smershSMERSH: Stalin’s Secret Weapon,
Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII

SMERSH, acronym of the Russian phrase ‘Death to Spies’, is primarily known to readers as James Bond’s sinister opponent in Ian Fleming’s novels. Yet SMERSH was a real organization and just as diabolical as its fictional counterpart. No information was available on this organization until the fall of the Soviet Union, and its importance to WWII history is almost completely unknown to scholars and history readers alike. Ostensibly a military counterintelligence organization dedicated to fighting Nazis, SMERSH spent considerable time and effort terrifying its own, including writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was arrested for writing to a fellow officer. Its activities often strayed into the political sphere, exemplified by the arrests of many political leaders and foreign diplomats in Eastern Europe, including the famous rescuer of Hungarian Jews, Raoul Wallenberg, at the end of WWII.

While it was formally part of the Defense Commissariat, SMERSH was not under the control of the military hierarchy. In reality it was a secret service independent of the other Soviet security organizations. Its head, Viktor Abakumov, a shadowy and powerful figure whose biography is revealed here for the first time, reported directly to Joseph Stalin on a daily basis.

Based on a huge number of documents and memoirs available only in Russian, the book details all the known activities of SMERSH— its clever ‘radio games’, which used captured German officers to lure German intelligence into traps, mass vetting of Soviet troops who had been prisoners of the Germans, arrest and persecution of Red Army generals, infiltration of Nazi spy schools, participation in military tribunals and the ‘Special Board’ of the NKVD, and participation in the Nuremberg trials and the ‘Sovietization’ of Eastern Europe. Now, after ten years of research, a critical missing piece of the history of WWII and the Soviet secret services is finally exposed.

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Watch the “Author Debriefing” recorded at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

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 Washington Times, Feb 28, 2012

Vadim Birstein’s SMERSH: Stalin’s Secret Weapon has won the inaugural St Ermin’s Hotel Intelligence Book of the Year Award 2012. Birstein’s title is “a very absorbing, thoroughly readable, extraordinarily detailed account of an organisation that…had a terrible, bloody history ” according to the judges.–The Bookseller, 13 June 2012


perversionThe Perversion of Knowledge:
The True Story of Soviet Science

During the Soviet years, Russian science was touted as one of the greatest successes of the regime. Russian science was considered to be equal, if not superior, to that of the wealthy western nations. The Perversion of Knowledge, a history of Soviet science that focuses on its control by the KGB and the Communist Party, reveals the dark side of this glittering achievement. Based on the author’s firsthand experience as a Soviet scientist, and drawing on extensive Russian language sources not easily available to the Western reader, the book includes shocking new information on biomedical experimentation on humans as well as an examination of the pernicious effects of Trofim Lysenko’s pseudo-biology. Also included are many poignant case histories of those who collaborated and those who managed to resist, focusing on the moral choices and consequences. The text is accompanied by the author’s own translations of key archival materials, making this work an essential resource for all those with a serious interest in Russian history.

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A well-documented and highly disquieting tour through the abominations of Soviet science. — Kirkus Reviews

Birstein…conducts a thorough examination of state control of science in the Soviet Union. — National Journal

Speaking from personal experience and aided greatly by archival materials and reference books made accessible in the 1990s, geneticist Birstein offers a comprehensive account of 80 years of governmental control and censorship of science in the Soviet Union. He describes how academic and research scientists in the nation’s scientific institutions were replaced with political functionaries who often had no knowledge of the sciences they represented. He emphasizes Stalin’s favorite, the fraudulent geneticist Lysenko, and also the biochemist Mairanovsky, who in his poison lab experimented on prisoners, often fatally. Birstein graphically describes some of those experiments, as well as secret-service tortures, referring briefly to experiments on supposed volunteers in the U.S., Canada, and England. Early on he says he wants readers to ask what they would have done in the same circumstances, and later he tells the stories of several scientists who took firm ethical stands and survived. Demonstrating how science, research, and education were frighteningly perverted, he provokes concern about Russia’s current lack of support for science and how dangerous it may be.  — Booklist

Soviet Military Counterintelligence form 1918 to 1939

The history of the early years of Soviet military counterintelligence is poorly known. Dr. Birstein’s long article (70+ pages), Soviet Military Counterintelligence From 1918 to 1939, which appears in the first 2012 issue of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, goes a long way toward remediating this situation.

This article describes military counterintelligence from its early years embedded within the vCheKa to the days of the purges of Tukhachevsky and other high level military officers, right before the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The article includes extensive charts detailing the structure of the various military counterintelligence organizations which are particularly useful given the constant changes they underwent. To buy a copy please visit the journal website. Scholars may request a complimentary copy in Adobe PDF format from Dr. Birstein.


Three Days in “Auschwitz without Gas Chambers”: Henry A. Wallace’s Visit to Magadan in 1944

In 1944 the Vice-President Henry Wallace made a visit to Soviet Union and China. The purpose of the mission, initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was to visit the Soviet Union’s Far East and Central Asia as goodwill envoys and then to continue to China for a meeting with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

The group included John N. Hazard, an expert on Soviet law who was deputy director of the Soviet branch of the Lend-Lease Administration, John Carter Vincent, Counselor to the American Embassy in Chongqing and Owen Lattimore, a well-known China specialist and Mongolian-speaker from the Office of War Information.

Dr. Birstein’s article about this infamous trip, Three Days in “Auschwitz without Gas Chambers”: Henry A. Wallace’s Visit to Magadan in 1944, was published as part of the “e-Dossier” series of the Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The book that Wallace wrote about the trip, Soviet Asian Mission, published in 1946, triggered a storm of criticism, especially when it became clear he had apparently been completely duped by the Soviets. Both Wallace and Lattimore considered the NKVD organization, Dalstroi (an acronym of a Russian phrase meaning ”Far North Construction Trust”), which ran many slave labor camps “a combination TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] and Hudson’s Bay Company.”

Their attitude became especially embarrassing six years later after the memoirs of Swiss citizen Elinor Lipper, a former Kolyma prisoner, which described Wallace’s visit to Magadan from the point of view of a labor camp inmate, were published in English. Since then, numerous additional Gulag survivor memoirs describing the event have appeared, which make Wallace and Lattimore’s enthusiastic descriptions of Dalstroi even harder to understand.