In 1880 the Russian Police Department established a special section that dealt with internal security. This unit eventually became known as the Okhrana. Concerned by the attempts by Russian workers to form trade unions, Okhrana units were formed in the industrial centres of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw.
The Okhrana was under the control of the Minister of the Interior. Okhrana agents worked under cover and their main task was to expose political crimes before they were committed. To do this agents joined political organizations that were campaigning for social reform. Some of these undercover agents reached positions of leadership in these organization. This included Evno Azef, head of the SR Combat Organization and Roman Malinovsky, a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee.
Sometimes Okhrana agents joined revolutionary groups to spy on their members and eventually became converted to the cause. They then became double-agents who provided information to both Okhrana and the revolutionaries. Two of these double-agents were responsible for the assassinations of two Ministers of the Interior, Vyacheslav Plehve and Peter Stolypin.
In 1895 Sergei Zubatov was appointed as head of the Moscow section of Okhrana. He gradually introduced several modern methods of detection including photographic files, a systematic registration of suspects and a flying squad to deal with acts of terrorism. Zubatov also trained his in revolutionary theory and conspiratorial methods.
Zubatov also used his agents to set up the Mutual Assistance League of Workers in the Mechanical Industry. His agents became the leaders of this trade union and they attempted to persuade the workers not to make demands for higher wages and better working conditions. This proved unsuccessful and by 1903 the union had to be disbanded because its members had began to take part in strikes.
In some cases, revolutionaries were arrested and then offered the opportunity to become a double-agent. First they had to sign a detailed confession of their activities and a statement of repentance. The prisoner was then pardoned and released to spy on his comrades. The confession would be used against the agent if he ever tried to change his mind about working for the Okhrana.
The Okhrana also recruited members of illegal organization. as paid informers. In 1912 over 26,000 people in Russia were receiving money from the Okhrana. The average informer received 100 rubles a month, a sum that was well above the average industrial wage at the time. Evno Azef, Okhrana's leading undercover agent, was paid over 2000 rubles a month.
Some of the organization. that Okhrana were interested in were illegal and were based outside Russia. To deal with revolutionaries living in exile, Okhrana sections were also established in major European cities such as Paris and London.
After the October Revolution an examination of police files suggested that around 26,000 people were killed without trial by the Okhrana.