Vitaly Fedorchuk: Short-lived head of the KGB

Following in the footsteps of the veteran Soviet KGB chief Yuri Andropov was always going to be hard. Vitaly Fedorchuk – who had presided for 12 years over the Ukrainian KGB – was brought to Moscow in May 1982 as Andropov's successor. A crony of the ailing Leonid Brezhnev, Fedorchuk was in the arrogant, crude and unimaginative mould of later Soviet bureaucrats.

Within months Brezhnev was dead, Andropov had taken over as Soviet leader and Fedorchuk's brief career as KGB chief was waning fast. An unprecedented delegation of senior KGB leaders, led by a ruthless deputy chief, Filipp Bobkov, went to see Andropov to warn that if Fedorchuk remained in office they would all resign.

Andropov shared their dim view of Fedorchuk's talents (the two hated each other). Fedorchuk was removed from the KGB in December 1982, making him the shortest-ever holder of the Soviet secret police's top job. He was shunted aside to the less important Interior Minister post. His career in the KGB – which he had joined in March 1939 – was over.

Fedorchuk was born one of six children in a peasant family in a village in the Zhitomir region of Ukraine in 1918, when Bolshevik and nationalist forces were still battling for control. He was called up for military service in 1936 and studied at the Military Communications School in Kiev.

In early 1939 Fedorchuk was sent for a crash course at the Central School of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) in Moscow before joining military counter-intelligence. He was sent to the Soviet Far East, where he took part that autumn in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, part of the undeclared war between Soviet and Japanese forces. He then joined the special department of the secret police, which meted out punishments to traitors, saboteurs and spies – both real and imagined – within the armed forces.

Fedorchuk began to move up the military counter-intelligence ladder, serving among Soviet forces in Austria and East Germany and elsewhere between 1949 and 1967. It was during his spell in East Germany that his son committed suicide, using his father's pistol.

In 1967 Fedorchuk was named head of the Third Directorate (Military Counterintelligence) of the KGB before being named KGB chief in Ukraine in July 1970. There he was vigorous in crushing dissent in the Soviet Union's second most populous republic, where many, especially in western Ukraine – seized from Poland and Romania during the Second World War – still bitterly resented Soviet rule. Intellectuals chafing at Russification of Ukraine, democrats calling for plurality and religious believers (in one of the Soviet Union's religious strongholds) also suffered from repression he instigated.

But Fedorchuk's reputation among the KGB's élite in Moscow in the First Chief Directorate (Foreign Intelligence) was not enhanced by his antics, especially over his son-in-law. A correspondent for the Soviet news agency, Tass (though not a KGB agent), the young man was rescued from one embarrassing situation after another, including a drunken car crash in Uganda.

In his short-lived rule from his office in the Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters in Moscow, Fedorchuk issued warnings of impending imperialist aggression and CIA plots, and enforced ridiculous restrictions on KGB staff, such as cutting their weekend leave.

More at home at the Interior Ministry, Fedorchuk launched a crackdown on crime and corrupt police officers and tried to use KGB recruitment methods to infiltrate society. His tenure lasted through the reigns of Andropov and his successor Konstantin Chernenko, but Mikhail Gorbachev soon sacked him after taking power.

Felix Corley

Vitaly Vasilevich Fedorchuk, spymaster: born Ognevka, Ukraine 27 December 1918; chairman of KGB, Ukraine 1970-82, chairman of KGB, Soviet Union 1982; Interior Minister 1982-86; married (one son and one daughter deceased); died Moscow 29 February 2008.

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