Part II. The Roots of SMERSH


Stalin’s Ruling Mechanism

The years 1938 through 1941, during which Stalin consolidated his power and gained new territory in Europe, are critical to an understanding of Soviet military counterintelligence and particularly SMERSH. In order to gain total control of the Soviet Union, Stalin made sophisticated and extra-legal use of the Communist Party structure, the secret services, the judicial system, and the legislative system on all levels.

The Politburo: Stalin and His Confidants

By late 1938, with the purges of the Great Terror over, the situation within the Party leadership stabilized. By 1939 the Politburo, the Communist Party ruling body, was Stalin’s ‘instrument of personal rule’.1 From March 1939 to March 1946, it consisted of the same nine full members and at first two, then five candidate (non-voting) members:





Joseph Stalin

Lavrentii Beria


Vyacheslav Molotov

Nikolai Shvernik


Andrei Andreev

Georgii Malenkov (after Feb.1941)


Lazar Kaganovich

Aleksandr Shcherbakov (after Feb. 1941)


Mikhail Kalinin

Nikolai Voznesensky (after Feb. 1941)


Nikita Khrushchev


Anastas Mikoyan


Kliment Voroshilov


Andrei Zhdanov


The real Politburo was a small group of five or six of Stalin’s most trusted confidants. 2 He called them ‘the five’ or ‘the six’, and together they usually worked late into the night. However, Stalin carefully kept up the fiction of a functioning government, officially publishing Politburo decisions as decisions of either the entire Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union), or the Council of Commissars (known after 1946 as the Council of Ministers). Politburo meetings often continued after working hours at Stalin’s ‘nearby’ dacha in the Moscow suburbs. Stalin, especially at his dacha, ‘liked to use foul language (matershchina). And all members of his circle followed his example’.3

At meetings in Stalin’s office on the second floor of the triangular eighteenth-century Yellow Palace in the Kremlin, he guided the discussion of matters prepared by the Politburo’s secretariat. Non-members like Viktor Abakumov were invited to present important issues. The Politburo voted on each question discussed, and Stalin’s secretariat head Aleksandr Poskrebyshev telephoned absent members to record their votes.4 As did most Soviet people, those in Stalin’s inner circle called him ‘Khozyain’, meaning ‘Boss’ or ‘Master’, and stood at attention even while talking to him on the phone.5 Or they said ‘HE’, making it clear the significance of ‘HE’, as Lev Mekhlis, a secretary of Stalin, did: ‘It’s always pleasant to hear how HE speaks.’6

Stalin decided many important questions, especially regarding the NKVD and the Red Army, alone or only with Molotov, and he frequently gave orders orally rather than in writing. For instance, Stalin didn’t put his signature on the General Staff plans he approved, even when changes were made.7 This allowed him to place blame on the generals when things went wrong.

Total Secrecy

Most Politburo decisions were distributed in secrecy, and the details of how the system worked were discovered only in the late 1990s. Stalin’s secretariat, known also as ‘Stalin’s cabinet’, was originally called the Secret Department, and then, from 1934 on, the Special (Osobyi) Sector of the CC.8 It was a relatively large organization—in 1930, there were 103 members, while the whole CC staff comprised 375 people.

The Special Sector consisted of seven sections, including the Secret Archive of the CC, which later became known as the Presidential Archive. Assistants to CC secretaries (in 1941, Stalin, Andreev, Malenkov, Zhdanov, and Aleksandr Shcherbakov) and their staffs constituted the first section. Of this group, Stalin’s assistant Poskrebyshev was extremely powerful. He prepared all documents for Stalin and controlled his calendar. According to a contemporary, Poskrebyshev was ‘a short, stout man…very clever and had a phenomenal memory. He never forgot anything, remembering every detail’.9 Poskrebyshev headed the Special Sector from 1934 until 1952, despite the fact that in 1940 the NKVD, apparently with Stalin’s approval, arrested his first wife, most likely because of a distant family relationship to Trotsky. She was executed in October 1941. In early 1953, Stalin accused Poskrebyshev of losing secret documents and replaced him with his deputy. 10 But after Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, Poskrebyshev was released, and he immediately retired.

A ciphering section, supervised by the NKVD Special (Spetsial’nyi) Department, was in charge of sending and receiving cables. However, the most secret letters, including written Politburo decisions, were sent with secret couriers from the NKVD Courier Department (Administration Directorate). Clearly, Stalin thought the Communist Party was a conspiratorial organization. In 1924, when Party rule was first firmly established, he signed a directive declaring which Party documents should be considered secret.11All lower levels of the Party structure—republic (a republican CC), province (obkom), city (gorkom), and regional (raikom) committees—had their own secret Special Sectors that communicated with the Special Sector in Moscow. Of all fifteen Soviet republics, only the Russian Federation did not have its own capital and a national Communist Party with its Central Committee because Stalin did not want to have a competing governmental structure within the Russian Federation. Only the lowest level, the partkom (a Party committee) of every institution, received instructions from its regional committee. Stalin liked to compare this structure to the army: ‘There are three or four thousand high-level members within our party… I would call them generals of the party. Then there are thirty to forty thousand middle leaders; these are our officers of the party. Then there are between a hundred thousand and a hundred and fifty thousand lower-level party commanders. They are…our noncommissioned officers.’12

Stalin’s system of making decisions through the Politburo and distributing them secretly through the Party pyramid was technically illegal. Neither Lenin’s constitution of 1924 nor Stalin’s Soviet Constitution of December 1936 even mentioned the Politburo as a decision-making body. But the Party leaders did not care about legal issues. One of Stalin’s cronies, Lazar Kaganovich, bluntly declared in 1934: ‘Our Politburo… is the organ of leadership of all branches of socialist construction.’13

The Politburo either appointed or approved the appointments of almost all high-and mid-level Party and Soviet government functionaries such as leaders of the NKVD, including heads and their deputies of the Special Department (OO). These appointees, known collectively as the nomenklatura, often moved among positions. This policy resulted in some absurd situations.

In 1938, Semyon Dukelsky, a veteran of the OO, was appointed chairman of the Committee on Cinematography. Stalin used to say that ‘each film is of great public and political importance’.14 Therefore, the post of this committee’s chairman required a strong Party or NKVD controller. But in the film industry, Dukelsky became known as ‘a man of anecdotal stupidity and incompetence… He gave numbers to all film directors and playwrights, from No. 1 to No. 100. Dukelsky thought that movies should be made according to the following principle: Director No. 1 should use a script written by Playwright No. 1, Director No. 2 should use a script by Writer No. 2, No. 5 should work with No. 5, and so on’.15 Incompetence was no barrier to Dukelsky’s next appointments. In 1939, he became Merchant Marine Commissar, then from 1942 to 1943 he headed the ammunition production in the Chelyabinsk Region with its big tank plant and from 1943 to 1948, he was Justice Commissar/Minister of the Russian Federation.

By 1939, having gained absolute control of the Soviet Union, it was time for Stalin to embark on his long-cherished dream: westward expansion of the Soviet empire. Some historians still believe that Stalin had no intention of attacking the West, but recent comprehensive analyses of old sources and newly discovered archival documents reveal the truth—from the autumn of 1939 on, Soviet military leadership was organizing a strategic plan to conquer Europe.16 At the end of December 1940, Stalin wrote: ‘Defense is especially beneficial if one thinks of it as a measure to organize our offense, and not as an end in itself.’17

To accomplish this, Stalin would have to maintain an iron grip on the Red Army and control the opposition he would face in the newly acquired territory. For achieving these two goals, Stalin had to put devoted people in charge of the secret services. His first move in this direction was to bring in Lavrentii Beria, a man from his own southern homeland of Georgia.

Men from the Caucasus

In August 1938, 39-year-old Lavrentii Beria, first Communist Party secretary of Georgia, relocated to Moscow and within a few days was appointed first deputy NKVD Commissar. Stalin had known Beria for some time, and had personally recommended him for the first secretary position. In addition, Beria’s previous position as head of the Georgian GPU (and therefore head of the local OO) meant that he had significant secret service experience. Beria was careful to cultivate his personal relationship with Stalin, supplying him with wine from the vineyards of their southern homeland and installing his wife’s cousin as Stalin’s housekeeper.18 Stalin had used Beria’s predecessor, Nikolai Yezhov, to carry out mass persecutions during the Great Terror, but in April 1939 Yezhov was arrested and tried, and was subsequently executed on February 4, 1940. By November 1939, Beria was NKVD Commissar.

Stalin was in total control of the security services because since 1922, the GPU and its successors, the OGPU and NKVD, had reported directly to the Politburo. But now for the first time Stalin had someone he trusted completely heading the security service. SMERSH officer Romanov said of Beria: ‘He spoke Russian well, with far less of a Caucasian accent than, for example, Stalin had.’19 The brutal and extremely proficient Beria was well prepared for his position as head Chekist. As former head of the GPU in Georgia, he routinely ordered that prisoners be tortured during investigation and even after they had received death sentences.20 Beria’s brutality continued in Moscow. In 1953, his deputy Vsevolod Merkulov testified: ‘In my presence a few times Beria beat up arrestees in his office, as well as in prison, with his fists or a rubber truncheon.’21

Soon Beria had a well-deserved reputation as the face of political repression. In 1948, the American Time magazine wrote: ‘Beria seems to be a sane, well-balanced man. In that fact lays the deepening horror of Russia. For Beria, without shrieks or dark yearnings, plods along, like the efficient bureaucrat he is, in the bloody footsteps of [the founder of the CheKa, Felix] Dzerzhinsky.’22

To extend his power, Beria brought his own devoted team from the local NKVD branch in Tbilisi—Sergei Goglidze, Vladimir Dekanozov, Bogdan and Amayak Kobulov, Stepan Mamulov, Merkulov, Solomon Milshtein, and Lavrentii Tsanava, among others.23Having known each other and worked together for years, they remained in key Moscow positions in the security service until after Stalin’s death. Beria affectionately called his cronies by nicknames such as ‘Merkulich’ (Merkulov), ‘Kobulich’ (Bogdan Kobulov), and ‘Mamulich’ (Mamulov); the ‘ich’ ending makes the last name sound like a patronymic, and therefore more intimate. This affectionate nicknaming seems especially incongruous in the case of Kobulov, Beria’s main torturer, who weighed over 300 pounds and covered his fat fingers with gold rings.

Of this group, Merkulov was the most educated.24 He was ‘a man with an athletic figure and a splendid head of thick dark hair flecked with grey’.25 Born in 1895 in Tbilisi (then Tiflis) to the family of a small nobleman and a czar’s army captain, he was four years older than Beria. Merkulov graduated from high school (gymnasium) with a gold medal and then attended the Department of Physics and Math of Petrograd University for three years. After serving in the army until 1918, in 1921 he joined the Georgian CheKa. Here Beria noticed Merkulov in 1923 after the latter published an article about the CheKa; since then, their careers were connected. In 1931, Stalin appointed Beria first secretary of Georgia, and Beria transferred Merkulov as his assistant to the staff of the Georgian Communist Party CC. Later Merkulov headed the Special (Secret) Sector (see above) and other departments of this committee. Merkulov helped Beria to write his official reports and published Beria’s glorifying biography in the Small Soviet Encyclopedia. In 1940, already in Moscow, Merkulov additionally published a 64-page-long even more glorifying book about Beria entitled Vernyi syn partii Lenina-Stalina (True Son of Lenin-Stalin’s Party).

In September 1938, the Politburo modified the NKVD structure, no doubt according to Beria’s suggestions.26 Beria restored the GUGB (Main State Security Directorate), the elite intelligence/counterintelligence unit that Yezhov had recently eliminated, as a separate entity, placing his men in the top positions. The brain trust of the NKVD, the GUGB consisted of seven departments, of which the Secret Political, Counterintelligence, Military Counterintelligence (OO), and Foreign Intelligence were the most important. Soon an unnumbered Investigation Unit, traditionally called Sledchast’, was added (Figure 2-1). NKVD officers had their own rank names (Table 2-1).

Figure 2-1



Military counterintelligence became the fourth GUGB Department, although everyone in the secret services still called it the OO as long as it remained in the NKVD (and I will follow that convention). Each of its twelve sections (Figure 2-1) was in charge of monitoring a particular branch of the army and navy, or, as it was known in Russian, the Military-Marine Fleet. A separate Commissariat for the Military-Marine Fleet, or NKVMF, existed from 1937 until 1946. (I will call it the Navy Commissariat from now on.) The 11th Section monitored the various NKVD troops—the Border Guards, Industrial Facility Guards, Convoy Troops, and Railroad Construction Guards. It’s important to note that all NKVD troops were regular military forces, like Waffen SS, and not paramilitary forces, as some historians have stated.27 In fact, even today when a young man is drafted he does not know whether he will be sent to the regular Russian Army or to MVD (Internal Affairs Ministry) troops. There was also an unnumbered sledchast’. OO officers in the Moscow headquarters wore NKVD uniforms, while in the field units they wore the uniforms of the units they were attached to (infantry, artillery, etc.), with insignia showing their NKVD rank—small metal rectangles or squares on the collars, depending on the rank. Political officers wore additional insignia: red stars on the sleeves.

In July 1938, just before Beria’s arrival, two important changes were made in the OO structure: (1) local OOs were now embedded in the various army and fleet formations, and were no longer part of the local NKVD office as in the old system; and (2) OO officers now reported only to higher OO officers, not to the head of the local NKVD branch.28 Now each military district, army and fleet had its OO, while a corps, a division and a brigade had a Special Division. By 1941, there were 16 military districts in the country. This new vertical structure gave Moscow OO headquarters more direct control over the armed forces. By January 1940, the OO headquarters consisted of 394 officers, the GUGB staff totaled 1,484 members, and the NKVD headquarters staff numbered an astonishing 32,642 people.29

In December 1938 Viktor Bochkov was appointed the new OO head—a surprising choice, since he had no experience in investigative work.30 With only a month of service at NKVD headquarters, where he was head of the Prison Directorate, he had worked mainly as a commander for various units of OGPU/NKVD troops. Even more surprising was his appointment on August 7, 1940 as chief USSR prosecutor, despite his complete lack of legal training. Making Bochkov chief prosecutor was clearly part of the effort by Stalin and Beria to extend secret service control over every aspect of a case, from arrest to final sentencing. Later, during the first two years of World War II, Bochkov even held simultaneous positions as chief USSR prosecutor and head of the OO at the Northwestern Front.

The 29-year-old head of the Kiev Military District OO, Anatolii Mikheev, replaced Bochkov as OO head.31 Amazingly, Mikheev’s NKVD career had begun only six months before. However, Mikheev proved up to the task. Only a year later, just before the war with Nazi Germany, Mikheev successfully unleashed a broad program of persecution targeting high-level Red Army officers.

To understand the mechanism of arrests by military counterintelligence and following persecutions it is necessary to know Soviet legal procedures and the work of military tribunals. These issues have never been detailed in historical sources that described Stalin’s regime.


1. The term ‘instrument of personal rule’ was coined by Yoram Gorlizki and Oleg Khlevniuk, Cold Peace: Stalin and the Soviet Ruling Circle, 1945–1953 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 46.

2. Three members of the Politburo, Mikhail Kalinin, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Council; Andrei Andreev, Chairman of the Union Council; and Nikolai Shvernik, Chairman of the Council of Nationalities and first deputy of Kalinin, played ‘decorative’ roles as heads of the executive branch of the Soviet Government, the Supreme Council (consisting of the Union Council and the Council of Nationalities). The three were never members of Stalin’s ‘inner circle’.

3. G. Mar’yamov, Kremlevskii tsenzor: Stalin smotrit kino (Moscow: Kinotsentr, 1992), 11 (in Russian).

4. On the routine of the Politburo records see J. Howlett, O. Khlevniuk, L. Rogovaia, ‘The CPSU’s Top Bodies Under Stalin: Their Operational Records and Structure of Command,’ SERAP Working Paper No. 1 (1996),, retrieved September 4, 2011.

5. Recollections by Dmitrii N. Sukhanov (1904–?), former assistant to Georgii Malenkov (Politburo member and member of Stalin’s inner circle), in the Russian documentary I Worked for Stalin (Moscow, 1990).

6. Boris Yefimov, Desyat’ desyatiletii o tom, chto videl, perezhil, zapomnil (Moscow: Vagrius, 2000), 261 (in Russian).

7. Page 8 in A. M. Vasilevsky, ‘Nakanune 22 iyunya 1941 g. (Neopublikovannoe interv’yu marshala Sovetskogo Soyuza A. M. Vasilevskogo ot 20 avgusta 1965 g.),’ Novaya i noveishaya istoriya, no. 6 (1994), 8–11 (in Russian).

8. Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power: Revolution from Above, 1928–1941 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992), 123–4; details in I. V. Pavlova, Mekhanizm vlasti i stroitel’stvo stalinskogo sotsializma (Novosibirsk: Izdatel’stvo SO RAN, 2001), 151–64, 196–207 (in Russian).

9. Memoirs by I. V. Kovalev, Commissar for Railroads, in G. Kumanev, Govoryat stalinskie narkomy (Smolensk: Rusich, 2005), 279 (in Russian). On March 10, 1934, the Polutburo appointed Poskrebyshev head of the Special Sector (Decision P3/55/35).

10. Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov, ‘Zagadka smerti Stalina,’ Novyi Mir, no. 5 (1991), 194–233 (in Russian).

11. ‘Pravyashchaya Partiya ostavalas’ podpol’noi,’ Istochnik, no. 5/6 (1993), 88–95 (in Russian).

12. Stalin’s speech at the Central Committee’s Plenum on March 3, 1937, page 14 in ‘Materialy fevral’sko-martovskogo plenuma TsK VKP(b) 1937 goda,’ Voprosy istorii, no. 3 (1995), 3–15 (in Russian).

13. Kaganovich’s speech at the 17th Party Congress, 1934, quoted in I. V. Pavlova, Stalinizm: stanovlenie mekhanizma vlasti (Novosibirsk: Sibirskii khronograf, 1999), 175 (in Russian).

14. Mar’yamov, Kremlevskii tsenzor, 48–49.

15. Yakov Butovsky et al., in Noveishaya istoriya otechestvennogo kino. 1986–2000. Kino i kontekst. T. 6 (St. Petersburg: Seans, 2004) (in Russian).

16. Literature on the re-evaluation of this data is vast, and growing. See, for instance, Mark Solonin, 22 iyunya, ili Kogda nachalas’ Velikaya Otechestvennaya voina? (Moscow: Yauza, 2005) (in Russian); Anatolii Tsyganok, ‘K kakoi voine gotovilas’ Krasnaya armiya? Chast’ pervaya,’, June 18, 2006 (in Russian),, retrieved September 4, 2011.

17. Stalin’s editorial note to Timoshenko’s report, dated December 1940, quoted in Vladimir Lota, ‘Alta’ protiv ‘Barbarossy’ (Moscow: Molodaya gvardiya, 2004), 262 (in Russian).

18. Anastas Mikoyan, Tak bylo. Razmyshleniya o munuvshem (Moscow: Vagrius, 1999), 354 (in Russian).

19. A. I. Romanov, Nights Are Longest There: A Memoir of the Soviet Security Services, translated by Gerald Brooke (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), 178.

20. N. A. Zen’kovich, Tainy kremlevskikh smertei (Moscow: Nadezhda, 1995), 383 (in Russian); Aleksei Teplyakov, ‘Sibir’: protsedura ispolneniya smertnykh prigovorov v 1920-kh—1930-kh godakh,’ Golosa Sibiri. Vypusk chetvertyi (Kemerovo: Kuzbassvuzizdat, 2006), 213–77 (in Russian).

21. Merkulov’s testimony in 1953 (APRF, Fond 3, Opis’ 24, Delo 472, L. 57), quoted in Nikita Petrov and Marc Jansen, ‘Stalinskii pitomets’—Nikolai Yezhov (Moscow: Rosspen, 2008), 184 (in Russian).

22. ‘The Hunter,’ Time, March 22, 1948.

23. All of them are mentioned in the text or figures. Biographies in N. V. Petrov and K. V. Skorkin, Kto rukovodil NKVD, 1934–1941. Spravochnik (Moscow: Zven’ya 1999), 148–9, 167–8, 233–4, 289, 296–8, and 431–2 (in Russian).

24. Nikita Petrov, ‘Samyi obrazovannyi palach,’ Novaya gazeta. Pravda ‘GULAGa’, no. 12 (33), August 30, 2010 (in Russian),, retrieved September 4, 2011.

25. Romanov, Nights Are Longest There, 55.

26. Politburo decision P64/82, dated September 1938. Document No. 345, in Lubyanka: Stalin i Glavnoe upravlenie gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti NKVD, 19371938, edited by V. N. Khaustov, V. P. Naumov, and N. S. Plotnikova, 554–55 (Moscow: Materik, 2004) (in Russian).

27. Evan Mawdsley, Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet Struggle, 1941–1945 (London: Hodder Arnold, 2005), 67.

28. Politburo decision P67/52, dated January 11, 1938. Document No. 10 in Lubyanka. Stalin i NKVD–NKGB–GUKR ‘SMERSH.’ 1939–1946, edited by V. N. Khaustov, V. P. Naumov, and N. S. Plotnikova, 16–18 (Moscow: Demokratiya, 2006) (in Russian).

29. Note on the NKVD personnel on January 1, 1940. Document No. 21, in A. I. Kokurin and N. V. Petrov, Lubyanka. VCheKa–OGPU–NKVD–NKGB–MGB–MVD–KGB. 1917–1960. Spravochnik (Moscow: Demokratiya, 1997), 258–60 (in Russian).

30. Biography of V. M. Bochkov (1900–1981) in Petrov and Skorkin, Kto rukovodil NKVD, 116.

31. Biography of A. N. Mikheev (1911–1941) in Petrov and Skorkin, Kto rukovodil NKVD, 306.

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