After the Russian February Revolution of 1917, the Provisional Government dissolved the Tsar's police and created the People's Militsiya. The subsequent Russian October Revolution of 1917, was a seizure of state power led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who established a new Bolshevik regime, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) turned into NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs) under a People's Commissar. However, the NKVD apparatus was overwhelmed by duties inherited from MVD, such as the supervision of the local governments and firefighting, and the Workers' and Peasants' Militsiya staffed by proletarians was largely inexperienced and unqualified. Realizing that it was left with no capable security force, the Council of People's Commissars of the RSFSR created a secret political police, the Cheka, led by Felix Dzerzhinsky. It gained the right to undertake quick non-judicial trials and executions, if that was deemed necessary in order to "protect the Russian Socialist-Communist revolution".
The Cheka was reorganized in 1922 as the State Political Directorate, or GPU, of the NKVD of the RSFSR. In 1922, the USSR was formed with the RSFSR as its largest member. The GPU became the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), under the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR. The NKVD of the RSFSR retained control of the militsiya, and various other responsibilities.
In 1934, the NKVD of the RSFSR was transformed into an all-union security force, the NKVD of the USSR (which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union leaders soon came to call "the leading detachment of our party"), and the OGPU was incorporated into the NKVD as the Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB); the separate NKVD of the RSFSR was not resurrected until 1946 (as the MVD of the RSFSR). As a result, the NKVD also became responsible for all detention facilities (including the forced labor camps, known as the GULag) as well as for the regular police. Until the reorganization begun by Nikolai Yezhov with a purge of the regional political police in the autumn of 1936 and formalized by a May 1939 directive of the All-Union NKVD by which all appointments to the local political police were controlled from the center, there was frequent tension between centralized control of local units and the collusion of those units with local and regional party elements, frequently resulting in the thwarting of Moscow's plans.
Since its creation in 1934, the NKVD of the USSR underwent many organizational changes; between 1938 and 1939 alone, the NKVD's structure changed three times.
On February 3, 1941, the Special Sections of the NKVD responsible for military counterintelligence (CI) became part of the Army and Navy (RKKA and RKKF, respectively). The GUGB was separated from the NKVD and renamed the People's Commissariat for State Security (NKGB). After the German invasion, the NKVD and NKGB were reunited on July 20, 1941. The CI sections were returned to the NKVD in January 1942. In April 1943, the CI sections were again transferred to the People's Commissariats (Narkomat) of Defense and the Navy, becoming SMERSH (from Smert' Shpionam or "Death to Spies"); at the same time, the NKVD was again separated from the NKGB.
In 1946, all Soviet Commissariats were renamed "ministries". Accordingly, the NKVD of the USSR was renamed as the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), while the NKGB was renamed as the Ministry of State Security (MGB). In 1953, after the arrest of Lavrenty Beria, the MGB was merged back into the MVD. The police and security services were finally split in 1954 to become:The USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), responsible for the criminal militia and correctional facilities.
The USSR Committee for State Security (KGB), responsible for the political police, intelligence, counter-intelligence, personal protection (of the leadership) and confidential communications.
Border and Internal Security
Correction and Labor camps
Other smaller departments
Department of Civil registration
In 1935-1945 Main Directorate of State Security of NKVD had its own ranking system before it was merged in the Soviet military standardized ranking system.Top-level commanding staff
Commissar General of State Security (later in 1935)
Commissar of State Security 1st Class
Commissar of State Security 2nd Class
Commissar of State Security 3rd Class
Commissar of State Security (Senior Major of State Security, before 1943)
Senior commanding staff
Colonel of State Security (Major of State Security, before 1943)
Lieutenant Colonel of State Security (Captain of State Security, before 1943)
Major of State Security (Senior Lieutenant of State Security, before 1943)
Mid-level commanding staff
Captain of State Security (Lieutenant of State Security, before 1943)
Senior Lieutenant of State Security (Junior Lieutenant of State Security, before 1943)
Lieutenant of State Security (Sergeant of State Security, before 1942)
Junior Lieutenant of State Security (Sergeant of State Security, before 1942)
Junior commanding staff
Sergeant Major of Special Service
Senior Sergeant of Special Service
Sergeant of Special Service
Junior Sergeant of Special Service
The main function of the NKVD was to protect the state security of the Soviet Union. This function was successfully accomplished through massive political repression, including authorized political murders, kidnappings and assassinations, inclusively in its international "secret" operations.
In implementing Soviet internal policy towards perceived enemies of the Soviet state ("enemies of the people"), untold multitudes of people were sent to GULAG camps and hundreds of thousands were executed by the NKVD. Formally, most of these people were convicted by NKVD troikas ("triplets")– special courts martial. Evidential standards were very low: a tip-off by an anonymous informer was considered sufficient grounds for arrest. Use of "physical means of persuasion" (torture) was sanctioned by a special decree of the state, which opened the door to numerous abuses, documented in recollections of victims and members of the NKVD itself. Hundreds of mass graves resulting from such operations were later discovered throughout the country. Documented evidence exists that the NKVD committed mass extrajudicial executions, guided by secret "plans". Those plans established the number and proportion of victims (officially "public enemies") in a given region (e.g. the quotas for clergy, former nobles etc., regardless of identity). The families of the repressed, including children, were also automatically repressed according to NKVD Order no. 00486.
The purges were organized in a number of waves according to the decisions of the Politburo of the Communist Party. Some examples are the campaigns among engineers (Shakhty Trial), party and military elite plots (Great Purge with Order 00447), and medical staff ("Doctors' Plot").
A number of mass operations of the NKVD were related to the prosecution of whole ethnic categories. For example, the Polish Operation of the NKVD in 1937–1938 resulted in the execution of 111,091 Poles. Whole populations of certain ethnicities were forcibly resettled. Foreigners living in the Soviet Union were given particular attention. When disillusioned American citizens living in the Soviet Union thronged the gates of the U.S. embassy in Moscow to plead for new U.S. passports to leave USSR (their original U.S. passports had been taken for 'registration' purposes years before), none were issued. Instead, the NKVD promptly arrested all of the Americans, who were taken to Lubyanka Prison and later shot. American factory workers at the Soviet Ford GAZ plant, suspected by Stalin of being 'poisoned' by Western influences, were dragged off with the others to Lubyanka by the NKVD in the very same Ford Model A cars they had helped build, where they were tortured; nearly all were executed or died in labor camps. Many of the slain Americans were dumped in the mass grave at Yuzhnoye Butovo District near Moscow. Even so, the people of the Soviet Republics still formed the majority of NKVD victims[*17][*18].
The NKVD also served as arm of the Russian Soviet communist government for the lethal mass persecution and destruction of ethnic minorities and religious beliefs, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholics, Islam, Judaism and other religious organizations, an operation headed by Yevgeny Tuchkov.
During the 1930s, the NKVD was responsible for political murders of those Stalin believed to oppose him. Espionage networks headed by experienced multilingual NKVD officers such as Pavel Sudoplatov and Iskhak Akhmerov were established in nearly every major Western country, including the United States. The NKVD recruited agents for its espionage efforts from all walks of life, from unemployed intellectuals such as Mark Zborowski to aristocrats such as Martha Dodd. Besides the gathering of intelligence, these networks provided organizational assistance for so-called wet business, where enemies of the USSR either disappeared or were openly liquidated.
The NKVD's intelligence and special operations (Inostranny Otdel) unit organized overseas assassinations of political enemies of the USSR, such as leaders of nationalist movements, former Tsarist officials, and personal rivals of Joseph Stalin. Among the officially confirmed victims of such plots were:Leon Trotsky, a personal political enemy of Stalin and his most bitter international critic, killed in Mexico City in 1940;
Yevhen Konovalets, prominent Ukrainian patriot leader who was attempting to create a separatist movement in Soviet Ukraine; assassinated in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Yevgeny Miller, former General of the Tsarist (Imperial Russian) Army; in the 1930s, he was responsible for funding anti-communist movements inside the USSR with the support of European governments. Kidnapped in Paris and brought to Moscow, where he was interrogated and executed
Noe Ramishvili, Prime Minister of independent Georgia, fled to France after the Bolshevik takeover; responsible for funding and coordinating Georgian nationalist organizations and the August uprising, he was assassinated in Paris
Boris Savinkov, Russian revolutionary and anti-Bolshevik terrorist (lured back into Russia and killed in 1924 by the Trust Operation of the GPU);
Sidney Reilly, British agent of the MI6 who deliberately entered Russia in 1925 trying to expose the Trust Operation to avenge Savinkov's death;
Alexander Kutepov, former General of the Tsarist (Imperial Russian) Army, who was active in organizing anti-communist groups with the support of French and British governments
Prominent political dissidents were also killed found dead under highly suspicious circumstances, including Walter Krivitsky, Lev Sedov, Ignace Reiss and former German Communist Party (KPD) member Willi Münzenberg.
The pro-Soviet leader Sheng Shicai in Xinjiang received NKVD assistance in conducting a purge to coincide with Stalin's Great Purge in 1937. Sheng and the Soviets alleged a massive Trotskyist conspiracy and a "Fascist Trotskyite plot" to destroy the Soviet Union. The Soviet Consul General Garegin Apresoff, General Ma Hushan, Ma Shaowu, Mahmud Sijan, the official leader of the Xinjiang province Huang Han-chang and Hoja-Niyaz were among the 435 alleged conspirators in the plot. Xinjiang came under virtual Soviet control. Stalin opposed the Chinese Communist Party.
During the Spanish Civil War, NKVD agents, acting in conjunction with the Communist Party of Spain, exercised substantial control over the Republican government, using Soviet military aid to help further Soviet influence. The NKVD established numerous secret prisons around the capital Madrid, which were used to detain, torture, and kill hundreds of the NKVD's enemies, at first focusing on Spanish Nationalists and Spanish Catholics, while from late 1938 increasingly anarchists and Trotskyists were the objects of persecution. In June 1937 Andrés Nin, the secretary of the Trotskyist POUM, was tortured and killed in an NKVD prison.
Prior to the German invasion, in order to accomplish its own goals, the NKVD was prepared to cooperate even with such organizations as the German Gestapo. In March 1940 representatives of the NKVD and the Gestapo met for one week in Zakopane, to coordinate the pacification of Poland; see Gestapo–NKVD Conferences. For its part, the Soviet Union delivered hundreds of German and Austrian Communists to the Gestapo, as unwanted foreigners, together with their documents. However, many NKVD units were later to fight the Wehrmacht, for example the 10th Rifle Division NKVD, which fought at the Battle of Stalingrad.
During World War II, NKVD Internal Troops units were used for rear area security, including preventing the retreat of Soviet Union army divisions. Though mainly intended for internal security, NKVD divisions were sometimes used at the front to stem the occurrence of desertion through Stalin's Order No. 270 and Order No. 227 decrees in 1941 and 1942, which aimed to raise troop morale via brutality and coercion. At the beginning of the war the NKVD formed 15 rifle divisions, which had expanded by 1945 to 53 divisions and 28 brigades. A list of identified NKVD Internal Troops divisions can be seen -lines, for example during the Battle of Stalingrad and the breakthrough in Crimea. Unlike the Waffen-SS, the NKVD did not field any armored or mechanized units. However, the NKVD was a well armed force.
In the seized/occupied territories, the NKVD (later KGB) carried out mass arrests, deportations, and executions. The targets included both collaborators with Germany and non-Communist resistance movements such as the Polish Armia Krajowa and Ukrainian Ukrayins’ka Povstans’ka Armiya aiming to separate from the Russian Soviet Union, among others. The NKVD also executed tens of thousands of Polish political prisoners in 1939–1941, including the Katyń massacre. NKVD units were also used to repress the prolonged partisan war in Ukraine and the Baltics, which lasted until the early 1950s.
After the death of Stalin in 1953, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev halted the NKVD purges. From the 1950s to the 1980s, thousands of victims were legally "rehabilitated" (i.e., acquitted and had their rights restored). Many of the victims and their relatives refused to apply for rehabilitation out of fear or lack of documents. The rehabilitation was not complete: in most cases the formulation was "due to lack of evidence of the case of crime", a Soviet legal jargon that effectively said "there was a crime, but unfortunately we cannot prove it". Only a limited number of persons were rehabilitated with the formulation "cleared of all charges".
Very few NKVD agents were ever officially convicted of the particular violation of anyone's rights. Legally, those agents executed in the 1930s were also "purged" without legitimate criminal investigations and court decisions. In the 1990s and 2000s (decade) a small number of ex-NKVD agents living in the Baltic states were convicted of crimes against the local population.
At present, living former agents retain generous pensions and privileges established by the USSR and later confirmed by all of the member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. They have not been prosecuted in any way, although some have been identified by their victims.
These included:Establishment of a widespread spy network through the Comintern.
Operations of Richard Sorge, the "Red Orchestra", Willi Lehmann, and other agents who provided valuable intelligence during World War II.
Recruitment of important UK officials as agents in the 1940s.
Penetration of British intelligence (MI6) and counter-intelligence (MI5) services.
Collection of detailed nuclear weapons design information from the U.S. and Britain.
Disruption of several confirmed plots to assassinate Stalin.
Establishment of the People's Republic of Poland and earlier its communist party along with training activists, during World War II. The first President of Poland after the war was Bolesław Bierut, an NKVD agent.
The extensive system of labor exploitation in the Gulag made a notable contribution to the Soviet economy and the development of remote areas. Colonization of Siberia, the North and Far East was among the explicitly stated goals in the very first laws concerning Soviet labor camps. Mining, construction works (roads, railways, canals, dams, and factories), logging, and other functions of the labor camps were part of the Soviet planned economy, and the NKVD had its own production plans.
The most unusual part of the NKVD's achievements was its role in Soviet science and arms development. Many scientists and engineers arrested for political crimes were placed in special prisons, much more comfortable than the Gulag, colloquially known as sharashkas. These prisoners continued their work in these prisons. When later released, some of them became world leaders in science and technology. Among such sharashka members were Sergey Korolev, the head designer of the Soviet rocket program and first human space flight mission in 1961, and Andrei Tupolev, the famous airplane designer. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was also imprisoned in a sharashka, and based his novel The First Circle on his experiences there.
After World War II, the NKVD coordinated work on Soviet nuclear weaponry, under the direction of General Pavel Sudoplatov. The scientists were not prisoners, but the project was supervised by the NKVD because of its great importance and the corresponding requirement for absolute security and secrecy. Also, the project used information obtained by the NKVD from the United States.
The agency was heading by a people's commissar (minister). His first deputy was the director of State Security Service (GUGB).1934-1936 Genrikh Yagoda, both people's commissar of Interior and director of State Security
1936-1938 Nikolai Yezhov, people's commissar of Interior
1936-1937 Yakov Agranov, director of State Security (as the first deputy)
1937-1938 Mikhail Frinovsky, director of State Security (as the first deputy)
1938-1938 Lavrentiy Beria, director of State Security (as the first deputy)
1938-1945 Lavrentiy Beria, people's commissar of Interior
1938-1941 Vsevolod Merkulov, director of State Security (as the first deputy)
1941-1943 Vsevolod Merkulov, director of State Security (as the first deputy)
1945-1946 Sergei Kruglov, people's commissar of Interior
Note: In the first half of 1941 Vsevolod Merkulov transformed his agency into separate commissariat (ministry), but it was merged back to the people's commissariat of Interior soon after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. In 1943 Merkulov once again split his agency this time for good.
Andrei Zhukov has singlehandedly identified every single NKVD officer involved in 1930s arrests and killings by researching a Moscow archive. There are just over 40,000 names on the list.