Soviet intelligence experts Aleksandr Kolpakidi and Dmitry Prokhorov tell of the Soviet-Yugoslav split in 1948 and its fallout – Stalin’s plans to assassinate Yugoslavia’s Communist leader, Josip Broz Tito.
The establishment of Soviet control over the countries of Eastern Europe in the postwar years took place in a very tense environment. But if Communists of the Stalinist interpretation in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Albania attained total victory, in Yugoslavia the triumphal march of Stalinism didn’t happen. As a result, at the end of the 1940s relations between the USSR and Yugoslavia were so poisoned that Soviet intelligence received the order from Stalin to liquidate Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito by any means.
The conflict between Stalin and Tito began in 1948, when the latter refused to support the idea of creating a Bulgarian-Yugoslav federation. Not used to meeting resistance, Stalin became enraged. Soviet military advisors were recalled from Yugoslavia, and at a session of the Cominform (successor to the Comintern that was dissolved in 1943) in June of 1948 in Bucharest, Andrei Zhdanov read out the report “On the position of the Yugoslav Communist Party,” in which it was personally written by Stalin:
Tito, Kardel, Djilas, and Rankovic bear full responsibility for the created situation. Their methods are from the arsenal of Trotskyism. Policy in the city and in the countryside is wrong. Within the Communist Party such a shameful, purely Turkish terrorist regime is shameful and intolerable. Such a regime should be brought to an end.
Later, already at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev said that Stalin, having lost his sense of reality, announced the following:
It’s enough for me to move my little finger, and Tito will be no more.
But time went by, and Tito continued to live and conduct his policies. By that fact many had the opportunity to be convinced that Stalin was far from all-powerful, which he could not in any way allow. Consequently, in the MGB the secret files “Vulture” and “Nero” were initiated, where materials compromising Tito were gathered.
Yet the execution of an operation to liquidate Tito was hampered by the circumstance that the counterintelligence department of the Yugoslav Directorate for State Security (UDB), headed by General E. Sasic, had practically eliminated Soviet intelligence’s agent networks across the entire territory of the country. And so were arrested the Yugoslav military attache in Moscow, B. Polyanets, and his men, UDB officers M. Perovic, S. Pavic, and S. Stojlkovic, all recruited by the MGB. Later, the overseer of the military department of the Croatian Communist Party’s Central Committee, General R. Zigic, as well as Deputy Minister of Heavy Industry M. Kalafatic; Yugoslav Army General Staff officers J. Korda and A. Zoric; Cominform employees N. Kovacevic, D. Ozren, and A. Stumpf; and an entire number of Yugoslav Communists who supported Moscow. In all from 1948 to 1953, there were 29 Soviet agents arrested in Yugoslavia.
But despite the complex operational environment in Yugoslavia, Stalin was unsatisfied that preparations for the operation to liquidate Tito weren’t moving forward. Sensing his annoyance, Beria and Sergei Ignatiev, who replaced Viktor Abakumov as Minister of State Security, began to feverishly search for a way to the quickly carry out the directive the leader of peoples had given.
As a result, by late autumn of 1952, several options for removing Tito had been developed, and all of them were connected with using agent “Max,” an MGB illegal who had in his time participated in the liquidations of Andres Nin in Spain and Leon Trotsky in Mexico. Soon Stalin was sent the following document, handwritten on a single copy:
The USSR MGB asks permission to prepare and organize a terrorist act against Tito with the use of illegal agent “Max” – Comrade Grigulevich I.R., citizen of the USSR, member of the CPSU from 1950 (form attached).
Max was sent by us to Italy on a Costa Rican passport, where he was able to win the trust and enter a circle of diplomats from South American countries and notable Costa Rican figures and businessmen who were visiting Italy.
Using these connections, on our assignment Max attained nomination to the post of Extraordinary and Authorized Emissary of Costa Rica in Italy and simultaneously in Yugoslavia. Carrying out his diplomatic duties, in the second half of 1952, he visited Yugoslavia twice, where he was well-received, had access to circles close to Tito’s clique, and received a promise of a personal audience with Tito. The position occupied by Max at the present time allows us to use his possibilities for the execution of active measures against Tito.
At the beginning of February of this year, we called Max to Vienna, where we organized a meeting with him in clandestine conditions. In the course of discussing his possibilities, we asked Max how he could be most useful, accounting for his position. Max proposed undertaking any kind of effective measure personally against Tito.
In connection with this proposal, there was a discussion with him on how he conceives this, as a result of which were uncovered the following possible options of executing a terrorist act against Tito:
1) Instruct Max to gain a personal audience with Tito, during which he should release a dose of pulmonary plague from a silently acting mechanism disguised in his clothing, which would guarantee Tito’s infection and death as well as those at the premises. Max himself will not know of the organism in the applied formula. To preserve Max’s life, he will be preliminarily inoculated with an anti-plague serum.
2) In connection with Tito’s expected trip to London, deploy Max there on the mission, using his official position and good personal relations with the Velebit, the Yugoslav ambassador in England. Max could get to the reception at the Yugoslav embassy, which, as should be expected, Velebit will hold in honor of Tito.
Carry out the terrorist attack by means of a silent shot from a mechanism masked by an everyday item, simultaneously releasing tear gas to cause panic among the guests in order to allow a favorable environment for Max’s retreat and the concealment of a trail.
3) Use one of the official receptions in Belgrade, to which are invited members of the diplomatic corpus. Carry out the terrorist attack in the same way as in the second option, assigning it to Max himself, who as a diplomat accredited by the Yugoslav government, will be invited to such a reception.
Aside from that, assign Max to develop an option and prepare the conditions of his assignment by using one of the Costa Rican representatives to present Tito a gift in the form of some valuables in a box, the opening of which would set into motion a mechanism that momentarily would emit an active toxic substance.
Max was offered again to think over and contribute suggestions as to how he could carry out the most effective measures against Tito. Conditions of communication were set with him, and it was agreed that he will be given additional orders.
We would consider it expedient to use Max’s possibilities for committing a terrorist act against Tito. By his personal qualities and work experience in intelligence, Max is suitable for carrying out such a mission.
Your agreement is requested. (15)
There is no resolution of Stalin’s on this document. But as Sudoplatov, at that time the chief of MGB Bureau No. 1 responsible for commando operations abroad, recalls, in February 1953 Stalin called him to the Kremlin to comment on this assassination plan against Tito. Here is what he writes about it:
Stalin handed me a handwritten document and requested me to comment on it. This was the plan for the assassination on Marshal Tito. I had never seen this document earlier, but Ignatiev clarified that the initiative came from Ryasnoi and Savchenko, deputy ministers of state security…
I told Stalin that naive methods of liquidation were proposed in the document, methods which reflect incompetence in preparation of the plan… I said that Max is not suitable for such an assignment, since he was never a fighter or terrorist. He had participated in the operation against Trotsky, against an agent of the Okhrana in Lithuania, and in the liquidation of Trotskyite leader Andres Nin in Spain, but only with the mission of securing combatants’ access to the object of attack. Aside from that, it didn’t follow from the document that direct access to Tito would be guaranteed. Whatever we thought of Tito, we should have approached him as a serious opponent who took part in combat operations during the war years, and who will undoubtedly keep presence of spirit and repulse the attack. I cited our agent “Val,” Momo Jurovic, a major-general in Tito’s guard. According to his reports, Tito was always on guard over the tense internal situation in Yugoslavia…
However, Stalin interrupted me, and turning to Ignatiev, said that the matter must be thought over again, taking into account internal “squabbles” in the Yugoslav leadership. Then he looked at me intently and said that since this mission is important for strengthening our positions in Eastern Europe and our influence in the Balkans, we must approach it with exceptional responsibility in order to avoid the failure that occurred in Turkey in 1942, when the assassination on German ambassador Von Papen was aborted. (16)
After the session at Stalin’s, there began preliminary study of the operation. Grigulevich, who received the order from Moscow to prepare for the terrorist act, was obliged to write a letter to his wife in case of failure, which would fall into the hands of Tito’s security service. In this letter, as in a similar one written by Mercader before the assassination of Trotsky, the version was expounded that this was the act of a loner who had committed the attack for political reasons. It is difficult to imagine what Grigulevich felt at that time, as he understood perfectly well that he had no chance of escaping unscathed. But here there intervened His Majesty chance. In March of 1953 Stalin died, and the operation to liquidate Tito was cancelled by Beria, who sought to establish friendly relations with Yugoslavia.
Work Translated: Колпакиди, А. И. и Прохоров, Д.П. КГБ: Спецоперации советской разведки. М: Издательство АСТ, 2001.
Works Cited (15, 16): Судоплатов, П.А. Разведка и Кремль. М., 1997.