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17 Jun, 2019 15:53

Soviet dissidents’ enemy No.1: KGB general Bobkov dies in Moscow

Soviet dissidents’ enemy No.1: KGB general Bobkov dies in Moscow

Gen. Filipp Bobkov, a veteran of Soviet counterintelligence whose job at the KGB involved quashing dissidents and preventing flare ups of ethnic tensions, has died in Moscow aged 93.

Bobkov passed away at a Moscow hospital after a lengthy ailment, his family and friends told Russian media on Monday. A retired four-star general, he was a controversial figure in Russian history, serving as head of what was essentially the secret police responsible for tackling genuine threats to the USSR, but also blatant persecution of its dissidents. In his later years, he worked for a media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky.

War veteran

His intelligence career started in 1945 with an appointment to a school of Smerh, the Soviet military organization, the name of which literally means “death to spies.” At the time he was a 20-year-old man who had to lie about his age to enroll as a volunteer shortly after the Nazi invasion and rose to a decorated platoon commander on the battlefield. He graduated as an officer and investigator for the Ministry of State Security, which was what the contemporary incarnation of the soviet state security apparatus was called.


One of the first cases he led was a probe into the clandestine supply of nickel from the US to the USSR during the war, according to his memoirs. The smuggling operation was organized by soviet agents under the radar of the US government, and the people involved were suspected of enriching themselves from the arrangement.

Ideological sabotage

By 1956 Bobkov rose up the career ladder to become a department chief in the freshly-reorganized KGB, which was downsized as part of post-Stalin “thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev. One of the first major tasks for him in this new capacity was tackling mass protests in Tbilisi, Georgia.

After coming out on top in the Kremlin power struggle, Khrushchev launched a campaign to dismantle Stalin’s personality cult, starting with a secret speech at the 1956 Communist Party congress. Once the new direction became public knowledge, many of Stalin’s genuine supporters were outraged. The situation in Tbilisi was aggravated by the nationalistic aspect, since locals felt the campaign targeted all Georgians, and not only the late Georgia-born leader. The tension escalated into outright rioting, which was suppressed by force.

Nationalism-tinged tensions became one of the prime threats Bobkov was dealing with at the peak of his career, after KGB chief Yury Andropov appointed him the deputy head and later head of the Fifth Directorate. Created in 1967, the directorate was the tool to fight “ideological sabotage” a term that Bobkov personally didn’t like, saying it was inaccurate.

Threats real and trumped up

The idea was to identify fault lines that could be used by the West to interfere in the Soviet Union with the ultimate goal of toppling the government. Some of the threats were quite real. The CIA had a record of supporting radical nationalist movements in the USSR, including in Ukraine and the Baltics.

There were also threats on the KGB’s plate not directly traced to malign foreign actors, but no less dangerous. A series of bombings in Moscow in 1977, which the agency pinned on a cell of Armenian separatists, was one of the first cases of domestic terrorism in the USSR. Alpha, the famous Russian counterterrorism unit, was created in response to the massacre during the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, albeit under a different directorate.

Other things that the KGB was doing were hardly justified. “Pyatka”, as the directorate was dubbed, was the part of the KGB that quashed dissidents, suppressed literature and arts which it believed were aiding Western psychological warfare, spied on foreigners visiting the country, as well as Jewish and religious people living in the USSR and presumed potentially disloyal.

In his memoirs, Bobkov said he was sorry about some of the decisions he made as the head of the directorate, including sending Andrey Sakharov into internal exile. His other victims include poet Joseph Brodsky, writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, to name a few.

"Oligarch’s spy"

The peak of Bobkov’s 45-year career in state intelligence brought him to the level of deputy head of the KGB in the first half of the 1980s. It ended just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. A critic of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies, including his willingness to allow parts of Soviet Union to seek independence, the general resigned in January 1991, months before the USSR was no more.

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The following year he became head of a new private intelligence agency owned by media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, with some of his former subordinates by his side. Bobkov brought with him decades of experience and extensive contacts – and a trove of state secrets, some critics alleged. There are even those who accuse him of idly standing by and watching the USSR collapse in order to profit under capitalism.

The retired general kept his new job for almost a decade and survived the demise of his oligarch boss in 2000. Later, he held positions in a couple of think tanks and as a media consultant. In 2008, he got a position as an inspector general in the Russian Defense Ministry.