SMERSH: STALIN’S SECRET WEAPON, SOVIET MILITARY COUNTERINTELLIGENCE IN WWII
By Vadim J. Birstein
Foreword by Nigel West
Biteback Publishing, $29.95, 512 pages
To readers of Ian Fleming’s wildly popular James Bond spy thrillers, SMERSH was an omnipotent - and murderous - arm of Soviet intelligence, part of the network later known as the KGB. Fleming introduced SMERSH in his inaugural work, “Casino Royale,” published in 1953, and over the years credited the organization with such exploits as the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940.
Given Fleming’s background as a British Secret Intelligence Service officer during World War II, even intelligence professionals assumed he wrote with authority. But subsequent information, initially from defectors, then from Soviet files, tell a somewhat different story.
SMERSH - an acronym for the Russian words smyert shpionam (“Death to Spies”) - existed as a military counterintelligence organization only from April 1943 to May 1946. Vadim Birstein, a Russian-American scientist who came to the United States in 1991, suggests that Fleming used the term because it “sounds vaguely absurd in English.” But there was not an iota of jollity in its mission.
Mr. Birstein began his study of SMERSH as a human rights activist and expert on prisoners in the gulag. He found a grim story, worse even than the creation of Fleming’s imagination. He writes, “SMERSH spied on its own servicemen, investigated and arrested even senior officers on Stalin’s orders and tirelessly vetted Soviet POWs.” Some 47 Red Army generals arrested by military counterintelligence during the war were either executed or died in prison.
Military tribunals sentenced 417,000 servicemen who were investigated by counterintelligence; 217,000 of them were shot. About 5.4 million Soviet POWs and civilians sent to Germany as slave laborers went through SMERSH’s hands after release; 600,000 ended up in gulags. “In Eastern Europe, SMERSH cleansed newly-acquired land of any threat to Sovietization. Former Russian emigres in those countries were specially targeted by SMERSH.”
The very word SMERSH struck terror in the ranks. As one Red Army veteran attested, “Its officers frequently invented criminal cases to demonstrate their necessity and usefulness, but mainly to avoid being sent to the front lines. They lived very well and escaped the bullets and bombs.”
Ample evidence exists that Stalin considered Red Army soldiers expendable fodder throughout the war, and especially during the early months when the Germans seemed bound for victory. To enforce the “human wave” tactic, SMERSH officers carried with them printed forms authorizing executions of any soldier or officer who seemed to flinch in combat.
A Red Army survivor described the battlefield reality: “An order comes from above: ‘You must seize a certain height.’ The regiment storms it week after week, each day losing a large number of men. The replacements for casualties keep coming without interruption; there is no shortage of men.”
Someone finally declares, “Stop wasting the men. There is a concrete enforced pillbox on the top! And we have only the 76-mm cannon to destroy it.” Whereupon a SMERSH officer appears, scrawls the objector’s name on the printed form, and orders, “Shoot him in front of formation!”
Historically, all armies have meted out harsh punishment to soldiers who flee the battlefield. For instance, some 306 British soldiers were executed for desertion in World War I, according to a 2001 study, “Blindfold and Alone” by Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson. The 306 represented only 1 percent of soldiers accused of capital crimes. During World War II, 21,000 American soldiers were tried for desertion, and 45 received the death sentence. But only one of these was shot - the first execution since the Civil War.
To make a SMERSH officer more difficult to spot, Stalin ordered that they wear Red Army uniforms. But they worked outside any military chain of command, reporting directly to the Kremlin and its intelligence agencies. Each officer was tasked with developing networks of informers in the ranks. So a foot soldier who engaged in the time-honored griping about barracks life or his officers to a fellow grunt could quickly find himself facing execution or imprisonment.
According to SMERSH documents obtained by Mr. Birstein, the service claimed to have captured or killed 9,500 German agents and saboteurs during the war - a boast that is unverifiable. Further, given the flimsy evidence that Mr. Birstein writes was a staple for SMERSH, I doubt the boast.
Why is a book about SMERSH relevant today? As Mr. Birstein takes pains to point out, “the present Russian government seems intent on whitewashing Stalin’s atrocities and the history of the Soviet security services.” The government of Vladimir Putin - who headed the successor agency to the KGB - is laden with so-called silovki (men of power) with KGB backgrounds. Indeed, they call themselves “Chekists,” followers of the first Bolshevik intelligence service, the Cheka.
They see themselves as the descendants of the Cheka and its various successor agencies. So tight is their grasp on Russia that the Economist terms the current regime a “spookocracy.”
Be forewarned that this book can be tedious reading at times. Mr. Birstein has long riffs on the Soviet security services both before and after the brief life of SMERSH. While the unconventional sexual activities of such spy bosses as Lavrenti Beria and Genrich Yagoda make for salacious reading, they seem rather remote from the subject at hand. Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile read.
Joseph C. Goulden is the author of “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover, 2012).