I have recently re-read a bunch of stories about the Cold War where the blame for the repressive nature of the Soviet state was placed firmly on the Communist regime. Fair enough you might think, and certainly for most of the 20th century, the former Russian Empire was an extremely repressive regime whilst the Communists were in charge.
Certainly the secret policemen of the Soviets were well known – the GRU, KGB, NKVD, Cheka (where the label “chekist” comes from and all Russian secret police are labelled “chekists”), and others. But the persistent use of Russian secret policemen continues after the collapse of the Communist regime – the GRU is just as strong as they ever were, and there is also the SVR, the FSB, etc. And they’re just as active as ever – including the Salisbury poisonings and similar activities.
What is less well known is that the Russian intelligence services started well before the Communists acquired power in 1917 – the Okhrana. Whilst their headquarters were burned by the revolutionaries, there are persistent left-wing rumours that Okhrana operatives were recruited by the Cheka for their expertise. It is something that is never likely to be proved – these organisations are secret after all, and it did occur over 100 years ago, but the Cheka did become effective surprisingly quickly.
It is easy to blame the communists for their repressive regime, and they certainly deserve plenty of blame but is it really communism that is to blame here? That’s an all too easy assumption to jump on – particularly given the antipathy certain parties (old school European aristocrats and capitalists) have for anything that smacks of depriving them of their ill-gotten gains.
Communism certainly isn’t to blame for the secret police before and after their regime, so wouldn’t it be more accurate to say Russia has a chekist culture that survived two regime changes? Particularly seeing as the current president is a former KGB officer.
Does it matter?
Well for a start, Russia is currently a rogue state using intelligence services in an activist way to kill off critics of their current dictator. And it isn’t communist.
And not all communists are authoritarian communists; they may very well be wrong or misguided but they are not all authoritarians.