or criticism of the authorities. These reports went through Smersh channels, circumventing the Commanding Officer and staff of the unit. No wonder that the professional soldiers detested Smersh - though they had to pay lip service to the need for this relentless vigilance.

Among the most significant mass operations of the NKVD inside Russia during the war was the deportation of entire "disloyal" nationalities from their areas and the abolition of their autonomous units. Collective guilt of a nation for disloyalty of some of its members lay at the basis of this policy; because of this attitude even "Communists and Komsomols without any exception" were deported.

Post-War Developments

In March 1946, both the NKGB (People's Commissariat for State Security) and the NKVD (Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs) raised to the status of ministries to become, respectively, the MVD (Ministry for Internal Affairs) and the MGB (Ministry for State Security). However, in October 1947 the foreign intelligence directorate of the MGB was combined with Soviet military intelligence (GRU) to form the independent Committee of Information (KI). This persisted until the summer of 1948, when the GRU was recreated as a separate agency under the control of the military. In November 1951, KI was reabsorbed by the MGB.

Beria himself steadily gained power and authority during this period. In early 1946, when he was made a full member of the Politburo and a deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers (the new name for the Council of People's Commissars), he relinquished his NKVD post, but he apparently retained some control over the police through his proteges in that organization. In March 1953, following Stalin's death, Beria became chief of the MVD, which amalgamated the regular police and the security police into one organization. Some three months later, he was viewed as a threat to the leadership and was arrested by his Kremlin colleagues, including Khrushchev.

Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's depraved and blood-thirsty executioner, was shot in secret by a firing squad. In 15 years as head of the secret police, the NKVD, he was responsible for overseeing the murder of millions of Russians, some shot at night in the depths of the Lubyanka, others dragged off to the gulags.

The "Beria affair" and the shake-up in the Kremlin that followed his arrest had far-reaching consequences for the role of the police in Soviet society. The party leadership not only arrested and later executed Beria and several of his allies in the MVD but also took measures to place the political police under its firm control. Thereafter, violence was no longer to be used as a means of settling conflicts within the leadership, and widespread terror was not employed against the population.

On Stalin's death in March 1953, the MGB became part of the MVD, under the control of Lavrenty Beria. In March 1954 the MGB was removed from the control of the MVD and placed under the direct control of the Council Ministers and downgraded to a Committee, becoming the KGB.

The Khrushchev period was important for the development of the internal security apparatus. Legal reforms, personnel changes, and the denunciation of Stalin had a marked effect on the position of the police and the legal organs. As the successor to Khrushchev, Brezhnev did much to reverse the tide of reforms, but later, under Gorbachev, reforms progressed again. The reforms brought opposition to Gorbachev from the police apparatus because the changes curtailed police powers.

One of the first reforms instituted by the post- Stalin leadership under Khrushchev was a reorganization of the police apparatus. On March 13, 1954 a decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet established the KGB, attached to the Council of Ministers. The establishment of a state security apparatus separate from that of the regular police was designed to diminish the formidable powers that the police had wielded when its activities were concentrated in one organization. Thereafter, the functions of ensuring political security would be ascribed to a special police agency, whose powers were substantially less than they had been under Stalin.

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Page last modified: 04-11-2018 17:55:58 ZULU