After the bloody Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the leaders of the new Soviet Union protected their authority through the use of secret police. With the rise of Joseph Stalin, the secret police which had once been used purely for enforcement, expanded its control over the country. In 1934, it became known as the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which in Russian is abbreviated to NKVD.
The NKVD was the vehicle that drove a great part of Stalin’s Purges. After Vladimir Lenin’s death and the brutal fight for the head seat of the party, Stalin needed a way to both build up the USSR as an industrial communist nation and to maintain his power. In tune with his Five-Year Plan, he instituted work camps, famines (by raising grain quotas when he knew they could not be filled), and purges in order to “cleanse” the nation and his own party. Stalin was historically paranoid and used the NKVD as his own private force for eliminating people he thought were disloyal or a threat.
The main purpose of the NKVD was national security, and they made sure their presence was well known. People were arrested and sent to work camps for the most mundane things. Individuals would report on their friends and neighbors because they feared that the NKVD would come for them if they did not report suspicious activity.This is not dissimilar from the behavior by Americans who reported their neighbors as suspected communists during the Cold War. It was the NKVD who carried out the grunt work of the majority of Stalin’s Purges; Nikolay Yezhov, the head of the NKVD from 1936 to 1938, was so ruthless in these mass displacements and executions that many citizens referred to his reign as the Great Terror. They also maintained a large intelligence network, instituted ethnic and domestic repression, and carried out political kidnappings and assassinations. As the NKVD was not directly associated with the communist party, Stalin used them as his own personal para-military force, eliminating opponents as he saw fit.
After Stalin’s death and during Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power in 1953, the purges of the NKVD were halted. Even after the dilapidation of the USSR, its legacy resonated from the Gulag, the program that arranged the work camps, and the Main Directorate for State Security (GUGB), which was the predecessor of the KGB. The horrors suffered under Joseph Stalin devastated the entire nation and memories of his reign still strike fear in the hearts of many Russians who lived through it.
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