SMERSH: Stalin's Secret Weapon, Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 1 Jan 2013
The phrase "Smyert Shpionam", or "Death to Spies", perfectly reflected my mental image of the Soviet-era Russia and Eastern Europe, with agents and operatives closely observing the words and actions of citizens, acting on anything that might remotely resemble disloyalty. SMERSH, the namesake organization established in 1943, was feared by even those high up in the political ladder. Vadim Birstein's SMERSH was the first English language history of SMERSH (previous titles about the agency had all been memoirs), and it was a great one.
From the very beginning of the book I had enjoyed the author's willingness to convey all aspects of the book, ensuring that all readers interested in this subject, regardless of previous understanding of any kind, could absorb the content. For example, knowing only the minimum about Soviet government structure and absolutely nothing about the Russian language, I found the reference tables on pages 14-15 and 18-20 extremely useful with translating acronyms into full names, as was his note on Russian-English transliteration methods. Included in ample detail were Joseph Stalin's technique on using parallel counterintelligence arms to control both the population and his closest lieutenants. The core of the book dealt, naturally, with SMERSH organization, operations, and tactics. The vetting of repatriated Soviet prisoners of war especially struck something inside me, making me ponder the world of difference between, for example, American generals going out of their ways to liberate prison camps and purpose-built Soviet interrogation apparatuses for their fellow comrades. Birstein made little attempt in hiding his personal disapproval for the Soviet ideology, and the few instances of subjectivity actually contributed much toward the lessons the author tried to convey, both the fear of a previous generation and the past mistakes that the current generation should be learning.
A geneticist by profession, Birstein organized the rich content of the book as well as a scientific paper down to his sources; to illustrate, the painstakingly created 90-page notes section made up of a fifth of the size of this 500-page book.
It would be interesting to note that, due to size concerns, the appendix of the book was found online only. The book's website featured large lists of people arrested by the Soviet Union.
At the end of the book, Birstein noted that another title on post-war exploits of SMERSH chief Viktor Abakumov was forthcoming; I would definitely make sure to check that out when it became available. In the mean time, I very highly recommend SMERSH to WW2DB visitors, for that it contained a trove of information from Russian-language archives, so much of it barely understood, or not known at all previously, by historians and history enthusiasts outside of the Soviet Union.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939