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Exhibit in Moscow Celebrates a Soviet-Era Intelligence Agency

The short-lived but long-famous SMERSH is romanticized in a museum show.

May 25, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — In Ian Fleming's early James Bond novels, villains like Dr. No and Goldfinger worked for SMERSH, a diabolical Soviet intelligence agency. Readers could believe the organization was a real part of the KGB, or they might assume it was fictional -- particularly because it bore such a deliciously evil-sounding name.

SMERSH -- short for Smert Shpionam, or "Death to Spies" -- was real enough, right down to the spooky name. But it existed only for three years, and predated the KGB, according to a special Moscow museum exhibit celebrating the 60th anniversary of its birth. As portrayed in the displays and by guides, it had a glorious history outwitting Nazi intelligence during World War II.

Organized at the initiative of the agency's elderly veterans, the exhibit contains nothing to offend them. It received favorable coverage in Russian media, including nationwide television news. Its very existence reflects an increasingly tolerant view of the hard-nosed intelligence organizations that once inflicted terror and political suppression -- but also a degree of discipline -- on Soviet society.

This is, after all, a country whose highly popular president started out as a career KGB man and later headed the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor to the Soviet-era KGB. After the tumultuous upheavals and rampant corruption that followed the fall of communism, many Russians think that maybe the old days of enforced order weren't so bad after all.

Also, it is easy to portray SMERSH as a more noble and patriotic organization than either its predecessor or successor agencies.

According to the exhibit and Russian scholars, SMERSH -- formed from a security and counterintelligence directorate within the notorious NKVD secret police -- existed under its own name only from April 19, 1943, until May 1946, a period of Soviet military glory.

"They're celebrating SMERSH deliberately," said Sergei Kozhin, head researcher at the Russian Armed Forces Museum, which is presenting the exhibit through the end of May. "That's a way to distance ourselves from the political terror that was happening in the Soviet Union before World War II and after World War II. The idea of this exhibit is to commemorate those people who were fighting against fascism during the years of the war."

About 7,000 SMERSH agents were officially listed as killed in the war, primarily in combat operations, and an additional 4,000 missing were presumed dead, Kozhin said.

While the exhibit projects an impression of nonideological objectivity mixed with patriotic fervor, critics say that it ignores SMERSH's darker role in terrorizing citizens viewed as enemies of the Soviet state.

"SMERSH was not controlled effectively by anyone, and they could do whatever they wanted," said Vadim Telitsyn, a scholar at the Institute of Russian History, who wrote a book about the agency. "They could arrest anybody of their own free will, from a simple peasant to an authority figure. The word 'SMERSH' terrified even Soviet officers who had fought the war."

The name "Death to Spies" was personally chosen by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Telitsyn said. "One of the leaders suggested it should be called, 'Death to German Spies,' " he said. "But Stalin logically replied, 'Why only German spies?' "

Whatever its shortcomings, the exhibit still opens a fascinating window on a once-secretive slice of Soviet history that through Ian Fleming and Bond now has a place in Western pop culture.

Most of all, the displays celebrate SMERSH's "radio games" against the Nazis' Abwehr military intelligence service, which Kozhin said parachuted thousands of agents behind Russian lines. Items they were said to have used, such as a cigarette bearing a coded message, are on display.

"At the beginning of the war, German spies who were caught were as a rule shot on the spot," Kozhin said. "That was a big mistake." SMERSH soon realized that it could use captured spies to lure more spies into traps, he said.

"The captured German agents were forced to take part in these radio games," Kozhin said. "It was a game because these agents or double agents would be sending messages to their headquarters as if they were at large, like they're expecting new paratroopers to land, money and weapons. It was really a game for SMERSH because the Germans usually fell for these tricks and would send all that was requested -- but SMERSH would be the final destination."

Captured agents also sent false reports back to their headquarters, claiming, for example, that the Russians were preparing an offensive in one sector while the attack was really to come elsewhere.

Also on display are documents relating to the discovery of Hitler's remains in his Berlin bunker and the destruction of all but a few key fragments.

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