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Smersh: Stalin's Secret Weapon, Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII Hardcover – January 10, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Why is a book about SMERSH relevant today? As Mr. Birstein takes pains to point out, "the present Russian government seems intent on whitewashing Stalin's atrocities and the history of the Soviet security services." -- The Washington Times, Feb 28, 2012

Vadim Birstein's SMERSH: Stalin's Secret Weapon has won the inaugural St Ermin's Hotel Intelligence Book of the Year Award 2012. Birstein's title is "a very absorbing, thoroughly readable, extraordinarily detailed account of an organisation that...had a terrible, bloody history " according to the judges.--The Bookseller, 13 June 2012

"Dr. Vadim Birstein has written an authoritative and much-needed new study of the Soviet Union’s feared SMERSH counterintelligence agency…bringing to life the increasingly forgotten harsh reality of the Communist police state."—Richard R. Valcourt, Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence

From the Inside Flap

SMERSH, an acronym of "Death to Spies", is primarily known to readers in English as James Bond's sinister opponent in several of Ian Fleming's spy novels. Yet SMERSH was a real organization and just as diabolical as its fictional counterpart. No information was available on the super-secret organization until the fall of the Soviet Union, and its importance to Second World War history is almost completely unknown to scholars and history readers alike.

Ostensibly a military counter intelligence organization dedicated to fighting Nazis, SMERSH spent considerable time and effort terriying its own servicemen including author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was arrested for writing a letter to a fellow office. Its activities also often strayed into the politcal phere, exemplified by the arrest of many political leaders and foreign diplomats in Eastern Europe, including the famous rescuer of Hungarian Jews Raoul Wallenberg at the end of the Second World War.

While it was formally part of the Defense Commissariat, SMERSH was not under the control of the military hierarchy. In reality it was a secret service independent of the other Soviet security organizations, the NKVD and the NKGB. Its head, Viktor Abakumov, a shadowy and powerful figure whose biography is revealed here for the first time, reported directly to the dictator Joseph Stalin on a daily basis.

Based on a huge number of documents and memoirs available only in Russian, the book details all the known activities of SMERSH:
  • its clever 'radio games', which used captured German officers to lure German intelligence into traps
  • its mass vetting of Soviet troops who had been prisoners of the Germans
  • its arrest and persecution of Red Army generals
  • its infiltration of Nazi spy schools
  • its participation in military tribunals and 'Special Board' of the NKVD
  • its participation in the Nuremberg trials and the 'Sovietization' of Eastern Europe
  • its investigation into Adolph Hitler's death and the discovery of his body.

The book also includes many archival documents translated by Dr. Birstein and includes a number of charts and figures that are extremely useful for understanding the complexities surrounding SMERSH.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Biteback Publishing (January 10, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1849541086
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849541084
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,473,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dr. Vadim J. Birstein, a Russian-American who arrived in the United States in 1991, is a historian and molecular geneticist. Born in Moscow and educated at Moscow State University, he received his Doctor of Science in 1987. Until the end of 1998 he was a Senior Research Scientist at the Koltsov Institute of Developmental Biology, Russian Academy of Sciences. He is the author of over 150 scientific papers and three scientific books as well as the well-received history The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science (Westview Press, 2001), which has been re-published in paperback twice by Basic Books.

While still the Soviet Union, Dr. Birstein became a human rights activist and an expert on the subject of foreign prisoners in the Gulag, the fate of the Swedish Diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Soviet doctors' experimentation on humans. In 1990-91, he was a member of the International Commission on Raoul Wallenberg and participated in the Commission's study of prisoner cards in Vladimir Prison and materials at the secret Special Archive in Moscow.
In 1991, he was a Visiting Scholar at the W. Averell Harriman Institute for the Advanced Study of the Soviet Union. He has given seminars at Princeton, Harvard, and Washington (St. Louis) Universities and appeared in the documentary Poisons-Discover Magazine produced in 1997 by Powderhouse Productions, Inc. (Somerville, MA).

For the last ten years, Dr. Birstein has focused on researching and writing his ground-breaking history of SMERSH, which will be continued in a second volume focusing on the final years of SMERSH's chief Viktor Abakumov, when he was head of the forerunner of the infamous KGB, the MGB.

You can learn more about Dr. Birstein on his website,

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By ww2db on December 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
"Death to Spies". This ominous title, SMERSH in its Russian acronym form, perfectly illustrates the power structure and perhaps even everyday life during the days of the Soviet Union. Vadim Birstein's namesake SMERSH was one of the first English language titles making an attempt at a comprehensive guide to SMERSH, and it was a great one. This book did a wonderful job in making sure that all readers interested in this subject, regardless of previous understanding of any kind, could absorb the content, which went deep ranging from the roots of SMERSH to its influence over the Nuremberg Trials. Reference table or charts included in the book were also very useful, ensuring the book a spot at the nearest shelf in my library for handy reference. At the end of the book, Birstein noted that another title on post-war exploits of SMERSH chief Viktor Abakumov was forthcoming; I would definitely make sure to check that out when it became available. In the mean time, I very highly recommend SMERSH, for that it contained a trove of information from Russian-language archives, so much of it barely understood, or not known at all previously, by historians and history enthusiasts outside of the Soviet Union.

This is an abridge review originally posted at the World War II Database, used here on with explicit permission by the management of WW2DB. URL to the original review: [...]
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Phred on August 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Intended audiences for Vladim Birstein's Smirsh are academics, specifically professional historians with an interest in Soviet or more particularly Soviet military or Secret Service history. The tone throughout is neutral and professional with no nothing of the embellishments common in popular history. The full title of this book is Smersh; Stalin's Secret Weapon; Soviet Military Counterintelligence in WWII. The word "Smersh" is an acronym from the Russian phrase "Death to Spies". By simply looking at this title we can see that the number of niche audiences for this book can be expanded to include anyone with an interest in modern Russian history, World War II the work of spies and counter Spies and on into several specialties. I would suggest that this is an important book for general readers and a more general readership.

If you have ever doubted that evil can exist in the world this book lays it out plain. Evil can exist, evil did and that no embellishments are needed to make these facts painfully obvious. Reading about the casual and deliberate destruction of tens of thousands of people and hundreds of thousands more victimized on a whim can be very depressing. This was the everyday business executed by the members of the Soviet Secret Service operatives and endured initially by the Russians directly arrested their families and ultimately citizens of any one of the independent countries that would become the Soviet Block.

In trying to cope with this well-documented recitation of torture and murder on a grand scale I attempted to rationalize what was happening. Joseph Stalin was in fact attempting to bring a country from a preindustrial feudalist state to a modern industrial world power.
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By ted albert on July 11, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Somewhat dry and way too long, but it is very well supported by notes and sources. It is not a light read but ends up chilling to the bone in its very matter of fact report on the banality of evil. One becomes seemingly numb to the reports page after page of a few thousand here and a few thousand there executed without due process or even any particular reason, except when such processes were seen to further the goals of the paranoid monster, Stalin and his syncophants. The realization that the current rulers of Russia are the successors to these crimes and , worse, to those attitudes leaves one really disturbed. Tedious but scary.
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