(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post.)
One thing about the first years of Soviet history that always puzzled me is how the Bolsheviks managed to create a wide and reliable network of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence so fast. Below is a history of life and death of a typical spy from the early Soviet years.
Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko was born on 12 May 1901 in Stavropol. He was a smart schoolboy. Foreign languages, especially French, were among his favorite subjects. He graduated from school when the Russian Civil War began and his parents became active Bolsheviks.
Stavropol was a region of fierce struggle between the Whites and the Reds. On the one hand, the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army had good support in Southern Russia, but on the other hand, the factory workers who concentrated in the cities tended to support the Bolsheviks.
Georgy’s father participated in the revolt in Stavropol and in 1918 he was executed by the Whites. Georgy’s sister was a Bolshevik since 1914 and actively worked for the revolutionary underground. Soon after the death of their father she too was caught and hanged. I don’t know what was her crime, but most probably it was sabotage.
So, choosing sides in the civil war was not difficult for young Georgy. In 1920 he became a secret agent of Cheka in Stavropol; in 1921 he joined the RCP(b) (Russian Communist Party, bolsheviks) and became a private in the OGPU military detachment. From 1924 he was a full-fledged officer of OGPU (the new name of Cheka) and continued his work in Stavropol and other cities: Novorossiysk, Vladikavkaz, Rostov, Sverdlovsk and Moscow.
A Lethal Career
In 1933 the Foreign department of OGPU noticed the young officer with good command of French and offered him a post in Soviet foreign intelligence. On 30 April 1933 he was appointed the deputy of the chief agent of OGPU in Kharbin in Manchuria, then occupied by the Japanese. According to the usual practice of the OGPU, he received false documents and became Georgy Nikolayevich Kislov. He became the secretary of the Soviet embassy in Kharbin. In June 1935 he was promoted to the chief agent and, automatically, to the vice-consul of the USSR.
Anti-communist forces were still active in Siberia in the 1930s and the main task of Soviet agents in Kharbin was identifying organized groups of Whites. There was a large colony of Russian emigrants in Manchuria and many of them eagerly helped the anti-Soviet fighters. By the end of 1935 Kosenko-Kislov and his colleagues had identified about 180 members of this movement. The gathered information helped to intercept three armed groups on the border of the USSR. Another important target of Soviet counter-intelligence was Japanese spies. Kosenko identified about 300 of them. He also helped to prevent an operation of Japanese saboteurs who planned to destroy a railroad tunnel.
In the end of 1935 Kosenko fell ill and was evacuated to Moscow. Having spent some months in a hospital he got better and in May was sent to Paris.
The French Connection
France played a crucial role in international politics and the main goal of Soviet intelligence was to learn more about the position of the French government toward Germany and USSR. The network led by Kosenko received information from government sources, from the president’s office and from the French army and intelligence. They also gathered important information on new models of tanks, aeroplanes and handguns.
Another target of Soviet intelligence was the so called Russian All-Military Union (ROVS, Rossiyskiy Obshche-Voinskiy Soyuz). This organization united the soldiers and officers of the Russian army who were forced to leave Russia in 1920 but who still hoped to return. The organization was then headed by General Yevgeny Miller. NKVD thought that if they could make Miller disappear, the leadership would go to General Skoblin, who was an agent of Soviet intelligence. Miller was kidnapped to the USSR in an operation assisted by Alexander Orlov — remember that name — the head of Soviet intelligence in Spain and by Georgy Kosenko.
Kosenko was awarded the order of the Red Banner — but the most important operation of his life was still to come.
Another anti-Soviet organization also located in Paris was the international secretariat of the Fourth International, founded by Leo Trotsky. The secretariat was managed by Leo Sedov, Trotsky’s son. An agent of Soviet intelligence, Mark Zborovsky, became Sedov’s personal secretary and transferred to NKVD the letters of Trotsky and Sedov. In August 1936 Sedov left Paris and left all his papers to Zborovsky. Zborovsky got access to the list of Trotsky’s correspondents in many countries and immediately sent it to NKVD. He also informed Soviet intelligence that Trotsky sent a large part of his personal archive to the Institute of Historical Research in Paris. Stalin ordered the archive captured. A special NKVD group headed by Yakov Serebryansky was sent to Paris and Kosenko organized the operation. On 6-7 November 1936 Kosenko received the archive — about 80 kilograms of documents, articles and letters — and sent it to Moscow with the diplomatic mail.
In February 1937 Kosenko received a report from Mark Zborovsky that Sedov had asked Zborovsky to organize Stalin’s assassination. When Kosenko sent this information to Moscow, Stalin was infuriated and ordered Trotsky and his top aides killed. Among other operations to this end, Moscow sent Trotsky’s eventual murderer Ramon Mercader from Spain to France. Kosenko had to help him to enter the circle of Trotsky’s close friends.
Although this intrigue turned out to be a success, it would claim Kosenko’s life before Trotsky’s.
In July 1938, Kosenko’s Spanish opposite number and sometime collaborator Alexander Orlov fled to the USA, guaranteeing his own safety (and that of the mother he left in the USSR) by threatening to reveal Soviet intelligence secrets if pursued. Orlov sent a letter to Trotsky warning him that a Soviet agent named Mark had penetrated his son’s circle, and that the NKVD was preparing the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of either Mark or an unknown Spaniard. (Trotsky thought the tip was a provocation, and fatefully ignored it.)
Stalin went mad. He ordered the new head of NKVD Lavrentiy Beria to punish all spies involved in the debacle. Kosenko was one of them. In November 1938 Kosenko received an order to return to Moscow and on 27 December he was put to the same jail where General Miller was still imprisoned. Kosenko was accused of participation in a counter-revolutionary organization and on 20 February he was sentenced to death. That same night of 20-21 February 1939 he was shot and his body was buried in an tomb without any name or date.
So, this story does not answer the question I asked in the beginning, but rather dismisses it by proving that the Soviet intelligence network was wide but far from reliable and that eventually these spies either eagerly got rid of each other or simply fled as far as they could.
On this day..
- 2019: Nine for assassinating Hisham Barakat - 2020
- 1942: The Laha Massacre - 2019
- 1948: Thomas Henry McGonigle, murder without a body - 2018
- 1592: Thomas Pormort, prey of Richard Topcliffe - 2017
- 1810: Andreas Hofer, Tyrolean patriot - 2016
- 1942: Max Hertz, chronicled by Oskar Rosenfeld - 2015
- 1961: About fifteen anti-Lumumbists, in Stanleyville - 2014
- 1645: Conor Macguire, Lord Baron of Enniskillen - 2013
- 1677: Five witches at the Gallowgreen of Paisley - 2012
- 1570: Hegumen Kornily of the Pskov-Pechery Monastery - 2011
- 1388: Nicholas Brembre, Mayor of London - 2010
- 1258: Al-Musta'sim, the last Abbasid Caliph - 2009