MOSCOW—Red Square is one of the world’s most iconic locales. Even during the worst of the U.S.S.R. the square was more symbolic than threatening.
Very different, however, is Lubyanka, just a short walk away.
In the late 19th century 15 insurance companies congregated on Great Lubyanka Street. The Rossia agency, one of Russia’s largest, completed its office building in 1900.
But in 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power. They took the Rossia building for the new secret police, known as the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, or Cheka.
The first Cheka head was Felix Dzerzhinsky. He conducted the infamous “Red Terror,” what he called a “fight to the finish” against the Bolsheviks’ political opponents.
After his death in 1926 Grand Lubyanka Street was renamed Dzerzhinsky Street. A great statue of Dzerzhinsky, weighing 15 tons, was erected in a circle in front of the Cheka headquarters.
After the KGB was dissolved the building went to the Border Guard Service, later absorbed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), responsible for foreign intelligence. Today Lubyanka looks non-threatening, a yellowish color and architectural style less severe than the harshly grandiose Stalinist architecture seen throughout the city.
The KGB faced its greatest challenge in the Gorbachev era. Demands for reform raced beyond Mikhail Gorbachev’s and the KGB’s control. In August 1991 KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov helped plan the coup against Gorbachev.
After the coup’s collapse a crowd gathered in front of Lubyanka and attempted to pull down the Dzerzhinsky monument. City officials used a crane to finish the job.
Journalist Yevgenia Albats wrote: “If either Gorbachev or [Boris] Yeltsin had been bold enough to dismantle the KGB during the autumn of 1991, he would have met little resistance.” However, these two reformers attempted to fix rather than eliminate the agency.
And the KGB effectively ended up taking over Russia. Yeltsin named Chekists, or members of the “siloviki” (or power agents), to important government positions, most importantly Vladimir Putin, who headed the FSB and then became prime minister—and Yeltsin’s successor as president when the latter resigned.