This article examines the role of the Committee on State Security (KGB) during the turbulent six-and-a-half years under Mikhail Gorbachev, from March 1985 to December 1991. Contrary to popular impressions, the KGB was never an independent actor in the Soviet system; it acted at the behest of the Communist Party. When Vladimir Kryuchkov replaced Viktor Chebrikov as head of the KGB in 1986, the move signaled what was intended to be a new role for the KGB. But as the reforms launched by Gorbachev became more radical, and as political instability in the Soviet Union became widespread, many in the KGB grew anxious about the possible fragmentation of the country. These concerns were instrumental in the decision by Kryuchkov and other high-ranking KGB officials to organize a hardline coup in August 1991. Even then, however, the KGB was not truly independent of the party. On the contrary, KGB officials were expecting—and then desperately hoping—that Gorbachev would agree to order an all-out crackdown. Because Gorbachev was unwilling to take a direct part in mass repression, Kryuchkov lacked the authority he was seeking to act. As a result, the attempted coup failed, and the KGB was forced onto the defensive. Shortly before the Soviet state was dissolved, the KGB was broken up into a number of agencies that soon came under Russia's direct control.

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