Soviet Union Table of Contents
The KGB and the MVD had numerous predecessor organizations, dating back to the tsarist period. These organizations contributed significantly to the historical traditions of the modern Soviet police, which in several ways resembled those of its forerunners.
The 1980s Soviet police system cannot be properly understood without considering the evolution of the tsarist police, particularly as it related to Russia's political culture and governmental institutions. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Russia was, by all accounts, a "police state," not in the modern sense of the term, which connotes all the evils of Nazi Germany and Stalinism, but in the more traditional sense as it applied to certain European states in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, e.g., France and Prussia. These states, which incorporated secret political police, spying, and encroachments on individual rights with both paternalism and enlightenment, were motivated by a desire to reform and modernize.
Russia's monarchical police state was similar to those in western Europe except that it lagged far behind in its political evolution and was much less efficient. The foundations of the tsarist police state were established in 1826, when Tsar Nicholas I formed the so-called Third Section, a political police whose purpose was to protect the state from internal subversion. The staff of the Third Section was small, numbering only forty fulltime employees, who were burdened with information-gathering and welfare functions that extended well beyond the realm of political surveillance. As a result, its role was vague and poorly defined, and its efforts to combat political dissent, on the whole, were ineffective.
In 1880, as part of an effort to improve the effectiveness of the political police, the much-discredited Third Section was abolished and replaced by the central State Police Department under the Ministry of the Interior. Its chief responsibility was dealing with political crimes, and, although its staff consisted of only 161 full-time employees, it had at its disposal the Corps of Gendarmes, numbering several thousand, and a large contingent of informers. In addition, the notorious "security sections" were established in several Russian cities following the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Despite the fact that its operations were strengthened, the political police was not successful in stemming the tide of the revolutionary movement, which helped to bring down the Russian monarchy in 1917. Police operations were hampered by the low quality of personnel and grave deficiencies in training. One of the greatest impediments to an effective political police was the general reluctance on the part of the Russian state to use violence against political dissenters. Herein lies one of the crucial differences between the monarchical police state of tsarist Russia and the Soviet regime, which from the outset used violence to preserve its rule and gradually extended the violence to affect broad segments of the population.
Data as of May 1989