Imagine a nightmare where keeping an address book of your friends and family would threaten their very existence. Believe it or not, this was once a reality. Welcome to the grisly world of mistrust and terror, Stalin's NKVD!


Create learning materials about NKVD with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    NKVD: Russia

    The NKVD, which translates to the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, was the primary apparatus of fear to carry out Stalin's bidding during his almost thirty-year reign. A secret police organisation that was not worried about whom they incarcerated, the NKVD was pivotal in carefully maintaining Stalin's cult of personality.

    NKVD Portrait of Stalin StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portrait of Joseph Stalin.

    Active during the Civil War, which ended in 1922, the Cheka was the NKVD's early predecessor. It was vital in filling prisons with political opponents. Once the Bolsheviks established their power, many prisoners were set free, and another organisation called the OGPU was established. The death of Lenin two years later and the ascension of new leader Joseph Stalin brought back the necessity of secret policing, this time one with a beady eye on the men within the Bolshevik party.


    Meaning colleague or friend, this was a popular method of address during the Soviet period.

    United Opposition

    A group formed by different opposition factors within the Bolshevik party. Prominent members included Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, and Grigorii Zinoviev.

    Stalin's early years and consolidation of power were marked by a fear that those loyal to Lenin would attempt to overthrow him. In 1928, he expelled the influential Leon Trotsky and outlawed the 'United Opposition' in the party. However, many comrades from the October Revolution of 1917 remained. The rebranding of the OGPU to the NKVD in 1934 ushered in a new era of secret policing and hitherto unimagined brutality.

    NKVD: Purges

    The period referred to as the 'Great Terror' began in 1934 and would last around four years. Although its real ending is disputed among historians, they agree that Stalin orchestrated a plot to kill a prominent party official and close friend, Sergei Kirov. Stalin used Kirov's assassination as a pretence for the arrests of hundreds of thousands and blamed the death on a plot by Zinoviev. This was Stalin's ploy to root out the United Opposition. By 1936, both Kamenev and Zinoviev were dead.

    Early NKVD leader Genrikh Yagoda did not have the stomach for such merciless killings. He was merely an ideological communist, so Stalin also arrested him and called on Nicolai Yezhov for the culmination of his campaign.

    NKVD Yezhov and Stalin in 1937 StudySmarterFig 2. - Yezhov and Stalin in 1937.

    The Great Terror (1937-8)

    In 1937, the state endorsed torture of 'enemies of the people' without trial through Order 00447. Different groups became the target of the persecution from Yezhov and the NKVD; the intelligentsia, kulaks, clergy members, and foreigners after political prisoners from within and outside the Bolshevik party.

    The Soviet army was also purged, but in reality, anyone was a target for the local authorities to meet the quotas set by the central government. It became a period with such a level of paranoia that people refused to keep address books, as NKVD members would use them for inspiration when searching for their next victims.


    The name used by the Bolsheviks to label educated people. They ranged from artists to teachers to doctors and were despised in a system that strived for social equality.


    Wealthy farmers who owned land during Imperial Russia before the October Revolution. They were liquidated as a class when farms became state-owned in the Soviet Union.

    This approach marked a significant departure from the previous suppression of opposition, whereby executions had to be signed off by party leaders. Historian J. Arch Getty summarises this succinctly:

    The opposite of controlled, planned, directed fire, the operations were more like blind shooting into a crowd.1

    The NKVD based their torture methods around extracting a confession, regardless of the innocence of the arrested. Some would be abruptly killed, but many were sent to the Gulag.

    NKVD Map of prominent Gulags StudySmarterFig. 3 - Map of prominent Gulag locations with more than 5000 prisoners

    The Gulags

    The Great Terror brought about accelerated use of the Gulag system. A Gulag was a labour camp where prisoners were sent and used as the workforce for railways, canals, new cities, and other infrastructure. There were tens of thousands of gulags. Due to the vast and remote nature of much of the Soviet Union, they were virtually inescapable. Life in the Gulag was desperate. The shocking conditions, malnourishment, and overwork regularly led to death. An estimated 18 million people passed through the Gulag system, one that Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev would denounce and dismantle.

    But such was the nature of Stalin; he distanced himself from the men who did his dirty work. He needed to find a scapegoat, and who better than the bloodthirsty Yezhov? Just as he had done with Yagoda, he introduced Lavrentiy Beria as Yezhov's deputy in 1938. Yezhov knew his days were numbered and that he was to be succeeded by Beria. He was a victim of his zealous following of Order 00447 and would be executed. Historian Oleg V. Khlevniuk writes:

    Yezhov and the NKVD now stood accused of doing exactly what Stalin had ordered them to do.2

    The Great Terror formally ended with the assassination of exiled Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940 by an NKVD agent. Trotsky's assassination acted as a precursor of the secret police's influence around the world in the coming decades and another vindication of the might of Joseph Stalin.

    NKVD: Leader

    Yezhov's replacement, Lavrentiy Beria, was the most influential and memorable NKVD leader. He had a personality and an eye for detail that outshone those before him. Under him, Sukhanovka prison in Moscow became the most fearsome place in the country for the highest profile prisoners. Here, guards experimented with bone-breaking instruments and electric shocks.

    Beria was every inch the portrait of a villain and a serial rapist who plucked women from the streets for his heinous designs. He presided over the NKVD until the death of Stalin in 1953, after which he was executed during a power struggle by future leader Nikita Khrushchev.

    NKVD: WW2

    The NKVD was under the stewardship of Beria during World War II, during which they continued their campaigns of terror by murdering any soldiers who deserted them in battle. In addition, races were singled out, such as Muslims, Tatars, Germans, and Poles. In 1940, what was thought of until recently as solely Nazi atrocities was the work of the NKVD in Soviet territory. Stalin and Beria ordered all Polish Army Officers to be killed, along with the intelligentsia. The Katyn Massacre, as it is now known, describes the deaths of 22,000 in the Katyn forest and other locations. The NKVD demonstrated just as much disdain for foreigners as those living in the Soviet Union.

    NKVD vs KGB

    The longest-standing iteration of the secret police in the Soviet Union was not the NKVD. In fact, the KGB, or Committee for State Security, came into being after Stalin's death in 1953. Let's examine some key differences between these two institutions.

    A Stalinist organisation that followed the repressive measures of Joseph Stalin.A reformist organisation with a new methodology under Nikita Khrushchev, who condemned the previous regime in 1956.
    The NKVD lasted from 1934 and encompassed various ministries during and after World War II until the death of Stalin. The KGB was a rebranding of the NKVD in 1954 that coincided with the purging of lingering supporters of Beria.
    Emphasis on Gulags as the primary method of incarceration. Characterised by purges of Lenin's supporters and later surveillance of the United States and Britain's nuclear programmes.A shift from the Gulag and executions to worldwide surveillance during the Cold War. There was far more emphasis on spying on foreign soil and working in the background.
    Evolved from the Cheka (the original secret police of the Soviet Union) and then the OGPU, its leader Beria almost became the nation's leader until Khrushchev ousted him.Evolved from the NKVD, its leader Yuri Andropov became the Soviet Premier in the 1980s, shortly before the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev.

    Despite these nuances, each organisation performed the role of serving the state in a variety of matters. Both the NKVD and the KGB were indispensable to Soviet leaders.

    NKVD: Facts

    Given the secrecy and the relatively recent fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the true extent of the NKVD's impact can't yet be fully determined. However, Michael Ellman has done all he can to give an idea of the figures behind this organisation. We will pick out some of the important ones below.

    • The NKVD arrested a conservative estimate of one million people during the Great Terror (1937-8), excluding those who were deported.
    • 17-18 million people went to the Gulag between 1930 and 1956. The Gulag was the brainchild of the OGPU.
    • It is impossible to say precisely how many people were arrested as the line between 'criminals and politicals (often) blurred'. Further archival research is required for a fuller picture of the number of deaths resulting directly from Soviet regime and the NKVD.3

    As more and more is uncovered, you certainly wouldn't bet against future discoveries revealing the terror of the NKVD to an even greater extent.

    NKVD - Key takeaways

    • The NKVD was the iteration of the Soviet secret police under Joseph Stalin. It played a crucial role in his dictatorship between 1934 and 1953.
    • The period of the Great Terror helped cement Stalin's authority, with the public petrified of being arrested for no reason. Many of them were sent to the Gulag and did not return.
    • Stalin never let one man get too much power, and after the height of the Great Terror, NKVD chief Nicolai Yezhov was also purged in favour of Lavrentiy Beria.
    • Beria met a similar fate after Stalin's death, with the rebranding of the NKVD to the KGB under the Khrushchev regime.
    • It is believed that 17-18 million people passed through the Gulag, but the actual number of people arrested and killed by the NKVD is still unknown, with more archival research required.


    1. J. Arch Getty, '"Excesses Are Not Permitted": Mass Terror and Stalinist Governance in the Late 1930s', The Russian Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (Jan 2002), pp. 113-138.
    2. Oleg V. Khlevniuk, 'Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator', (2015) pp. 160.
    3. Michael Ellman, 'Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments', Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 54, No. 7 (Nov 2002), pp. 1151-1172.
    Frequently Asked Questions about NKVD

    What was the NKVD in the USSR?

    The NKVD were the secret police during the reign of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union.

    What did the NKVD do?

    The primary role of the NKVD was to root out any potential opposition to Stalin. They did this by mass arrests, show trials, executions and sending millions to the Gulag.

    What does NKVD mean?

    NKVD translates as the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. They were the Soviet secret police during the Stalin era.

    When did the NKVD become the KGB?

    The NKVD became the KGB in 1954. This renaming was in part to remove the association with former leader Lavrentiy Beria.

    How many people did the NKVD arrest?

    It is certain that more than a million were arrested during the Great Terror alone. As scholarship on the NKVD is relatively recent, the true number of arrests cannot currently be determined.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these organisations formed after Stalin's death?

    Who was NOT a leader of the NKVD?

    Who did Stalin order the execution of to begin the Great Terror?


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team History Teachers

    • 10 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner