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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While it has now been replaced by GRU as Russia's main intelligence agency, the KGB continues to have an impact for the simple reason that the President of Russia Vladimir Putin is a former KGB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.
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
The next era in American history can look entirely different. It's up to us to choose.
- The timeline of America post-WWII can be divided into two eras, according to author and law professor Ganesh Sitaraman: the liberal era which ran through the 1970s, and the current neoliberal era which began in the early 1980s. The latter promised a "more free society," but what we got instead was more inequality, less opportunity, and greater market consolidation.
- "We've lived through a neoliberal era for the last 40 years, and that era is coming to an end," Sitaraman says, adding that the ideas and policies that defined the period are being challenged on various levels.
- What comes next depends on if we take a proactive and democratic approach to shaping the economy, or if we simply react to and "deal with" market outcomes.
A new MIT report proposes how humans should prepare for the age of automation and artificial intelligence.
- A new report by MIT experts proposes what humans should do to prepare for the age of automation.
- The rise of intelligent machines is coming but it's important to resolve human issues first.
- Improving economic inequality, skills training, and investment in innovation are necessary steps.