Vladimir Yefimovich Semichastny (Russian: Влади́мир Ефи́мович Семича́стный, January 15, 1924 – January 12, 2001) was a Soviet politician, who served as Chairman of the KGB from November 1961 to May 1967. A protégé of Alexander Shelepin, he rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol).
Semichastny was born in January 1924 in the village of Grygorevka, near Grishino (today Krasnoarmiisk), in the Donetsk Oblast (later renamed Stalino Oblast) of Soviet Ukraine, to a working-class Russian family originally from Tula Province. After finishing high school in 1941, he began studying Chemistry at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Kemerovo, but his studies were interrupted by World War II; his family back in Ukraine were evacuated to Astrakhan, due to the Nazi conquest of the region, and Semichastny himself was drafted to the Red Army. After the liberation of the Donbass by the Red Army in 1943, Semichastny returned home. Later, he received a degree in History from Kiev State University.
In the Communist Youth League
After the end of the war, Semichastny became a full-time employee of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), working in the fields of propaganda and administration. From 1947 to 1950 he was First Secretary of the Ukrainian Komsomol. In 1950 he was brought to Moscow to work in the central apparatus of the Komsomol, where he met and befriended Alexander Shelepin, forging very close ties with him and eventually succeeding him as First Secretary of the All-Union Komsomol.
In 1959, after having served as First Secretary of the All-Union Komsomol, Semichastny was sent by the Soviet leadership to the politically sensitive and oil-rich Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, as Second Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Azerbaijan, a position he held for two years, until 1961, serving under the Republic's leader Vali Akhundov.
Chairman of the KGB
. Vladimir Semichastny, Chairman of the KGB (first from left), talking to Soviet intelligence officers Rudolf Abel (second from left) and Konon Molody (second from right) in 1964
Semichastny was appointed Chairman of the KGB by Nikita Khrushchev in November 1961, again succeeding his friend and mentor Shelepin, who had been KGB Chairman since 1958. Appointed at the age of 37, he was the youngest Soviet security and intelligence chief of the Cold War. As KGB chief, he generally continued his predecessor's policies: support for national liberation movements worldwide, suppression of nationalism, separatism and the dissident movement within the Soviet Union, and recruitment of young university graduates to the KGB. He also put much emphasis on developing the security and intelligence services of the Soviet satellite states, and on assisting the communist forces in the Vietnam War.
Semichastny was surprised when Khrushchev informed him of his appointment as KGB Chairman, commenting that he did not have any experience in intelligence and counterintelligence; Khrushchev, however, told him that the KGB needed, above all, a deft political hand. Semichastny's young age and his lack of professional experience in intelligence and counterintelligence led him to rely heavily on senior department heads within the KGB; he was always respectful towards intelligence veterans, but he was also determined to be in charge and leave his mark on the agency.
Semichastny's first decision as KGB Chairman, on November 22, 1961, (after nine days in office) was to approve the creation of a "sabotage and terrorism" group (as the KGB itself called it) within the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua; the Sandinistas would eventually manage to seize power in that country in 1979.
Despite Khrushchev's fondness and esteem, Semichastny never became part of the Soviet leader's inner circle. The two rarely had one-on-one meetings (although there were some instances where they would have breakfast together, or a walk in the Kremlin where Semichastny would brief him on important matters) and Khrushchev was adamant in his belief that the KGB was to be confined to intelligence, counterintelligence and state security, and was not expected to have any policy recommendations of its own ("executor, not formulator of policy"), especially in foreign affairs, where Semichastny usually deferred to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.
Undoubtedly, however, the KGB and its chairman retained their relevance and importance; every morning, a large grayish blue file containing intelligence reports and analyses, selected and reviewed by Semichastny, was placed on Khrushchev's personal desk by one of his secretaries, and Khrushchev always read them avidly.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Semichastny was responsible for coordinating all information received from abroad. His chosen crisis team oversaw intelligence from the Foreign Ministry, the GRU (Military Intelligence) and, of course, the KGB. The team met every day in his office at KGB Headquarters in Lubyanka Square.
During his tenure Semichasnty attempted to create a new, more positive public image for the KGB, permitting an article to appear in the newspaper Izvestia that included an interview with an unnamed "senior KGB officer" (himself); he stated
many young Communist Party and Communist Youth League workers have joined the KGB, and none of the people who, during the time of Joseph Stalin's cult of personality, took part in the repressions against innocent Soviet people, is now in the Service.
More articles, books and films on the security organs appeared, and Soviet spies became heroes in print and cinema — Rudolf Abel, Gordon Lonsdale, Harold (Kim) Philby, and Richard Sorge.
In October 1963, Semichastny sanctioned the arrest of Professor Frederick Barghoorn of Yale University when he was visiting Moscow. Semichastny hoped that by charging Barghoorn as a spy he could induce the United States to release Igor Ivanov, arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that month for espionage. Barghoorn was a personal friend of President John F. Kennedy, who forcefully stated that Barghoorn was not involved in any illegal activities at a press conference. The Soviets subsequently released Barghoorn. Ivanov was eventually allowed to leave the United States in 1971.
Subsequently, Semichastny and his mentor Shelepin participated in the successful coup against Khrushchev in October 1964, an act that undoubtedly led to his being initially retained as KGB chief by the new, more hard-line Soviet leadership. There are some indications that Leonid Brezhnev, who led the coup against Khrushchev, wanted to assassinate him, but Semichastny, while participating in the ouster of Khrushchev, categorically refused to allow any bloodshed.
Semichastny was in fact the one who informed Khrushchev of his removal from power, "by order of the Politburo"; as Khrushchev was returning to Moscow from a holiday at the Black Sea, Semichastny waited for him at the airport flanked by KGB security guards, informed him of his ouster and told him not to resist. Khrushchev did not resist, and the hardliners' coup went off smoothly; Khrushchev felt betrayed by Semichastny, as he considered him a friend and ally until that very moment, not suspecting that he had joined his enemies within the Party.
Brezhnev finally replaced Semichastny on 18 May 1967, as part of a Kremlin power shuffle, and Yuri Andropov became the new Chairman of the KGB. Semichastny's close friend Shelepin was also removed from any positions of influence.
From 1967 until 1981 Semichastny was a Deputy Prime Minister of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, although he did not have any significant influence in the political affairs of the Republic, which was tightly controlled by Brezhnevites. In 1981 he was removed from that position as well, and retired to private life.
Semichastny died in Moscow at the age of 77, on January 12, 2001, after suffering a stroke.
After U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Semichastny investigated the background of Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested for the murder and was himself shot dead. Oswald had spent some time in the Soviet Union but, according to Semichastny's investigations, had never worked for any Soviet intelligence agency; Semichastny's verdict, that there was definitely "something fishy" in the whole affair, is shared by many.
Markus Wolf, the intelligence chief of East Germany, who worked closely with Semichastny, described him as follows:
"He was as kind and friendly as might be expected from a former leader of the Komsomol, the party's youth wing. Though affable, Semichastny was a sharp-minded, ideologically severe man. Semichastny's personal obsession was the pollution of the system from within by Soviet artists and writers; it was he who masterminded the vilification of Boris Pasternak and his novel Dr. Zhivago. He had little interest in foreign intelligence, which he left to Aleksandr Sakharovsky, who was highly respected by many members of his staff, as well as by me".
- ^ a b c McCauley, Martin; McCauley, Martin (11 September 2002). Who's Who in Russia since 1900. ISBN 9781134772131.
- ^ a b c d e f g Aleksandr Fursenko, Timothy Naftali: "One Hell of a Gamble": Krushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, page 262
- ^ Christopher Andrew, The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB in the World, 2008, page Ixxiii
- ^ a b Ron Popeski (January 16, 2001). "Ex-KGB Head Semichastny Dies at 77" (636). The Saint Petersburg Times. Reuters. Retrieved January 21, 2014.
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- ^ http://www.economist.com/node/478480
- ^ Markus Wolf, Anne McElvoy, Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster, p. 209, 1997, Jonathan Cape Ltd