Political Organizations Active During The War
1934 – 1945
The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs was a branch of The Soviet Government, responsible for what we now call homeland security. Formed in 1934, The NKVD is commonly referred to as Stalin’s secret police department. Though they had officers embedded in most government organizations, there were also many public NKVD officials who worked cases openly, like a traditional police department only with very little oversight or regulations. The NKVD ran the gulag system (forced labour camps), conducted political executions in The Soviet Union, and conducted domestic intelligence work to locate perceived enemies of the USSR. The organization is closely associated with political oppression. In 1945 it was reorganized into the MVD and became the KGB in 1954.
1943 – 1946
SMERSH was the military counter intelligence branch of The Red Army from 1943-1946. SMERSH or “Death to Spies” was created to investigate and then eliminate Anti Soviet elements in armed forces. Operatives were often embedded in Red Army units. Where the NKGB (The People’s Commissariat of State Security) was tasked with international espionage and worked outside of the army, SMERSH had a domestic focus and was mostly contained to the military. It would investigate personnel and vet POWs, locate deserters, and run counter espionage operations. Like the NKVD, SMERSH developed a reputation for brutal tactics. SMERSH operated in parallel to the Red Army but outside its chain of command, led by Viktor Abakumov who reported directly to Stalin. In this way, SMERSH became a means to enforce Stalinist policies under the pretense of security.
While most counterintelligence organizations tended to focus on enemy conspirators, SMERSH’s targets were often motivated by domestic political concerns. SMERSH would accuse Red Army personnel of being Nazi sympathizers as a means of justifying their removal from duty or even murder. Vadim J Birnstein, one of the few scholars to have access to declassified documents in the 1990s, estimates SMERSH affected the lives of millions of people. SMERSH engaged in torture, intelligence gathering and sanctioned killings. In the middle of the deadliest war in Soviet history, SMERSH became another threat to most Red Army soldiers.