The history of the KGB and its legendary methods
The Russian intelligence agency KGB was legendary for its spycraft, violent methods, and far-reaching influence on world affairs.
In the annals of spy organizations, the Soviet Union's KGB has earned a mythical status. Like a combination of the FBI and CIA with a particularly Russian cleverness and harshness, the KGB was the main security agency of the Soviet Union from 1954 until 1991.
While it has now been replaced by GRU as Russia's main intelligence agency, the KGB continues to have an impact for the simple reason that the President of Russia Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent of 16 years. It's hard to ignore the specter of the KGB when considering his dealings with the United States and the rest of the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during the years of his KGB training in Leningrad in the mid-1970s.
KGB stood for Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, which means 'the Committee for State Security'. The agency was at once responsible for internal security and secret policing to squash nationalism and dissent, guarding the USSR's border as well as the Communist Party leadership and the country's government. It also engaged in gathering foreign intelligence, investigations, and counter-intelligence. Despite its reach into civilian life, the KGB was considered a military service that was governed by army laws.
For its intelligence operations, the KGB's practices involved setting up both legal and illegal espionage residencies in the countries it targeted. Its spies would assume intricately plotted false identities or “legends". The details were often taken from the lives of other participants in the plot or from the identities of dead people. The KGB also placed agents in Soviet embassies and consulates, protected by diplomatic immunity. The spies engaged in gathering political, economic, and military-strategic information as well as planting disinformation.
Picture from November 1981 in Moscow shows the monument of Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, pictured with the KGB building in the background. (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)
As outlined in the CIA report on the “Soviet Use of Assassination and Kidnapping," the KGB resorted to “abduction and murder to combat what are considered to be actual or potential threats to the Soviet regime." Such techniques, known within the KGB as “executive action" or “liquid affairs" (Mokryye Dela), were in practice by the organization both in the USSR and abroad, striking Soviet and foreign citizens. The CIA even pinned the murder of Leon Trotsky, the co-founder of the Soviet State, on the KGB.
The CIA regarded the KGB to not only use such methods but also be very good in covering its tracks, writing that an “investigation often produces only fragmentary information, due to the KGB ability to camouflage its trail." Some assassinations ended up recorded as accidents, natural deaths or suicides, according to the report.
In many cases, hard-to-detect poison was the weapon of choice. One famous case was the poisoning of the defector Nikolay Khokhlov. He suffered a sudden and severe illness while at an anti-Communist meeting in Frankfurt, Germany in September 1957. The doctors had a hard time figuring out what happened until finding evidence of him being poisoned by a thallium derivative of arsenic and possibly other chemical agents. Khokhlov himself thought that he had been poisoned by radio-activated thallium.
KGB officers standing guard during Margaret Thatcher's visit to Russia in 1985.
The CIA would never have learned about the true causes of numerous incidents if it wasn't for defectors. For instance, in 1961 Bogdan Stashinsky defected to the West and revealed that he had carried out two assassinations for the KGB, including murdering Ukrainian emigré writer Lev Rebet in Munich with a poison vapor gun.
Training for such “executive action" operations was reportedly carried out at a base in Moscow by instructors with specialties in the use of small arms, jujitsu, wireless, code, surveillance, driving, and photography.
Spycraft and double agents
Besides the notorious instances of violence, the KGB was also known for utilizing a whole array of spying tradecraft, employing code names, stealing and photographing documents, using dead letter boxes or dead drops, and recruiting foreign nationals as agents like the US Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker and the FBI counterspy Robert Hanssen.
KGB Deputy Chairman Vladimir Pirozhkov reviews the members of the KGB Special Forces team Alpha. Mid-1970s.
KGB agents were also known to become "friends of the cause" or agents provocateur, purposefully infiltrating target groups to sow dissension, disinformation and affecting their politics.
An example of an "active measures" or disinformation campaign by the KGB would be its efforts in 1959 and later which had the goal of creating negative world opinion toward West Germany. The KGB campaign involved setting fire to synagogues and painting swastika signs in public places while making it seem like the West Germans were responsible.
The KGB was also responsible for helping crush internal subversion and possible revolutionary plots in the countries of the Soviet Bloc. In 1968, it helped put down the “Prague Spring" period of liberalization in Czechoslovakia. KGB agents prepared the route for the eventual invasion by the Red Army while infiltrating the country disguised as Western tourists. They were to gain the trust and spy on the people behind the new Czech government, led by Alexander Dubček. Their goal was to plant subversive evidence that Western intelligence agencies were trying to depose the Communist government of Czechoslovakia. This, in turn, would justify the invasion by the USSR. The KGB also prepared pro-USSR members of the Czech communist party who would take over power after the Red Army's invasion.
KGB special operative Igor Morozov (left) atop an armored vehicle during his assignment to the Badakhshan province, Afghanistan. 1982-1983. Credit: Wikipedia.
Another famous instance of KGB involvement happened during the war in Afghanistan. In December of 1979, 54 members of the KGB Special Forces along with paratroopers and other soldiers managed to attack and kill the Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and 100–150 of his personal guards. This allowed the Soviets to install Babrak Karmal as Amin's successor.
The fall of the KGB
The 1991 coup in the Soviet Union was led by the KGB chairman at the time, Vladimir Kryuchkov. The failure of the coup resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the effective end of the KGB, which was replaced by the Federal Counterintelligence Service of Russia (FSK). FSK was then succeeded by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB).
Its influence today
While the KGB is not officially in existence, despite a 2016 announcement that it might be coming back, its influence is still felt. Almost every branch of the Russian state and many big businesses have been taken over by former KGB men like Putin, reported Politico. Vladimir Putin himself reminded the world of KGB glory during the Helsinki summit with President Trump, when he disputed the credibility of the Steele dossier by saying, "I was an intelligence officer myself, and I know how dossiers are made up."
Also of note are the tactics used by current Russian intelligence agencies like the recent poisonings in the UK that utilized the nerve agent Novichok on the former Russian spy Sergei V. Skripal, his daughter Yulia, and British citizens Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess (who died). Such events provide evidence that KGB methods have not been completely retired and will continue to reappear in modern international politics.
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- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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