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The world's most infamous Spy Agency: the hidden history of the KGB

Image: Damian Lewis: Spy Wars

A hard-hitting series spilling the secrets of espionage across the decades, Damian Lewis: Spy Wars sees the star of Billions and Homeland unravel true stories of spycraft from the Cold War to the present day.

One such case is that of Soviet intelligence agent Vladimir Vetrov, who began working for the West during the height of the Cold War, and who allowed the CIA to literally sabotage the USSR in a breathtakingly ingenious way – leading to what was described as 'the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space'.

The Vladimir Vetrov case takes us into the shadowy world of the KGB, an organisation that’s become a by-word for stealth and ruthlessness. The story of the KGB is a long and tangled one, with its roots going right back to the earliest days of the Russian Revolution, and the regime’s first secret police organisation: the Cheka.

Formed in 1917 to assert the authority of Lenin’s new Communist government, the Cheka was a terrifying force, essentially above the law and free to crush all dissent with impunity. Its chief, Felix Dzerzhinsky, bluntly stated that 'We represent in ourselves organised terror', a mission statement which was more than fulfilled during the period dubbed the Red Terror, when many thousands of Russians were wiped out in a systematic campaign of torture and mass murder.

The Cheka was just the first of several related organisations that evolved over the ensuing decades, culminating in the creation of the KGB in 1954. While the days of the Red Terror and Stalin’s purges were in the past, the KGB was – like the Cheka before it – able to operate with near-total impunity, a kind of shadow government which would do whatever it took to maintain the security of the Soviet Union.

Organised like an army, complete with military ranks, the KGB consisted of various departments, or directorates, tasked with running spies in foreign countries, surveillance of Soviet citizens and rooting out potential dissent or rebellion. As it covered both international and domestic concerns, the KGB was like an amalgamation of the CIA and FBI (or MI5 and MI6 in British terms).

The KGB was feared not just by the people, but by the most senior members of the ruling class, who could well become KGB targets themselves. Indeed, its then-chief Vladimir Semichastny played a key role in the conspiracy to oust Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev from power in 1964. On returning from a holiday to the Black Sea coast, Khrushchev was met at the airport by an ominous group of KGB officials, and must have known then that his time was up.

The toppling of Khrushchev meant the end of the so-called 'Khrushchev thaw', a period when the iron grip of the state was relaxed and writers, artists and free-thinkers enjoyed a more liberal atmosphere, at least compared to the dark days of Stalin. This flowering of freedom even saw the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s account of life in the hellish gulag prison system, which would have been unthinkable in earlier years.

However, the end of the 'thaw' saw the return of repression, with the KGB victimising the likes of Solzhenitsyn, whose manuscripts were seized and who was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union.

The KGB chief most notorious for cracking down on domestic dissidents in the post-Khrushchev years was Yuri Andropov, a steely but paranoid man who was particularly fond of using psychiatry as a tool of state control. Simply put, dissenters could be diagnosed as mentally ill simply for questioning the workings of the Soviet Union, and unceremoniously put away in mental hospitals under the direction of the KGB, with no right of appeal. There was even a specifically Soviet illness, 'sluggish schizophrenia', which was effectively invented for the purpose of imprisoning patients, with symptoms including 'delusions of reform”'and general anti-Soviet thinking.

Andropov’s KGB was equally active on the international stage, playing a crucial role in stamping out the 'Prague Spring' of 1968. – a reformist movement which flourished in Czechoslovakia under its leader Alexander Dubcek, with greater freedom of speech being given to the people. It was dubbed “socialism with a human face”, and a cause of great alarm for Moscow and Andropov himself.

The KGB initiated 'Operation Progress', which involved embedding agents throughout Czechoslovakia; not just to spy on what was happening, but to plant evidence that Dubcek’s followers were in league with capitalist Westerners, and thus create a pretext for a massive Soviet invasion force. Soviet troops would eventually flood the country that same year and depose the new liberal regime. (One of the KGB agents involved in this subversion was Vasili Gordievsky, whose brother Oleg – a fellow KGB officer – would later become a double agent for the West, partly out of disgust with the invasion of Czechoslovakia.)

Of course, the KGB is also synonymous with spies and double agents in the UK and the USA during the Cold War, not to mention honey traps and assassinations. The most notorious killing connected with the KGB was that of Georgi Markov, a dissident Bulgarian writer who was apparently shot with a poisoned pellet from an adapted umbrella on London’s Waterloo Bridge in 1978. Less well known, but almost as unusual, were the murders of Ukrainian nationalists Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera in the late 1950s. They were assassinated by KGB hitman Bohdan Stashynsky, using a spray gun designed to eject cyanide gas at the victim. The truth of these peculiar murders was only divulged when Stashynysky defected to the West and admitted everything.

Honey traps were a particular speciality of the KGB, with female agents known as 'swallows' used to lure men into uncompromising positions. One target was Anthony Courtney, a British MP known for his vigorous condemnations of the Soviet state, whose affair with a female KGB agent was leaked to the press and led to his political downfall in the 1960s. Another target was Maurice Dejean, the French ambassador to Moscow, who was set up with a beautiful young Soviet film star. A KGB agent then posed as the woman’s jealous husband, whose faked rage forced Dejean to seek help from another Soviet official and come under the thumb of the KGB, who used him as a reluctant asset.

Straddling so many responsibilities and layers of intrigue, the KGB was feared and respected right until the very end. In 1991, its hardline chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, helped engineer an attempted coup against reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The coup failed and the Soviet Union broke up that same year. The KGB was dismantled and eventually replaced by two agencies – the FSB, which handles domestic security and counterterrorism, and the SVR, which handles international espionage. Both have fearsome reputations, ensuring the ominous legacy of the Cheka and the KGB will live on for a long time yet.