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.
"Help the Red Army to capture Spies and Saboteurs"
- another Soviet intelligence propaganda poster.
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.