What motivated members of Stalin’s secret police?

Serving in the secret police under Communism used to mean almost unlimited power over many people’s lives. This attracted to KGB and its predecessors a certain type of personalities.

Many members of the Soviet secret police ChekáOGPUNKVDMGBKGB, like its founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, were ideologically motivated. Most of these, however, were wiped out in the Great Purges of the 1930s. Ideologically-minded people tend to have their own ideas of what is right and wrong—and the Stalinist model of management doesn’t accommodate personal ethical choices.

Their work wasn’t exceptionally well-paid, but gave a lot of perks, such as the possibility to pick some of the property confiscated from “enemies of the people“. A good payók, or “food ration”, was also of importance during the hungry decades of Stalinism.

Many contemporaries mentioned the heightened sense of power projected by Stalin’s secret operatives. Unlimited power over people that Communism gives its armed guardians seemed to be irresistible for psychopaths. A KGB veteran Vasily Blokhin, who boasts the official world record in the number of people he killed with his own hands. But it would be safe to say that for most of the operatives, the secret police job was a unique chance to jump into the position of power and comfort out of the depths of a distressed, emasculated and impoverished society.

As the lyrics stated in our national anthem in the intra-war era, The Internationale: “We are nothing, let us be all.”

Photo: A group of the Stalin’s secret police operatives prepare for a busy day of work .

The most brutal Communist in history

A little-known officer of Stalin’s secret police probably holds the record as the most productive executioner in history.

Vassily Blokhin, retired as an General-Major of MGB, is a very strong contender to be the most brutal Communist in history. He was what in Soviet parlance was called bezzavétnyi, i.e. “wholehearted”, “indivisibly committed”, Communist. While being the head of OGPU/NKVD military commandant’s office, the man personally executed between 10,000 and 50,000 enemies of the people. On his merit list are the Polish PoWs in Katyn, several top commanders in the Red Army, the writer Isaac Babel.

Blokhin died soon after Stalin’s demise and is buried in Moscow beside his wife, a stone’s throw from the people he killed. The tombstone with the Orthodox cross and the inscription “Eternal memory” in stylized old Cyrillic letters was installed after the fall of Communism.

tomb of Vasily Blokhin at Donskoye Cemetery in Moscow
Photo: The tomb of the most brutal Communist in history Vasily Blokhin at the Donskoye Cemetery in Moscow

What put Putin on a collision course with the West?

When Yeltsin and his circle of aides and oligarchs picked Vladimir Putin as his crown prince, Putin looked like a perfect man for building bridges between Russia and the West.

One of considerations (probably not the main one, though) on the part of oligarchs who put Putin on the throne in 1999, was his image of a “KGB liberal”.

“KGB liberal”

Putin came into politics as a fixer for the liberal mayor of St. Petersburg. He worked superbly with Western investors in the city. He spent some time in Europe. He was a known Germanofil, and built a decent international business network in the 1990s. He had never been known for xenophobia, or anti-Semitism. Besides, KGB traditionally had an image of people who know how to see eye-to-eye with Western bourgeois guys, when necessary.


Therefore, his explicit mandate included finding a way to get Western recognition for Russian oligarchical fortunes, irrespective of their provenance (Project Londongrad). Oligarchs held in the 1990s their part of the bargain, preventing Communists from re-taking power and aligning with the West on global issues. Now, they wanted the West to acknowledge their effort. They required an equal place at the G-8 table of global power.

Let’s be friends!

This is where Putin’s inquiry about the NATO membership in 2000 came from, as well as several hints from his aides at joining the EU. This is also why he was the first to call Bush and offered him help after 9/11. This is also why he agreed to the NATO military logistics bases not only in the Central Asia, but also in Ulyanovsk in Russia (“American military boots trampling the Russian soil!” was the line from our radical nationalists at the time).

Cold shoulder

Then, the following happened:

  • NATO accepted the Baltics as new members
  • USA withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treat and revealed an intent of deploying new ABM systems in Central Europe
  • USA invaded Iraq, in spite of Putin’s vehement objections
  • Pro-Western Rose revolution happened in Georgia in 2003
  • Orange Revolution happened in Ukraine in 2005 and prevented a pro-Russian president from taking office
  • Oil price skyrocketed and filled the Russian state budget to a degree unprecedented in our history, see the graph below

From which Putin made the following conclusions:

Slow decay

  1. It doesn’t pay to be nice with the US and NATO
  2. The US and NATO try to find a way to get rid of him
  3. He needs to set up a watertight perimeter preventing outside forces from “color revolutions” against him
  4. Everything is happening because no one cared to formalize the terms of the Soviet surrender in 1991. The good news is that it opens for renegotiating the outcome of the Cold war!
  5. Russia has money to stand up against the West and push forward a revision of the Cold war’s outcome.
  6. The West must accept a New Yalta deal with Putin—not in exchange for some new favors from Putin, but as a compensation for Russia’s past favors in 1990–2005.
Global oil price 1970-2014

Graph: Global oil price 1970-2014 (USD/barrel)