In Ian Fleming’s 1957 classic spy novel, From Russia With Love, the Soviet agency SMERSH -
Smert Shpionam, or "Death to Spies" - sends a psychopathic killer named Donovan “Red” Grant to murder British intelligence officer James Bond and embarrass the British government.
The plot is devised by SMERSH’s head of the planning department, chess master Colonel Kronsteen, known as “the Wizard of Ice,” and carried out by the head of SMERSH’s execution department, Colonel Rosa Klebb. (From Russia With Love is my favorite Ian Fleming novel and the best Bond film, although the 1963 film replaced SMERSH with the fictional international crime organization SPECTRE).
SMERSH was a very real organization that assassinated enemies of the Soviet State.
Ben Macintyre, seen in the above photo), the author of The Spy and the Traitor, A Spy Among Friends, Operation Mincemeat, and other fine nonfiction books on espionage, offers his take on a SMERSH-like Russian assassination group in his column at the London Times.
The Russian counterintelligence unit that inspired Ian Fleming is operating in Europe under a new name.
In 1942, the military intelligence section of the Red Army set up a new unit to investigate traitors and deserters, liquidate enemy agents and enforce ideological conformity by destroying “anti-Soviet elements”.
The structure of the wartime espionage unit was deliberately opaque. It is still unclear quite how it was organised and how many officers it deployed. But the purpose was only too apparent in its name, coined by Stalin himself, which merged the Russian words smert meaning death and shpionam meaning spies: hence “Death to Spies”, or Smersh.
Around the same time Stalin changed the name of the military intelligence branch to the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU — the name by which it is still known today. Smersh was the hit squad of the new GRU.
If the idea of a ruthless spy-killing unit sounds like the stuff of fiction, that’s because it became precisely that. In the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming portrayed Smersh (director of operations: Rosa Klebb) as a massive counterintelligence network that more closely resembled the KGB. In the films, Smersh gave way to Spectre, an imaginary global terror organisation.
The real Smersh was remarkably effective, not just at wiping out anti-Soviet traitors (some of whom were undoubtedly innocent) but simultaneously instilling terror among potential enemies and enforcing obedience in the general population. Its mandate was to eliminate subversives and turncoats, initially inside the Soviet military but eventually anywhere in the world, including any of its own agents suspected of disloyalty, sabotage or desertion.
It specialised in assassinations, known as “wetwork” (mokroye delo). Smersh was disbanded in 1946, by which time it had become semi-mythical: the brutal, inescapable enforcers and spy-hunters of the Red Army.
And now it is back, with a new name and a new remit but essentially the same purpose: to put the fear of God, and assassination, into Russia’s enemies, traitors and deserters.
According to intelligence sources, Unit 29155 is an elite sub-unit of GRU assassins that operated out of the Haute-Savoie in the French Alps, conducting a variety of wet jobs across Europe: notably the attempted poisoning in Salisbury of GRU officer-turned-MI6 spy Sergei Skripal, and the attempt to kill a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015. German intelligence officials also believe the Kremlin is implicated in the murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, the Georgian-born Chechen fighter shot dead in a Berlin park last August, which has caused a diplomatic face-off between Russia and Germany.
You can read the rest of the column via the below link:
You can also read my Washington Times piece on Russian assassins via the below link:
And you can read Joseph Goulden’s Washington Times review of a book on the history of SMERSH via the below link:
And you can read my Q&A with Ben Macintyre about his book on Ian Fleming and James Bond via the below link:
Note: The top photo is of actor Sean Connery as James Bond and Robert Shaw as Red Grant in the best fight scene in cinematic history in the film From Russia With Love. The below photos are from the film From Russia With Love: