Is Putin reviving a notorious 1940s security agency? Or is the suggestion that the infamous SMERSH counterintelligence unit has been revived in Russia simply a way to troll the West? Worse yet, could it be that the country is facing the threat of a neo-Stalinist revival?
A recent video circulated on Russian social media shows a young man from the Belgorod region making a public apology for having filmed and posted footage of Russian air defenses online. In front of him, with only their backs shown, are two uniformed men. On their vests are patches with the infamous name “SMERSH,” a contraction of “Smert’ Shpionam” or “Death to Spies” on them. Active between 1943-46, this was a special element of armed forces counterintelligence devoted to the bloody liquidation not only of suspected enemy agents but also deserters, hostile partisans, saboteurs, and other presumed enemies of the state. Of course, in the West it is rather better known as one of James Bond’s main antagonists, featuring in Ian Fleming’s books set long after it had actually been incorporated into the ministry of state security, precursor to the KGB.
The powerful Federal Security Service, the main internal security agency, would hardly want to see a new rival
On Monday, the UK’s Ministry of Defence intelligence update on Ukraine featured the revival of SMERSH. It seemed to take it at face value, stating that “it is unclear whether the new name indicates any substantive new capabilities or role for Russia’s [counterintelligence] function, or whether it is merely a re-badging.” In particular, it saw this as “another example of how the Russian authorities consciously couch the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the spirit of World War Two.”
It is certainly true that Vladimir Putin — who in his childhood mainlined patriotic Soviet wartime spy films — has been trying to wrap his invasion of Ukraine in the mantle of the “Great Patriotic War.” However, there is no real evidence that SMERSH really has been revived. While retired general Andrei Gurulev, now a parliamentarian and member of the lower chamber’s defense committee, said in December that SMERSH-style units had been established in the occupied territories of Ukraine, this was never confirmed. In any case, Belgorod is not one of those regions.
Of course, there is no shortage of voices competing to prove themselves more Stalinist and extremist than the rest of the pack. Former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose main stock in trade these days is vitriolic social media attacks on the West, talked of the need for “quiet groups of impeccably inconspicuous people” to do what needs to be done in war. Andrei Lugovoy, one of the men accused of being behind the poisoning of defector Alexander Litvinenko and now a parliamentarian, joined calls for SMERSH’s revival, as did Sergei Aksenov, the former gangster appointed by Moscow to run Crimea.
However, it is unlikely it has been recreated, not least because the powerful Federal Security Service, the main internal security agency, would hardly want to see a new rival. Instead, what we do know is that a number of vigilantes have unofficially adopted the name. The “Crimean SMERSH” social media channel, for example, has denounced dozens of people for alleged crimes, especially under Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses — “discrediting the Russian army” — which is used broadly for any criticism of the invasion. It also filmed the confessional video of a woman who posted “my country will not fall to its knees” with a Ukrainian flag.
Its founder, blogger Alexander Talipov, proudly announced the formation of the channel last year, calling it a “Register of Russophobes, Ukronazis and Traitors.” “The few black sheep who spoil the picture in our patriotic region must be identified and punished in a timely manner,” he later said in a TV interview. He has exported the idea further, including to Moscow and St. Petersburg, although with less success. This enthusiasm for denunciation does have distinctly Stalinist resonances, but it is essentially a grassroots venture with only limited support from the Crimean authorities. Moscow mayor Sobyanin, for example, clearly wants nothing to do with “Moscow SMERSH.”
The uniforms of the two supposed operators from the Belgorod video are mismatched, as are the SMERSH patches velcroed to their backs. The implication is that this is Stalinist cosplay rather than some sinister new state venture. Maybe it was done with official sanction to troll the West and provoke some unwise speculation, but it also speaks to a serious and dangerous cultural struggle taking place inside Russia.
The nationalist zealots, the totalitarian fanboys, are a distinct minority, but they are feeling confident, empowered. Some within the government applaud them, some want to use them, some are horrified by them, and most likely wish they would go away. But will they? They may not appreciate the term, seeing as the man himself is out of favor with both Putin and this wing of the “turbo-patriot” movement, but they are positively Leninist in their conviction that a ruthless and dedicated minority can impose their vision on everyone else. That, not the supposed revival of a World War Two security force, is the real threat behind the chatter.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.