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SMERSH (SMERt' SHpionam), a transliteration of the Russian СМЕРШ (СМЕРть Шпионам, "Death to Spies"), was the Main Counter-Intelligence Directorate of the People's Commissariat of Defense (GUKR) of the Soviet Union during 1943-46. Established on April 14, 1943, the organization was named by Stalin personally. SMERSH was the successor of the Special Departments (Osobyye Otdeli, or O.O.) of the Cheka/NKVD, which had been responsible for counter-intelligence since 1918.[1] (It was "Special Bureau Number 1" (Spetsburo), the Ninth Section (Section for Terror and Diversion) of the Second Main Directorate of the OGPU, that was responsible for the assassination of Trotsky in 1940.)[2] SMERSH was headed by Deputy Commissar for Defense V.S. Abakumov, former chief of the O.O.

SMERSH acted as a watchdog on the loyalty of Soviet military forces, maintaining a network of informers within the Soviet Army, Navy, and Air Force. It is estimated that some 12% of Soviet military personnel were agents or informers.[3] SMERSH was also responsible for shooting defecting soldiers and arresting those who escaped from German captivity. SMERSH conducted investigations of military and civilian personnel suspected of anti-Soviet activities, and tried suspects before tribunals composed of three SMERSH officers.[4]

Starting in 1943, SMERSH was responsible for identifying foreign scientists and data to be obtained via the Soviets' atomic espionage program.[5] SMERSH was also responsible for seeking out and blackmailing, kidnapping, or "liquidating" dissidents, defectors and other opponents of the Soviet regime.[6] In 1945, SMERSH agents arrested Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was then serving in the Soviet Navy.[7] In May 1946, SMERSH was disbanded, its functions transferred the Third Chief Directorate (Main Administration of Counter-Intelligence [GUKR]) of the MGB. (Some writers refer to this unit, as well as the pre-1943 O.O., as "SMERSH.")[8]

In 1948, the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists (NTS), a group of Soviet refugees in West Germany, published in its newspaper Possev the diary of Soviet defector Mikhail Mondich (under the psudonym "Nicola Sinevirsky") in which SMERSH was first named in the West. The organization was responsible for ferreting out alleged "enemies of the Soviet system," according to Mondich, and was determined that all such suspects "must die."[9] In 1952, Ian Fleming, former assistant to the director of British Naval Intelligence, began using "SMERSH" as the name of the enemy Soviet agency in his James Bond novels. The following year, NKVD Captain Nicolai Khokhlov, a former top assassin for SMERSH, was sent to West Berlin to kill NTS Chairman George Okolovich. Instead, Khokhlov defected, subsequently revealing to Western intelligence agencies the nefarious history of SMERSH.[10]


  1. Robert Stephan, "Smersh: Soviet Military Counter-Intelligence during the Second World War," Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 22, No. 4, Intelligence Services during the Second World War: Part 2 (October 1987), pp. 585-613
  2. Peter Deriabin and Frank Gibney, The secret world (Doubleday, 1959), p. 187
  3. Ian Dear, Michael Richard and Daniell Foot, eds., The Oxford companion to World War II (Oxford University Press, 2001) ISBN 0198604467, p. 792
  4. Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Spy book: the encyclopedia of espionage (Random House, 1998) ISBN 0375702490, p. 518
  5. Kent Hunter, "How Russian Experts Produce Atomic Bombs," Milwaukee Sentinel, September 24, 1950, Section A, p. 1
  6. Ronald Seth, The executioners: the story of SMERSH (Grosset & Dunlap, 1970)
  7. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Vol. 1, Tr. Thomas P. Whitney (HarperCollins, 2007) ISBN 0061253715, p. 16
  8. See for example John Griswold, Ian Fleming's James Bond: Annotations And Chronologies for Ian Fleming's Bond Stories (AuthorHouse, 2006) ISBN 1425931006, p. 184; Denis Collins, Spying: the secret history of history (Black Dog Publishing, 2004) ISBN 1579123953, p. 122; Deborah Cadbury, Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space (HarperCollins, 2007) ISBN 0061176281, p. 67
  9. Mikhail Mondich, Smersh (Holt, 1950) pp. 73-74
  10. Vincent Buranelli and Nan Buranelli, Spy/counterspy: an encyclopedia of espionage (McGraw-Hill, 1982) 0070089159, p. 294