Soviet Intelligence in World War II

From the archives of the SVR comes a broad overview of the Second World War by the chief of Soviet intelligence in World War II, Lt. Gen. Pavel Fitin:

“Pavel Matveevich Fitin headed the Fifth Department of the NKVD GUGB [Chief Directorate for State Security] – the NKGB First Directorate from May of 1939 to 1946. The basis of this material is formed by his memoirs, which were written by the author in 1970 for the 50th anniversary of Soviet foreign intelligence.”


Not claiming to fully shed light on everything, for this would demand special research, I would like to recount certain matters of the multifaceted activity of the intelligence service of the Soviet state security organs during the years of the Great Patriotic War.

On June 17th, 1941, I had a conversation with Josef Vissarionovich Stalin. After that, a sense of alarm didn’t leave me, not for one day. This worried not only me, but also other officers who were in the know about this meeting[i].

Lt. Gen. Pavel Fitin, head of Soviet intelligence (NKGB/NKVD) during WWII.
Lt. Gen. Pavel Fitin, head of Soviet intelligence (NKGB/NKVD) during WWII.

A few days passed. At dawn I walked out of the People’s Commissariat for State Security [NKGB]; a tense week was behind me. It was Sunday, a day of relaxation, but the thoughts kept coming – thoughts like a clock’s pendulum: “Is this really disinformation? And if not, then how?” With that on my mind I arrived home and laid down, but I wasn’t able to fall asleep – the telephone rang. It was five in the morning. In the receiver was the voice of the duty officer at the People’s Commissariat: “Comrade General, the Commissar [Vsevolod Merkulov] is calling for you immediately, and a car has been sent for you.” I immediately got dressed and went out, being wholly sure that what we had spoken about with Stalin had happened.

When I entered the Commissar’s waiting room, there were several men there. Soon the rest of the comrades arrived. We were invited into his office. The Commissar was crushed by what had occurred. After a short pause he informed us that along the entire length of the western border – from the Baltic to the Black Sea – battles were underway, and in a number of spots German forces had invaded our country’s territory. The Central Committee and the Soviet government were taking all measures for the organization of resistance to the enemy who had invaded our territory. We had to think through a plan of action for the security organs, accounting for the unfolding situation. From that moment we all were in a state of war, and we had to announce this in all directorates and departments.

“And it’s necessary for you,” the Commissar turned to me, “to prepare corresponding orders for residencies abroad. I’ll call on you in an hour-and-a-half to two hours.”

With that we parted ways in order to attend to the execution of the Commissar’s orders. The information was extremely unpleasant, although for me and some other senior personnel who were with the Commissar, it didn’t come as such big news. Aside from the fact that the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis had been formed and directed against the Soviet Union, the First Directorate had received from residencies in Berlin, Paris, London, Prague, and elsewhere reliable intelligence on Germany’s preparation for a major war.

On June 16th, 1941, from our residency in Berlin there arrived an emergency message that Hitler had made the final decision to attack the USSR on June 22nd, 1941. This information was immediately reported to the highest levels.

Late at night on the 16th-17th of June, I was called into the Commissar. He said that at Stalin was inviting us over at 1 PM. There was much to think over on that night and morning of the 17th. However, I was confident that this meeting was connected to the information provided by our Berlin residency, information which he had received. I didn’t doubt the veracity of the report that had come in, inasmuch as I knew the man who had told us of this well.

Just two years had passed from the time I took charge of the Intelligence Directorate at the central apparatus, but I had studied our intelligence officers, both young and old, well, and I believed in their honesty and devotion to the cause. I was convinced of this when going about restructuring intelligence work in accordance with the Central Committee’s decision from 1938 “On Improvement of the Work of the NKVD Foreign Department [INO].”

The given decision had been caused by the abnormal situation in the state security organs, first and foremost in intelligence. In the 1930s there had developed an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion of many Chekists, mainly toward leading officers – and not only in the central apparatus, but also at Foreign Department residencies abroad. They were accused of betraying the Motherland and were subjected to repressions. In the course of 1938 and 1939, almost all the INO residents abroad were recalled to Moscow, and many of them were repressed.

The Central Committee’s passing of the aforementioned decision was also conditioned by the international environment that had been created: the formation of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo fascist bloc, Germany’s seizure of Austria, the Munich Agreement that clearly bore witness to Hitler’s course toward unleashing world war. Besides that, the duplicitous behavior of England, France, and certain other European states in relation to the USSR strained the international situation even further.

The situation urgently required our taking immediate measures to restructure the entire work of foreign intelligence. In March of 1938, the Party’s Central Committee mobilized around 800 Communists with a higher education and experience of Party and leadership work. After six months of training in the NKVD Central School, they were sent both to the central apparatus as well as to organs on the periphery. A large group of them, in which the author of these lines found himself, was selected for service in the Fifth (Foreign) Department [INO] of the NKVD.

In October of 1938 I came to work in the Foreign Department as an operational officer within the section covering Trotskyites and rightists abroad, though soon I was appointed the chief there. In January of 1939 I became the deputy chief of the NKVD Fifth Department, while in May of 1939 I became its full chief. I was at the post of head of foreign intelligence until the middle of 1946.

The new cadres who had poured into intelligence, along with the Chekist intelligence officers who remained in the service, formed a monolithic alloy of experience and youthful vigor. Their mission was to improve intelligence work abroad.

The directorate’s leadership first of all focused its attention on the selection of senior personnel for foreign residencies. In the course of 1939-40, old, experienced intelligence officers were sent abroad: V.M. Zarubin; E.Y. Zarubina; D.G. Fedichkin; B.A. Rybkin; Z.A. Rybkina; V.A. Takhchianov; M.A. Allakhverdov; and A.M. Korotkov. There were also young and talented Chekists: G.N. Kalinin; A.K. Trenev; A.I. Leonenko; V.G. Pavlov; E.I. Kravtsov; N.M. Gorshkov; and many others.

During selection of candidacies for intelligence work abroad, we were forced to come up against great difficulties because of weak knowledge of foreign languages by many comrades who had returned to intelligence and their lack of experience of operating abroad.

As a consequence of measures taken during the pre-war years, we were able to bring around 40 foreign residencies up to strength and direct over 200 intelligence officers to them. We were also able to deploy many Chekist staff officers for illegal work. That reflected on results immediately.

Taking into account the contributions of Chekist intelligence officers in the acquisition of valuable information necessary to the Soviet state, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Council awarded a number of officers of foreign intelligence with orders and medals in May of 1940. As the chief of the NKGB First Directorate, I was also accorded a high government decoration.

Thanks to the presence of agent networks with major intelligence possibilities in such nations as Germany, England, the United States, Czechoslovakia (by that time “The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”), Bulgaria, France, and others, from the end of 1940 until the attack on the Soviet Union the First Directorate received data that said how Germany, having seized 13 European countries, was preparing for an attack on the USSR.

For example, our resident in Prague informed us of the movements of German military formation, hardware, and other military equipment to the borders of the Soviet Union. Similar intelligence also came from other residents. Naturally, all this information was sent to the Red Army’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), while the most important went to three addresses: Stalin, Molotov, and Voroshilov. The summons to Stalin on June 17th, therefore, didn’t catch us unawares.

Dear diary...
Dear diary…

Despite our being well-informed and our firm intention to defend our point of view regarding the materials received by the First Directorate, we still dwelt in a state of certain agitation. This was the leader of the Party and the country, with an unimpeachable authority. And it could so happen that Stalin wouldn’t like something or he’d see a failure by us in some matter, and then any of us could end up in quite an unenviable position.

Accompanied by such thoughts, we arrived with the Commissar at Stalin’s reception room in the Kremlin. After an assistant reported our arrival, we were invited into the office. Stalin greeted us with the nod of his head, but didn’t offer us a seat; he himself didn’t sit down the entire time of the conversation. He walked around the chamber, stopping to pose a question or to concentrate on the moments of the brief that interested him, or on the answers to his questions.

Having walked up to a great desk that was located to the left of the entrance and upon which lay piles of numerous messages and reports – on one of them was our document – Stalin, not raising his head, said:

I read your report. It turns out that Germany is planning to attack the Soviet Union?

We were silent. After all, just three days ago, June 14th, the newspapers had published an announcement by TASS in which it was said that Germany was observing the conditions of the Non-Aggression Pact just as steadfastly as the Soviet Union. Stalin continued to walk back and forth around the chamber, now and then puffing on his pipe. Finally, stopping before us, he asked:

What kind of man is it who reported this information?

We were ready to answer that question, and I gave a detailed profile of our source. In particular, I said that he was a German, close to us ideologically, and together with other patriots was prepared to assist the struggle with fascism in any way. He worked in the Air Ministry and was very well-informed. As soon as he found out the time for Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, he summoned our officer who handled him to an emergency meeting and passed over the original message. We had no basis to doubt the veracity of his information.

After the completion of the briefing, again there followed a long pause. Stalin, walking to his desk and turning to us, pronounced:

Disinformation! You are free to go.

We left anxious. There was much to rethink, and our tense state didn’t leave us for a minute. What if our agent had been mistaken? But in the name of the foreign intelligence directorate, I had assured Stalin that the information gave no cause for doubt.

Arriving at the People’s Commissariat of State Security and having exchanged impressions of the meeting, the Commissar and I right there and then composed an encrypted telegram to the Berlin residency on the immediate verification of the message that had been sent about a German attack on the USSR, which was supposedly marked for June 22nd, 1941. But we didn’t succeed in getting an answer. On that day fascist forces attacked our Motherland. The latter event was a bitter confirmation of the correctness of our agent’s report.

“Sever” radio transmitter used by Soviet intelligence operatives during WWII.

The GRU and our NKGB counterintelligence units possessed similar information. This exerted the needed influence on Stalin, and on June 21st he gave the order to the Red Army General Staff to bring formations on the border up to combat readiness. Stalin delayed carrying out the most necessary military precautions, obviously from fear of giving Hitler an excuse to attack.

In measures developed by the NKGB First Directorate during the first days of the war, the main attention was devoted to the selection of the most capable intelligence officers for work in operational groups that would stay behind on temporarily occupied territory after the withdrawal of Red Army units. Our intelligence officers were to organize, lead, and train Soviet patriots in waging partisan warfare behind enemy lines, and also simultaneously conduct intelligence and sabotage operations against the German invaders and their allies.

In the very first days of the war, dozens of Chekist intelligence officers underwent training and went first to Ukraine, and then to Belarus, Moldova, and the western regions of the RSFSR. All of them acquitted themselves worthily, honorably executing the missions assigned them. The Chekist intelligence officers Dmitry Medvedev; Viktor Korolev; Nikolai Prokopyuk; Mikhail Prudnikov; Nikolai Kuznetsov; Vladimir Molodtsov; Viktor Lyagin; Ivan Kudrya, and others were accorded the rank of Hero of the Soviet Union for carrying out special tasks.

Besides the resolution of this first-priority mission, it was necessary to strengthen our work abroad, mainly with the goal of wreaking the most damage possible to Hitler’s Germany. Its forces, despite the stubborn resistance of Red Army units, moved ever deeper into the heart of our Motherland. We were forced to leave the major industrial centers of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the Baltic. Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad were under the threat of capture.

In this unbelievably difficult period for the Motherland, Soviet intelligence tasked all its intelligence officers and numerous agent networks with obtaining intelligence data on fascist Germany and its allies, its military-economic potential, and the movements of forces and military hardware. On the other hand, our intelligence officers facilitated the organization of resistance movements in countries occupied by the fascists in every manner even before the attack on the USSR.

Taking into account that the NKGB First Directorate’s activity in creating operational groups and organizing their work behind enemy lines was assuming a wide scale and required more attention, the Party Central Committee recognized the expediency of dividing the First Directorate into two directorates:

  • The First Directorate [Intelligence], tasked organizing and conducting intelligence operations against Germany and its allies; shedding light on US and British policy relative to the Soviet Union and the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis, and also the policy of other capitalist states not participating in the war; carrying out technical intelligence operations; organizing counterintelligence work abroad.
  • The Fourth Directorate [Sabotage & Assassinations], tasked with organizing operational groups behind enemy lines and directing them.

Leadership of the First Directorate was again placed on my shoulders, while one of my deputies became the chief of the Fourth Directorate. The division was formatted by an order for the People’s Commissariat of State Security. This restructuring didn’t take long in showing its effects: the results of the work of both the First and Fourth Directorates were improved.

The First Directorate, mainly directing the work of foreign residencies, sought to render all possible assistance in organizing human intelligence operations with the objective of attaining the most valuable information. In the course of the first two years of the war, we managed to acquire a large quantity of extremely important materials on foreign policy – both of our allies against Germany and that of neutral states. We also received important materials of a military and scientific-technical character.

However, despite the value of the intelligence materials we acquired, they still did not satisfy the High Command, which needed the fullest possible information on Germany’s military potential, US policy vis-a-vis the USSR, and especially the issue of opening a second front.

On June 5th, 1943, the State Defense Committee affirmed the document “Measures for Improving USSR Intelligence Organs’ Work Abroad,” in which were also designated the missions of the NKGB First Directorate. The best officers of our directorate were sent to work in foreign residencies, and they also organized new ones.

A year of unheard-of efforts by the foreign intelligence apparatus bore its fruits: the quality of political information was raised, and so was its volume. The most prized scientific-technical information, especially military-oriented, began to flow in in large quantities.

To expand opportunities for dropping our agents onto German territory and obtaining the most complete military and economic information on Germany and its satellites, we found it useful to arrange contacts with the intelligence services of our allies – the United States and England. In Moscow liaison with representatives of British intelligence was maintained by one of my deputies, while in London it was handled by our experienced officer I.A. Chichaev.

In December of 1943, the chief of the US Office of Strategic Services, General William Donovan, arrived in Moscow to establish contacts with Soviet intelligence. Through the American ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, he addressed Molotov, who was at that time the Deputy Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and the Commissar of Foreign Affairs.

The Commissar of State Security and I were invited to the Kremlin, where we were received by Molotov. He announced Donovan’s arrival in Moscow and his intentions.

“How do you view this?” Molotov asked. “We shouldn’t refuse, apparently. It follows to meet with him and clarify his plans.”

It was here the decision was made that I should conduct negotiations with Donovan and report them in detail to Molotov.

The next day my deputy and I received General Donovan and carried on a thorough discussion. The results of the meeting were reported to Stalin and Molotov, who gave their sanction to establishing contacts.

The following were stipulated: exchange of intelligence information; joint consultations during the execution of ongoing actions; rendering assistance in dropping agents behind enemy lines; and the exchange of sabotage equipment, etc.

Establishing contacts with the representatives of American and British intelligence, we weren’t counting on their forthrightness, but we nonetheless assumed that such contacts could be useful. It’s necessary to give due to the fact that the exchange of intelligence information, mainly of a military nature, on Germany and its allies had proven beneficial. The information that came to us for the most part went to the Red Army’s GRU, and, as much as I know, a significant portion of that confirmed or completed intelligence we had. On our part, we passed information on German forces and their dislocation and armaments, especially on units located in France, Belgium, and Holland, since these countries interested the allied intelligence services most of all.

Along with exchanging intelligence information, we swapped the technical means for carrying out sabotage behind enemy lines. However, it should be said that both we and our partners passed along resources that didn’t represent any big secret and weren’t a revelation to either side.

We undertook attempts to utilize Western intelligence possibilities, especially those of the British, for inserting our agents onto the territory of France, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Germany itself. These drops didn’t yield positive results, though, and we declined the services of British intelligence.

Within half a year from the moment contacts with the Americans were established, we – as well as the Americans, apparently – became convinced of the low effectiveness of the joint work that had been conducted during that period. Our contacts with US intelligence, as with the British, gradually began to weaken, and soon after the second front was opened they ceased completely.

From left to right: military counterintelligence chief (SMERSH) Viktor Abakumov, NKGB Commissar Vsevolod Merkulov, and NKVD Commissar Lavrenty Beria.
From left to right: military counterintelligence chief (SMERSH) Viktor Abakumov, NKGB Commissar Vsevolod Merkulov, and NKVD Commissar Lavrenty Beria.

By that time our intelligence service possessed information that the allies weren’t opening a second front not over military reasons, but over political ones. They were calculating on weakening the Soviet Union. And, as is known, US and British forces landed at Normandy only at the start of June 1944, when the fate of fascist Germany was practically sealed as a result of the Red Army’s potent advance.

For positive results in foreign intelligence activity and the selfless work of its officers, in June of 1944 the Soviet government decorated a large group of intelligence officers with orders and medals. Included among them, I was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

After the opening of the second front, it was very important to know the plans and intentions of the US and British governments over postwar political issues concerning both Germany and the countries that had fought on its side. This was a task our intelligence service had to resolve, and we managed to do so rather successfully.

Our London residency played an enormous role in the achievement of positive results, as it maintained agent networks in government bodies, particularly within the Foreign Office. A significant portion of Churchill and Roosevelt’s telegraph correspondence, as well as the Foreign Office’s communications with British ambassadors in Moscow, Washington, Ankara, and other cities, was made the preserve of Soviet intelligence, and, consequently, the leadership of the Soviet state.

A great service by foreign intelligence during this period, especially by residencies of the First Directorate in the United States, England, and Canada, was acquiring scientific-technical information in the sphere of atomic energy, which helped in significant measure to accelerate the creation of an atomic bomb in the Soviet Union.

I often had to meet with Igor Vasilievich Kurchatov, who expressed great appreciation for the materials on atomic energy issues he had received from our intelligence service. In the postwar period, for the length of five years, I was to be engaged in matters tied to the special production and launching of uranium plants, and in relation to that I again met with Igor Vasilievich, a talented scientist and wonderful person. In our conversations he again emphasized what an invaluable service the materials obtained by Soviet intelligence had played in the resolution of the atomic problem.

A large quantity of materials on issues of aviation construction, building tanks, device design, and other matters were also obtained.

Everything that was done by the security organs’ intelligence service in the years of the Great Patriotic War was a major contribution to the victory of the Soviet people over fascist Germany, and also to the strengthening the might of the Soviet nation.


[i] On June 17th, 1941, Stalin summoned Commissar of State Security Vsevolod Merkulov and chief of intelligence Pavel Fitin to discuss a telegram from Berlin, received from “Starshina” and “Corsican” on June 16th, which began with the words: “All Germany’s military measures for preparing an armed campaign against the USSR are completed, and you can expect a strike at any time.” Stalin demanded verification of the information, considering it possible disinformation.


Work Translated: Очерки истории российской внешней разведки: В 6-ти тт. 0-95 — Т.4: 1941 — 1945 годы. — М.:Между- нар. отношения, 1995.

Translated by Mark Hackard.

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