If you're passing the time by binge-watching episodes of the critically-acclaimed TV series "The Americans," you may have grown fascinated with the story of a married couple living in the Washington, D.C. suburbs during the 1980s, who struggle to protect a dark secret. They're actually operatives for the KGB, the Soviet spy agency that during the Cold War battled clandestinely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and other Western nations' intelligence organizations. The KGB — a Russian acronym that stands for Committee for State Security — became infamous in those years, thanks to its prowess at stealing secrets and assassinating perceived enemies abroad, as well as crushing domestic dissent. In the process it provided subject material for numerous movies and literary thrillers by novelists such as John le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith.
Since the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist back in 1991, you might assume that the KGB vanished with it. Indeed, after the hammer-and-sickle flag on the Kremlin was replaced by the tricolor of the Russian Federation that nation's first president, Boris Yeltsin, dismantled the agency and dispersed its functions among various other parts of the new government. In reality, though, intelligence experts say the KGB never really went away. Instead, like spies often do, it simply has resurfaced with a different name, FSB, whose letters stand in Russian for Federal Security Service. And today, with a former KGB agent and FSB head named Vladimir Putin as the head of state, the organization once known as the KGB seems to have regained much of its old reach and power.
"Now, it's the favored tool of Putin," explains John Sipher. He's a CIA veteran who served in Moscow in the 1990s and later as deputy of the worldwide Russia program at CIA headquarters, where he worked on the arrest of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia. Since leaving the agency, he's become a widely published writer on intelligence issues, and is the co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment, a global production company that works with former intelligence officers to develop media projects such as TV series, films and podcasts.
A Brief History of the KGB
As Sipher explains it, the roots of the KGB and FSB go back to shortly after the creation of the Soviet Union. In December 1917, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin created a secret police agency called the Cheka. "They called themselves the punishing sword of the revolution," he says. "Their whole goal was to keep the leadership in power." Part of that mission involved arresting and imprisoning potential opponents, keeping the population under surveillance, and exerting censorship to keep opposing ideas from spreading. Additionally, the organization and its successors branched out into espionage and covert action outside of the USSR, to defend against and strike at the regime's external enemies.
Though the name of the organization has changed several times over the years, they've essentially been doing the same thing ever since, Sipher says. "Even intelligence officers in Russia today call themselves proud Chekists," he notes. "And Putin makes sure he's in Moscow on Dec. 8 for Cheka Day."
The organization developed cunning strategies and tactics to crush opposition. Early in the USSR's existence, for example, the ex-czarists, socialists and European anti-communists who wanted the regime to fail joined forces in an umbrella organization called the Monarchist Union of Central Russia. What they didn't realize, until too late, was that the union was a ruse — a honeypot set up by the Soviets themselves. "They created their own enemy, their own resistance movement," Sipher says. "So that they knew everybody. Eventually, they killed them all."
During World War II, Soviet spies were extraordinarily effective at worming their way into the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to develop the atomic bomb. "They knew more about the creation of the atomic bomb than [President Harry] Truman," Sipher says.
The spies' theft of secrets eventually enabled the Soviet Union to acquire the bomb more rapidly than its own scientists could have done, eliminating an advantage that might have given the U.S. the clear upper hand over Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
"Soviet atomic espionage was one of few instances where espionage directly changed world history," explains Calder Walton, a Research Fellow for the Intelligence Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and general editor of the multivolume "Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence.". Walton also is working on an upcoming book on the struggle between British, U.S. and Soviet intelligence during the Cold War.
In addition to spies who posed as diplomats posted to embassies, Sipher says the Soviets also deployed "illegals" – agents who took on new identities and disguised their national origin. After invading Finland during World War II, for example, Soviet officials searched through Finnish records for infants who had died at birth, and then stole their identities, using them to acquire additional documents and build what's called a "legend."
"This fake person would travel around the world, being a Finn, looking like a Finnish businessman," Sipher explains.
Soviet spies' effectiveness, however, was limited by their ability to convince Stalin that their information was more reliable than his assumptions. As Sipher details in this article in The Atlantic, the Soviet leader famously refused to heed a warning from ace Soviet spy Richard Sorge, who was working undercover as a German journalist in Japan, about the existence and timing of Hitler's plan to invade the Soviet Union in 1940.
In 1954, the Soviet intelligence agency officially was reorganized as the KGB, but it continued the same mission. Its 250,000 staffers – a vastly bigger workforce than any western Intelligence agency – handled sprawling overseas responsibilities, ranging from spying, electronic surveillance and codebreaking to disinformation campaigns against foreign enemies. But its most important job remained crushing anyone who might challenge communist leaders inside the Soviet Union.
"It is easy to think of it as an intelligence service, but that wasn't quite right," Walton explains. "It was really was a secret police. It had foreign intelligence capabilities, but its primary purpose was domestic repression. It was, from the outset, designed to be the sword and shield of the party, to smite its enemies at home and abroad, and defend the regime."
"When one thinks of secret police knocking on the door in the middle of the night, that's the KGB," Walton says.
Over the decades, the KGB also continued to be successful at planting spies in high places, including veteran CIA officer Aldrich Ames, who pled guilty to espionage charges in 1994. But despite those successes, it had limited influence, the experts say. Stalin's tendency to execute officials who told him things he didn't want to hear had created a persistent culture in which nobody dared to speak truth to power. "The KGB provided essentially sycophantic intelligence in successive Soviet leaders," Walton says. "They would look to intelligence that confirmed their preexisting worldview."
But the KGB did break with one Soviet leader. After ascending to power in the mid-1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform policies didn't sit well with other Soviet officials. That led KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov to lead an attempted coup against Gorbachev, which he reportedly hatched during a meeting in a Moscow bathhouse, according to this 2011 New York Times account by journalist Victor Sebestyen. That plot failed, and the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Though the KGB formally was disbanded by the new Russian government, its people basically kept doing the same jobs under new agency names. "The KGB ceased to exist in name but not in function and was quickly resurrected as the FSB and the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service)," says Walton.
"Yeltsin split it up, and there was the view it would change, but it never did," Sipher explains. A new chief was brought in by Yeltsin, supposedly to impose reforms, but he didn't last long. "We saw in the streets, the way people were treated by Russian intelligence that things hadn't changed."
The spy apparatus even provided Yeltsin's eventual successor. Putin, who had joined KGB in the mid-1970s after being enthralled by a movie thriller about a daring WWII Russian spy, managed to rise high enough in the organization that he finally got his first foreign posting – to Dresden, in then-communist East Germany – just before the Soviet Union's demise. His takeaway from that, as Sipher sees it, was that "when the Soviet state needed to be powerful and crack heads, it didn't and ... and it fell apart."
Putin eventually resurfaced as the head of the new FSB under Yeltsin, whom he followed as Russian president in 2000. Under Putin, the pieces of the old KGB increasingly coalesced, leading to news reports that he was even considering formally merging other agencies with the FSB. Though that hasn't happened, the various parts of the Russian intelligence community — including GRU, the military intelligence agency – all operate in concert to support Putin's grip on power. "They all work for the Kremlin," Sipher explains.
Walton concurs. "It's really not transparent, the distinction between GRU and FSB and SVR," he says.
Current Activities of the Soviet FSB
Russian intelligence's effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election campaign – documented in the 2019 report issued by special counsel Robert Mueller – included tricks ranging from the release of stolen emails to using fake accounts to bombard Twitter and Facebook with messages intended to stir up discord among Americans. Russian operatives posed online, for example, as both Tea Party activists and Black Lives Matter protesters.
While many Americans were shocked by the notion that a foreign power would try to interfere in that fashion, Sipher says it's really just something out of the old KGB playbook. Back in the 1980s, he says, the FSB's predecessor waged a similar disinformation campaign, in which it planted stories in the international press that the Pentagon had created the AIDS virus to use against developing countries. What's different now is that technology speeds up the process. "Now, instead of taking four or five years to get the information out, they can use trolls and bots and pump out 100,000 things an hour to get it into our system," he says.
Walton lays out the history of Soviet-style "dezinformatsia" in elections in this article for the Brown Journal of World Affairs.
Similarly, Walton also notes the 2006 murder of former FSB spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed by radioactive polonium-210 believed to have been slipped into his tea, and the apparent 2018 attempt to kill former Russian agent Sergei Skripal with nerve poison at his home in the U.K. Both incidents are reminiscent of past KGB efforts to assassinate defectors and other perceived opponents of the regime, he says
"There's a long history of the Kremlin assassinating people in most painful ways, to eliminate enemy but to also send a message," Walton says. One example is the 1940 assassination of former Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who was killed with an icepick in Mexico City. "Stalin was more obsessed with Trotsky than Hitler," he says.
But despite the Russians' recent clandestine successes, Walton and Sipher both caution against taking them for a sign of strength. "The U.S. presidential election was a highly successful operation, but you could argue that they overdid it and now everyone has heightened awareness as a result," Walton explains.
Just as the KGB did in the past, Putin's spies engage in asymmetric warfare because they're facing a stronger adversary. "At the end of the day, if the strong (country) chooses to push back, it is much stronger," Sipher says.