Each year on December 20, the Russian intelligence community pays homage to its enduring guardianship of the Motherland. It was on this date in 1917, six weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution, that Vladimir Lenin established the Cheka, an acronym for “Emergency Commission.” Over the ensuing decades, the commission’s nomenclature and organization chart mutated: It became the OGPU from 1923 to 1934, the NKVD until the early 1950s, and then the KGB for nearly 40 years. After the collapse of the USSR, the sprawling institution was split into separate foreign and domestic agencies. Operatives of both are still called chekists, and they share Lenin’s original purpose: countering Russia’s enemies at home and abroad.
President Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer for 15 years leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the director of domestic intelligence in the late 1990s during his meteoric rise to power. He regularly throws a gala at the Kremlin on December 20 to extol the “sacred mission” of the state security services, recall their past heroes, and highlight their latest exploits. For the last 22 years, Chekist’s Day has been an official holiday in Russia.
Last December, Putin must have been in particularly ebullient spirits. Over the course of 2016, he oversaw the boldest, most consequential covert operation against Russia’s principal ideological and geopolitical foe for much of the last century, breaching the firewall of American democracy and influencing a high-stakes presidential election. Putin seemed to have made a big bet and come away with a trifecta: He could congratulate himself for settling old scores with a traditional foe, relish the prospect of a Russia-friendly counterpart in the White House, and let the ripple effect of the U.S. election further confound and further unsettle the democracies in a wobbly Europe.