Here’s a translation of my interview with Radio Feedom’s Dmitry Volchek in connection with the publication of the Russian translation of my book “SMERSH: Stalin’s Secret Weapon”.
Interview with Dr. Vadim Birstein, Radio Liberty, May 12, 2018
(in Russian, translation into English by me)
Volcheck: Millions of people passed through the millstone of Stalin’s military counterintelligence SMERSH. A sophisticated tracking system was created in the rear and at the front, and after the end of the Second World War, SMERSH engaged in political terror in the countries where loyal regimes were established for the USSR. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens and foreigners were arrested, tens of thousands were killed. As [the Russian politician] Leonid Gozman noted, “SMERSH did not have a beautiful uniform, but this, perhaps, is their only difference from the SS troops.”
The lawyer M. Delagrammatik described how spies were searched for in the army:
“Head of the NKVD Special Department of the Corps, a tall and heavy man, used to come into the cell where the servicemen to be checked were kept (liberated or escaped from captivity, who had been in the units surrounded by the enemy troops, and partisans), chose and led away any weak or fearful soldier, beat him up with his enormous fists and this way received a confession of espionage. After this a painful investigation, tribunal and execution were awaiting the unfortunate soldier. In the war, our soldier found himself between two fires: an enemy of the outside and a Bolshevik repressive machine that was rampant not only in the rear, but also directly at the front line and just behind it, which was bloodthirsty looking for more and more new victims. “
During the war, the tribunals condemned more than 2.5 million Soviet citizens. Of these, 472,000 were convicted of “counter-revolutionary activities” and 217,000 were shot. Death sentences, as a rule, were performed before the ranks of soldiers by an officer of the Special Department (later SMERSH) or a platoon of Red Army men. For comparison, the British military tribunals sentenced 40 servicemen to death, the French, 102 soldiers, and the American, 146 soldiers. The German tribunals sentenced 30,000 soldiers to death, and approximately the same number of German deserters were shot at the end of the war without trial, mostly by SS units and military gendarmerie.
In 1951, Viktor Abakumov, the head of SMERSH, who later became USSR State Security Minister, became a victim of repression. He was brutally tortured, demanded to confess to treason and organizing a Zionist conspiracy in the security service, but he pleaded not guilty and was executed in 1954 after Stalin’s death. In his complaints to the Central Committee, Abakumov, who himself was willing to beat prisoners with a truncheon, wrote that he was tortured..
The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who had saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews, is the most famous victim of SMERSH. He was arrested in January 1945 in Budapest and, apparently, killed in July 1947 in Moscow on Stalin’s orders. Wallenberg’s monuments stand in many cities around the world, including Moscow, but many of the circumstances of his arrest, stay in Soviet prisons and death remain unclear, despite the many years of research work. The reason is the Federal Security Service’s (FSB’s) reluctance to show the Wallenberg family and its representatives the originals of the documents kept in the FSB archives. In July 2017, when 70 years had passed from the date of the alleged murder of Wallenberg, his niece sued the FSB.
“Raul’s family has been trying to find out what happened to him for more than seven decades, and in recent years it has become obvious that the Russian archives contain documents directly related to the fate of Raul, but neither his family members nor independent experts were given the opportunity to see them. It is obvious that if access to the originals of this documentation was provided, the Wallenberg case would almost certainly have been closed,” Marie von Dardel explained. In September 2017, the Meshchansky Court of Moscow dismissed the claim against the FSB. In February 2018 the Moscow City Court upheld the decision of the Meshchansky Court.
The historian Vadim Birstein, who lives in the United States, has been trying for 30 years to find answers to questions about the fate of Raoul Wallenberg. Published in 2012 in the United States and Britain, his book “SMERSH, Stalin’s Secret Weapon” was awarded the “best book of the year on the history of intelligence.” The expanded Russian edition was being prepared for publication in Moscow in the series “History of Stalinism” by the publishing house ROSSPEN (Political Encyclopedia). However, the book was suddenly refused publication, and at the end of April it was published in another publishing house, AIRO-XXI. Vadim Birstein suggests that this is due to his involvement in the process that the Wallenberg family leads against the FSB. He told about this to “Radio Liberty”.
Birstein: The layout of the book has already been ready and sent to me, the question of making the latest changes was discussed. Suddenly Andrei Konstantinovich Sorokin, director of the huge Moscow archive RGASPI, asked for the layout and kept it for five months. All my attempts to talk to him–I sent emails, talked to his secretary (I heard that he was present in the room, but did not pick up the phone)–ended in failure. I suggested making changes that would seem necessary to him but received no answer. In late January, the general director of ROSSPEN I. D. Kantemirova reported feeling very uncomfortable (I can judge by her emails) that Sorokin had forbidden the publication. I had to find another publisher urgently. And then in late April, the book successfully came out.
Volcheck: Did Kantemirova give you a hint, what Sorokin didn’t like?
Birstein: No, she said that Sorokin had not given any explanation. So, I’m lost in conjecture. The only thing that comes to my mind is my participation as a scientific consultant in the trial of Raoul Wallenberg’s niece against the FSB. The archives are in direct subordination to the president of Russia, Sorokin heads the RGASPI, and it was impossible to publish my book in this publishing house. Of course, I upset about the denial because the “History of Stalinism” series is very good. Therefore, this is such a strange story.
Volcheck: It reminds of another story, in 1985, when the KGB confiscated the manuscript of your book about genetics …
Birstein: At that time, I was not very active, but still a dissident, an individual member of the Amnesty International. After that there was a long story, I lost my job, for two years fought with the KGB. The book on genetics did not come out. After that, I published another book, which was defended as a Doctoral Thesis, it came out miraculously, because the KGB tried again to stop the publication. Apparently, this is my destiny – to be punished by the Russian authorities.
Volcheck: Quite a difficult path from genetics to the historian of SMERSH. How did this happen and how did you become interested in the Wallenberg case?
Birstein: Since my childhood I was torn between two occupations. My father was a prominent zoology professor. At the age of 14, I participated in an archaeological expedition and realized that archaeology was not for me, I was too active to sit and watch the site being dog out. So, I became a biologist. At that time, Lysenkoism still possessed the whole of biology. I entered the department dealing with nucleic acids at Moscow University in order to be involved in genetics. Since then, I have worked most of my life as a geneticist. In parallel, I was interested in history. After all my misadventures with the KGB, after those stories with books, I had to go to the North, and worked at an institute located 500 kilometers from the city of Murmansk. When I returned from the North, there was already the “Memorial Society”. In 1990, Professor von Dardel, brother of Raoul Wallenberg, arrived in Moscow. He created the first commission for Raoul Wallenberg. Together with the late Arseny Roginsky, I was included in the commission. We were admitted to the then absolutely secret Special Archive, which is now called the Military Archive. We got access to materials that none of the people without secrect clearance have seen so far, personal or prison files of foreigners who were imprisoned at the time when Wallenberg was in Moscow prisons. Subsequently, these persons testified about Wallenberg when they were released in 1956. These materials immediately gave a huge amount of information about what structures of SMERSH and later MGB were engaged in investigation of foreigners, and in particular Wallenberg. We received information about the names of those who interrogated Wallenberg and those around him. From this began my study of SMERSH and the fate of Abakumov.
Volcheck: The fate of Viktor Abakumov was terrible. He was involved in a variety of crimes, but then he himself was arrested and brutally tortured. Why did they treat him this way?
Birstein: In my book, his fate is described in detail. And in the Russian version, I added about how he was arrested and what happened to him after his arrest. Yes, a very peculiar and ambiguous figure, an extremely cruel person, but on the other hand, everyone who had dealings with him from his system spoke positively about him. I quote that his orders were written very clearly and well. Here is one of the questions: How could a person, poorly educated, as he presented himself, write like that? Even the circumstances of his early life are unknown, when and where he was born, what was his education, because in his biography he changed everything, creating an impression of origin from the working family. I think that he was psychologically broken by the fact that he was taken as a teenager in CHON, these were detachments of workers, party members and Komsomol members who supported the actions of the troops and Chekists during the Civil War and a little bit later. He participated as a teenager in terrible measures to suppress the uprising of peasants in the Tambov region. Mikhail Tukhachevsky even used chemical weapons against the rebels.
Probably, the stage when he participated in all of that as a teenager, formed his character, the cruelty that later manifested itself in his activities. But after suffering monstrous torture after his arrest, he did not plead guilty, until the end he claimed that he was innocent, only fulfilling the instructions and orders of Stalin. I write about this in a book. It is not only about SMERSH, but also about the structures of power in Stalin’s time, about how the structure of punishment was organized.
All this has to be written, because there is not one source in which everything is collected: what was the political article 58, according to which all people under SMERSH were arrested and punished, what were the military tribunals, the Special Board (OSO)of the NKVD, then the MGB, what was the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court, how the OSO and the Military Collegium sentenced to death … All this has to be presented in order to explain to the reader how the system was operated and managed by Stalin’s Politburo. I added a large fragment to the Russian version of the book about how Abakumov’s case developed, how one of the young investigators whom he had cherished and put forward, Pavel Ivanovich Grishaev, turned into the main executioner during the investigation.
Back in the 90s, when I was studying the materials in the archive, I realized that there were two people, who were not yet very old at that time, who knew about Abakumov’s business, and about the Wallenberg case, these were Boris Alekseevich Solovov and Pavel Ivanovich Grishaev. In Stalin’s time Grishaev finalized the Abakumov case, he also finalized the “Doctors’ Plot” case, which became known not so long ago, when materials from the closed archives were published. Now it is known that Stalin approved the version of the accusation of Abakumov, which was prepared by Grishaev. But Stalin died before Abakumov was shot.
Abakumov was still alive after Stalin’s death, he was an invalid kept in prison. He was transferred to Matrosskaya Tishina Prison, and here the heirs of Stalin, Malenkov and Khrushchev, ordered to finish Abakumov, finish his case. The only explanation is that Abakumov knew too much about the activities of Stalin’s comrades-in-arms. He was really involved in so many cases, he followed so many verbal orders that it was very dangerous to keep him alive.
Volcheck: Have you met Grishaev or Solovov?
Birstein: I tried to meet with Solovov. I was interested in him because of the archival materials I found in in the files of two people connected with Wallenberg. Gustav Richter during the war was an employee of the German embassy in Romania and supervised the executions of Jews during the Holocaust, then he was placed with Wallenberg in a Soviet prison. Wallenberg also shared cells with two high-ranking Nazi figures, first with Richter, and then with Willi Roedel, with whom he was sitting for a year and a half, and obviously Roedel reported on him, I have good reasons to suspect this. I think Richter also reported on him. In the indictment prepared and signed by Solovov, there was a phrase that Richter should be convicted for many reasons, espionage and so on, and because he was in contact with an especially important prisoner. Was that prisoner Wallenberg? So, I tried to find Solovov, who wrote this, but I could not meet with him. I found out his address in the information bureau, tried to visit him, but his daughter did not let me in. Then I told about this to Professor von Dardel, and in his presence called from the Swedish embassy to Solovov. I had a curious conversation with him then. He did not want to talk to me but said that he would speak about Wallenberg only after the order from above. Who it was “from above,” Vladimir Kryuchkov, then the KGB chairman, or Mikhail Gorbachev, remained unclear. Later, Solovov gave evidence to another, the next Russian-Swedish Working Group on Wallenberg. But he did not say anything sensible, he spoke very intricately: either on purpose, or everything was mixed up in his memory. And since the Group did not have people who could ask about his participation in the Richter case, the questions why he wrote such things about the “important prisoner” were not asked to him. So, all this went into the air without any sense.
Volcheck: We have just dedicated two programs to the memoirs of the employee of SMERSH, General Andrei Frolov. He also remembered Abakumov with respect and even says that he was almost equal to Stalin and did not grovel before him. What was your impression of this book?
Birstein: I’ve read other memoirs that the Chekists published in recent years, tons of them, of course, with the glorification of SMERSH. Frolov’s memoir differs somewhat from this literature, but I would not say that it is very interesting. Yes, this is an example of persons who talk about Abakumov with great respect. Unusually, Frolov was clearly critical of the system, but at the same time he found excuses why he acted in this way. The most interesting detail in his memoir is a trip with General Derevyanko to Nagasaki after the American bombing. Derevyanko was so zealous that he received serious radiation, from which in the end he died. And it is interesting, of course, the mention that Stalin was preparing an attack on Alaska, which had already been mentioned by other sources. Since 1946, military airdromes were under construction on the Chukotka Peninsular to attack Alaska, and Stalin’s last orders about that were in 1952.
Volckek: How did SMERSH come into being?
Birstein: Before that, Abakumov’s directorate was called the Directorate of Special Departments. In the first two years of the war, they were mainly engaged in instilling fear in Soviet servicemen during the critical years of the war, when there was total chaos. This system of special departments was reorganized after the Battle of Stalingrad. At the time it became clear to Stalin and all other leaders that the retreat is over, the offensive to the West begins. Stalin completely changed the system of special departments, calling this system SMERSH, military counterintelligence, which was made a separate power organization directly subordinated to Stalin. Although formally SMERSH was a member of the People’s Defense Commissariat, de facto it was Stalin’s personal service. SMERSH officers continued to control the Soviet military personnel, catching real, but mostly imagined spies among the active army. Since 1943, the activities of SMERSH have been twofold, against the real enemy, German intelligence services, and against their own, during the entire war period, they arrested their own military personnel. SMERSH’s activities did not stop with the end of the war, because, by joining Eastern Europe and Austria, SMERSH was engaged in sweeping out local politicians and any organizations that could potentially exert any resistance to the future Sovietization of Eastern Europe. All of this is described in my book. This situation existed long enough, even when SMERSH entered the MGB. Because each of the occupation groups of Soviet troops had a subdivision of the MGB Directorate of Counterintelligence, which was the successor of SMERSH, and continued to fight with its own military personnel, identifying enemies, and with foreign structures that could potentially be enemies. All these last years of the Stalin’s era, smershevtsy kidnapped people from the Western occupation zones and arrested many of their own in the occupied countries. Especially in Germany, where there was a complete arbitrariness on the part of SMERSH. It was a very large force, which was engaged in identifying all those who could potentially impede Sovietization in Europe.
Volckek: You are a historical adviser to the family of Raoul Wallenberg, who is currently suing the FSB. This process is very slow. What are the goals of Raoul Wallenberg’s family, why did they sue? Do they really expect that the FSB will open something that has not yet been revealed?
Birstein: Two years ago, my colleague Susanne Berger and I prepared a large list of questions to the Russian archives that gave out some information during the activities of the Russian-Swedish Working Group from 1991 to 2000. All this work was very strange then. Representatives of the Soviet, then Russian side, provided the Swedish side with certain documents, all this occurred at the level of sufficiently high persons. It is completely unknown how documents were found. Who chose these documents? Everything was issued without any archival data, for instance what collections all the documents were found in. The Russian officialdom was giving something, the Swedes were taking it, and now it’s almost impossible to ask where it comes from, what it is and how it was found. We compiled long lists of questions for the FSB Central Archive, the Foreign Ministry Archive, some other archives, and Wallenberg’s niece handed the list for the FSB over to Vasily Khristoforov, who at the time was in charge of the FSB archives. All these questions remain hanging in the air.
There are several key documents that the FSB archives have provided with censoring, that is, something was concealed while copying. The FSB Central Archive itself, after the work of that Group, released information that from July 22 to July 23, 1947 several persons were questioned, including the driver of Wallenberg and his cellmates, and the interrogation lasted 16.5 hours. Together with them, “Prisoner no. 7” was questioned. According to FSB archivists themselves, most likely this was Wallenberg. But it was all on an oral level. They provided a copy of a document on these interrogations, but with a censored line about the Prisoner no. 7. Since then, since 2009, a struggle has been going on. “Please, give us a copy of the full page where this prisoner is indicated, if you think it was Wallenberg. Why do not you give a fully photocopied page with this entry?” But they refuse to provide a record of Prisoner no. 7, although they themselves stated that it was, apparently, Wallenberg. A complete copy or the original of this page has not been seen by anyone, except for the archival staff themselves.
Volchek: Do you have a clue what they are hiding?
Birstein: I don’t know. Possibly, there is a note about what happened to the Prisoner no. 7? This is completely incomprehensible. And the logic of censoring other documents is completely incomprehensible. In this application, we requested full copies or showing the originals of documents that have been censored during copying. We do not know what is there, and why they were censored. They concealed part of the record and copied everything else.
The appeal to the court was after all the possible other ways were exhausted. But, as you know, the court sided with the FSB, refusing to provide full copies. And in the first court decision it was said that the problem is that the third parties there are mentioned in the records. Well, give only this line, remove all other Soviet citizens who are mentioned there, show how it looks, leave only those names who are connected with Wallenberg. After all, the KGB and the FSB gave out the names of the investigators who dealt with the case, gave away almost everything, except for some pieces that they do not want to show. The second decision of the Moscow City Court was the same, although they gave an incredible justification: “There are no grounds to assume that the defendant was provided untrustworthy information!” But this is not about the reliability of the information, but about the fact that it is not fully given! I do not know the details, but, probably, the lawyers are planning to appeal further, to the Presidium of the City Court, then to the Supreme Court and so on. Probably, all this will pass with the same result.
But there are interesting developments not only in Russia, but also in Sweden. At the end of March, a list of questions was given to five major Swedish archives. On April 20, at a session in the Swedish Parliament, the Foreign Minister [Margot Wallström] had to answer tough questions from journalists about these issues. She admitted that a number of documents about Wallenberg in the archive of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs are classified. Now the question is how to deal with this. At the moment, there are all sorts of discussions. I must say that Swedish archives behave much more favorably than the Russian archives. I’m not authorized to talk about this, but this situation is progressing.
Volcheck: And what can there be, what sensations could be?
Birstein: There can be a lot of sensations. The Wallenberg family is the basis of the Swedish economy. I am convinced that Raoul Wallenberg was arrested because he was a representative of the Wallenberg family, he could potentially have been used as a kind of a bargaining chip in an exchange or to put pressure on Sweden after the war. The Wallenberg family’s contacts with Tsarist Russia, then with the Soviet Union were very long. The Wallenbergs had a great influence on the Soviet economy, in particular, having built the first ball-bearing plant in Russia, which still works, the second ball bearing plant in Moscow was built by the Wallenbergs. Ball bearings are of great importance, because neither a bicycle nor a tank can’t move without them. During the war, the Wallenbergs sold ball bearings to Nazi Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union. This is a big, long story with a lot of ramifications. So, there may be the most unexpected things found. The question of how much Raoul Wallenberg participated in the family business, remains open. There are a lot of details in Sweden that can shed some light on why Raul was arrested and why Sweden showed very little interest to getting him out of Soviet hands and almost from the very beginning took the position that he was killed in Budapest, instead of persistently demand his extradition. All this remains unclear.
Volcheck: Now the archives have been opened in Ukraine, the researchers of Stalinism are happy, they work there, publish new and new documents. Do you have any hope that this will happen in Russia?
Birstein: No, I’m not an optimist. Nothing will happen in the near future. And the situation with the Wallenberg case is quite annoying. Recently I began once again to analyze the entire block of documentation that was given to the Russian-Swedish Working Group, and I‘m completely disappointed all the time. Even two documents, which in the 1990s were issued with great fanfare from the Central Archive of Defense Ministry in Podolsk–orders to arrest Wallenberg–were censored. And no one asked at the time why it was done, what they were hiding there. It’s ridiculous, we’re talking about 1944-45! No, they are edited. And that’s the way at every step with all this documentation. Of course, no one will show anything in the near future.