The Cult of the KGB
Inside the ideology of the Russian secret police state
Chekhism. That’s what they call it. The ideology. A lot of people have been wondering about that—since the invasion of the Ukraine. What makes them tick? Putin and his crew of KGB henchmen. A question we should have asked many moons ago, and one we have answered wrongly several times since. “Putin is a Tsarist!” some pseudo-analysts exclaim, staring all psycho-eyed into some 24-hour news channel camera. Nope. (Well, not quite anyway, imperial ambitions notwithstanding.) “He wants to resurrect the Soviet Union!” others shout from the rooftops, usually the same crackpot blowhards droning on about an impossible conventional war breaking out across the entire continent of Europe—with a broken Russian military that has failed to take Ukraine at current force levels, and still bogged down getting their asses kicked, somehow rebounding to take on NATO with a mass, Fulda Gap-style tank invasion sweeping across the Baltics, Romania, and Poland (think a reverse Barbarossa), their entire reasoning for this conclusion drawn off a quote from Putin himself calling the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in history.”
Except that’s not quite what he said. What he actually referred to as “one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century” was the immediate result of the USSR’s demise: that “in one night” 25 million Russians found themselves instantly stranded in newly foreign countries, the former non-Russian Soviet republics, without any citizenship or guaranteed equal rights. (A whole different thing—which also, if you listen carefully to the Russian perspective, no matter how warped or illegitimate overall, partially explains the war in Ukraine—or at least highlights its inevitability amidst a perfect man-made storm of various international and geopolitical circumstances.)
And as Putin rose through the ranks of the Yeltsin era-Russian government, so too did his cadre, the so-called siloviki, the “people of force,” the veterans of the various Soviet-era and Russian security services who have helped turn Russia into the first secret police state in history that is actually run by the secret police; most of them, the ones closest to Putin anyway, veterans of the Soviet-era KGB. Yet little is spoken of their shared KGB pedigree, what that means, other than to paint a darker, more nefarious, Bond-villain gloss over the basic picture.
Yes, the KGB, as an organization in its original Soviet form, is no longer, having dissolved almost immediately after the miscalculated so-called “coup” against Gorbachev—a whole other story—but as KGB veteran Vladimir Putin himself has said: “There is no such thing as a former KGB man.” And yes, in the turbulent wake of the Soviet collapse, the new Russian government of Boris Yeltsin split the KGB into several Western-style intelligence agencies in an attempt to bring its personnel to heel, though this was mostly cosmetic. The First Chief Directorate, Putin’s old outfit, responsible for international espionage, the spook house with its own dedicated headquarters out at Yasenevo, the half-moon-shaped building off Moscow’s outer Ring Road, became the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR); while the internal directorates, responsible for domestic security (or in the Russian context, internal repression), eventually became the Federal Security Service (FSB). But these are just separate branches off the same old KGB tree. And Yeltsin did nothing to curb their collective power. Or the institutional culture, the glue, that held this ominous and now omnipotent cadre together. Their ideology. Chekism. Derived from the name of the first Soviet secret police force under the Bolsheviks, “the Cheka,” which by 1954, after several versions, became the Cold War-favorite Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, the Committee for State Security—the KGB. Through the end of the USSR and still to this day, KGB officers have been known (somewhat derisively among the populace that has suffered under their thumb) as chekisti.
It is Chekism, or being a chekist, that sets the old KGB, its alumni, and even successor agencies, apart from all other foreign intelligence and security agencies the world-over. Chekism that for the KGB—already on the ironic ascent during the era of Gorbachevian glasnost that ultimately led to the Soviet collapse—provided an ideological escape pod from the Communist mother ship as it crashed and burned. More than a political ideology or even institutional culture; but rather a much deeper, more pervasive, omnipotent, and near-religious form of cult-like “brotherhood,” under which KGB generals were known to even arrange marriages among their children—the kind of thing to which the Italian mafia or Russian bratva merely aspire to maintain their criminal dominance—it is chekism that set free the KGB from the shackles of communist or any other political or ideological control once the Party and State became moribund. Even the post-Stalinist Soviets of the Khrushchev era understood the threat of the secret police monster their Bolshevik and Stalinist predecessors had created to maintain power through a darkly romanticized view of political terror, which is why after Stalin’s death they had powered down the state security organ from a monolithic “ministry” (previously the “M” in MGB, as featured in the early novels of Ian Fleming) to a no-less colossal “committee,” or komitet (the “K” in KGB). Not that it did anything to blunt its rise to power in the long-term (obviously). And as long as there is no opposing inspirational political ideology or unified social force to rival this cult, it will prevail; or, if vanquished, leave a much more dangerous vacuum in its wake. This is what drives and binds the current regime, the security state, now out of the shadows and residing in the Kremlin.
Back in 2001, CNN ran a story on Sergei Ivanov, the man Vladimir Putin had just appointed as his Minister of Defense. In true Western form, the network gushed over Ivanov’s status as a civilian, the first in Russian history to head up the MoD, which, even under Yeltsin, had always fallen under the charge of a uniformed soldier of general or marshal’s rank. The Western media saw this as a sign of Russia’s move toward full-fledged democracy, a civilian overseeing the military, just like in the USA or UK, right? Wrong. What CNN and others in the media failed to realize was that Ivanov was a KGB man, made his bones with Putin in Leningrad; and within the Russian context, his ascendance at the Ministry of Defense was the first time in Russian history that the secret police had fully superseded the armed forces as the preeminent power within the Russian polity—that it was now the big boy on the block. With nothing—no political party or military force—to stand in its way. Whereas before the Communist Party and even the Tsars could rely on the military to offset the power of the security services, crush it if necessary, this was no longer the case in the new Russia. Now, “the KGB” controlled the armed forces, via the siloviki, the core of which were chekists. The same chekists who, like their Cold War-era predecessors, still to this day refer to the United States and NATO as the glavni vrag, “the main enemy.”
Rumor has it that to please and curate this cult, Putin will soon seek to merge the various security service branches back into the old single tree of the Soviet past and even grant it ministerial status, resurrecting the Stalinist-era MGB in fresh 21st century trim; which, if it happens, should keep Fleming’s Commander Bond and Le Carré’s George Smiley in business for a long time to come—and may signal Russia’s modern evolutionary regression into a new version of its old totalitarian self.
Alex Holstein is the co-author of Warfighter: The Story of an American Fighting Man, due out May 15, 2022, from Lyons Press. He holds an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies from the London School of Economics, where he wrote his thesis on the Soviet KGB.