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;

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