Literacy is the path to Communism
Literacy is the path to Communism

And you thought remembering names was bad enough…

Trying to make sense of the myriad Party and state agencies that gave institutional shape to the civilization of Stalinism can be every bit as challenging. The Bolsheviks’ zeal for bureaucracy produced a maze of entities possessing names that were often too long and confusing even for native Russian speakers. Typically, Soviet institutions came to be known by shorter acronyms built through a combination of the first syllables of words mushed together [yes, that’s a technical term] to form a short-hand referent for the full, official name.

Fortunately for non-Russian speakers, many of the “base” terms used by the Bolsheviks are cognates; they’re drawn from foreign words (i.e. non-Russian) you already know.

The more common ones include:

  • MIN = “ministry” (ministerstvo / министерство)
  • KOM = “committee” (komitet / комитет)  OR “commissariat” (komissariat / комиссариат)
  • ORG = “organizational” (organizatsionnoe /организационное)
  • REV = “revolutionary” (revoliutsionnyi / революционный)
  • SOV = “council” (soviet / совет) [Not a cognate, but familiar enough to remember]

In addition to these, there are a small number of Russian words used frequently enough that they are worth remembering. The two most important are:

  • NAR = “people” or “peoples'” (narodnyi / народный) [adj.]
  • GOS = “state” (gosudarstvennyi / государственный) [adj.]

References to Party organizations typically include the abbreviation of a geographic (or territorial) unit:

  • OB = oblast’ / область (“oblast” — this word is typically translated into English as “region)
  • RAI = raion / район (“district”) [Note: this is a cognate from the French word “rayon” meaning “department” or “honeycomb”)
  • GOR = “city” (gorod / город)

The above list is be no means exhaustive. A great many institutional acronyms include Russian words specific to the institution’s function [EX: VOEN = “military” (voennyi / военный) as in Revvoensovet, or the “Revolutionary Military Council.” Still, being able to recognize the more common “roots” listed above should help you makes some sense when you encounter an acronym for the first time.

That said, there is one Soviet administrative entity worth noting both for the particular role it played in the country’s history and the successive acronyms by which it would be identified over the course of the twentieth century. The Soviet state security organization (i.e. “secret police”) was established in December 1917. Initially, it was known as the “All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage”  (Vserossiiskaia chrezvychainaia komissia po borb’e s kontrrevoliutsiei i sabotazhem / Всероссийская чрезвычайная комиссия по борьбе с контрреволюцией и саботажем) or Cheka (stress on the last syllable: Che-KA).

The state security apparat went through a number of name changes in the years that followed. Here’s a complete list of the institution’s permutations:

Cheka (1917-1922)

GPU (1922-1923) = “State Political Administration” (Gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie / Государственное политическое управление)

OGPU (1923-1934) = “Unified State Political Administration” (Ob’edinennoe gosudarstvennoe politicheskoe upravlenie / Объединённое государственное политическое управление)

NKVD (1934-1941) = “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs” (Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del / Народный комиссариат внутренних дел)

NKGB (Feb-Jul 1941) = “People’s Commissariat for State Security” (Narodnyi komissariat gosudarstvennoi bezopastnosti /Народный комиссариат государственной безопасности)

NKVD (1941-1943) = “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs” (Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del / Народный комиссариат внутренних дел)

NKGB (1943-1946) = “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi komissariat gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti /Народный комиссариат государственной безопасности)

MGB (1946-1954) = “Ministry for State Security” (Ministerstvo gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti / Министерство государственной безопасности)

KGB (1954-1991) =  “Committee for State Security” (Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti / Комитет государственной безопасности)

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