Rereading KGB

Rereading “KGB - Chairmen of the state security organs: the fate of the declassified”*
By He Qinglian on March 12, 2012

The most controversial action of the Chinese government during this year's “Two Meetings” was its pending passage of the draft Code of Criminal Procedure amendment**. Article 73, the “secret arrest” article, of the draft amendment that targeted its citizens attracted a chorus of criticism from various sectors, who realized that such an article would become a Sword of Damocles hanging above the heads of the Chinese people and every one may be subjected to “secret disappearance” by the authorities on the grounds of “threatening national security”.

Should such an article be passed, China would enter a time of “governance by secret police”. Coincidentally, the “Wang Lijun incident” unfolded in China last month. Wang, former Public Security Chief known for his “hitting the black” campaign in Chongqing, resorted to the same measures for survival as spies of the USSR did when he felt he might become a pawn to be sacrificed in the power struggle. He hid inside the US consulate-general in Chengdu to avoid his fate. That incident reminded me of a book, “KGB - Chairmen of the state security organs: the fate of the declassified”.
The focus of the book was completely different from that of KGB : the inside story of its foreign operations from Lenin to Gorbachev, which recounted mainly the external functions of the KGB—espionage and intelligence work—and led one to perceive the nature of that organ was exactly the same as the CIA or the MI6 and overlook its cruel functions of internal repression. Through description of KGB leaders and what they did during their terms of office, “KGB - Chairmen of the state security organs: the fate of the declassified” revealed the bloody history of the Great Purge and movements to eliminate dissidents of Soviet Russia and the USSR. The little-known details described in that book fills one more with terror than shock.

A unique organization that once existed in human history, the KGB, successor of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (VcheKA), was set up initially to deal with the large number officials who resisted the new regime. Later on, its functions evolved into the elimination of domestic political dissidents. Of its seventy-odd years of history that coincided with the USSR, an organization of conspiracy and terror, the KGB doubtlessly meant more than “bone-chilling”, “mysterious”, or “terrorizing”. Its inception, development and dissolution all bore the hallmarks of the particular era when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ruled the country. It could be said that the history of the KGB was nothing but injustice, inquisition by torture, and indiscriminate killing of innocents. To this date, Vladimir Putin, a former major of the KGB, still uses skillfully some of the KGB techniques to deal with political dissidents.

Leaders of the KGB were seen as the most powerful inside the USSR. For those who loved the excitement of having control over life and death of others, such a position was rather appealing. Yet, oddly enough, this position often ruined the lives of those who assumed office. A secondary translation from Chinese of what the author wrote is, “Amidst applause, many people went inside this famous building in Lubyanka Square, the place where they obtained power and reward. Few, however, left Lubyanka on their own volition or because of promotion.

In general, the leaders of this national security organ departed from this place either because they got dismissed or were forced to step down. Among them, five were executed by firing squad, some others were imprisoned or disgraced over a lengthy period. This job has so far brought honor to no one.” This position was full of risks. From 1917 to 1999, chairmen of the KGB, its people's commissars, ministers and secretaries had been replaced for a total of twenty-three times; while the instances of their counterparts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were almost less than half in comparison. Some of those who served as leaders of this organ did not stay long—a few months or a year maybe, with the exception of Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov, who set the longest record in office by serving as KGB chairman for up to fifteen years.

Whether it was the Soviet Russia or the USSR afterward, the Great Purge expanded to a scale that was unbelievable. It wasn't just the common people who feared for themselves, top level leaders of the party and the state, too, got by on tenterhooks. Vyacheslav Molotov, number two man of the CPSU, could only watch his wife being arrested and dare not rescue her. That which carried out the Purge, the security organ was itself, too, a target. On July 29, 1920, Vladimir Lenin approved the inception of the VcheKA, which was constituted by a leadership of thirteen persons. With the exception of Felix Dzerzhinsky and Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, who died natural death, all eleven others were killed later on.

The most well-known KGB leader was Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, who served as the top leader of the organ from 1945 to 1953 and was core to the Great Purge in the era of Stalin. In that unprecedented movement, many of the founding fathers of the USSR, veteran revolutionaries, and millions of innocent people were charged with unproven crimes and died miserably in prisons or forced labor camps. Beria, the one who sent countless others to their death, eventually fell victim to the Purge.

In 2008, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation handed down a judgment recognizing Beria's death sentence meted out by the USSR Supreme Court in 1953 as a legitimate one and rejected calls of vindication for Beria.

In the course of the hearing, the case unearthed a cold case concerning the death of Beria. There was no proof of Beria's cremation or burial in that case file and no one knew the whereabouts of his body. As with many of his victims, Beria mysteriously “vanished into thin air”.
Enveloped by an atmosphere of terror, the people of the former Soviet Union became seriously distorted, not the slightest of human dignity remained. Charges of “episonage”, “anti-Soviet elements”, “saboteurs” and “traitors” could fall on anyone, anytime. Although these falsely accused had committed no crime, under heavy torture they would eventually be forced into confession and expressed their willingness to receive punishment. Those with light charges would be sent into the labor camps, and those with heavy charges were executed. The heyday of the KGB was the time when the people of the Soviet Union bled the most. Being in a country where everyone's life was precarious was undoubtedly the greatest tragedy.

Throughout human history, there is no other organization more keen on power than the Communist Party, and there is no other organization that would care less about the cost in using various terrorizing means to consolidate its power than the Communist Party. Out of the strategic consideration of autocratic power and monopoly of the truth, it has become the necessary logic of the Communist totalitarian politics to wipe out any political opposition, any individual in possession of real power in the community, and to nip all organized forces in the bud.

Today's Russians have bid farewell to this history of the KGB. But if China is to implement the Code of Criminal Procedure Amendment Bill, which contains the terms of secret arrest, then inevitably the Chinese people would be under the political fear of a KGB-styled governance. When the security organ could monitor, eavesdrop on, and issue secret arrest warrant for anyone, no one in China could feel safe, the so-called human diginity would just be gone. In the face of such a danger, what reason there is for those who embrace the CPC regime to continue to praise the strength and progress of China?

*“KGB - Chairmen of the state security organs: the fate of the declassified”, KGB--predsedateli organov gosbezopasnosti : rassekrechennye sudʹby (КГБ--председатели органов госбезопасности : рассекреченные судьбы) written by Leonid Mikhaĭlovich Mlechin (Леонид Михайлович Млечин) No known English translation yet – Translator note.
**The amendment was passed despite strong public opposition.