How Did Spy Services Develop in Russia?

Figure 1. Ivan helped create among the first secret police organizations in Russia.

Espionage in Russia, with its long history of political turmoil, developed to become one of the most effective espionage services by the 20th century when the Soviet Union emerged. The road to that development, however, was long and full of intrigue and sometime bloody conflict. Espionage, within and outside of Russia, also created fear in Russia's adversaries and population alike.

Early Espionage in Russia

Ivan IV Vasilyevich (sometimes better known as Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the Formidable) may have established one of the first espionage services in Russia in the 16th century. Ivan was one of the first monarchs to create a very centralized Russian state. Before his time, Russian nobles often held great power and influence and would often oppose the actions of the tsar. He created an organization called the Oprichnik, who were a group of operatives loyal to the tsar and effectively became Russia's first state police and spy service.

They are historically known to have mostly repressed the population to maintain control of the state as Ivan began to accrue greater power and centralize the state towards himself. The group was known to be ascetic and Ivan had peculiar demands that they, outwardly at least, appear like monks in austerity but in reality were given to excesses. While the mostly acted like a state police organization, they also conducted espionage on the population to inform Ivan on possible uprisings or rebellions against his actions (Figure 1).[1]

The next great development occurred during the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1721), where he inaugurated the Bureau of Information. This organization acted like a network of secret police who spied on the population. However, spying also now developed as a state enterprise against adversaries. Russia, in his time, became a more modern state that could compete militarily with the other great European powers. This meant that espionage of these potential adversaries became more important as Russia now came into increased conflict with European states. The Russian Empire also witnessed expansion in the time of Peter the Great, including against the Ottoman Empire, requiring better information for battlefield success. This began a long relationship between the military and espionage in Russia that has lasted to this day.[2]

In the reign of Catherine the Great, industrial espionage became important to Russia as it now saw that it needed to compete in industry, such as iron works, to stay competitive with Europe. Russian travelers were dispatched to Britain and other places to learn how Western states developed their now increasingly industrialized economies. This now created a new area for Russian espionage to focus rather than solely on military or security affairs. Rather than mostly domestic surveillance, a new focus on external espionage developed that tried to develop networks of local spies in countries to accrue information needed to allow Russia to catch up in areas deemed important to the economy or military. This is very similar to how the Soviets would later develop atomic spy networks in the United States during the Cold War.[3]

Later Russia

Figure 2. Mug shot of Stalin after he had been detained by the Okhrana. Stalin was sentenced to exile to Vologda in 1911 but later escaped in 1912.

Foreign intelligence gathering became established professionally by 1810 in Russia through the creation of what eventually became called the Special Bureau. Initially, foreign gathering intelligence was part of the military. This was seen as crucial for Russia to keep enemies such as the Ottoman Empire and European states away. This tradition of developing the main spying services as serving as part of the larger military structure has stayed with Russia to this day, as the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) carried out most of the spying that occurred in the Soviet Union days and after the fall of the Soviet Union.[4]

In the 19th century Romanov Russia, a new department was developed to create a modern espionage service that focused on mostly domestic services. This was the Department for Protecting the Public Security and Order, or Okhrana, which was mostly a secret police organization. The department was created as a reaction to the attempted assassination of Alexander II in 1866. While most of their activity was to protect the Russian state, they increasingly were concerned with revolutionary ideas that had begun to spread in Europe. This included concerns about left-leaning groups that began to openly oppose the tsar, thus they also infiltrated foreign groups or Russian exiles abroad.[5]

The Okhrana were unprepared for the 1905 Russian Revolution, where their actions may have even made events even worse for the regime. Often, agents worked in small groups and did not coordinate activities. This meant information was not well shared and it was not able to properly identify a large, national-level movement had been launched. Reforms after 1905 included creating spy stations in various cities in Russia that would enable the Okhrana, which was within the wider policing structure of the Russian state, to try to centralize information and be better prepared to root out conspiracies. One role the Okhrana became involved with was promoting counter groups to offset revolutionary groups. In fact, the Bolsheviks were, initially at least, seen as a counterweight to other leftist violent groups that were often seen as a greater threat to the state.

Nevertheless, prominent members, who later became well known communists, such as Stalin, were detained by the Okhrana at various times for subversive activity or even simple criminal activity (Figure 2). However, Lenin was opposed to many of the other opposition parties, leading Okhrana to silently support him as a counterweight. This, overall, helped make Okhrana less able to see the rise of the Bolsheviks as a major threat. In fact, in the events of 1917 that led to the overthrow of the Russian monarch, Okhrana's failure was to not monitor the military, where the Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries had many sympathizers, as it saw military espionage as not honorable. Despite its shortcomings, the succeeding Soviet agencies initially modeled themselves after the Okhrana, specifically the Cheka which became the first secret police after the fall of the Russian Empire. The use of local spy bases and networks that were better coordinated did serve as a useful model for later secret police.[6]

The Rise of the Soviet Spy System

The GRU continued to be the main structure for spying after the establishment of the Soviet Union, although modified and often renamed. After the rise of the Soviet Union, various organizations were formed that took some of the earlier lessons from the GRU and secret police organizations that were used by the tsars. The first was Cheka, then People's Commissariat for State Security (NKGB), the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), which was based on the GRU established in the 1920s, and Ministerstvo gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti SSSR (MGB). These agencies often succeeded each other or overlapped, but they also generally focused on domestic and foreign espionage. Many lessons were learned by these agencies during the 1920-1940s.

Sabotage and deception campaigns destabilized the White Army that supported the reestablishment of the tsar. The intelligence agencies also infiltrated Mexico to assassinate Trotsky and his supporting group, who were seen as a rivals to Stalin, and many successful war time sabotage activities were conducted. These events help make the Soviet spy networks among the most effective in internal monitoring and suppression and foreign espionage.[7]

The most famous organization was the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) that carried out domestic and international spying. It had some notable successes in Bangladesh and Afghanistan in supporting local Communist-supporting or sympathetic parties. Espionage operations were successful in gaining secrets from Western and NATO rivals, although many incidents were classified.[8]

Perhaps the greatest successes of the Soviet spy system was the obtainment of atomic bomb information that allowed the Soviet Union to catch up to the United States. Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) helped steal secrets for the atomic and hydrogen bombs respectively. Similar to how spy networks for Russia were internationally developed in the late 18th century, the Soviet Union began to use foreign sympathizers to help ease its spying activities. In many respects, the Soviets would have developed atomic-based weapons anyway, but the spy networks created in the United States helped to more rapidly develop these weapons at a time the Soviet Union feared it would lose the Cold War.[9]


Similar to other espionage agencies, the Russian experience developed from domestic espionage conducted to protect the expanding and increasingly centralized state in the 16th century. Domestic and foreign spying were often kept in the same organization, which continued throughout the Soviet Union period; however, now there were other organizations that also carried out policing and spying activities.

Nevertheless, the structures increasingly became complex by the late 19th century and early 20th century, as Russia and then the Soviet Union found itself protecting a large frontier and spending a lot of effort in domestic policing of its population through counterintelligence and repression of violent groups. With increased internal violence, spying agencies resorted to more violent measures to carry out activities, including heavy use of torture. This likely helped to fuel animosity with the fall of Russia and eventually the fall of the Soviet Union, in both cases where the policing agencies were dismantled, in part due to their violent reputations. Nevertheless, the lessons learned by the Soviets did make them highly effective in using Communist sympathizers to help them steal major secrets and carry out other espionage before and during the Cold War. Espionage in Russia improved through lessons learned from a long history that started in the 16th century.


  1. For more on Ivan IV and the Oprichnik, see: Yanov, Alexander. 1981. The Origins of Autocracy: Ivan the Terrible in Russian History. Berkeley: University of California Press, pg. 304.
  2. For more on Peter the Great and his reforms that included developing espionage, see: Carlisle, Rodney P., ed. 2005. Encyclopedia of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Armonk, N.Y: Sharpe Reference, pg. 550.
  3. For more on industrial espionage, see: Harris, J. R. 2017. Industrial Espionage and Technology Transfer: Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century. Routledge, pg. 524.
  4. For more on the Special Bureau and related agencies that eventually helped form the GRU, see: Pringle, Robert W. 2006. Historical Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. Historical Dictionaries of Intelligence and Counterintelligence Series 5. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.
  5. For more on the Okhrana, see: Lauchlan, Iain. 2002. Russian Hide-and-Seek: The Tsarist Secret Police in St. Petersburg, 1906-1914. Studia Historica 67. Helsinki: SKS-FLS.
  6. For more on the failure of the Russian spying services to stop the 1917 overthrow, see: Lee, Stephen J. 2006. Russia and the USSR, 1855-1991: Autocracy and Dictatorship. Questions and Analysis in History. London ; New York: Routledge, pg. 73.
  7. For more on Soviet spy agencies, see: Haslam, Jonathan. 2015. Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence. First edition. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  8. For more on the history of the KGB, see: Herman, Michael, and Gwilym Hughes, eds. 2013. Intelligence in the Cold War: What Difference Did It Make? 1. publ. London: Routledge.
  9. For more on the Cold War atomic secrets obtained, see: Holloway, David. 1994. Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939 - 1956. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.