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Commentary: Putin's dark cult of the secret police

Russian President Vladimir Putin before a meeting with President Barack Obama at the United Nations in New York, Sept. 28, 2015. (Doug Mills/Copyright 2017 The New York Times)

On Dec. 20, the Russian government proudly celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. In his official message of congratulations to "officers and veterans" of the security services, President Vladimir Putin urged them to "honor the traditions and the legacy of their predecessors."

Given the political repression in today's Russia, it seems they already do. In an interview with the main government newspaper, Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service, praised Stalin's NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria. He noted KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov's "flexible methods of defending the state order" in the 1970s (presumably referring to the practice of committing dissidents to mental asylums championed by him). He asserted that the early actions of the Cheka were directed against "the subversive activities of a wide counterrevolutionary-terrorist underground linked with émigré circles and foreign secret services" and affirmed that there was an "objective side" to the prosecutions and show trials during the Great Terror of the 1930s. The fulsomeness of this praise came as a shock even to some loyalists of the Putin regime.

It should have, considering the history of the organization Bortnikov was lauding. When the White Army captured Kiev from the Bolsheviks in August 1919, a horrific discovery was made in a mansion. The detailed contemporary accounts are too gruesome to repeat here; suffice to say that the cellars were filled, knee-high, with human blood. The building had been used as the headquarters of the Cheka (officially known as the All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage) set up by the Bolshevik government in December 1917 to fight its "class enemies" and anyone who threatened the survival of the new regime. Historians estimate the number of victims of the Red Terror, during the Russian Civil War between 1917 and 1922, at up to 2 million people.

This was only the start of a seven-decade war by the Soviet regime on its own citizens, with varying brutality and scale, but with the Cheka - later known as the GPU, the NKVD, the MGB and the KGB - always in the avant-garde of repression. Lenin once referred to it as the "armed wing of the party." After the Red Terror came the forced collectivization, the artificially created famines, the war on religion, the deliberate targeting of entire segments of the population (the military, the clergy, the intelligentsia), the Great Terror, the mass ethnic deportations, the anti-Semitic campaign against "cosmopolitanism," and the "punitive psychiatry" practiced on dissidents. The most oft-cited figure for the overall number of people affected by these "policies" is 30 million - one-fifth of the population of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s.

The KGB's Fifth Directorate, established in the 1960s with the purpose of suppressing political dissent, was busy until the dying days of the U.S.S.R, even in the midst of perestroika and glasnost. The last KGB report to the Central Committee "on the political activity of [Andrei] Sakharov" was dated Dec. 8, 1989, six days before the dissident's death. The KGB and its chairman, Vladimir Kryuchkov, were the masterminds of the failed coup d'état in August 1991 - the last attempt to save the Soviet system. Few state institutions in the U.S.S.R. were as despised by the population.

After the coup attempt was defeated - as thousands of Muscovites went out into the streets and literally stood in front of the tanks - the KGB's headquarters on Lubyanka Square was the first symbolic target of the crowds. On the evening of Aug. 22, people began spontaneously gathering on Lubyanka in a rally that culminated in the dismantling of the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founding director of the Cheka. The "Iron Felix" hanging from a noose as it was lifted from its pedestal remains one of the most enduring images of the Russian democratic revolution.

Many of the people assembled on Lubyanka that night wanted to seize the building itself, too. But the leaders of Russia's democratic government talked them out of it, promising to reform the system from inside. Whatever their intentions, they failed. As President Boris Yeltsin later acknowledged, "the KGB . . . turned out to be unreformable." On Dec. 20, 1999, Yeltsin's prime minister, a relative political unknown by the name of Vladimir Putin - a former officer in the KGB - came to the Lubyanka to unveil a restored memorial plaque to Andropov that had been dismantled in August 1991. It was a telling sign of things to come.

The failure to condemn and eliminate the vestiges of the KGB in 1990s Russia is a textbook example of why it is important for post-totalitarian (or post-authoritarian) governments to fully face up to - and deal with - the past. Those who successfully opposed a full reckoning with the legacy of Soviet terror in Russia cited the alleged unwillingness of society to conduct "witch hunts." They were warned by the most far-sighted of democrats (such as Galina Starovoitova and Vladimir Bukovsky) that "the witches will come back to hunt us." And so they did - and continue today. A democratic post-Putin government in Russia must make every effort to fully come to terms with past crimes committed on behalf of the state - and to make an official celebration of the founding of the Cheka in Russia as unthinkable as a celebration of the founding of the Gestapo or Stasi would be in today's Germany.

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Story by Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza is vice chairman of the Open Russia movement and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom.

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