The Bolshevik

The Bolshevik
A painting from 1920 by Russian artist Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (1878–1927) currently in the possession of The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

19 April 2015

Restructuring the Wartime Security Services

NKVD Chief and from 1943-45 Commissar General of State Security
Lavrentiy Beria wearing the shoulder boards pictured below.
When the momentum shifted in favor of the Allies in the latter part of the Great Patriotic War (WWII), powers were once again redistributed among the Soviet security services. Moreover, in April 1943 a new secret service, one of the most notorious security branches - SMERSH - was created as a hybrid of military counterintelligence and the NKVD. Such was the nature of SMERSH that the mere existence of the organization was denied by the Soviets and then for decades by the military and government of the Russian Federation.

People's Commissar of State Security
General Viktor Abakumov
The decision to split the all-powerful Soviet security apparatus under Lavrentiy Beria into three sections was as much political as it was expedient. It is widely believed that Beria - in his height of power - had eyes on Stalin's position; however, Stalin had no plans to abdicate his rule. The first of the three bodies was the NKVD, which was still headed by Beria but with significantly less authority, at least officially. The second was the reincarnation of the NKGB, headed by Vsevolod Merkulov, who also ran it when it existed briefly in 1941. When the NKGB was absorbed by the NKVD, Merkulov was a deputy to Beria. The third organization was what would eventually be known as SMERSH, headed by People's Commissar of State Security Viktor Abakumov, who had also formerly been a deputy of Beria in the NKVD. Beria, Merkulov and Abakumov reported independently and directly to Stalin.
Prototype shoulder board for what would have been the position of Marshal of State Security of the USSR.
As the only head of all Soviet state security, Beria sought the creation of this title for himself, but before that
could happen, Stalin and the State Defence Committee split the security services into three organization.
In 1945, and only because police and security ranks were converted to be uniform with military rank titles 
and Beria's title was converted to Marshal of the Soviet Union.
Beria maintained a great deal of power by having supporters, if not friends, strategically placed in positions within the government and the military who he expected to be able to count on for favors when needed. He was also a founding member of the Stalin-led State Defense Committee, the most powerful political body in the Soviet Union during wartime, more influential even than the Politburo. Shortly before the NKVD was converted to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in 1946, he resigned as its chief and moved more toward his political posturing as Deputy Prime Minister and Curator of the Organs of State Security and maintained a certain amount of indirect control from this new political position, but these machinations will be addressed in more detail in a later chapter when the security services underwent another series of name changes before the eventual creation of the infamous KGB.  
Actual shoulder boards of Beria as the last chief of
the NKVD. Beria is wearing these in the photo 
of him above. The boards are behind glass.

At the same time in 1943 when Stalin was reassigning some of the powers of the NKVD, the NKGB - People's Commissariat for State Security - was reestablished on April 19 as the Soviet "secret police" as well as its civil (non-military) foreign and counter-intelligence service. The NKVD was left to concentrate on "internal affairs" including the USSR's infrastructure of militia and firefighters, while maintaining some counterintelligence operations. However, the bulk of the "affairs" addressed by the NKVD more often than not included the widespread repression and elimination of political dissents with an ever-growing number of casualties. The NKVD remained the tool Stalin (and several members of Stalin's State Defence Committee) used to eliminate opposition, either organized or on the individual level. 

SMERSH was not simply the third branch of the wartime Soviet
intelligence system, it was a vast network of enforcers of Stalin's will as well as that of other elite members of the security services who regularly abused their authority. The list of atrocities attributed to members of SMERSH - both under orders and acting alone - rivals that of the 1930s NKVD. 

The leading or administrative branch of SMERSH was the Main Counterintelligence Directorate of the People's Commissariat of Defence of the USSR (abbreviated as GUKR-NKO or simply SMERSH). This section of SMERSH was headed by Abakumov. As director of GUKR-NKO SMERSH, Abakumov reported directly to Stalin. Beria remained in control of the NKVD branch of SMERSH while People's Commissar Nikolai Kuznetsov headed the NKF, or People's Commissariat of the Navy, SMERSH. Each SMERSH section leader answered to Stalin alone, which created a new degree of responsibility. Any errors or failures could no longer be blamed on other departments and/or their leadership. Beria, Abakumov and Kuznetsov were each responsible for their respective organizations and their corresponding SMERSH units. It is widely held that one of the main reasons for Stalin to break up SMERSH into additional components with different leaders, was to check the powers of Beria, who had begun demonstrating ambitions toward succeeding Stalin, possibly challenging him one day. But the focus of the Soviet Union and its leadership was on the war since the survival of the Soviet Union depended upon defeating Hitler and Nazi Germany. Maintaining order and organization was essential for survival, and personal motivations or aspirations had to be reigned in as long as the war continued. Additionally, the sudden change of title and powers caused a welcome degree of confusion in the Abwehr, the Nazi military intelligence organization, for the Soviet leadership.
Temporary award document for the Soviet Medal for Military Merit to Capt. Ivan Ryabov authorized by SMERSH head
Colonel-General Abakumov in 1945.
The responsibilities of each of the three branches of the state security apparatus overlapped each other to some degree and the lines between each organization are blurred, to say the least, and one of the most infamous missions of all of SMERSH was to vet the Red Army (RKKA) from the bottom up. 
Propaganda postage stamp using the "Not one step back!" slogan.* 

In order to gain control over the mass desertions of Red Army personnel in the face of overwhelming numbers of better equipped German soldiers, Stalin issued the infamous Article № 227 on 28 July 1942, which was later widely known by its line: "Not one step back!" In fact, the phrase (Ни шагу назад! in Russian) was widely used by NKVD and Red Army propagandists and would have fallen on the ears of terrified soldiers as they prepared to launch an assault or attack against German lines. The direct implications of Article № 227 was that anyone attempting to flee the battlefield or desert the Red Army was to be shot on the spot. The next step was to create "blocking" or "barrier battalions" which would set up machine guns and riflemen in the rear of a Red Army unit preparing for an attack. Member of the barrier battalions (originally made up of NKVD rifle regiments, and later taken over by SMERSH) were ordered to shoot anyone deemed a "coward" by moving in any direction other than towards enemy lines. These barrier battalions were created along with the order preventing retreat, under Article № 227, which required commanders of the various "fronts" along the lines with Germany to utilize "penal battalions" created from middle to high ranking officers and "penal companies" that had been created from NCOs and privates. Both units were comprised of soldiers who had been found guilty - correctly or not - of a crime or cowardice. They were to be deployed in the areas of the heaviest fighting and could be "rehabilitated" or re-earn their stripes through direct combat. Casualties in these penal ranks were considered acceptable. In fact, being killed under these circumstances could merit posthumous reinstatement of former rank and constituent privileges for the surviving family members. Though the creation and use of blocking battalions was officially discontinued in November of 1944, SMERSH had executed an unknown number of RKKA personnel under the guise of "patriotism."

Verification of powers of SMERSH Lt. Mikhail Ivanovich Yerokhin from 7 May 1943. The document gives Yerokhin the to  power to question, detain and arrest suspected spies or saboteurs - which could be determined at the judgement of the agent. The document also grants him freedom of movement throughout the North-Caucuses Front military district without 
having to answer to military commanders. The identity document-pass was authorized by Deputy Head of SMERSH, 
North-Caucuses Front Commissar of State Security M.I. Belkin.
60th anniversary of SMERSH badge
commissioned in 2003 by a non-government
organization of veterans of SMERSH. It is
in the standard sword and shield design of the
Soviet-Russian security services.
SMERSH agents had many of the same rights to detain and arrest civilians and military personnel as well as demand identification papers of the same. One of the prominent problems facing SMERSH and the other security agencies was that of German-forged documents for Nazi intelligence officers, recruited local saboteurs, "bandits" and members of organized anti-Soviet rebel groups especially in Ukraine and the Baltic States. Some of these groups were formed as far back as the Bolshevik Revolution as counterrevolutionaries. Identification documents were exceptionally important because signed and stamped papers were the only method of identifying individuals during the chaotic times of wartime border changes. German military and political police personnel who occupied regions of Ukraine and the Baltic States were often helped and joined by members of rebel groups to fight against their long-standing enemy - the Red Army. As the lines on the war maps moved back toward Germany, Nazi military and political intelligence organs left behind agents to infiltrate the Red Army and disseminate false information. The Red Army officers knew this was likely and one of the main reasons SMERSH was created was to combat these sorts of enemy spies and saboteurs. 

"Don't chatter" (Не Болтай) a common propaganda phrase which can be interpreted also as "gossip" is roughly
equivalent to the U.S. wartime propaganda expression, "Loose lips...." The rest of the above text says, "Strictly
keep military and state secrets." Behind the soldiers is a spy eavesdropping on them. A common tactic of the
Soviet propaganda machine was to portray spies as living and working throughout the USSR in all forms
of average citizens.   
The political propaganda generated by the Soviet government was pervasive and was backed up by the threat of arrest, prison or even execution. This was true for civilians as much as for military personnel. It was this same fervor over rooting out real and imagined spies and saboteurs (also "wreckers" in Russian) that often led to the disgracing arrest and execution of many formerly high-ranking Soviet officials. Being close to Stalin was as dangerous as the Icarus myth. On July 12, 1951, Abakumov, along with General Mikhail Belkin (Commissar of State Security who authorized the identity document/pass above) and a three others in the state security services were arrested on Stalin's order. Abakumov's trial began on 12 December 1954 and a week later, on the 19th, he was executed in Leningrad. He was charged loosely with conspiring with Beria against Stalin. By this point, Beria had already been tried and executed in similar fashion. On July 19, 1945, Abakumov was promoted to the (military) rank of Colonel General. In May of 1946, the NKGB was renamed the Ministry for State Security (MGB) and Abakumov was named as its head. Within a few days of the creation of the MGB, SMERSH was merged with it thus ending all departments of SMERSH. 
Abakumov's arrest photos from 1952.

The end of SMERSH and the elimination of the main players in the functioning of the organization was not coincidental. After Stalin's death on 5 March 1953, a powerful "de-Stalinization" feeling swept the USSR, catching up many of the most prominent figures from leading positions in the Soviet government and military. People who once had the tentative confidence of Stalin and/or were his political appointments were suddenly targeted by members of the Communist Party and the Politburo who were seeking to distance themselves as much as possible from Stalin and his regime, with the ardent approval of the majority of the population of the post-war Soviet Union. However, the controversial and far too often nefarious deeds of most of Stalin's innermost circle made charging and prosecuting these men relatively easy under the anti-Stalin political and public climate. This popular opposition sentiment helped pave the way for Stalin's ultimate successor, Great Patriotic War hero Nikita Khrushchev, who later denounced his predecessor on two public occasions in 1956 and 1962 when the Cold War tensions between the USSR and the USA were at some of their worst. However, the attempts to undo some of what Stalin did within the borders of the Soviet Union persisted beyond the end of the country in 1991, and some people argue that certain segments of Soviet history still require re-editing to reverse Stalin's revisions in order to reach the objective truth.   


Parrish, Michael. The Lesser Terror: Soviet State Security, 1939-1953. Praeger Publishers, United States, 1996; electronic publication address: 

Raoul Wallenberg: Report of the Swedish-Russian Working Group; Ingrid Palmklint and Daniel Larsson, eds. Stockholm, Sweden. Ministry for Foreign Affairs: Department for Central and Eastern Europe, 2000; electronic publication address:

World War II Database: Viktor Abakumov. Lava Development, LLC. Copyright 2004-2015;

30 March 2013

SMERSH and the end of the NKVD

Part II
How Stalin Used SMERSH to Murder Millions

Above: a classic wartime warning propaganda poster designed to make the average Soviet citizen wary of gossiping or talking to strangers as they might be enemy agents (as in the case of the poster - a Nazi in disguise). The literal translation of the text is "Chatting - Helping the Enemy!" Such posters were a common site in Soviet cities during the years of the Great Patriotic War from 1941-1945. These posters were the product of Soviet security services and were one of the many contributing factors to the ultimate fear and paranoia experienced by Soviet citizens after WWII who were indoctrinated into a society of self-imposed terror that the neighbor might either be an anti-Soviet subversive or one of the people who might call the security services (NKVD-KGB) first.
A propaganda poster reminding Soviet citizens to help "Ruthlessly destroy fascist saboteurs."

On paper, SMERSH was a wartime creation to enhance military counterintelligence in the field. It served as a rickety bridge linking the NKVD/NKGB to the MGB/KGB. As a type of "Special Department" or "OO" in abbreviated Russian, SMERSH was supposed to be strictly drawn from the military counterintelligence section of the GUGB (formerly the OGPU - All-Union State Political Directorate but subordinated to the NKVD in 1941). Military counterintelligence had always been and would remain until 1991 under the purview of the state security organizations from the Cheka to the KGB. Military intelligence was under the direction of the GRU (Russian: Главное Разведывательное Управление or transliterated - Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye) or Main Intelligence Directorate (of the USSR Army General Staff). However, in practice, when SMERSH was officially formed in March-April 1943 it had numerous incarnations both in its own branch and subordinated groups within the NKVD which were written/typed in official documents as "Smersh" rather than the all-caps "SMERSH" befitting the acronym it is for the Russian smert' shpionam, or "Death to Spies," allegedly coined by Stalin himself.

"Do not talk on the phone [carelessly]. A spy could be listening." A 
propaganda poster showing an NKVD officer hanging up the phone 
another soldier was attempting to use.
The creation of SMERSH was necessary on many levels - regular Red Army/Navy desertions to problems of Nazi spies and saboteurs infiltrating the Soviet ranks, anti-Soviet partisan groups and even the "peasants" of many of the newly (re-)occupied territories along the fronts between the Soviets and the Germans - all required some "organized assistance" to either work with Stalin's government or be hounded and/or crushed by it. However, as "OO" units and eventually SMERSH grew in size and power, there were practically no guards of the guardians. No one within the ranks of the Soviet Military or civilian population was immune to being arrested, tortured, jailed, sent to prison/work camps (not unlike Nazi concentration camps) or simply executed, often in front of the soldiers they served with or in the case of civilians, in front of the workers they once toiled along side. However, officers in SMERSH were being watched by the NKVD's Smersh agents and vice versa. This "overseeing" allowed Lavrentii Beria (head of the NKVD) to maintain his power after most of the main intelligence/counterintelligence duties were transferred to the reformed NKGB and SMERSH.

"Help the Red Army to capture Spies and Saboteurs" 
- another Soviet intelligence propaganda poster.
When Stalin recombined all of the security services under the NKVD in 1941 after the Nazis began their blitzkrieg into the Soviet Union in a three-prong attack aimed at the southern regions, Moscow and Leningrad, he continued to keep the Special Services ("OO") in charge of military counterintelligence. Military counterintelligence consisted of many specific duties, some of which are mentioned above such as ferreting out fascist spies (both real and imagined), preventing desertion - often by shooting those that retreated without a direct order from the generals who ordered the original attack - and gathering information from captured German soldiers. These were some of the basic duties of SMERSH later, once they were created to replace - or rather enhance - the OO, but the actual full spectrum of atrocities committed by SMERSH agents has only come to light in recent years. 

SMERSH only came into existence once the momentum shifted in favor of the Allies in April 1943, and powers were once again redistributed among the Soviet security services. Such was the nature of SMERSH that the mere existence of the organization was denied by the Soviets and then only until fairly recently by the Russian government. 

At the same time on April 19, 1943 the NKGB - People's Commissariat for State Security - was reestablished as the Soviet "secret police" as well as its foreign and counter-intelligence service. The NKVD was left to perform the tasks its name suggests - "internal affairs." However, the "affairs" addressed by the NKVD more often than not included the widespread repression and elimination of political dissent with an ever-growing number of casualties. 

SMERSH was not simply the third branch of the wartime Soviet intelligence system, it was a vast network of enforcers of Stalin's will as well as that of other elite members of the security services who regularly abused their authority. The list of atrocities attributed to members of SMERSH - both under orders and acting alone - rivals that of the NKVD itself - even during the "terror" of the 1930s. 

09 July 2012

Personal Misuse of Security Services

How the First Two Leaders of the Soviet Union Abused the Cheka/OGPU and the NKVD/MVD for Personal Gain

The obelisk monument in Volgograd to the Cheka. Volgograd was known during the Soviet Era as Stalingrad - the location of some of the greatest losses of human life during the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and the site of the first major military defeat of the Nazis at the hands of the Red Army. The monument is topped with a soldier holding a sword pointed at the sky and the lower section has a large, probably brass or bronze, sword and shield motif that became synonymous with both branches of the Soviet State Security organizations at the time - the NKVD and the NKGB which was the foreign intelligence component of the NKVD during the war. After the war's end, the NKGB was given its independence again as a foreign intelligence service soon known as the MGB or "Ministry of State Security" for a few years until the final and most well-known name was given as the Ministry was reduced to Committee status ("Komitet") in 1954 from fear on the part of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that the seemingly omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent NKVD had become under Stalin and Beria (the latter was tried and executed not long after the former's death).

This section will serve as a brief refresher on the early security services (i.e. Cheka through MGB) which were the most directly controlled by the leaders of the Soviet Union at the time - in particular, Lenin and then Stalin. 

Below is a short, almost "note" with a deadly order scribbled on it by Lenin himself. It was displayed earlier in a prior chapter, but the significance bears showing it again. The handwritten letter very clearly establishes that the leadership in the Bolsheviks was not concerned with the rights of non-Russians together with a handful of adopted members of other regions that were either joining the USSR and becoming the first of the original 10 republics, as Lenin and his immediate successor Josef Stalin (See "The Spread of Chekist Ideas and Ideals at a High Moral Cost, Part I: The Fear of the 'Disappearing' Citizen" April of 2011). The letter is a hand-written example of an order to Chekist troops and possibly a few soldiers drawn in to aid them in a massacre. The following is an English translation of the text of the letter provided by Smithsonian translators:
Send to Penza to Comrades Kuraev, Minkin, and other Penza communists

     Comrades! The revolt by the five kulak* volosts** must be suppressed without mercy. The interests of the entire revolution demands this, because we have now before us our final decisive battle [with the kulaks]. We need to set an example.
1. You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the public sees) at least 100 notorious kulaks, the rich, and the bloodsuckers.
2. Publish their names.
3. Take away all of their grain.
4. Execute the hostages - in accordance with yesterday's telegram.
     This needs to be accomplished in such a way that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know and scream out: let's choke and strangle those bloodsucking kulaks.

     Telegraph us acknowledging receipt and execution of this.


P.S. Use your toughest people for this.”

[Note: *A "kulak" is Russian derogatory slang for a peasant who had accumulated some manner of modest wealth. **A “volost” was a territorial/administrative unit consisting of a few villages and surrounding land.]

This is a photostatic copy of a handwritten letter from Lenin in 1918 to authorities in the Penza Province about 600 miles southeast of Moscow and a grain farming region. Lenin's letter orders the hanging of 100 "Kulak farmers" to set an example for others who opposed his plans.

Above is a photostatic copy from the U.S. Smithsonian Institution's collection of declassified Soviet material that was part of a traveling exhibit in 1998.
The language used in this order is strikingly similar in its vulgar brutality to some of the ones jotted down in thick, sometimes colored pencil over typed intelligence reports by Stalin when he disagreed from paranoia, denial and or delusion with what the sources of the reports had observed.

Lenin issued the decree which officially created the Cheka (VCheka) on December 20, 1917 as an "emergency" (i.e. temporary) body to combat counter-revolutionary activities and saboteurs that might jeopardize the stability of the newly formed Bolshevik Communist government. Lenin chose Polish-born Bolshevik radical Felix Dzerzhinsky to head the Cheka and under his reign the suppressive activities of the Cheka grew to include a practically ever-widening set of people who might be in opposition to the government and included money or goods speculators and wealthy land-owners and merchants. To the Bolsheviks and later the Soviets, "wealthy" was defined as anyone owning more than 10,000 Rubles worth of property of any kind, which would include the aforementioned kulaks.

Others on the "potential" enemy of the state list created by the Cheka in 1918 included all members of the Russian Orthodox clergy, anyone in military or civil service that was suspected of secretly working for the former Imperial government (White Russians) or anyone in the worker-peasant category who showed any sign of not supporting the Soviet government. Obviously, this sort of loosely defined set of potential counter-revolutionaries left the door wide open for agents of the Cheka to operate with impunity in deciding who was a threat to the new government. Moreover, with the powers of arrest, trial and execution, Cheka agents were susceptible to all sorts of abuse of power and corruption. Most likely, there will never be an accurate count of the number of people wrongfully imprisoned and/or executed at the hands of the Cheka and the subsequent security agencies - especially the NKVD during Stalin's reign and his campaigns of terror.

An ailing Lenin sitting with Joseph Stalin in 1922.***
Lenin finally died on January 21, 1924 at the age of 54. He had survived two failed assassination attempts (the second resulting in a bullet wound to the neck) which only served to enhance his cult of personality status among his supporters. He subsequently suffered three strokes before succumbing to his poor health. However, when he could still speak, Lenin made it clear to those closest to him that Stalin, who had been the Communist Party General Secretary since 1922. In compiled papers dictated during his final years and published as Lenin's Testiment, "Lenin reported [of Stalin] that the 'unlimited authority' concentrated in him was unacceptable, and suggested that 'comrades think about a way of removing Stalin from that post.' His phrasing, 'Сталин слишком груб,' implies 'personal rudeness, unnecessary roughness, lack of finesse,' flaws 'intolerable in a Secretary-General.'"** Unfortunately, Stalin had other plans.

This is presumably the last photo taken of Vladimir I. Lenin before he died. At this point in his life, Lenin was struck mute by his third stroke in 1923 and was confined to bed.****

 1924: Pallbearers escort the body of Lenin with Felix Dzerzhinsky at the front of the procession.

NOTE: For video footage taken during the time Lenin's body was first "on viewing," please follow this YouTube link:

"Under the leadership of the great Stalin - forward towards Communism!" One of thousands of pro-Stalin propaganda posters drawn up to make Stalin seem more like a "man of the people."

Despite, or possibly because of his broken but compelling personality, Stalin began to trust only himself and his initial ideas and thoughts. People "close" to Stalin in the form of his favored people of the military and government were most certainly wondering even in the smallest recesses of their minds whether their dictator would get angry with them - meaning death or arrest, and given the conditions and life expectancy in a Siberian forced labor camp, death might have been welcome. It is difficult to tell how much of a "cult of personality" Stalin had or how much most people feared for their own lives and those of their friends' and families'. After the person most responsible for the Red Army's victory over Germany, Marshal Zhukov, was sent to a command post over 800 miles from Moscow, the Central Committee and the rest of the millions in the city who admired him as the "Hero who saved the Soviet Union" were left to look upon Stalin or look upon death.

Stalin was overly concerned about being the center of any praise and glory in his Moscow. In fact, he was so wrapped up in the notion that he was actually in control of the military as the Red Army and Navy's commander and chief only by accident of self-appointment, that he ignored intelligence from both the Red Army's GRU and agents of the OGPU that warned of the impending initial attack on the USSR by German soldiers massing at the western border in 1941. According to a BBC documentary, War of the Century, a declassified intelligence report from someone with the last name Merkloff was typed up and sent straight to Stalin saying that the Germans were "poised to attack at any moment." Stalin scribbled in colored crayon or what are often called "grease pencils" over the type: "Comrade Merkloff, you can send your source from the headquarters of the German Air Force to his fucking mother. He is not a source. He is a disinformant"  (BBC).

Stalin was known by his followers in the general public as an eloquent spokesman, behind closed doors, he was just as vulgar as any common man. 

The first page of a memo from the head of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria, in March of 1940 to "Comrade Stalin" proposing the use of the armed military branch of the NKVD to execute Polish Army officers and members of the Polish national police department who are suspected (by Beria) of being sympathetic or even members of the Nazi Party, or simply being "anti-revolutionary" themselves. At the very beginning of the letter, Beria begins by saying that "In NKVD POW camps in the USSR and in particular in the "...prisons in the western regions of Ukraine and Belarus, there are a large number of former Polish Army officers and policemen..." - many of whom belong to "rebel organizations." The document bears the letterhead of the NKVD (top left corner), the Russian text for "Top Secret" (upper right corner) and the signatures of Stalin and possibly other high-ranking members of the Soviet regime over the original text to indicate they had read it. This is likely the starting point for what was later referred to as the Katyn Massacre of 1940 in which about 4000 Polish personnel were executed and buried in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest after being taken prisoner during the Soviet invasion of Poland in support of the Nazi attack on the same country. According to a comment posted below, "The signatures on the Katyn order from Beria are from top to bottom: Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, and Mikoyan." Kliment Voroshilov was a Marshal of the Soviet Union and one of Stalin's top advisors. Vyacheslav Molotov and Anastas Mikoyan were also in Stalin's "inner circle" (at least at the time of this memo). In addition, the two smaller signatures in the left margin of the document are those of Mikhail Kalinin and Lazar Kaganovich, two of the longest surviving original members of the Bolsheviks who had come to power after the October Revolution. Many of these early members did not survive Stalin's "purges." 

Stalin always stood in the shadow of Lenin and perhaps that is what fueled his paranoid insanity and homicidal nature. Whatever the cause, the result of shifting the security services around during the 1930s was that the line between the OGPU and the NKVD blurred. By the original decree (or Указ, pronounced "Ukaz"), the OGPU strictly handled foreign intelligence and the NKVD had control of internal affairs and counterintelligence (the meaning of the last two letters of the acronym which stood literally for People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs). 

For a short documentary excerpt from a Discovery Channel piece: Stalin's Secret Police with rare footage regarding the beginning of the Cheka and the eventual abuse of its successor, the NKVD by Stalin, see the following YouTube link:
"For the Motherland!, For Stalin!, For Peace! [trans.: or "For the World!"], For Communism!" Another propaganda poster linking a vote for Stalin as a vote for all the things good Soviet citizens were supposed to support and favor in their current lives. Considering the elections were a sham, this had a secondary effect of letting the people continue under the delusion that their individual votes mattered in such elections.

Regardless, Stalin used the NKVD as his private security service throughout the globe, ordering assassinations of Soviet expatriates and in the case of some like Leon Trotsky "enemies of the state." During the same time period, it is well known that the NKVD directly trained certain aspects of the Nazi Gestapo and was the model on which the German secret police was formed. During the 1930s as the Nazi military machine grew ominously in secret, many NKVD agents worked and collaborated with the fascist security service when seemingly innocuous tasks were requested such as arrest and extradition back to Germany of wanted persons, execution of deserters from the German Army crossing into Soviet territory and complicity in a myriad of other joint operations, some included the execution of Jews simply on the word of Gestapo agents.

The reality behind all the propaganda was that Soviet citizens were publicly hung at Stalin's orders (much as Lenin had ordered of the kulak classes) as "bandits" and any number of other names while avoiding calling them "counter-revolutionaries" directly for fear of additional anti-Soviet sentiment among the populace which might cause more rebellions and further problems for the security services of the Soviet Union.
Another photo similar to the previous one in which unfortunate, and possibly innocent souls were about to be hung for trumped-up crimes by officers of the Stalin-controlled state security services.

These two agencies had a strong link well into the actual war, and a significant number of neutral people claim the NKVD helped  thousands of Nazi war criminals disappear by giving them new identities and even forged visas (official ones were available to Argentina where many Nazis fled to the welcoming arms of Juan and Eva (Evita) Perón). Some of these former Nazis proved useful to the Central Committee and the Red Army as the leaders of the country sought the technology and know-how to make their own atomic bomb. Both the leaders of the United States and of the Soviet Union - and to a lesser degree the United Kingdom - sought out either defectors or in rarer cases abducted German scientists and put them to work immediately under new identities as the Cold War was unofficially underway. 

For original, color footage from the above parade - 1938 "Blooming Youth Sports Parade," click the following YouTube link: Take note of the people marching behind the image of Felix Dzerzhinsky and of the Chekist symbol of the shield and sword - the two items each of the marchers is equiped with to represent the Cheka-OGPU-NKVD. This is some very rare footage.
 Since the NKVD were omnipresent in all life and travel documentation within the Soviet Union and by extension through customs the issuing of international passports (with approval stamps of the NKVD), they were able to generate new birth certificates and/or death certificates for Nazis who needed to be "executed" and "reborn" depending on how infamous the original name was. Moreover, if someone needed a non-Russian identity, there were departments of the NKVD that specialized in foreign documents for any number of reasons and was especially busy from 1945 to about 1953 as demand tapered and post-war "de-Stalinization" after the dictator was officially announced dead from a stroke on March 5 of that year.

In 1945-46, most people fleeing Germany and the Eastern European countries which had been caught between the fascists from the West and the communists from the East. From drafted soldiers stuck in Berlin as the Red Army stormed it to high-ranking members of the Nazi party/military, both sought the "golden ticket" available to many of the aimless people wandering around attempting to separate their original identities from their newly assumed identities. This "golden ticket" was the Red Cross temporary passport. A birth certificate was all people really needed to quickly get a special post-war Red Cross Passport that listed them as refugees and was accepted by nearly every country.

The NKVD printed and maintained all birth and death certificates in addition to all other necessary travel documents for citizens of the Soviet Union. With the masses of people shifting around in all parts of Europe, including hundreds of thousands of Jews trying to get to the newly recreated Israel in the midst of Palestine and the millions of other people simply left homeless by one side or both, identity documents were more important to many than food. The irony is that falsified documents from a number of Eastern European countries under the temporary operation of the NKVD's border troops were typically fairly easy to come by. However, Stalin had to make a public example of fascists still on Soviet soil just as he was quietly doing to his own troops captured by the Germans and shipped back, very much against their will in most cases, to the USSR after fighting ceased in 1945. They had been told what awaited many of them upon returning to the Soviet Union where many would be tried as traitors, found guilty and imprisoned or executed simply because they had been captured. To Stalin these POWs were all potential "enemies of the state" who had been turned by their fascist captors.

This line of thinking is consistent with Stalin's irrational fear of Lenin's shadow and anyone who had exposure to Western culture without the proper training beforehand. When the Soviet Union officially claimed that there were no more prisoners of war remaining on Soviet soil, the fate of those kept behind was sealed - prison, death or service in the USSR for advancement in the battle with the new "Main Adversary" - the United States of America and its fledgling Central Intelligence Agency - the first non-military foreign intelligence agency in that country. By "service," the Soviets did as the United States had done in utilizing former German scientists (along with a great deal of successful espionage into the "Manhattan Project") to help them to create their own atomic/nuclear weapons.

Stalin in his death pose before burial; photographed by Dmitri Baltermants*****
"It has been suggested that Stalin was assassinated. His Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that Beria had boasted to him that he poisoned Stalin: 'I took him out.'" Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that Beria had, immediately after the stroke, gone about "spewing hatred against [Stalin] and mocking him," and then, when Stalin showed signs of consciousness, dropped to his knees and kissed his hand. When Stalin fell unconscious again, Beria immediately stood and spat. Later autopsies found that Stalin ingested a flavorless and powerful rat poison. Indeed, Stalin's death arrived at a convenient time for many who feared an imminent purge."*****

Stalin died on March 1, 1953.

* Photo from:
** From:
*** Photo from:
**** Photo from: 
***** Photo from: 

21 April 2012

A Few Pictures of Older Chekist Materials Whilst Continuing Combing Through the Latest Data on SMERSH for Future Chapters

A photo of what appears to be a NKVD border guard posing in front of a regiment flag/banner. That particular pose, with the same type of PPSh automatic rifle is similar to that of the Medal for Distinguished Service in Protecting the State Border that was issued beginning in 1950 by the State Security Committee of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet [meaning "Council"] of the USSR. Once the NKVD was dismantled into the MVD and the MGB (Ministry of State Security) and in 1954 into the KGB, the Border Guard was placed under the control of the KGB. KGB Border Guard troops played an important role in the Soviet-Afghanistan War - particularly at the outset in December of 1979. 
A почетная грамота ("Pochetnaya Gramota")
or roughly a "Certificate of Recognition" in
honor of the 20th anniversary of the NKVD's
armed troops awarded to V.K. Lovanova.
Gramotas were a common citation awarded to
civilians as well as military and security
personnel for a variety of reasons and
achievements. Photo by Robert S. Pandis

Throughout the 
history of the
Soviet security
services, leaders
and members
alike had an
affinity for
finely - and
especially early
on - hand-crafted
badges of honor
distinction from
both the public
and each other.

Typically, these badges were rather ornate and made from silver, fine enamel work and frequently were gold-plated in specific areas, particularly the hilt of the ubiquitous sword.

If this were a real badge it would be a very rare OGPU honor badge that does not have the ubiquitous Soviet Communist phrase: "Workers of the World Unite" as this one does. Rather, it should read something more along the lines of: "For the Struggle Against the Counterrevolution" since nearly all Soviet Security Service award badges have a text beginning with the Russian word "за" or "for" in English.

Granted, many of the highest ranking members of the Communist regime (generals, commissars and other political "elites" in the Kremlin) were given some of the later commemorative and/or anniversary badges as a token of homage or respect (or as a bribe) for who they were and for the positive influence they could bring to bear in favor of the organizations. This happened more often much after the KGB (Committee for State Security) and the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) came into being in 1954 as the final incarnation of all previous security agencies.

[Note: the badge above is a copy of a purportedly original OGPU brass honor badge. However, because of the near perfect enamel work without any hairline cracks or chips as is very common with nearly all enameled badges from before 1940 and a number of other details, this one is certainly a fake. In fact, I have neither seen one like this that I consider original nor, for that matter, have I encountered one in any reference book dealing with early Soviet State Security badges. From the first days of the Russian Revolution in 1917 until the late 1930s, many of the highest quality badges were made by hand from a single silversmith who left his/her unique "signature" stamp(s) on the reverse of the badge as seen below.] 

Photos by Robert S. Pandis

Photos (above and below right) by
Robert S. Pandis

On the left is an ID cover for a five-year anniversary badge of the Cheka-GPU as pictured above. Unfortunately, a photo of the text/document inside was unavailable from the CD "book" by Commander Robert S. Pandis  - Cheka: Distinguished Worker Awards of the Soviet Secret Police from which this, the previous two photos and the following two pictures were taken. However, the inner text and background design of the XV badge ID booklet below is likely a good indicator of how the V booklet's inner layout appeared.*

The XVth and the Vth Chekist anniversary badge ID booklet (the former pictured on the right) was awarded - along with the badge itself - to members of the OGPU, despite the markings on the lower ribbon of the badge that read "Cheka-GPU." Regardless, both covers are embossed in gold with an image of the badge they were presented with and the text: "USSR Statute" of the All-Union ("O") State Political Directorate (GPU). Inside, is another representation of the appropriate badge as a background for the text that explains what the badge is for and to whom it was given.

Photo by Robert S. Pandis
The inside of the award booklet for the 15th anniversary of the Cheka-GPU (1917-1932) above shows an image of the badge that was given along with the booklet which has the text "Honored Chekist" on either side of the drawing of the badge as well as "VChK" in the paper background on the left side and "GPU" on the right side. This particular document was awarded to V.R. Menzhinsky by the "All-Union" GPU. The awardee's name was simply typed in the space beneath the image of the badge just above the place (Moscow) and date (1931) that the booklet was printed.

The above ID document was issued in 1931 to an officer of the "PP" OGPU, or the полномочное представит - which means a plenipotentiary or "diplomatic agent" of the OGPU. The ID authorizes the holder to carry weapons and act with the full authority of the OGPU as an agent both within and outside the borders of the Soviet Union. This sort of document was carried by OGPU agents who literally had a "license to kill." Such documents are extremely rare for collectors to find and based on the size of the stamp used on each side of the ID, this one was very small (about a third the size of modern U.S. federal agent ID documents).

The partial photo above depicts an OGPU agent wearing the 10th anniversary of the OGPU badge with a "rosette" or (typically) a deep red velvet cloth cut to fit behind the badge to prevent any damage to the uniform itself. What is barely visible on the left is a child sitting on the knee of the officer. It was common practice at the time for both military and Chekist officers to have family portraits taken with the officer in full dress uniform. This example photo is from "slava1stclass" whose photos have appeared elsewhere on this site. The right side shows a closeup of the OGPU 10th anniversary badge with the red enamel flag, lower banner and star at the top. It is difficult to tell which of the gold, silver or bronze background type badges this was from the photo. Note: The man pictured is wearing the famous "Budyonovka" cap that was worn by many non-officer ranking soldiers before and during WWII.

An NKGB/MGB dress or "parade"
tunic from the post WWII era.
Photo by "Richie C" (Soviet Military Awards Page
Forum Member)

Regardless of their earlier reputation, the final versions of these agencies did not have nearly the same powers that their Cheka-GPU predecessors did - particularly when foreign and internal services (NKVD) were combined under Lavrenti Beria when even members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and government ministers lived in fear of him nearly as much as they did Stalin himself. Moreover, after Stalin died in 1953, Beria had his sights set on replacing him but was arrested by members of the faction supporting Nikita Krushchev as the new leader of the Soviet Union and subsequently executed. Once Beria's influence was essentially removed, attention was focused on the restructuring of the security services he had built up into organizations of terror. The title of "People's Commissariat" (or abbreviation "NK") had already been replaced with "Ministry" so that the NKVD became the MVD and the NKGB became the MGB. Though Beria sought to combine the two under the single department of the Ministry for Internal Affairs (MVD) with a branch designated for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. Those who opposed him - which after the death of Stalin were numerous - not only maintained the separation, but also "demoted" the MGB to the status of "Committee" (or "комитет" in Russian) which resulted in the final name of KGB - subsequently requiring their leadership to report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party or State Duma rather than directly to whomever might be at the helm of the USSR at the time, as had been the case before.

Below is a photo of a group of OGPU personnel in 1924. The photo is cropped from a cardboard "frame" which lists the names of those pictured on the reverse (the entire ensemble is pictured below in smaller frames in the original cardboard "frame" in its current sepia colors).

Photos provided by Richie C

Finally, a "colorized" photo of a group of NKVD class graduates.
Photo provided by Richie C
This is literally a photograph of NKVD school graduates in field uniforms with the indicative symbol of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs - the oval shield with the hammer and sickle motif and the sword pointing downward through the back.

* Robert Pandis has since published a paper bound edition of the CD with much more information and many more excellent photos of awards and associated documents from the Soviet security services. He envisions another three editions in addition to the current Cheka: Soviet Secret Police Awards 1917-1995. For more information about the book and others he has authored, see

19 February 2012

"SMERSH" and the End of the NKVD

Part I

Patriotic Hysteria and the Blind Spot it Created in History

A wartime Soviet propaganda poster depicting heroic battles between Russians and Germans/Prussians/Hessians (including the German divisions who aided the White Russians during the Russian Civil War - 1918 reference). The main text in the poster says: "We Won, We Defeated and We Will [Again]!"* Of course, the soldiers depicted in the foreground are a Red Army "grunt" putting a bayonet into a German who was holding either a wine/liquor bottle or one of the famous "potato masher" grenades from the Nazi arsenal. It is also worth noting that the German's helmet is topped with two unusual outcroppings that suggest demonic horns rather than any useful battlefield attachments. 

Stalin was the delusional paranoid schizophrenic who turned the NKVD-MVD and the GPU-MGB into his personal army and the "iron fist" with which he maintained power during the "Great Purge" - both despite and because of the people who were coerced or in some cases willingly led by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union according to the way Stalin envisioned it. His main internal enemy, both real and imagined, were the citizens who, for various reasons, simply did not roll over and accept the new circumstances. These people were labeled "counter-revolutionaries" and "enemies of the state" and in one way or another were hunted down and eliminated first by the Cheka and then by Stalin's forces. Of course there was another group of people who just shrugged their shoulders and carried on under a new system of government and laws, none of which had most of these "peasants" been able to read in the first place, nor had they really cared to so long as they had the proverbial "food on the table." When the Bolsheviks seized power, these formerly disconnected people were not fools who just rushed into the Bolshevik embrace; however, for the first time in any of their lives, they had the chance, at least in theory, to reach up beyond their means and become part of the ruling class.  

Other people who, for the most part, fought no battles with either gun or knife but rather led some Soviet citizens away from the dogma of Marxism-Leninism (and for a while "Stalinism") without threat or intimidation of any kind, were eventually called the "intelligentsia" by the Soviet leadership - many of whom were summarily dispossessed of all property including homes, locked away in asylums, gulags, or simply executed during Stalin's purges. The people who gladly joined the "counterrevolution" did so for either intellectual or political reasons. Granted, some did choose to take sides against the Soviets due to loyalty to the Romanov monarchy, but they were one of the smaller anti-Soviet groups - despite the romanticized notion sustained by "acceptable" or "tolerable" writers working under the Soviet regime that these aristocratic "Whites" continued to plot, mostly as exiles, to return to Russia one day and retake the seat of power and resume the oppressive imperial monarchy.

The intelligentsia were demonized by the Bolsheviks along the same lines as they had the kulaks (see: "Breadless Revolution") and the capitalists or merchant classes who could afford - in the first few years of Soviet rule - to speak out, albeit very quietly, about his or her discontent with the new government. This group was at first largely made up of professors and former aristocracy. However, by the 1930s anyone with the least link by blood or marriage to the Imperial Russian elite who for whatever reason remained in Russia learned to fade back into the masses, living incognito among the very people they had oppressed as "lower" or lesser humans than themselves simply because accidents of birth had made them seem so. These former people of power and influence were the targets of pro-revolutionaries of any status. Children were taught in schools that the aristocracy was one type of "enemy of the people" and were therefore not to be pitied or empathized with in any way.

There was one more type of remaining former "White Russian." They were far smaller in number than any other group of counter-revolutionaries. They were the people born into wealth who rebelled and either for honest belief in the new Soviet Marxist Communism or for the simple need of self-preservation wholeheartedly joined the revolutionary movement. Even "Iron" Felix Dzerzhinsky was born to a noble Polish family and later became the iconic leader of the security services of the Bolsheviks. Dzerzhinsky was never on the side of the "White Russians." He was one of a few who turned their backs on family to follow a path far different than their families would have envisioned or, under other circumstances, allowed. People like Dzerzhinsky were the de facto intelligentsia of the Bolsheviks.

Even with all of these various groups of potential malcontents, during WWII Stalin focused his disapproving eyes upon the members of the Red Army (RKKA) itself who were doing all they could to stand up against Hitler and the Nazi assault upon Soviet territory. He had a specific problem with members of the military who were in any way considered prisoners of war or citizens of a town or region that had aided, in any form, the fascists, particularly along the southern regions of the Soviet Union. The border countries that later fell under the category of Soviet "Sphere of Influence" regions were, during the Cold War, targeted for long-term retribution. Bulgaria was so directly altered to mimic the USSR system of government (including the security services) that it was often referred to as the "ghost republic" of the Soviet Union, and even though the country leadership asked for membership in the USSR, their petition was rejected by the Supreme Soviet. Other regions like Eastern Poland, the Baltic States, Ukraine, Romania, Yugoslavia-Serbia, Hungary and of course East Germany itself were made to pay - each in their own way - for the viscous atrocities (on both sides) committed during WWII. There was a specific campaign in place by the KGB to disrupt the "Socialist" governments of Albania, Yugoslavia and Romania.*** As much as Hitler and the Nazis hated the Russians and the other Slavs as "inferiors," many of the Soviet Union's citizens of all ranks of the Party and levels of the social order hated Germans practically wholesale after the GPW. Since this sentiment persists with some people to this day, and it is an irrational feeling typically spawned by upbringing, it bears mentioning. Someone need not be a former Nazi, or even the descendant of one, to find contempt from Russians simply because they are from Germany - even those born after the war was long over: it seems to be something along the order of "the sins of the fatherland are the sins of its people." 

As a result of Stalin's and other CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) ranking members' wishes, fears and other emotions, and a few practical military concerns, SMERSH (an acronym for СМЕРть Шпионам, in Russian* that means "Death to Spies") was formed on paper in 1943, but existed in some form from the troops of the NKVD and OGPU as early as the very beginning of the Soviet involvement in WWII. Granted, at this time in history lines were more than a bit blurred between the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence), the OGPU** and the NKVD.
Newly recruited members of SMERSH photographed in 1944 as a unit. Which particular unit these men belonged to is not know to the author, but is it likely that they were soldiers who volunteered for service in SMERSH. By 1944, SMERSH had been at work for at least a year and members were some of the most feared forces off of the battlefield.

There are many good websites for information on Soviet security agencies and what they documented as their activities during and after WWII. Many books have been written on the subject of the functions of each of these various security organizations (military and "civilian") and the havoc they wreaked. SMERSH was created to close and seal the gap between military operations moving onward as planned and the aftermath of those operations - which often created or spurred on counterrevolutionary organizations, or at least those feelings. After the Red Army either "liberated" or simply retook a town or region that had been occupied by any of the fascist armies, a constant threat of post regime leadership changes left an unknown number of people behind who were potentially sympathetic to the Nazis or had some other non-Soviet view of the future of their region regardless of who claimed to have authority over it. Czech historian Vladimir Bystrov said SMERSH was "an open police operation aimed at searching for and arrests of people, on occupied territory, who represented relevant or potential obstacles to future sovietization of the territory." [trans.] An interesting fact that Bystrov points out is that - at least in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia - SMERSH "was in competition" with other security organizations, even those within the Red Army (GRU) or the MGB-KGB. He also said that the individual SMERSH units were also in competition with each other for total number of people arrested and would therefore not share information they had gathered, much like fishermen are reluctant to share the location of their favorite fishing spot. This odd competition between different SMERSH units was in part due to the demand by the Soviet Central Command for results from these special organizations and the fear of not producing results via arrests and intelligence. This attitude among members of SMERSH, or any other intelligence agency, resulted in an odd mixture of intelligence gathering and the coveting of said intelligence so that information was often not passed from one group to another in the same region and often exaggerated for purposes of reporting back to the main department, whichever agency the specific group answered to at the time. Thus, historians should avoid relying solely on information gathered from Soviet intelligence agencies.

As a counterintelligence move, the creation of SMERSH appeared to be a necessity since sympathizers and agitators were typically left behind by the previously occupying force to do what he/she could to disrupt the functions of the conquering occupier. These people were the obvious main target of the SMERSH units, but real counterintelligence agents were generally difficult to capture, which meant that officers under pressure to make arrests would seize and force a confession from people that might otherwise have been left alone.

There are no records of any special awards given to members of SMERSH as is the case with other security agencies (SEE "NOTE" BELOW). In fact, the mere existence of the organization was kept a secret and/or denied until many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and when the Russian Federation government finally disclosed the fact that SMERSH did exist, they released the news carefully with lots of public relations forethought going into the well-planned "repatriation" of the former members as heroes for a cause. The current government's desire to do lip service for the countless victims of Stalin's madness and of those who were swept up into his true cult of personality, is worrisome at best because the fact remains, as with all history, those with sole access to the truth can control what we learn about the past. 

There are a few exceptions to this monopoly of information and they are the survivors of the original SMERSH organization who have "broken ranks" by speaking out on filmed recordings by non-Russian media organizations or individuals. These veterans freely, and sometimes proudly, admit to wholesale murder for no legitimate reason other than suspicion or hearsay from either an enemy or someone who yelled "witch!" before he or she was called one.

NOTE: In the last few years, researchers of Soviet military awards using serial numbers have been allowed access to records which state that recipients of some medals and orders were in fact members of SMERSH at the time they performed the "feat" for which they were being awarded, or were part of SMERSH at the time they received the award itself. For the most part, the only references to SMERSH are found in the service record data and not elaborated on. In many cases, members of SMERSH transitioned into the postwar MVD or MGB-KGB, though access to any additional information after that point remains restricted (12 July 2015).

* Emphasis on letters used to make the word are from Wikipedia:
** Additional information on the OGPU (or "All-Union State Political Directorate) can be found elsewhere on this site under entries tagged with "OGPU."
*** (Jordan Baev's "International History and MGB/KGB Cooperation with the Bulgarian Intelligence & Security Services 1944–1989")