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 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")

1 comment:

  1. How do you know the have volunteered for service in GURK "SMERSH". The photo is probably Smiersh Unit in size of company (Military Counterintelligence Unit) to control or supervised a Red Army battalion. In charge of the unit is major. He is the first one from bottom right, but he is wearing an old uniform m40. Bottom from left: on 1943 ranks - Starshina, for 1943 Lieutenant, but also old uniform m35 for (1935-37) State Security Sergeant, lance sergeant also old uniform m40, 4th from bottom i can't see, 5th Sergeant m40, and the major i have mentioned it in the beginning.