Spetsnaz ( I ) by Victor Suvorov (1987)
Translated from the Russian by David Floyd
First published in Great Britain 1987 by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
OCR: 28 Dec 2001 by MadMax
To Natasha and Alexander
Chapter 1. Spades and Men
Every infantryman in the Soviet Army carries with him a small spade.
When he is given the order to halt he immediately lies flat and starts to
dig a hole in the ground beside him. In three minutes he will have dug a
little trench 15 centimetres deep, in which he can lie stretched out flat,
so that bullets can whistle harmlessly over his head. The earth he has dug
out forms a breastwork in front and at the side to act as an additional
cover. If a tank drives over such a trench the soldier has a 50% chance that
it will do him no harm. At any moment the soldier may be ordered to advance
again and, shouting at the top of his voice, will rush ahead. If he is not
ordered to advance, he digs in deeper and deeper. At first his trench can be
used for firing in the lying position. Later it becomes a trench from which
to fire in the kneeling position, and later still, when it is 110
centimetres deep, it can be used for firing in the standing position. The
earth that has been dug out protects the soldier from bullets and fragments.
He makes an embrasure in this breastwork into which he positions the barrel
of his gun. In the absence of any further commands he continues to work on
his trench. He camouflages it. He starts to dig a trench to connect with his
comrades to the left of him. He always digs from right to left, and in a few
hours the unit has a trench linking all the riflemen's trenches together.
The unit's trenches are linked with the trenches of other units. Dug-outs
are built and communication trenches are added at the rear. The trenches are
made deeper, covered over, camouflaged and reinforced. Then, suddenly, the
order to advance comes again. The soldier emerges, shouting and swearing as
loudly as he can.
The infantryman uses the same spade for digging graves for his fallen
comrades. If he doesn't have an axe to hand he uses the spade to chop his
bread when it is frozen hard as granite. He uses it as a paddle as he floats
across wide rivers on a telegraph pole under enemy fire. And when he gets
the order to halt, he again builds his impregnable fortress around himself.
He knows how to dig the earth efficiently. He builds his fortress exactly as
it should be. The spade is not just an instrument for digging: it can also
be used for measuring. It is 50 centimetres long. Two spade lengths are a
metre. The blade is 15 centimetres wide and 18 centimetres long. With these
measurements in mind the soldier can measure anything he wishes.
The infantry spade does not have a folding handle, and this is a very
important feature. It has to be a single monolithic object. All three of its
edges are as sharp as a knife. It is painted with a green matt paint so as
not to reflect the strong sunlight.
The spade is not only a tool and a measure. It is also a guarantee of
the steadfastness of the infantry in the most difficult situations. If the
infantry have a few hours to dig themselves in, it could take years to get
them out of their holes and trenches, whatever modern weapons are used
In this book we are not talking about the infantry but about soldiers
belonging to other units, known as spetsnaz. These soldiers never dig
trenches; in fact they never take up defensive positions. They either launch
a sudden attack on an enemy or, if they meet with resistance or superior
enemy forces, they disappear as quickly as they appeared and attack the
enemy again where and when the enemy least expects them to appear.
Surprisingly, the spetsnaz soldiers also carry the little infantry
spades. Why do they need them? It is practically impossible to describe in
words how they use their spades. You really have to see what they do with
them. In the hands of a spetsnaz soldier the spade is a terrible noiseless
weapon and every member of spetsnaz gets much more training in the use of
his spade then does the infantryman. The first thing he has to teach himself
is precision: to split little slivers of wood with the edge of the spade or
to cut off the neck of a bottle so that the bottle remains whole. He has to
learn to love his spade and have faith in its accuracy. To do that he places
his hand on the stump of a tree with the fingers spread out and takes a big
swing at the stump with his right hand using the edge of the spade. Once he
has learnt to use the spade well and truly as an axe he is taught more
complicated things. The little spade can be used in hand-to-hand fighting
against blows from a bayonet, a knife, a fist or another spade. A soldier
armed with nothing but the spade is shut in a room without windows along
with a mad dog, which makes for an interesting contest. Finally a soldier is
taught to throw the spade as accurately as he would use a sword or a
battle-axe. It is a wonderful weapon for throwing, a single, well-balanced
object, whose 32-centimetre handle acts as a lever for throwing. As it spins
in flight it gives the spade accuracy and thrust. It becomes a terrifying
weapon. If it lands in a tree it is not so easy to pull out again. Far more
serious is it if it hits someone's skull, although spetsnaz members usually
do not aim at the enemy's face but at his back. He will rarely see the blade
coming, before it lands in the back of his neck or between his shoulder
blades, smashing the bones.
The spetsnaz soldier loves his spade. He has more faith in its
reliability and accuracy than he has in his Kalashnikov automatic. An
interesting psychological detail has been observed in the kind of
hand-to-hand confrontations which are the stock in trade of spetsnaz. If a
soldier fires at an enemy armed with an automatic, the enemy also shoots at
him. But if he doesn't fire at the enemy but throws a spade at him instead,
the enemy simply drops his gun and jumps to one side.
This is a book about people who throw spades and about soldiers who
work with spades more surely and more accurately than they do with spoons at
a table. They do, of course, have other weapons besides their spades.
Chapter 2. Spetsnaz and the GRU
It is impossible to translate the Russian word razvedka precisely into
any foreign language. It is usually rendered as `reconnaissance' or `spying'
or `intelligence gathering'. A fuller explanation of the word is that it
describes any means and any actions aimed at obtaining information about an
enemy, analysing it and understanding it properly.
Every Soviet military headquarters has its own machinery for gathering
and analysing information about the enemy. The information thus collected
and analysed about the enemy is passed on to other headquarters, higher up,
lower down and on the same level, and each headquarters in turn receives
information about the enemy not only from its own sources but also from the
If some military unit should be defeated in battle through its
ignorance of the enemy, the commanding officer and his chief of staff have
no right to blame the fact that they were not well enough informed about the
enemy. The most important task for every commander and chief of staff is
that, without waiting for information to arrive from elsewhere, they must
organise their own sources of information about the enemy and warn their own
forces and their superior headquarters of any danger that is threatened.
Spetsnaz is one of the forms of Soviet military razvedka which occupies
a place somewhere between reconnaissance and intelligence.
It is the name given to the shock troops of razvedka in which there are
combined elements of espionage, terrorism and large-scale partisan
operations. In personal terms, this covers a very diverse range of people:
secret agents recruited by Soviet military razvedka among foreigners for
carrying out espionage and terrorist operations; professional units composed
of the country's best sportsmen; and units made up of ordinary but carefully
selected and well trained soldiers. The higher the level of a given
headquarters is, the more spetsnaz units it has at its disposal and the more
professionals there are among the spetsnaz troops.
The term spetsnaz is a composite word made up from spetsialnoye
nazhacheniye, meaning `special purpose'. The name is well chosen. Spetsnaz
differs from other forms of razvedka in that it not only seeks and finds
important enemy targets, but in the majority of cases attacks and destroys
Spetsnaz has a long history, in which there have been periods of
success and periods of decline. After the Second World War spetsnaz was in
the doldrums, but from the mid-1950s a new era in the history of the
organisation began with the West's new deployment of tactical nuclear
weapons. This development created for the Soviet Army, which had always
prepared itself, and still does, only for `liberation' wars on foreign
territory, a practically insuperable barrier. Soviet strategy could continue
along the same lines only if the means could be found to remove Western
tactical nuclear weapons from the path of the Soviet troops, without at the
same time turning the enemy's territory into a nuclear desert.
The destruction of the tactical nuclear weapons which render Soviet
aggression impossible or pointless could be carried out only if the
whereabouts of all, or at least the majority, of the enemy's tactical
nuclear weapons were established. But this in itself presented a tremendous
problem. It is very easy to conceal tactical missiles, aircraft and nuclear
artillery and, instead of deploying real missiles and guns, the enemy can
deploy dummies, thus diverting the attention of Soviet razvedka and
protecting the real tactical nuclear weapons under cover.
The Soviet high command therefore had to devise the sort of means of
detection that could approach very close to the enemy's weapons and in each
case provide a precise answer to the question of whether they were real, or
just well produced dummies. But even if a tremendous number of nuclear
batteries were discovered in good time, that did not solve the problem. In
the time it takes for the transmission of the reports from the
reconnaissance units to the headquarters, for the analysis of the
information obtained and the preparation of the appropriate command for
action, the battery can have changed position several times. So forces had
to be created that would be able to seek out, find and destroy immediately
the nuclear weapons discovered in the course of war or immediately before
Spetsnaz was, and is, precisely such an instrument, permitting
commanding officers at army level and higher to establish independently the
whereabouts of the enemy's most dangerous weapons and to destroy them on the
Is it possible for spetsnaz to pinpoint and destroy every single one of
the enemy's nuclear weapons? Of course not. So what is the solution to this
problem? It is very simple. Spetsnaz has to make every effort to find and
destroy the enemy's nuclear armament. Nuclear strength represents the teeth
of the state and it has to be knocked out with the first blow, possibly even
before the fighting begins. But if it proves impossible to knock out all the
teeth with the first blow, then a blow has to be struck not just at the
teeth but at the brain and nervous system of the state.
When we speak of the `brain' we mean the country's most important
statesmen and politicians. In this context the leaders of the opposition
parties are regarded as equally important candidates for destruction as the
leaders of the party in power. The opposition is simply the state's reserve
brain, and it would be silly to destroy the main decision-making system
without putting the reserve system out of action. By the same token we mean,
for example, the principal military leaders and police chiefs, the heads of
the Church and trade unions and in general all the people who might at a
critical moment appeal to the nation and who are well known to the nation.
By the `nervous system' of the state we mean the principal centres and
lines of government and military communications, and the commercial
communications companies, including the main radio stations and television
It would hardly be possible, of course, to destroy the brain, the
nervous system and the teeth at once, but a simultaneous blow at all three
of the most important organs could, in the opinion of the Soviet leaders,
substantially reduce a nation's capacity for action in the event of war,
especially at its initial and most critical stage. Some missiles will be
destroyed and others will not be fired because there will be nobody to give
the appropriate command or because the command will not be passed on in time
due to the breakdown of communications.
Having within its sphere an organisation like spetsnaz, and having
tested its potential on numerous exercises, the Soviet high command came to
the conclusion that spetsnaz could be used with success not only against
tactical but also against strategic nuclear installations: submarine bases,
weapon stockpiles, aircraft bases and missile launching sites.
Spetsnaz could be used too, they realised, against the heart and blood
supply of the state: ie. its source and distribution of energy -- power
stations, transformer stations and power lines, as well as oil and gas
pipelines and storage points, pumping station and oil refineries. Putting
even a few of the enemy's more important power stations out of action could
present him with a catastrophic situation. Not only would there be no light:
factories would be brought to a standstill, lifts would cease to work, the
refrigeration installations would be useless, hospitals would find it almost
impossible to function, blood stored in refrigerators would begin to
coagulate, traffic lights, petrol pumps and trains would come to a halt,
computers would cease to operate.
Even this short list must lead to the conclusion that Soviet military
razvedka (the GRU) and its integral spetsnaz is something more than the
`eyes and ears of the Soviet Army'. As a special branch of the GRU spetsnaz
is intended primarily for action in time of war and in the very last days
and hours before it breaks out. But spetsnaz is not idle in peacetime
either. I am sometimes asked: if we are talking about terrorism on such a
scale, we must be talking about the KGB. Not so. There are three good
reasons why spetsnaz is a part of the GRU and not of the KGB. The first is
that if the GRU and spetsnaz were to be removed from the Soviet Army and
handed over to the KGB, it would be equivalent to blindfolding a strong man,
while plugging his ears and depriving him of some other important organs,
and making him fight with the information he needs for fighting provided by
another person standing beside him and telling him the moves. The Soviet
leaders have tried on more than one occasion to do this and it has always
ended in catastrophe. The information provided by the secret police was
always imprecise, late and insufficient, and the actions of a blind giant,
predictably, were neither accurate or effective.
Secondly, if the functions of the GRU and spetsnaz were to be handed
over to the KGB, then in the event of a catastrophe (inevitable in such a
situation) any Soviet commanding officer or chief of staff could say that he
had not had sufficient information about the enemy, that for example a vital
aerodrome and a missile battery nearby had not been destroyed by the KGB's
forces. These would be perfectly justified complaints, although it is in any
case impossible to destroy every aerodrome, every missile battery and every
command post because the supply of information in the course of battle is
always insufficient. Any commanding officer who receives information about
the enemy can think of a million supplementary questions to which there is
no answer. There is only one way out of the situation, and that is to make
every commanding officer responsible for gathering his own information about
the enemy and to provide him with all the means for defeating his own enemy.
Then, if the information is insufficient or some targets have not been
destroyed, only he and his chief of staff are to blame. They must themselves
organise the collection and interpretation of information about the enemy,
so as to have, if not all the information, at least the most essential
information at the right time. They must organise the operation of their
forces so as to destroy the most important obstacles which the enemy has put
in the way of their advance. This is the only way to ensure victory. The
Soviet political leadership, the KGB and the military leaders have all had
every opportunity to convince themselves that there is no other.
Thirdly, the Soviet secret police, the KGB, carries out different
functions and has other priorities. It has its own terrorist apparatus,
which includes an organisation very similar to spetsnaz, known as osnaz. The
KGB uses osnaz for carrying out a range of tasks not dissimilar in many
cases to those performed by the GRU's spetsnaz. But the Soviet leaders
consider that it is best not to have any monopolies in the field of secret
warfare. Competition, they feel, gives far better results than ration.
Osnaz is not a subject I propose to deal with in this book. Only a KGB
officer directly connected with osnaz could describe what it is. My
knowledge is very limited. But just as a book about Stalin would not be
complete without some reference to Hitler, osnaz should not be overlooked
The term osnaz is usually met only in secret documents. In unclassified
documents the term is written out in full as osobogo nazhacheniya or else
reduced to the two letters `ON'. In cases where a longer title is
abbreviated the letters ON are run together with the preceding letters. For
example, DON means `division of osnaz', OON means a `detachment of osnaz".
The two words osoby and spetsialny are close in meaning but quite
different words. In translation it is difficult to find a precise equivalent
for these two words, which is why it is easier to use the terms osnaz and
spetsnaz without translating them. Osnaz apparently came into being
practically at the same time as the Communist dictatorship. In the very
first moments of the existence of the Soviet regime we find references to
detachments osobogo nazhacheniya -- special purpose detachments. Osnaz means
military-terrorist units which came into being as shock troops of the
Communist Party whose job was to defend the party. Osnaz was later handed
over to the secret police, which changed its own name from time to time as
easily as a snake changes its skin: Cheka -- VCheka -- OGPU -- NKVD -- NKGB
-- MGB -- MVD -- KGB. Once a snake, however, always a snake.
It is the fact the spetsnaz belongs to the army, and osnaz to the
secret police, that accounts for all the differences between them. Spetsnaz
operates mainly against external enemies; osnaz does the same but mainly in
its own territory and against its own citizens. Even if both spetsnaz and
osnaz are faced with carrying out one and the same operation the Soviet
leadership is not inclined to rely so much on co-operation between the army
and the secret police as on the strong competitive instincts between them.
Chapter 3. A History of Spetsnaz
In order to grasp the history behind spetsnaz it is useful to cast our
minds back to the British Parliament in the time of Henry VIII. In 1516 a
Member of the Parliament, Thomas More, published an excellent book entitled
Utopia. In it he showed, simply and persuasively, that it was very easy to
create a society in which universal justice reigned, but that the
consequences of doing so would be terrible. More describes a society in
which there is no private property and in which everything is controlled by
the state. The state of Utopia is completely isolated from the outside
world, as completely as the bureaucratic class rules the population. The
supreme ruler is installed for his lifetime. The country itself, once a
peninsula, has after monumental efforts on the part of the population and
the army to build a deep canal dividing it from the rest of the world,
become an island. Slavery has been introduced, but the rest of the
population live no better than slaves. People do not have their own homes,
with the result that anybody can at any time go into any home he wishes, a
system which is worse even than the regulations in the Soviet Army today, in
which the barracks of each company are open only to soldiers of that
In fact the system in Utopia begins to look more like that in a Soviet
concentration camp. In Utopia, of course, it is laid down when people are to
rise (at four o'clock in the morning), when they are to go to bed and how
many minutes' rest they may have. Every day starts with public lectures.
People must travel on a group passport, signed by the Mayor, and if they are
caught without a passport outside their own district they are severely
punished as deserters. Everybody keeps a close watch on his neighbour:
`Everyone has his eye on you.'
With fine English humour Thomas More describes the ways in which Utopia
wages war. The whole population of Utopia, men and women, are trained to
fight. Utopia wages only just wars in self-defence and, of course, for the
liberation of other peoples. The people of Utopia consider it their right
and their duty to establish a similarly just regime in neighbouring
countries. Many of the surrounding countries have already been liberated and
are now ruled, not by local leaders, but by administators from Utopia. The
liberation of the other peoples is carried out in the name of humanism. But
Thomas More does not explain to us what this `humanism' is. Utopia's allies,
in receipt of military aid from her, turn the populations of the
neighbouring states into slaves.
Utopia provokes conflicts and contradictions in the countries which
have not yet been liberated. If someone in such a country speaks out in
favour of capitulating to Utopia he can expect a big reward later. But
anyone who calls upon the people to fight Utopia can expect only slavery or
death, with his property split up and distributed to those who capitulate
On the outbreak of war Utopia's agents in the enemy country post up in
prominent places announcements concerning the reward to be paid to anyone
killing the king. It is a tremendous sum of money. There is also a list of
other people for whose murder large sums of money will be paid.
The direct result of these measures is that universal suspicion reigns
in the enemy country.
Thomas More describes only one of the strategems employed, but it is
the most important:
When the battle is at its height a group of specially selected young
men, who have sworn to stick together, try to knock out the enemy general.
They keep hammering away at him by every possible method -- frontal attacks,
ambushes, long-range archery, hand-to-hand combat. They bear down on him in
a long, unbroken wedge-formation, the point of which is constantly renewed
as tired men are replaced by fresh ones. As a result the general is nearly
always killed or taken prisoner -- unless he saves his skin by running away.
It is the groups of `specially selected young men' that I want to
discuss in this book.
Four hundred years after the appearance of Utopia the frightful
predictions of that wise Englishman became a reality in Russia. A successful
attempt was made to create a society of universal justice. I had read Thomas
More's frightening forecasts when I was still a child and I was amazed at
the staggering realism with which Utopia was described and how strikingly
similar it was to the Soviet Union: a place where all the towns looked like
each other, people knew nothing about what was happening abroad or about
fashion in clothes (everybody being dressed more or less the same), and so
forth. More even described the situation of people `who think differently'.
In Utopia, he said, `It is illegal for any such person to argue in defence
of his beliefs.'
The Soviet Union is actually a very mild version of Utopia -- a sort of
`Utopia with a human face'. A person can travel in the Soviet Union without
having an internal passport, and Soviet bureaucrats do not yet have such
power over the family as their Utopia counterparts who added up the number
of men and women in each household and, if they exceeded the number
permitted, simply transferred the superfluous members to another house or
even another town where there was a shortage of them.
The Communists genuinely have a great deal left to do before they bring
society down to the level of Utopia. But much has already been done,
especially in the military sphere, and in particular in the creation of
`specially selected groups of young men'.
It is interesting to note that such groups were formed even before the
Red Army existed, before the Red Guard, and even before the Revolution. The
origins of spetsnaz are to be found in the revolutionary terrorism of the
nineteenth century, when numerous groups of young people were ready to
commit murder, or possibly suicide, in the cause of creating a society in
which everything would be divided equally between everybody. As they went
about murdering others or getting killed themselves they failed to
understand one simple truth: that in order to create a just society you had
to create a control mechanism. The juster the society one wants to build the
more complete must be the control over production and consumption.
Many of the first leaders of the Red Army had been terrorists in the
past, before the Revolution. For example, one of the outstanding organisers
of the Red Army, Mikhail Frunze, after whom the principal Soviet military
academy is named, had twice been sentenced to death before the Revolution.
At the time it was by no means easy to get two death sentences. For
organising a party which aimed at the overthrow of the existing regime by
force, Lenin received only three years of deportation in which he lived well
and comfortably and spent his time shooting, fishing and openly preaching
revolution. And the woman terrorist Vera Zasulich, who murdered a provincial
governor was acquitted by a Russian court. The court was independent of the
state and reckoned that, if she had killed for political reasons, it meant
that she had been prompted by her conscience and her beliefs and that her
acts could not be regarded as a crime. In this climate Mikhail Frunze had
managed to receive two death sentences. Neither of them was carried out,
naturally. On both occasions the sentence was commuted to deportation, from
which he had no great difficulty in escaping. It was while he was in exile
that Frunze organised a circle of like-minded people which was called the
`Military Academy': a real school for terrorists, which drew up the first
strategy to be followed up by armed detachments of Communists in the event
of an uprising.
The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks demonstrated, primarily to the
revolutionaries themselves, that it was possible to neutralise a vast
country and then to bring it under control simply and quickly. What was
needed were `groups of specially selected young men' capable of putting out
of action the government, the postal services, the telegraph and telephone,
and the railway terminals and bridges in the capital. Paralysis at the
centre meant that counteraction on the outskirts was split up. Outlying
areas could be dealt with later one at a time.
Frunze was undoubtedly a brilliant theoretician and practician of the
art of war, including partisan warfare and terrorism. During the Civil War
he commanded an army and a number of fronts. After Trotsky's dismissal he
took over as People's Commissar for military and naval affairs. During the
war he reorganised the large but badly led partisan formations into regular
divisions and armies which were subordinated to the strict centralised
administration. At the same time, while commanding those formations, he kept
sending relatively small but very reliable mobile units to fight in the
The Civil War was fought over vast areas, a war of movement without a
continuous stable front and with an enormous number of all sorts of armies,
groups, independent detachments and bands. It was a partisan war in spirit
and in content. Armies developed out of small, scattered detachments, and
whenever they were defeated they were able to disintegrate into a large
number of independent units which carried on the war on a partisan scale.
But we are not concerned here with the partisan war as a whole, only
with the fighting units of the regular Red Army specially created for
operating in the enemy's rear. Such units existed on various fronts and
armies. They were not known as spetsnaz, but this did not alter their
essential nature, and it was not just Frunze who appreciated the importance
of being able to use regular units in the rear of the enemy. Trotsky,
Stalin, Voroshilov, Tukhachevsky, inter alia, supported the strategy and
made extensive use of it.
Revolutionary war against the capitalist powers started immediately
after the Bolsheviks seized power. As the Red Army `liberated' fresh
territory and arrived at the frontiers with other countries the amount of
subversion directed against them increased. The end of the Civil War did not
mean the end of the secret war being waged by the Communists against their
neighbours. On the contrary, it was stepped up, because, once the Civil War
war was over, forces were released for other kinds of warfare.
Germany was the first target for revolution. It is interesting to
recall that, as early as December 1917, a Communist newspaper Die Fackel,
was being published in Petrograd with a circulation of 500,000 copies. In
January 1918 a Communist group called `Spartak' emerged in the same place.
In April 1918 another newspaper Die Weltrevolution, began to appear. And
finally, in August 1919, the famous paper of the German Communists, Die Rote
Fahne, was founded in Moscow.
At the same time as the first Communist groups appeared, steps were
taken to train terrorist fighting units of German Communists. These units
were used for suppressing the anti-Communist resistance put up by Russian
and Ukrainian peasants. Then, in 1920, all the units of German Communists
were gathered together in the rear of the Red Army on the Western front.
That was when the Red Army was preparing for a breakthrough across Poland
and into Germany. The Red Army's official marching song, `Budenny's March',
included these words: `We're taking Warsaw -- Take Berlin too!'
In that year the Bolsheviks did not succeed in organising revolution in
Germany or even in `liberating' Poland. At the time Soviet Russia was
devastated by the First World War and by the far more terrible Civil War.
Famine, typhus and destruction raged across the country. But in 1923 another
attempt was made to provoke a revolution in Germany. Trotsky himself
demanded in September 1923 to be relieved of all his Party and Government
posts and to be sent as an ordinary soldier to the barricades of the German
Revolution. The party did not send Trotsky there, but sent other Soviet
Communist leaders, among them, Iosef Unshlikht. At the time he was deputy
chairman of the Cheka secret police. Now he was appointed deputy head of the
`registration administration', now known as the GRU or military
intelligence, and it was in this position that he was sent illegally to
Germany. `Unshlikht was given the task of organising the detachments which
were to carry out the armed uprising and coup d'état, recruiting them and
providing them with weapons. He also had the job of organising a German
Cheka for the extermination of the bourgeoisie and opponents of the
Revolution after the transfer of power.... This was how the planned
Revolution was planned to take place. On the occasion of the anniversary of
the Russian October Revolution the working masses were to come out on the
streets for mass demonstrations. Unshlikht's "Red hundreds" were to provoke
clashes with the police so as to cause bloodshed and more serious conflicts,
to inflame the workers' indignation and carry out a general working-class
1 B. Bazhanov: `Memoirs of a Secretary to Stalin', pub. Tretya volna
1980, pp 67-69.
In view of the instability of German Society at that time, the absence
of a powerful army, the widespread discontent and the frequent outbursts of
violence, especially in 1923, the plan might have been realised. Many
experts are inclined to the view that Germany really was close to
revolution. Soviet military intelligence and its terrorist units led by
Unshlikht were expected to do no more than put the spark to the powder keg.
There were many reasons why the plans came to nothing. But there were
two especially important ones: the absence of a common frontier between the
USSR and Germany, and the split in the German Communist Party. The lack of a
common frontier was at the time a serious obstacle to the penetration into
Germany of substantial forces of Soviet subversives. Stalin understood this
very well, and he was always fighting to have Poland crushed so that common
frontiers could be established with Germany. When he succeeded in doing this
in 1939, it was a risky step, since a common frontier with Germany meant
that Germany could attack the USSR without warning, as indeed happened two
years later. But without a common frontier Stalin could not get into Europe.
The split in the German Communist Party was an equally serious
hindrance to the carrying out of Soviet plans. One group pursued policy,
subservient to the Comintern and consequently to the Soviet Politburo, while
the other pursued an antagonistic one. Zinoviev was `extremely displeased by
this and he raised the question in the Politburo of presenting Maslov one of
the dissenting German Communist leaders with an ultimatum: either he would
take a large sum of money, leave the party and get out of Germany, or
Unshlikht would be given orders to liquidate him.'2
2 Ibid. p. 68
At the same time as preparations were being made for revolution in
Germany preparations were also going ahead for revolutions in other
countries. For example, in September 1923, groups of terrorists trained in
the USSR (of both Bulgarian and Soviet nationality) started causing
disturbances in Bulgaria which could very well have developed into a state
of general chaos and bloodletting. But the `revolution' was suppressed and
its ringleaders escaped to the Soviet Union. Eighteen months later, in April
1925, the attempt was repeated. This time unknown persons caused a
tremendous explosion in the main cathedral in Sofia in the hope of killing
the king and the whole government. Boris III had a miraculous escape, but
attempts to destabilise Bulgaria by acts of terrorism continued until 1944,
when the Red Army at last entered Bulgaria. Another miracle then seemed to
take place, because from that moment on nobody has tried to shoot the
Bulgarian rulers and no one has let off any bombs. The terror did continue,
but it was aimed at the population of the country as a whole rather than the
rulers. And then Bulgarian terrorism spread beyond the frontiers of the
country and appeared on the streets of Western Europe.
The campaign of terrorism against Finland is closely linked with the
name of the Finnish Communist Otto Kuusinen who was one of the leaders of
the Communist revolt in Finland in 1918. After the defeat of the
`revolution' he escaped to Moscow and later returned to Finland for
underground work. In 1921 he again fled to Moscow to save himself from
arrest. From that moment Kuusinen's career was closely linked with Soviet
military intelligence officers. Kuusinen had an official post and did the
same work: preparing for the overthrow of democracy in Finland and other
countries. In his secret career Kuusinen had some notable successes. In the
mid-1930s he rose to be deputy head of Razvedupr as the GRU was known then.
Under Kuusinen's direction an effective espionage network was organised in
the Scandinavian countries, and at the same time he directed the training of
military units which were to carry out acts of terrorism in those countries.
As early as the summer of 1918 an officer school was founded in Petrograd to
train men for the `Red Army of Finland'. This school later trained officers
for other `Red Armies' and became the International Military School -- an
institute of higher education for terrorists.
After the Civil War was over Kuusinen insisted on carrying on
underground warfare on Finnish territory and keeping the best units of
Finnish Communists in existence. In 1939, after the Red Army invaded
Finland, he proclaimed himself `prime minister and minister of foreign
affairs' of the `Finnish Democratic Republic'. The `government' included
Mauri Rosenberg (from the GRU) as `deputy prime minister', Axel Antila as
`minister of defence' and the NKVD interrogator Tuure Lekhen as `minister of
internal affairs'. But the Finnish people put up such resistance that the
Kuusinen government's bid to turn Finland into a `people's republic' was a
(A curious fact of history must be mentioned here. When the Finnish
Communists formed their government on Soviet territory and started a war
against their own country, voluntary formations of Russians were formed in
Finland which went into battle against both the Soviet and the Finnish
Communists. A notable member of these genuinely voluntary units was Boris
Bazhanov, formerly Stalin's personal secretary, who had fled to the West.)
Otto Kuusinen's unsuccessful attempt to become the ruler of Communist
Finland did not bring his career to an end. He continued it with success,
first in the GRU and later in the Department of Administrative Organs of the
Central Committee of the CPSU -- the body that supervises all the espionage
and terrorist institutions in the Soviet Union, as well as the prisons,
concentration camps, courts and so forth. From 1957 until his death in 1964
Kuusinen was one of the most powerful leaders in the Soviet Union, serving
simultaneously as a member of the Politburo and a Secretary of the Central
Committee of the Party. In the Khodynki district of Moscow, where the GRU
has its headquarters, one of the bigger streets is called Otto Kuusinen
In the course of the Civil War and after it, Polish units, too, were
formed and went into action on Soviet territory. One example was the 1st
Revolutionary Regiment, `Red Warsaw', which was used for putting down
anti-Communist revolts in Moscow, Tambov and Yaroslav. For suppressing
anti-Communist revolts by the Russian population the Communists used a
Yugoslav regiment, a Czechoslovak regiment, and many other formations,
including Hungarians, Rumanians, Austrians and others. After the Civil War
all these formations provided a base for the recruitment of spies and for
setting up subversive combat detachments for operating on the territory of
capitalist states. For example, a group of Hungarian Communist terrorists
led by Ferenc Kryug, fought against Russian peasants in the Civil War; in
the Second World War Kryug led a special purpose group operating in Hungary.
Apart from the `internationalist' fighters, i.e. people of foreign
extraction, detachments were organised in the Soviet Union for operating
abroad which were composed entirely, or very largely, of Soviet citizens. A
bitter battle was fought between the army commanders and the secret police
for control of these detachments.
On 2 August 1930 a small detachment of commando troops was dropped in
the region of Voronezh and was supposed during the manoeuvres to carry out
operations in the rear of the `enemy'. Officially this is the date when
Soviet airborne troops came into being. But it is also the date when
spetsnaz was born. Airborne troops and spetsnaz troops subsequently went
through a parallel development. At certain points in its history spetsnaz
passed out of the control of military intelligence into the hands of the
airborne forces, at others the airborne troops exercised administrative
control while military intelligence had operational control. But in the end
it was reckoned to be more expedient to hand spetsnaz over entirely to
military intelligence. The progress of spetsnaz over the following thirty
years cannot be studied in isolation from the development of the airborne
1930 marked the beginning of a serious preoccupation with parachute
troops in the USSR. In 1931 separate detachments of parachutists were made
into battalions and a little later into regiments. In 1933 an osnaz brigade
was formed in the Leningrad military district. It included a battalion of
parachutists, a battalion of mechanised infantry, a battalion of artillery
and three squadrons of aircraft. However, it turned out to be of little use
to the Army, because it was not only too large and too awkward to manage,
but also under the authority of the NKVD rather than the GRU. After a long
dispute this brigade and several others created on the same pattern were
reorganised into airborne brigades and handed over entirely to the Army.
To begin with, the airborne forces or VDV consisted of transport
aircraft, airborne regiments and brigades, squadrons of heavy bombers and
separate reconnaissance units. It is these reconnaissance units that are of
interest to us. How many there were of them and how many men they included
is not known. There is fragmentary information about their tactics and
training. But it is known, for example, that one of the training schools was
situated in Kiev. It was a secret school and operated under the disguise of
a parachute club, while being completely under the control of the Razvedupr
(GRU). It included a lot of women. In the course of the numerous manoeuvres
that were held, the reconnaissance units were dropped in the rear of the
`enemy' and made attacks on his command points, headquarters, centres and
lines of communications. It is known that terrorist techniques were already
well advanced. For example, a mine had been developed for blowing up railway
bridges as trains passed over them. However, bridges are always especially
well guarded, so the experts of the Razvedupr and the Engineering
Directorate of the Red Army produced a mine that could be laid on the tracks
several kilometres away from the bridge. A passing train would pick up the
mine which would detonate at the very moment when the train was on the
To give some idea of the scale of the VDV, on manoeuvres in 1934 900
men were dropped simultaneously by parachute. At the famous Kiev manoeuvres
in 1935 no less than 1188 airborne troops were dropped at once, followed by
a normal landing of 1765 men with light tanks, armoured cars and artillery.
In Belorussia in 1936 there was an air drop of 1800 troops and a landing of
5700 men with heavy weapons. In the Moscow military district in the same
year the whole of the 84th rifle division was transferred from one place to
another by air. Large-scale and well armed airborne attacks were always
accompanied by the dropping in neighbouring districts of commando units
which operated both in the interests of the security of the major force and
in the interests of Razvedupr.
In 1938 the Soviet Union had six airborne brigades with a total of
18,000 men. This figure is, however, deceptive, since the strength of the
`separate reconnaissance units' is not known, nor are they included in that
figure. Parachutists were also not trained by the Red Army alone but by
`civilian' clubs. In 1934 these clubs had 400 parachute towers from which
members made up to half a million jumps, adding to their experience by jumps
from planes and balloons. Many Western experts reckon that the Soviet Union
entered the Second World War with a million trained parachutists, who could
be used both as airborne troops and in special units -- in the language of
today, in spetsnaz.
A continual, hotly contested struggle was going on in the General Staff
of the Red Army. On what territory were the special detachments to operate
-- on the enemy's territory, or on Soviet territory when it was occupied by
For a long time the two policies existed side by side. Detachments were
trained to operate both on home territory and enemy territory as part of the
preparations to meet the enemy in the Western regions of the Soviet Union.
These were carried out very seriously. First of all large partisan units
were formed, made up of carefully screened and selected soldiers. The
partisans went on living in the towns and villages, but went through their
regular military training and were ready at any moment to take off into the
forests. The units were only the basis upon which to develop much
larger-scale partisan warfare. In peacetime they were made up largely of
leaders and specialists; in the course of the fighting each unit was
expected to expand into a huge formation consisting of several thousand men.
For these formations hiding places were prepared in secluded locations and
stocked with weapons, ammunition, means of communications and other
Apart from the partisans who were to take to the forests a vast network
of reconnaissance and commando troops was prepared. The local inhabitants
were trained to carry out reconnaissance and terrorist operations and, if
the enemy arrived, they were supposed to remain in place and pretend to
submit to the enemy, and even work for him. These networks were supposed
later to organise a fierce campaign of terror inside the enemy garrisons. To
make it easier for the partisans and the terrorists to operate, secret
communication networks and supplies were set up in peacetime, along with
secret meeting places, underground hospitals, command posts and even arms
To make it easier for the partisans to operate on their own territory a
`destruction zone' was created, also known as a `death strip'. This was a
strip running the length of the Western frontiers of the Soviet Union
between 100 and 250 kilometres wide. Within that strip all bridges, railway
depots, tunnels, water storage tanks and electric power stations were
prepared for destruction by explosive. Also in peacetime major embankments
on railway lines and highways and cuttings through which the roads passed
were made ready for blowing up. Means of communication, telephone lines,
even the permanent way, all were prepared for destruction.
Immediately behind the `death strip' came the `Stalin Line' of
exceptionally well fortified defences. The General Staff's idea was that the
enemy should be exhausted in the `death strip' on the vast minefields and
huge obstacles and then get stuck on the line of fortifications. At the same
time the partisans would be constantly attacking him in the rear.
It was a magnificent defence system. Bearing in mind the vast
territories involved and the poor network of roads, such a system could well
have made the whole of Soviet territory practically impassable for an enemy.
But -- in 1939 the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed.
The Pact was the signal for a tremendous expansion of Soviet military
strength. Everything connected with defence was destroyed, while everything
connected with offensive actions was expanded at a great rate, particularly
Soviet sabotage troops and the airborne troops connected with them. In April
1941 five airborne corps were formed. All five were in the first strategic
echelon of the Red Army, three facing Germany and two facing Rumania. The
latter were more dangerous for Germany than the other three, because the
dropping of even one airborne corps in Rumania and the cutting off, even
temporarily, of supplies of oil to Germany meant the end of the war for the
Five airborne corps in 1941 was more than there were in all the other
countries of the world together. But this was not enough for Stalin. There
was a plan to create another five airborne corps, and the plan was carried
out in August and September 1941. But in a defensive war Stalin did not, of
course, need either the first five or the second five. Any discussion of
Stalin's `defence plans' must first of all explain how five airborne corps,
let alone ten, could be used in a defensive war.
In a war on one's own territory it is far easier during a temporary
retreat to leave partisan forces or even complete fighting formations hidden
on the ground than it is to drop them in later by parachute. But Stalin had
destroyed such formations, from which one can draw only one conclusion;
Stalin had prepared the airborne corps specifically for dropping on other
At the same time as the rapid expansion of the airborne forces there
was an equally rapid growth of the special reconnaissance units intended for
operations on enemy territory.
The great British strategist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart, dealing
with this period, speaks of Hitler's fears concerning Stalin's intentions,
referring to `a fatal attack in the back from Russia'.3 And moves by the
Soviet Union in June 1940 did evoke particular nervousness in the German
high command. Germany had thrown all her forces against France at that time,
and the Soviet Union rushed troops into the Baltic states and Bessarabia.
The airborne troops especially distinguished themselves. In June 1940 the
214th Soviet airborne brigade was dropped with the idea of seizing a group
of aerodromes in the region of Shaulyai in Lithuania, under a hundred
kilometres from the East Prussian border. In the same month the 201st and
204th airborne brigades were dropped in Bessarabia to capture the towns of
Ismail and Belgrad-Dnestrovsky. This was close by the Ploesti oilfields.
What would Stalin do if the German Army advanced further into North Africa
and the British Isles?
3 Strategy. The Indirect Approach, p.241.
It is easy to understand why Hitler took the decision in that next
month, July 1940, to prepare for war against the USSR. It was quite
impossible for him to move off the continent of Europe and into the British
Isles or Africa, leaving Stalin with his huge army and terrifying airborne
forces which were of no use to him for anything but a large-scale offensive.
Hitler guessed rightly what Stalin's plans were, as is apparent from
his letter to Mussolini of 21 June 1941.4 Can we believe Hitler? In this
case we probably can. The letter was not intended for publication and was
never published in Hitler's lifetime. It is interesting in that it repeats
the thought that Stalin had voiced at a secret meeting of the Central
Committee. Moreover, in his speech at the 18th Congress of the Soviet
Communist Party Stalin had had this to say about Britain and France; In
their policy of nonintervention can be detected an attempt and a desire not
to prevent the aggressors from doing their dirty work... not to prevent, let
us say, Germany getting bogged down in European affairs and involved in a
war... to let all the participants in the war get stuck deep in the mud of
battle, to encourage them to do this on the quiet, to let them weaken and
exhaust each other, and then, when they are sufficiently weakened, to enter
the arena with fresh forces, acting of course "in the interests of peace",
and to dictate their own conditions to the crippled participants in the
war.'5 Once again, he was attributing to others motives which impelled him
in his ambitions. Stalin wanted Europe to exhaust itself. And Hitler
understood that. But he understood too late. He should have understood
before the Pact was signed.
4 `I cannot take responsibility for the waiting any longer, because I
cannot see any way that the danger will disappear.... The concentration of
Soviet force is enormous.... All available Soviet armed forces are now on
our border.... It is quite possible that Russia will try to destroy the
5 Pravda, 11 March 1939.
However, Hitler still managed to upset Stalin's plans by starting the
war first. The huge Soviet forces intended for the `liberation' of Russia's
neighbours were quite unnecessary in the war of defence against Germany. The
airborne corps were used as ordinary infantry against the advancing German
tanks. The many units and groups of airborne troops and commandos were
forced to retreat or to dig trenches to halt the advancing German troops.
The airborne troops trained for operations in the territory of foreign
countries were able to be used in the enemy's rear, but not in his territory
so much as in Soviet territory occupied by the German army.
The reshaping of the whole philosophy of the Red Army, which had been
taught to conduct an offensive war on other people's territory, was very
painful but relatively short. Six months later the Red Army had learnt to
defend itself and in another year it had gone over to offensive operations.
From that moment everything fell into place and the Red Army, created only
for offensive operations, became once again victorious.
The process of reorganising the armed forces for operations on its own
territory affected all branches of the services, including the special
forces. At the beginning of 1942 thirteen guards battalions6 of spetsnaz
were organised in the Red Army for operations in the enemy's rear, as well
as one guards engineering brigade of spetsnaz, consisting of five
battalions. The number of separate battalions corresponded exactly to the
number of fighting fronts. Each front received one such battalion under its
command. A guards brigade of spetsnaz remained at the disposal of the
Supreme Commander-in-Chief, to be used only with Stalin's personal
permission in the most crucial locations.
6 In the Soviet Army the title of `guards' can be won only in battle,
the only exceptions being certain formations which were awarded the title
when they were being formed. These included spetsnaz detachments.
So as not to reveal the real name of spetsnaz, the independent guards
battalion and the brigade were given the code name of `guards minelayers'.
Only a very limited circle of people knew what the name concealed.
A special razvedka department was set up in the Intelligence
directorate of each front to direct the work of the `guards minelayers'.
Each department had at its disposal a battalion of spetsnaz. Later the
special razvedka departments began recruiting spetsnaz agents in territories
occupied by the enemy. These agents were intended for providing support for
the `minelayers' when they appeared in the enemy rear. Subsequently each
special razvedka department was provided with a reconaissance point of
spetsnaz to recruit agents.
The guards brigade of spetsnaz was headed by one of the outstanding
Soviet practitioners of fighting in the rear of the enemy -- Colonel (later
Lieutenant-General) Moshe Ioffe.
The number of spetsnaz increased very quickly. In unclassified Soviet
writings we come across references to the 16th and the 33rd engineering
brigade of spetsnaz. Apart from detachments operating behind the enemy's
lines, other spetsnaz units were formed for different purposes: for example,
radio battalions for destroying the enemy's radio links, spreading
disinformation and tracing the whereabouts of enemy headquarters and
communication centres so as to facilitate the work of the spetsnaz terrorist
formations. It is known that from 1942 there existed the 130th, 131st, 132nd
and 226th independent radio battalions of spetsnaz.
The operations carried out by the `minelayers' were distinguished by
their daring character and their effectiveness. They usually turned up
behind the enemy's lines in small groups. Sometimes they operated
independently, at others they combined their operations with the partisans.
These joint operations always benefited both the partisans and spetsnaz. The
minelayers taught the partisans the most difficult aspects of minelaying,
the most complicated technology and the most advanced tactics. When they
were with the partisans they had a reliable hiding place, protection while
they carried out their operation, and medical and other aid in case of need.
The partisans knew the area well and could serve as guides. It was an
excellent combination: the local partisans who knew every tree in the
forest, and the first-class technical equipment for the use of explosives
demonstrated by real experts.
The `guards minelayers' usually came on the scene for a short while,
did their work swiftly and well and then returned whence they had come. The
principal way of transporting them behind the enemy's lines was to drop them
by parachute. Their return was carried out by aircraft using secret partisan
airfields, or they made their way by foot across the enemy's front line.
The high point in the partisan war against Germany consisted of two
operations carried out in 1943. By that time, as a result of action by
osnaz, order had been introduced into the partisan movement; it had been
`purged' and brought under rigid central control. As a result of spetsnaz
work the partisan movement had been taught the latest methods of warfare and
the most advanced techniques of sabotage.
The operation known as the `War of the Rails' was carried out over six
weeks from August to September 1943. It was a very fortunate time to have
chosen. It was at that moment when the Soviet forces, having exhausted the
German army in defensive battles at Kursk, themselves suddenly went over to
the offensive. To support the advance a huge operation was undertaken in the
rear of the enemy with the object of paralysing his supply routes,
preventing him from bringing up ammunition and fuel for the troops, and
making it impossible for him to move his reserves around. The operation
involved the participation of 167 partisan units with a total strength of
100,000 men. All the units of spetsnaz were sent behind the enemy lines to
help the partisans. More than 150 tons of explosives, more than 150
kilometres of wire and over half a million detonators were transported to
the partisan units by air. The spetsnaz units were instructed to maintain a
strict watch over the fulfilment of their tasks. Most of them operated
independently in the most dangerous and important places, and they also
appointed men from their units to instruct the partisan units in the use of
Operation `War of the Rails' was carried out simultaneously in a
territory with a front more than 1000 kilometres wide and more than 500
kilometres in depth. On the first night of the operation 42,000 explosions
took place on the railway lines, and the partisan activity increased with
every night that passed. The German high command threw in tremendous forces
to defend their lines of communication, so that every night could be heard
not only the sound of bridges and railway lines being blown up but also the
sounds of battle with the German forces as the partisans fought their way
through to whatever they had to destroy. Altogether, in the course of the
operation 215,000 rails, 836 complete trains, 184 rail and 556 road bridges
were blown up. A vast quantity of enemy equipment and ammunition was also
Having won the enormous battle at Kursk, the Red Army sped towards the
river Dnieper and crossed it in several places. A second large-scale
operation in support of the advancing troops was carried out in the enemy's
rear under the name of `Concert', which was in concept and spirit a
continuation of the `War of the Rails'. In the final stage of that operation
all the spetsnaz units were taken off to new areas and were enabled to rest
along with the partisan formations which had not taken part in it. Now their
time had come. Operation `Concert' began on 19 September 1943. That night in
Belorussia alone 19,903 rails were blown up. On the night of 25 September
15,809 rails were destroyed. All the spetsnaz units and 193 partisan units
took part in the operation `Concert'. The total number of participants in
the operation exceeded 120,000. In the course of the whole operation, which
went on until the end of October, 148,557 rails were destroyed, several
hundred trains with troops, weapons and ammunition were derailed, and
hundreds of bridges were blown up. Despite a shortage of explosives and
other material needed for such work, on the eve of the operation only eighty
tons of explosives could be sent to the partisan. Nevertheless `Concert' was
a tremendous success.
After the Red Army moved into the territory of neighbouring states
spetsnaz went through a radical reorganisation. The independent
reconnaissance units, the reconnaissance posts which recruited agents for
terrorist actions, and the independent radio battalions for conducting
disinformation, were all retained in their entirety. There are plenty of
references in the Soviet military press to operations by special
intelligence units in the final stages of the war. For example, in the
course of an operation in the Vistula-Oder area special groups from the
Intelligence directorate of the headquarters of the 1st Ukrainian Front
established the scope of the network of aerodromes and the exact position of
the enemy's air bases, found the headquarters of the 4th Tank Army and the
17th Army, the 48th Tank Corps and the 42nd Army Corps, and also gathered a
great deal of other very necessary information.
The detachments of `guards minelayers' of spetsnaz were reformed,
however, into regular guards sapper detachments and were used in that form
until the end of the war. Only a relatively small number of `guards
minelayers' were kept in being and used behind the enemy lines in
Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Such a decision was absolutely
right for the times. The maintargets for spetsnaz operations had been the
enemy's lines of communication. But that had been before the Red Army had
started to advance at great speed. When that happened, there was no longer
any need to blow up bridges. They needed to be captured and preserved, not
destroyed. For this work the Red Army had separate shock brigades of
motorised guards engineering troops which, operating jointly with the
forward units, would capture especially important buildings and other
objects, clear them of mines and defend them until the main force arrived.
The guards formations of spetsnaz were used mainly for strengthening these
special engineering brigades. Some of the surviving guards battalions of
spetsnaz were transferred to the Far East where, in August 1945, they were
used against the Japanese Army.
The use of spetsnaz in the Manchurian offensive of 1945 is of special
interest, because it provides the best illustration of what was supposed to
happen to Germany if she had not attacked the USSR.
Japan had a peace treaty with the Soviet Union. But Japan had gone to
war with other states and had exhausted her military, economic and other
resources. Japan had seized vast territories inhabited by hundreds of
millions of people who wanted to be liberated and were ready to welcome and
support any liberator who came along. Japan was in exactly the situation in
which Stalin had wanted to see Germany: exhausted by war with other
countries, and with troops scattered over expansive territories the
populations of which hated the sight of them.
Thus, in the interests naturally of peace and humanity Stalin struck a
sudden crushing blow at the armed forces of Japan in Manchuria and China,
violating the treaty signed four years earlier. The operation took place
over vast areas. In terms of the distances covered and the speed at which it
moved, this operation has no equal in world history. Soviet troops operated
over territories 5000 kilometres in width and 600-800 kilometres in depth.
More than a million and a half soldiers took part in the operation, with
over 5000 tanks and nearly 4000 aircraft. It really was a lightning
operation, in the course of which 84,000 Japanese officers and men were
killed and 593,000 taken prisoner. A tremendous quantity of arms, ammunition
and other equipment was seized.
It may be objected that Japan was already on the brink of catastrophe.
That is true. But therein lies Soviet strategy: to remain neutral until such
time as the enemy exhausts himself in battle against someone else, and then
to strike a sudden blow. That is precisely how the war against Germany was
planned and that was why the partisan units, the barriers and defensive
installations were all dispensed with, and why the ten airborne corps were
created in 1941.
In the Manchurian offensive the spetsnaz detachments put up their best
performance. Twenty airborne landings were made not by airborne troops, but
by special reconnaissance troops. Spetsnaz units of the Pacific Fleet were
landed from submarines and surface boats. Some spetsnaz units crossed the
frontier by foot, captured Japanese cars and used them for their operations.
Worried about the railway tunnels on a strip of the 1st Far Eastern front,
the Soviet high command created special units for capturing the tunnels. The
groups crossed the frontier secretly, cut the throats of the guards, severed
the wires connected to the explosive charges, and put the detonators out of
action. They then held the tunnels until their own forces arrived.
In the course of the offensive a new and very risky type of operation
was employed by spetsnaz. Senior GRU officers, with the rank of colonel or
even major-general, were put in charge of small groups. Such a group would
suddenly land on an airfield close to an important Japanese headquarters.
The appearance of a Soviet colonel or general deep in the Japanese rear
never failed to provoke astonished reactions from both the Japanese high
command and the Japanese troops, as well as from the local population. The
transport planes carrying these were escorted by Soviet fighter aircraft,
but the fighters were soon obliged to return to their bases, leaving the
Soviet transport undefended until it landed. Even after it landed it had at
best only one high-ranking officer, the crew and no more than a platoon of
soldiers to guard over the plane. The Soviet officer would demand and
usually obtain a meeting with a Japanese general, at which he would demand
the surrender of the Japanese garrison. He and his group really had nothing
to back them up: Soviet troops were still hundreds of kilometres away and it
was still weeks to the end of the war. But the local Japanese military
leaders (and the Soviet officers too, for that matter) naturally did not
realise this. Perhaps the Emperor had decided to fight on to the last
In several recorded instances, senior Japanese military leaders decided
independently to surrender without having permission to do so from their
superiors. The improvement in the morale and position of the Soviet troops
can be imagined.
After the end of the Second World War spetsnaz practically ceased to
exist for several years. Its reorganisation was eventually carried out under
the direction of several generals who were fanatically devoted to the idea
of spetsnaz. One of them was Viktor Kondratevich Kharchenko, who is quite
rightly regarded as the `father' of the modern spetsnaz. Kharchenko was an
outstanding sportsman and expert in the theory and practice of the use of
explosives. In 1938 he graduated from the military electrotechnical academy
which, apart from training specialists in communications, at that time also
produced experts in the business of applying the most complicated way of
blowing up buildings and other objectives. During the war he was chief of
staff of the directorate of special works on the Western front. From May
1942 he was chief of staff on the independent guards spetsnaz brigade, and
from June he was deputy commander of that brigade. In July 1944 his brigade
was reorganised into an independent guards motorised engineering brigade.
Kharchenko was working in the General Staff after the war when he wrote
a letter to Stalin, the basic point of which was: `If before the outbreak of
war our sportsmen who made up the spetsnaz units spent some time in Germany,
Finland, Poland and other countries, they could be used in wartime in enemy
territory with greater likelihood of success.' Many specialists in the
Soviet Union now believe that Stalin put an end to the Soviet Union's
self-imposed isolation in sport partly because of the effect Kharchenko's
letter had on him.
In 1948 Kharchenko completed his studies at the Academy of the General
Staff. From 1951 he headed the scientific research institute of the
engineering troops. Under his direction major researches and experiments
were carried out in an effort to develop new engineering equipment and
armaments, especially for small detachments of saboteurs operating behind
the enemy's lines.
In the immediate postwar years Kharchenko strove to demonstrate at the
very highest level the necessity for reconstructing spetsnaz on a new
technical level. He had a great many opponents. So then he decided not to
argue any more. He selected a group of sportsmen from among the students at
the engineering academy, succeeded in interesting them in his idea, and
trained them personally for carrying out very difficult tasks. During
manoeuvres held at the Totskyie camps, when on Marshal Zhukov's instructions
a real nuclear explosion was carried out, and then the behaviour of the
troops in conditions extremely close to real warfare was studied, Kharchenko
decided to deploy his own group of men at his own risk.
The discussions that took place after the manoeuvres were, the senior
officers all agreed, instructive -- all except General Kharchenko. He
pointed out that in circumstances of actual warfare nothing of what they had
been discussing would have taken place because, he said, a small group of
trained people had been close to where the nuclear charges had been stored
and had had every opportunity to destroy the transport when the charges were
being moved from the store to the airfield. Moreover, he said, the officers
who took the decision to use nuclear weapons could easily have been killed
before they took the decision. Kharchenko produced proof in support of his
statements. When this produced no magic results, Kharchenko repeated his
`act' at other major manoeuvres until his persistence paid off. Eventually
he obtained permission to form a battalion for operations in the enemy's
rear directed at his nuclear weapons and his command posts.
The battalion operated very successfully, and that was the beginning of
the resurrection of spetsnaz. All the contemporary formations of spetsnaz
have been created anew. That is why, unlike those which existed during the
war, they are not honoured with the title of `guards' units.7
7 Kharchenko himself moved steadily up the promotion ladder. From 1961
he was deputy to the Chief of Engineering troops and from February 1965 he
was head of the same service. In 1972 he was promoted Marshal of engineering
troops. Having attained such heights, however, Kharchenko did not forget his
creation, and he was a frequent guest in the `Olympic Village', the main
spetsnaz training centre near Kirovograd. When he was killed in 1975 during
the testing of a new weapon, his citations used the highest peacetime
formula `killed in the course of carrying out his official duties', which is
very seldom met with in reference to this senior category of Soviet
Chapter 4. The Fighting Units of Spetsnaz
Spetsnaz is made up of three distinct elements: the fighting units, the
units of professional sportsmen and the network of secret agents. In
numerical terms the fighting units of spetsnaz are the largest. They are
composed of soldiers from the ranks, out of those who are especially strong,
especially tough and especially loyal.
A factor that facilitates the selection process is that within the
Soviet Army there exists a hidden system for the selection of soldiers. Long
before they put on a military uniform, the millions of recruits are
carefully screened and divided into categories in acordance with their
political reliability, their physical and mental development, the extent of
their political involvement, and the `cleanliness' (from the Communist point
of view) of their personal and family record. The Soviet soldier does not
know to which category he belongs, and in fact he knows nothing about the
existence of the various categories. If a soldier is included in a higher
category than his comrades that does not necessarily mean that he is
fortunate. On the contrary, the best thing for a soldier is to be put into
the lowest category and to perform his two years of military service in some
remote and God-forsaken pioneer battalion in which there is neither
discipline nor supervision, or in units of which the officers have long
since drunk away all the authority they had. The higher the category the
soldier is put into the more difficult his military service will be.
Soldiers of the highest category make up the Kremlin guard, the troops
protecting the government communications, the frontier troops of the KGB and
spetsnaz. Being included in the highest category does not necessarily mean
being posted to the Kremlin, to a spetsnaz brigade or to a government
communications centre. The highest-category men selected by the local
military authorities simply represent the best human material which is
offered to the `customer' for him to choose from. The `customer' selects
only what suits his need. All those who do not appeal to the customers move
down to a lower level and are offered to representatives of the next
echelon, that of the strategic missile troops, the airborne forces and crews
of nuclear submarines.
The young soldier does not realise, of course, what is going on. He is
simply summoned to a room where people he doesn't know ask him a lot of
questions. A few days later he is called to the room again and finds a
different set of strangers there who also ask him questions.
This system of sorting out recruits reminds one of the system of closed
shops for leading comrades. The highest official has the first choice. Then
his deputy can go to the shop and choose something from what remains. Then
lower ranking officials are allowed into the shop, then their deputies, and
so on. In this system spetsnaz rank as the very highest category.
The soldiers who have been picked out by spetsnaz officers are gathered
together into groups and are convoyed by officers and sergeants to fighting
units of spetsnaz, where they are formed into groups and go through an
intensive course of training lasting several weeks. At the end of the course
the soldier fires shots from his Kalashnikov automatic rifle for the first
time and is then made to take the military oath. The best out of the group
of young soldiers are then sent to a spetsnaz training unit from which they
return six months later with the rank of sergeant, while the rest are posted
to fighting units.
In spetsnaz, as throughout the Soviet Army, they observe the `cult of
the old soldier'. All soldiers are divided into stariki (`old men') and
salagi (`small fry'). A real salaga is a soldier who has only just started
his service. A really `old man' (some twenty years' old) is one who is about
to complete his service in a few months. A man who is neither a real starik
nor a real salaga falls between the two, a starik being compared to anyone
who has done less time than he has, and a salaga to anyone who has served in
the army a few months longer than he.
Having been recruited into spetsnaz, the soldier has to sign an
undertaking not to disclose secret information. He has no right ever to tell
anyone where he has served or what his service consisted of. At most he has
the right to say he served with the airborne corps. Disclosure of the
secrets of spetsnaz is treated as high treason, punishable by death
according to article 64 of the Soviet criminal code.
Once he has completed his two years' service in spetsnaz a soldier has
three choices. He can become an officer, in which case he is offered special
terms for entering the higher school for officers of the airborne forces in
Ryazan. He can become a regular soldier in spetsnaz, for which he has to go
through a number of supplementary courses. Or he has the option to join the
reserve. If he chooses the last course he is regarded as being a member of
the spetsnaz reserve and is with it for the next five years. Then, up to the
age of 30, he is part of the airborne reserve. After that he is considered
to belong to the ordinary infantry reserve until he is fifty. Like any other
reserve force, the existence of a spetsnaz reserve makes it possible at a
time of mobilisation to multiply the size of the spetsnaz fighting units
with reservists if necessary.
Mud, nothing but mud all round, and it was pouring with rain. It had
been raining throughout the summer, so that everything was wet and hanging
limp. Everything was stuck in the mud. Every soldier's boot carried
kilograms of it. But their bodies were covered in mud as well, and their
hands and faces up to their ears and further. It was clear that the sergeant
had not taken pity on the young spetsnaz recruits that day. They had been
called up only a month before. They had been formed up into a provisional
group and been put through a month's course for young soldiers which every
one of them would remember all his life in his worst nightmare.
That morning they had been divided up into companies and platoons.
Before letting them back into their mud-covered, sodden tent at the end of
the day each sergeant had time to show his platoon the extent of his
There were ten young men crowding around the entrance to a huge tent,
as big as a prison barracks.
`Get inside, damn you!' The sergeant urged them on.
The first soldier thrust aside the heavy wet tarpaulin which served as
a door and was about to enter when something stopped him. On the muddy, much
trampled ground just inside the entrance a dazzlingly white towel had been
laid down in place of a doormat. The soldier hesitated. But behind him the
sergeant was pushing and shouting: `Go on in, damn you!'
The soldier was not inclined to step on the towel. At the same time he
couldn't make up his mind to jump over it, because the mud from his boots
would inevitably land on the towel. Eventually he jumped, and the others
jumped across the towel after him. For some reason no one dared to take the
towel away. Everyone could see that there was some reason why it had been
put there right in the entrance. A beautiful clean towel. With mud all
around it. What was it doing there?
A whole platoon lived in one huge tent. The men slept in two-tier metal
bunks. The top bunks were occupied by the stariki — the `old men' of
nineteen or even nineteen and a half, who had already served a year or even
eighteen months in spetsnaz. The salagi slept on the bottom bunks. They had
served only six months. By comparison with those who were now jumping over
the towel they were of course stariki too. They had all in their day jumped
awkwardly across the towel. Now they were watching silently, patiently and
attentively to see how the new men behaved in that situation.
The new men behaved as anybody would in their situation. Some pushed
from behind, and there was the towel in front. So they jumped, and clustered
together in the centre of the tent, not knowing where to put their hands or
where to look. It was strange. They seemed to want to look at the ground.
All the young men behaved in exactly the same way: a jump, into the crowd
and eyes down. But no -- the last soldier behaved quite differently. He
burst into the tent, helped by a kick from the sergeant. On seeing the white
towel he pulled himself up sharply, stood on it in his dirty boots and
proceeded to wipe them as if he really were standing on a doormat. Having
wiped his feet he didn't join the crowd but marched to the far corner of the
tent where he had seen a spare bed.
`Is this mine?'
`It's yours,' the platoon shouted approvingly. `Come here, mate,
there's a better place here! Do you want to eat?'
That night all the young recruits would get beaten. And they would be
beaten on the following nights. They would be driven out into the mud
barefoot, and they would be made to sleep in the lavatories (standing up or
lying down, as you wish). They would be beaten with belts, with slippers and
with spoons, with anything suitable for causing pain. The stariki would use
the salagi on which to ride horseback in battles with their friends. The
salagi would clean the `old men''s weapons and do their dirty jobs for them.
There would be the same goings-on as in the rest of the Soviet Army. Stariki
everywhere play the same kind of tricks on the recruits. The rituals and the
rules are the same everywhere. The spetsnaz differs from the other branches
only in that they place the dazzlingly clean towel at the entrance to the
tent for the recruits to walk over. The sense of this particular ritual is
clear and simple: We are nice people. We welcome you, young man, cordially
into our friendly collective. Our work is very hard, the hardest in the
whole army, but we do not let it harden our hearts. Gome into our house,
young man, and make yourself at home. We respect you and will spare nothing
for you. You see -- we have even put the towel with which we wipe our faces
for you to walk on in your dirty feet. So that's it, is it -- you don't
accept our welcome? You reject our modest gift? You don't even wish to wipe
your boots on what we wipe our faces with! What sort of people do you take
us for? You may certainly not respect us, but why did you come into our
house with dirty boots?
Only one of the salagi, the one who wiped his feet on the towel, will
be able to sleep undisturbed. He will receive his full ration of food and
will clean only his own weapon; and perhaps the stariki will give
instructions that he should not do even that. There are many others in the
platoon to do it.
Where on earth could a young eighteen-year-old soldier have learnt
about the spetsnaz tradition? Where could he have heard about the white
towel? Spetsnaz is a secret organisation which treasures its traditions and
keeps them to itself. A former spetsnaz soldier must never tell tales: he'll
lose his tongue if he does. In any case he is unlikely to tell anyone about
the towel trick, especially someone who has yet to be called up. I was
beaten up, so let him be beaten up as well, he reasons.
There are only three possible ways the young soldier could have found
out about the towel. Either he simply guessed what was happening himself.
The towel had been laid down at the entrance, so it must be to wipe his feet
on. What else could it be for? Or perhaps his elder brother had been through
the spetsnaz. He had, of course, never called it by that name or said what
it was for, but he might have said about the towel: `Watch out, brother,
there are some units that have very strange customs.... But just take care
-- if you let on I'll knock your head off. And I can.' Or his elder brother
might have spent some time in a penal battalion. Perhaps he had been in
spetsnaz and in a penal battalion. For the custom of laying out a towel in
the entrance before the arrival of recruits did not originate in spetsnaz
but in the penal battalions. It is possible that it was handed on to the
present-day penal battalions from the prisons of the past.
The links between spetsnaz and the penal battalions are invisible, but
they are many and very strong.
In the first place, service in spetsnaz is the toughest form of service
in the Soviet Army. The physical and psychological demands are not only
increased deliberately to the very highest point that a man can bear; they
are frequently, and also deliberately, taken beyond any permissible limits.
It is quite understandable that a spetsnaz soldier should find he cannot
withstand these extreme demands and breaks down. The breakdown may take many
different forms: suicide, severe depression, hysteria, madness or desertion.
As I was leaving an intelligence unit of a military district on promotion to
Moscow I suddenly came across, on a little railway station, a spetsnaz
officer I knew being escorted by two armed soldiers.
`What on earth are you doing here?' I exclaimed. `You don't see people
on this station more than once in a month!'
`One of my men ran away!'
`A new recruit?'
`That's the trouble, he's a starik. Only another month to go.'
`Did he take his weapon?'
`No, he went without it.'
I expressed my surprise, wished the lieutenant luck and went on my way.
How the search ended I do not know. At the very next station soldiers of the
Interior Ministry's troops were searching the carriages. The alarm had gone
out all over the district.
Men run away from spetsnaz more often than from other branches of the
services. But it is usually a case of a new recruit who has been stretched
to the limit and who usually takes a rifle with him. A man like that will
kill anyone who gets in his path. But he is usually quickly run down and
killed. But in this case it was a starik who had run off, and without a
rifle. Where had he gone, and why? I didn't know. Did they find him? I
didn't know that either. Of course they found him. They are good at that. If
he wasn't carrying a rifle he would not have been killed. They don't kill
people without reason. So what could he expect? Two years in a penal
battalion and then the month in spetsnaz that he had not completed.
Spetsnaz has no distinguishing badge or insignia -- officially, at any
rate. But unofficially the spetsnaz badge is a wolf, or rather a pack of
wolves. The wolf is a strong, proud animal which is remarkable for its quite
incredible powers of endurance. A wolf can run for hours through deep snow
at great speed, and then, when he scents his prey, put on another
astonishing burst of speed. Sometimes he will chase his prey for days,
reducing it to a state of exhaustion. Exploiting their great capacity for
endurance, wolves first exhaust and then attack animals noted for their
tremendous strength, such as the elk. People say rightly that the `wolf
lives on its legs'. Wolves will bring down a huge elk, not so much by the
strength of their teeth as by the strength of their legs.
The wolf also has a powerful intellect. He is proud and independent.
You can tame and domesticate a squirrel, a fox or even a great elk with
bloodshot eyes. And there are many animals that can be trained to perform. A
performing bear can do really miraculous things. But you cannot tame a wolf
or train it to perform. The wolf lives in a pack, a closely knit and well
organised fighting unit of frightful predators. The tactics of a wolf pack
are the very embodiment of flexibility and daring. The wolves' tactics are
an enormous collection of various tricks and combinations, a mixture of
cunning and strength, confusing manoeuvres and sudden attacks.
No other animal in the world could better serve as a symbol of the
spetsnaz. And there is good reason why the training of a spetsnaz soldier
starts with the training of his legs. A man is as strong and young as his
legs are strong and young. If a man has a sloppy way of walking and if he
drags his feet along the ground, that means he himself is weak. On the other
hand, a dancing, springy gait is a sure sign of physical and metal health.
Spetsnaz soldiers are often dressed up in the uniform of other branches of
the services and stationed in the same military camps as other especially
secret units, usually with communications troops. But one doesn't need any
special experience to pick out the spetsnaz man from the crowd. You can tell
him by the way he walks. I shall never forget one soldier who was known as
`The Spring'. He was not very tall, slightly stooping and round-shouldered.
But his feet were never still. He kept dancing about the whole time. He gave
the impression of being restrained only by some invisible string, and if the
string were cut the soldier would go on jumping, running and dancing and
never stop. The military commissariat whose job it was to select the young
soldiers and sort them out paid no attention to him and he fetched up in an
army missile brigade. He had served almost a year there when the brigade had
to take part in manoeuvres in which a spetsnaz company was used against
them. When the exercise was over the spetsnaz company was fed there in the
forest next to the missile troops. The officer commanding the spetsnaz
company noticed the soldier in the missile unit who kept dancing about all
the time he was standing in the queue for his soup.
`Come over here, soldier.' The officer drew a line on the ground. `Now
The soldier stood on the line and jumped from there, without any
run-up. The company commander did not have anything with him to measure the
length of the jump, but there was no need. The officer was experienced in
such things and knew what was good and what was excellent.
`Get into my car!'
`I cannot, comrade major, without my officer's permission.'
`Get in and don't worry, you'll be all right with me. I will speak up
for you and tell the right people where you have been.'
The company commander made the soldier get into his car and an hour
later presented him to the chief of army intelligence, saying:
`Comrade colonel, look what I've found among the missile troops.'
`Now then, young man, let's see you jump.'
The soldier jumped from the spot. This time there was a tape measure
handy and it showed he had jumped 241 centimetres.
`Take the soldier into your lot and find him the right sort of cap,'
the colonel said.
The commander of the spetsnaz company took off his own blue beret and
gave it to the soldier. The chief of intelligence immediately phoned the
chief of staff of the army, who gave the appropriate order to the missile
brigade -- forget you ever had such a man.
The dancing soldier was given the nickname `The Spring' on account of
his flexibility. He had never previously taken a serious interest in sport,
but he was a born athlete. Under the direction of experienced trainers his
talents were revealed and he immediately performed brilliantly. A year
later, when he completed his military service, he was already clearing 2
metres 90 centimetres. He was invited to join the professional athletic
service of spetsnaz, and he agreed.
The long jump with no run has been undeservedly forgotten and is no
longer included in the programme of official competitions. When it was
included in the Olympic Games the record set in 1908, was 3 metres 33
centimetres. As an athletic skill the long jump without a run is the most
reliable indication of the strength of a person's legs. And the strength of
his legs is a reliable indicator of the whole physical condition of a
soldier. Practically half a person's muscles are to be found in his legs.
Spetsnaz devotes colossal attention to developing the legs of its men, using
many simple but very effective exercises: running upstairs, jumping with
ankles tied together up a few steps and down again, running up steep sandy
slopes, jumping down from a great height, leaping from moving cars and
trains, knee-bending with a barbell on the shoulders, and of course the jump
from a spot. At the end of the 1970s the spetsnaz record in this exercise,
which has not been recognised by the official sports authorities, was 3
metres 51 centimetres.
A spetsnaz soldier knows that he is invincible. This may be a matter of
opinion, but other people's opinions do not interest the soldier. He knows
himself that he is invincible and that's enough for him. The idea is
instilled into him carefully, delicately, not too insistently, but
continually and effectively. The process of psychological training is
inseparably linked to the physical toughening. The development of a spirit
of self-confidence and of independence and of a feeling of superiority over
any opponent is carried out at the same time as the development of the
heart, the muscles and the lungs. The most important element in training a
spetsnaz soldier is to make him believe in his own strength.
A man's potential is unlimited, the reasoning goes. A man can reach any
heights in life in any sphere of activity. But in order to defeat his
opponents a man must first overcome himself, combat his own fears, his lack
of confidence and laziness. The path upwards is one of continual battle with
oneself. A man must force himself to rise sooner than the others and go to
bed later. He must exclude from his life everything that prevents him from
achieving his objective. He must subordinate the whole of his existence to
the strictest regime. He must give up taking days off. He must use his time
to the best possible advantage and fit in even more than was thought
possible. A man aiming for a particular target can succeed only if he uses
every minute of his life to the maximum advantage for carrying out his plan.
A man should find four hours' sleep quite sufficient, and the rest of his
time can be used for concentrating on the achievement of his objective.
I imagine that to instil this psychology into a mass army formed by
means of compulsory mobilisation would be impossible and probably
unnecessary. But in separate units carefully composed of the best human
material such a philosophy is entirely acceptable.
In numbers spetsnaz amounts to less than one per cent of all the Soviet
armed forces in peacetime. Spetsnaz is the best, carefully selected part of
the armed forces, and the philosophy of each man's unlimited potential has
been adopted in its entirety by every member of the organisation. It is a
philosophy which cannot be put into words. The soldier grasps it not with
his head, but with his feet, his shoulders and his sweat. He soon becomes
convinced that the path to victory and self-perfection is a battle with
himself, with his own mental and physical weakness. Training of any kind
makes sense only if it brings a man to the very brink of his physical and
mental powers. To begin with, he must know precisely the limits of his
capabilities. For example: he can do 40 press-ups. He must know this figure
precisely and that it really is the limit of his capacity. No matter how he
strains he can do no more. But every training session is a cruel battle to
beat his previous record. As he starts a training session a soldier has to
promise himself that he will beat his own record today or die in the
The only people who become champions are those who go into each
training session as if they are going to their death or to their last battle
in which they will either win or die. The victor is the one for whom victory
is more important than life. The victor is the one who dives a centimetre
deeper than his maximum depth, knowing that his lungs will not hold out and
that death lies beyond his limit. And once he has overcome the fear of
death, the next time he will dive even deeper! Spetsnaz senior lieutenant
Vladimir Salnikov, world champion and Olympic champion swimmer, repeats the
slogan every day: conquer yourself, and that was why he defeated everyone at
the Olympic Games.
An excellent place to get to know and to overcome oneself is the
`Devil's Ditch' which has been dug at the spetsnaz central training centre
near Kirovograd. It is a ditch with metal spikes stuck into the bottom. The
narrowest width is three metres. From there it gets wider and wider.
Nobody is forced to jump the ditch. But if someone wants to test
himself, to conquer himself and to overcome his own cowardice, let him go
and jump. It can be a standing jump or a running jump, in running shoes and
a track suit, with heavy boots and a big rucksack on your back, or carrying
a weapon. It is up to you. You start jumping at the narrow part and
gradually move outwards. If you make a mistake, trip on something or don't
reach the other side you land with your side on the spikes.
There are not many who wanted to risk their guts at the Devil's Ditch,
until a strict warning was put up: `Only for real spetsnaz fighters!' Now
nobody has to be invited to try it. There are always plenty of people there
and always somebody jumping, summer and winter, on slippery mud and snow, in
gas-masks and without them, carrying an ammunition box, hand-in-hand, with
hands tied together, and even with someone on the back. The man who jumps
the Devil's Ditch has confidence in himself, considers himself invincible,
and has grounds for doing so.
The relations within spetsnaz units are very similar to those within
the wolf pack. We do not know everything about the habits and the ways of
wolves. But I have heard Soviet zoologists talk about the life and behaviour
of wolves and, listening to them, I have been reminded of spetsnaz. They say
the wolf has not only a very developed brain but is also the noblest of all
the living things inhabiting our planet. The mental capacity of the wolf is
reckoned to be far greater than the dog's. What I have heard from experts
who have spent their whole lives in the taiga of the Ussuri, coming across
wolves every day, is sharply at odds with what people say about them who
have seen them only in zoos.
The experts say that the she-wolf never kills her sickly wolf-cubs. She
makes her other cubs do it. The she-wolf herself gives the cubs the first
lesson in hunting in a group. And the cubs' first victim is their weaker
brother. But once the weaker ones are disposed of, the she-wolf protects the
rest. In case of danger she would rather sacrifice herself than let anyone
harm them. By destroying the weaker cubs the she-wolf preserves the purity
and strength of her offspring, permitting only the strong to live. This is
very close to the process of selection within spetsnaz. At the outset the
weaker soldier is naturally not killed but thrown out of spetsnaz into a
more restful service. When a unit is carrying out a serious operation behind
enemy lines, however, the wolf-cubs of spetsnaz will kill their comrade
without a second thought if he appears to weaken. The killing of the weak is
not the result of a court decision but of lynch law. It may appear to be an
act of barbarism, but it is only by doing so that the wolves have retained
their strength for millions of years and remained masters of the forests
until such a time as an even more frightful predator -- man -- started to
destroy them on a massive scale.
But the she-wolf has also another reputation, and it is no accident
that the Romans for centuries had a she-wolf as the symbol of their empire.
A strong, wise, cruel and at the same time caring and affectionate she-wolf
reared two human cubs: could there be a more striking symbol of love and
Within their pack the wolves conduct a running battle to gain a higher
place in the hierarchy. And I never saw anything inside spetsnaz that could
be described as soldier's friendship, at least nothing like what I had seen
among the tank troops and the infantry. Within spetsnaz a bitter battle goes
on for a place in the pack, closer to the leader and even in the leader's
place. In the course of this bitter battle for a place in the pack the
spetsnaz soldier is sometimes capable of displaying such strength of
character as I have never seen elsewhere.
The beating up of the young recruits who are just starting their
service is an effort on the part of the stariki to preserve their dominating
position in the section, platoon or company. But among the recruits too
there is right from the beginning a no less bitter battle going on for
priority. This struggle takes the form of continual fighting between groups
and individuals. Even among the stariki not everyone is not on the same
level: they also have their various levels of seniority. The more senior
levels strive to keep the inferior ones under their control. The inferior
ones try to extract themselves from that control. It is very difficult,
because if a young soldier tries to oppose someone who has served half a
year more than he has, the longer-serving man will be supported not only by
the whole of his class but also by the other senior classes: the salaga is
not only offending a soldier senior to himself (never mind who he is and
what the older ones think of him) but is also undermining the whole
tradition established over the decades in spetsnaz and the rest of the
Soviet Army. In spite of all this, attempts at protest by the inferior
classes occur regularly and are sometimes successful.
I recall a soldier of enormous physique and brutal features known as
`The Demon' who, after serving for half a year, got together a group of
soldiers from all the classes and lorded it over not just his own platoon
but the whole company. He was good at sensing the mood of a company. He and
his group never attacked stariki in normal circumstances. They would wait
patiently until one of the stariki did something which by spetsnaz standards
is considered a disgrace, like stealing. Only then would they set about him,
usually at night. The Demon was skilful at making use of provocation. For
example, having stolen a bottle of aftershave from a soldier, he would slip
it to one of his enemies. There is no theft in spetsnaz. The thief is, then,
always discovered very quickly and punished mercilessly. And The Demon was,
of course, in charge of the punitive action.
But seniority in spetsnaz units is not determined only by means of
fists. In The Demon's group there was a soldier known as `The Squint', a man
of medium height and build. I do not know how it came about, but it soon
became apparent that, although The Demon was lording it over the whole
company, he never opposed The Squint. One day The Squint made fun of him in
public, drawing attention to his ugly nostrils. There was some mild laughter
in the company and The Demon was clearly humiliated, but for some reason he
did not choose to exercise his strength. The Squint soon came to dominate
the whole company, but it never occurred to him to fight anyone or to order
anybody about. He simply told The Demon out loud what he wanted, and The
Demon used his strength to influence the whole company. This went on for
about three months. How the system worked and why, was not for us officers
to know. We watched what was going on from the sidelines, neither
interfering nor trying to look too closely into it.
But then there was a revolution. Someone caught The Demon out in a
provocation. The Demon again stole something and slipped it to one of his
stariki, and he was found out. The Demon and The Squint and their closest
friends were beaten all night until the duty officer intervened. The Demon
and The Squint were locked up temporarily in a store where they kept barrels
of petrol. They kept them there for several days because the likelihood of a
bloody settling of accounts was considerable. Meanwhile the whole affair was
reported to the chief of Intelligence for the district. Knowing the way
things were done in spetsnaz, he decided that both men should be tried by a
military tribunal. The result was a foregone conclusion. As usual the
tribunal did not hear the true causes of the affair. The officer commanding
the company simply put together a number of minor offences: being late on
parade, late for inspection, found in a drunken state, and so forth. The
whole company confirmed everything in their evidence, and the accused made
no attempt to deny the charges. Yet there was some rough justice in the
process, because they probably both deserved their sentences of eighteen
months in a penal battalion.
The silent majority can put up with anything for a long time. But
sometimes a spark lands in the powder keg and there is a frightful
explosion. Often in spetsnaz a group of especially strong and bullying
soldiers will dominate the scene for a certain time, until suddenly a
terrible counter blow is struck, whereupon the group is broken up into
pieces and its members, scorned and disliked, have to give way to another
In every company there are a few soldiers who do not try to dominate
the rest, who do not voice their opinions and who do not try to achieve
great influence. At the same time everyone is aware of some enormous hidden
strength in them, and no one dares to touch them. This kind of soldier is
usually found somewhere near the top of the platoon's hierarchy, rarely at
the very top.
I remember a soldier known as `The Machine'. He always kept himself to
himself. He probably experienced no great emotions, and by spetsnaz
standards he was probably too kind and placid a person. He did his job
properly and seemed never to experience in his work either enthusiasm or
resentment. Nobody, not even The Demon, dared touch The Machine. On one
occasion, when The Demon was beating up one of the young soldiers, The
Machine went up to him and said, `That's enough of that.' The Demon did not
argue, but stopped what he was doing and moved away. The Machine reverted to
It was clear to everyone that The Machine's dislike of The Demon had
not been given its full expression. And so it was. On the night when the
whole company beat up The Demon and The Squint, The Machine lay on his bed
and took no part in the beating. Finally his patience gave out, he went to
the toilet where the sentence was being carried out, pushed the crowd aside
with his enormous hands and said, `Let me give him a punch.'
He gave The Demon a blow in the stomach with his mighty fist. Everyone
thought he had killed the man, who bent double and collapsed in a heap like
a wooden puppet with string instead of joints. They poured water over him
and for half an hour afterwards did not strike him. They were afraid of
finishing it off, afraid they would be tried for murder. Then they saw that
The Demon had survived and they continued to beat him. Quite aloof from the
squabble for top position in the company, The Machine had gone straight back
In the same company there was a soldier known as `The Otter'; slim,
well built, handsome. He was not very big and appeared to have little
strength. But he was like a sprung steel plate. His strength seemed to be
explosive. He had amazing reactions. When, as a recruit, he first jumped
over the towel, he was subjected to the usual treatment by the stariki.
`Drop your pants and lie down,' they said. He took hold of his belt as
though he was ready to carry out their orders. They dropped their guard, and
at that moment The Otter struck one of them in the mouth with such a blow
that his victim fell to the ground and was knocked senseless. While he was
falling The Otter struck another one in the teeth. A third backed out of the
That night, when he was asleep, they bound him in a blanket and beat
him up brutally. They beat him the second night, and the third, and again
and again. But he was a very unusual person even by spetsnaz standards. He
possessed rather unusual muscles. When they were relaxed they looked like
wet rags. He suffered a lot of beatings, but one had the impression that
when he was relaxed he felt no pain. Perhaps there were qualities in his
character that put him above the standards we were used to. When The Otter
slept he was then in the power of the stariki and they did not spare him.
They attacked him in the dark, so that he should not recognise his
attackers. But he knew all of them instinctively. He never quarrelled with
them and he always avoided groups of them. If they attacked him in the
daylight he made no great effort to resist. But if he came across a stariki
on his own he would punch him in the teeth. If he came across him again he
would do the same again. He could knock a man's teeth out. He would strike
suddenly and like lightning. He would be standing relaxed, his arms hanging
down, looking at the ground. Then suddenly there would be a frightful,
shattering blow. On several occasions he punched stariki in the presence of
the whole company and sometimes even with officers present. How beautifully
he punched them! If there were officers present the company commander would
admire The Otter and indicate his approval with a smile on his face -- then
sentence him to three days in the guard room, because they were not allowed
to hit each other.
This went on for a long time, until the stariki became tired of it all
and left him alone. Nobody touched him any more. Six months later they
offered him a place at the very top. He refused, still keeping his silence.
He never got involved in the affairs of the platoon and had no desire and no
claim to be a leader. When the whole company was beating up The Demon The
Otter did not join in. Some years later I met a spetsnaz man I knew and
learnt that The Machine had been offered a job with the professional
athletic service. He had refused and had gone back to some remote Siberian
village where his home was. But The Otter had accepted the offer and is now
serving in one of the best spetsnaz formations, training for the ultimate
job of assassinating key political and military figures on the enemy's side.
There are other ways in which a spetsnaz soldier can defend his
position in the hierarchy, apart from punching people in the face. Spetsnaz
respects people who take risks, who have strength and display courage. A man
who will jump further than others on a motorcycle, or one who will wait
longer than others to open his parachute, or one who hammers nails into a
plank with the palm of his hand -- such people are assured of respect. A man
who goes on running in spite of tiredness when all the others are
collapsing, who can go longer than others without food and drink, who can
shoot better than the others -- such people are also well thought of. But
when everybody is thought highly of, there is still a struggle among the
best. And if there is no other way for a man to show that he is better than
another, physical violence will break out.
Two soldiers in leading positions may fight each other secretly without
anyone else being present: they go off into the forest and fight it out. A
conflict may begin with a sudden, treacherous attack by one man on another.
There are also open, legal encounters. Sport is particularly admired by
spetsnaz. The whole company is brought together, and they fight each other
without rules, using all the tricks that spetsnaz has taught them -- boxing,
sambo, karate. Some fights go on until the first blood is drawn. Others go
on until one person is humiliated and admits he is defeated.
Among the various ways of finding leaders a very effective one is the
fight with whips. It is an old gypsy way of establishing a relationship. The
leather-plaited whip several metres long is a weapon only rarely met with in
spetsnaz. But if a soldier (usually a Kalmik, a Mongolian or a gypsy) shows
that he can handle the weapon with real skill he is allowed to carry a whip
with him as a weapon. When two experts with the whip meet up and each claims
to be the better one, the argument is resolved in a frightful contest.
When we speak about the customs observed within spetsnaz we must of
course take into account the simple fact that spetsnaz has its own standards
and its own understanding of the words `bad' and `good'. Let us not be too
strict in our judgement of the spetsnaz soldiers for their cruel ways, their
bloodthirstiness and their lack of humanity. Spetsnaz is a closed society of
people living permanently at the extreme limits of human existence. They are
people who even in peacetime are risking their lives. Their existence bears
no relation at all to the way the majority of the inhabitants of our planet
live. In spetsnaz a man can be admired for qualities of which the average
man may have no idea.
The typical spetsnaz soldier is a sceptic, a cynic and a pessimist. He
believes profoundly in the depravity of human nature and knows (from his own
experience) that in extreme conditions a man becomes a beast. There are
situations where a man will save the lives of others at the expense of his
own life. But in the opinion of the spetsnaz men this happens only in a
sudden emergency: for example, a man may throw himself in front of a train
to push another man aside and save his life. But when an emergency
situation, such as a terrible famine, lasts for months or even years, the
spetsnaz view is that it is every man for himself. If a man helps another in
need it means that the need is not extreme. If a man shares his bread with
another in time of famine it means the famine is not extreme.
In the spetsnaz soldier's opinion the most dangerous thing he can do is
put faith in his comrade, who may at the most critical moment turn out to be
a beast. It is much simpler for him not to trust his comrade (or anybody
else), so that in a critical situation there will be no shattered illusions.
Better that he regards all his fellow human beings as beasts from the outset
than to make that discovery in an utterly hopeless situation.
The soldier's credo can be stated in a triple formula: Don't trust,
don't beg, don't fear. It is a formula which did not originate in spetsnaz,
but in prisons many centuries ago. In it can be seen the whole outlook of
the spetsnaz soldier: his practically superhuman contempt for death, and a
similar contempt for everybody around him. He does not believe in justice,
goodness or humanity. He does not even believe in force until it has been
demonstrated by means of a fist, a whip or the teeth of a dog. When it is
demonstrated his natural reflex is to challenge it immediately.
Sometimes in the life of a spetsnaz soldier he has a sort of
revelation, a sense of complete freedom and happiness. In this mental state
he fears nobody at all, trusts no one at all, and would not ask anybody for
anything, even for mercy. This state comes about in a combination of
circumstances in which a soldier would go voluntarily to his death,
completely contemptuous of it. At that moment the soldier's mind triumphs
completely over cowardice, the vileness and meanness around him. Once he has
experienced this sensation of liberation, the soldier is capable of any act
of heroism, even sacrificing his life to save a comrade. But his act has
nothing in common with ordinary soldiers' friendship. The motive behind such
an act is to show, at the cost of his own life, his superiority over all
around him, including the comrade he saves.
In order for such a moment of revelation to come on some occasion, the
soldier goes through a long and careful training. All the beatings, all the
insults and humiliations that he has suffered, are steps on the path to a
brilliant suicidal feat of heroism. The well-fed, self-satisfied, egoistic
soldier will never perform any acts of heroism. Only someone who has been
driven barefoot into the mud and snow, who has had even his bread taken away
from him and has proved every day with his fists his right to existence --
only this kind of man is capable of showing one day that he really is the
Chapter 5. The `Other People'
Although the vast majority of spetsnaz is made up of Slavonic
personnel, there are some exceptions.
At first glance you would say he is a gypsy. Tall, well-built, athletic
in his movements, handsome, with a hooked nose and flashing eyes. The
captain plays the guitar so well that passers-by stop and do not go away
until he stops playing. He dances as very few know how. His officer's
uniform fits him as if it were on a dummy in the window of the main military
clothing shop on the Arbat.
The officer has had a typical career. He was born in 1952 in Ivanovo,
where he went to school. Then he attended the higher school for airborne
troops in Ryazan, and he wears the uniform of the airborne forces. He
commands a company in the Siberian military district. All very typical and
familiar. At first glance. But he is Captain Roberto Rueda-Maestro -- not a
very usual name for a Soviet officer.
There is a mistake: the captain is not a gypsy. And if we study him
more carefully we notice some other peculiarities. He is wearing the uniform
of the airborne troops. But there are no airborne troops in the Siberian
military district where he is stationed. Even stranger is the fact that
after finishing school Roberto spent some time in Spain as a tourist. That
was in 1969. Can we imagine a tourist from the Soviet Union being in Spain
under Franco's rule, at a time when the Soviet Union maintained no
diplomatic relations with Spain? Roberto Rueda-Maestro was in Spain at that
time and has some idea of the country. But the strangest aspect of this
story is that, after spending some time in a capitalist country, the young
man was able to enter a Soviet military school. And not any school, but the
Ryazan higher school for airborne troops.
These facts are clues. The full set of clues gives us the right answer,
without fear of contradiction. The captain is a spetsnaz officer.
During the Civil War in Spain thousands of Spanish children were
evacuated to the Soviet Union. The exact number of children evacuated is not
known. The figures given about this are very contradictory. But there were
enough of them for several full-length films to be made and for books and
articles to be written about them in the Soviet Union.
As young men they soon became cadets at Soviet military schools. A
well-known example is Ruben Ruis Ibarruri, son of Dolores Ibarruri, general
secretary of the Communist Party of Spain. Even at this time the Spaniards
were put into the airborne troops. Ruben Ibarruri, for example, found
himself in the 8th airborne corps. It is true that in a war of defence those
formations intended for aggressive advancing operations were found to be
unnecessary, and they were reorganised into guard rifle divisions and used
in defensive battles at Stalingrad. Lieutenant Ibarruri was killed while
serving in the 35th guard rifle division which had been formed out of the
8th airborne corps. It was a typical fate for young men at that time. But
then they were evacuated to the Urals and Siberia, where the Spanish
Communist Party (under Stalin's control) organised special schools for them.
From then on references to Spanish children appeared very rarely in the
One of the special schools was situated in the town of Ivanovo and was
known as the E. D. Stasova International School. Some graduates of this
school later turned up in Fidel Castro's personal bodyguard, some became
leading figures in the Cuban intelligence service -- the most aggressive in
the world, exceeding its teachers in the GRU and KGB in both cruelty and
cunning. Some of the school's graduates were used as `illegals' by the GRU
It has to be said, however, that the majority of the first generation
of Spanish children remained in the Soviet Union with no possibility of
leaving it. But then in the 1950s and 1960s a new generation of Soviet
Spaniards was born, differing from the first generation in that it had no
parents in the USSR. This is very important if a young man is being sent
abroad on a risky mission, for the Communists then have the man's parents as
The second generation of Spaniards is used by the Soviet Government in
many ways for operations abroad. One very effective device is to send some
young Soviet Spaniards to Cuba, give them time to get used to the country
and acclimatise themselves, and then send them to Africa and Central America
as Cubans to fight against `American Imperialism'. The majority of Cuban
troops serving abroad are certainly Cubans. But among them is a certain
percentage of men who were born in the Soviet Union and who have Russian
wives and children and a military rank in the armed forces of the USSR.
For some reason Captain Roberto Rueda-Maestro is serving in the Urals
military district. I must emphasise that we are still talking about the
usual spetsnaz units, and we haven't started to discuss `agents'. An agent
is a citizen of a foreign country recruited into the Soviet intelligence
service. Roberto is a citizen of the Soviet Union. He does not have and has
never had in his life any other citizenship. He has a Russian wife and
children born on the territory of the USSR, as he was himself. That is why
the captain is serving in a normal spetsnaz unit, as an ordinary Soviet
Spetsnaz seeks out and finds -- it is easy to do in the Soviet Union --
people born in the Soviet Union but of obviously foreign origin. With a name
like Ruedo-Maestro it is very difficult to make a career in any branch of
the Soviet armed forces. The only exception is spetsnaz, where such a name
is no obstacle but a passport to promotion.
In spetsnaz I have met people with German names such as Stolz, Schwarz,
Weiss and so forth. The story of these Soviet Germans is also connected with
the war. According to 1979 figures there were 1,846,000 Germans living in
the Soviet Union. But most of those Germans came to Russia two hundred years
ago and are of no use to spetsnaz. Different Germans are required, and they
also exist in the Soviet Union.
During the war, and especially in its final stages, the Red Army took a
tremendous number of German soldiers prisoner. The prisoners were held in
utterly inhuman conditions, and it was not surprising that some of them did
things that they would not have done in any other situation. They were
people driven to extremes by the brutal Gulag regime, who committed crimes
against their fellow prisoners, sometimes even murdering their comrades, or
forcing them to suicide. Many of those who survived, once released from the
prison camp, were afraid to return to Germany and settled in the Soviet
Union. Though the percentage of such people was small it still meant quite a
lot of people, all of whom were of course on the records of the Soviet
secret services and were used by them. The Soviet special services helped
many of them to settle down and have a family. There were plenty of German
women from among the Germans long settled in Russia. So now the Soviet Union
has a second generation of Soviet Germans, born in the Soviet Union of
fathers who have committed crimes against the German people. This is the
kind of young German who can be met with in many spetsnaz units.
Very rarely one comes across young Soviet Italians, too, with the same
background as the Spaniards and Germans. And spetsnaz contains Turks, Kurds,
Greeks, Koreans, Mongolians, Finns and people of other nationalities. How
they came to be there I do not know. But it can be taken for granted that
every one of them has a much-loved family in the Soviet Union. Spetsnaz
trusts its soldiers, but still prefers to have hostages for each of its men.
The result is that the percentage of spetsnaz soldiers who were born in
the Soviet Union to parents of genuine foreign extraction is quite high.
With the mixture of Soviet nationalities, mainly Russian, Ukrainians,
Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Georgians and Uzbeks, the units are a very
motley company indeed. You may even, suddenly, come across a real Chinese.
Such people, citizens of the USSR but of foreign extraction, are known as
`the other people'. I don't know where the name came from, but the
foreigners accept it and are not offended. In my view it is used without any
tinge of racism, in a spirit rather of friendship and good humour, to
differentiate people who are on the one hand Soviet people born in the
Soviet Union of Soviet parents, and who on the other hand differ sharply
from the main body of spetsnaz soldiers in their appearance, speech, habits
I have never heard of there being purely national formations within
spetsnaz -- a German platoon or a Spanish company. It is perfectly possible
that they would be created in case of necessity, and perhaps there are some
permanent spetsnaz groups chosen on a purely national basis. But I cannot
Chapter 6. Athletes
In the Soviet Union sport has been nationalised. That means to say that
it does not serve the interests of individuals but of society as a whole.
The interests of the individual and the interests of society are sometimes
very different. The state defends the interests of society against
individuals, not just in sport but in all other spheres.
Some individuals want to be strong, handsome and attractive. That is
why `body-building' is so popular in the West. It is an occupation for
individuals. In the Soviet Union it scarcely exists, because such an
occupation brings no benefit to the state. Why should the state spend the
nation's resources so that someone can be strong and beautiful? Consequently
the state does not spend a single kopek on such things, does not organise
athletic competitions, does not reward the victors with prizes and does not
advertise achievements in that field. There are some individuals who engage
in body-building, but they have no resources and no rights to organise their
own societies and associations.
The same applies to billiards, golf and some other forms of which the
only purpose is relaxation and amusement. What benefits would it bring the
state if it spent money on such forms of sport? For the same reason the
Soviet Union has done nothing about sport for invalids. Why should it? To
make the invalids happy?
But that same state devotes colossal resources to sport which does
bring benefit to the state. In the Soviet Union any sport is encouraged
which: demonstrates the superiority of the Soviet system over any other
system; provides the ordinary people with something to take their minds off
their everyday worries; helps to strengthen the state, military and police
The Soviet Union is ready to encourage any sport in which achievement
is measured in minutes, seconds, metres, kilometres, centimetres, kilograms
or grams. If an athlete shows some promise that he may run a distance a
tenth of a second quicker than an American or may jump half a centimetre
higher than his rival across the ocean, the state will create for such an
athlete whatever conditions he needs: it will build him a personal training
centre, get together a personal group of trainers, doctors, managers or
scientific consultants. The state is rich enough to spend money on
self-advertisement. These `amateur' sportsmen earn large sums of money,
though exactly how much is a secret. The question has irritated some Soviets
because it would not be a secret if the amount were small. Even the
Literaturnaya Gazeta, on 6 August, 1986, raised the question with some
The Soviet Union encourages any striking spectator sport which can
attract millions of people, make them drop what they are doing and admire
the Soviet gymnasts, figure-skaters or acrobats. It also encourages all team
games. Basketball, volleyball, water polo are all popular. The most
aggressive of the team games, ice-hockey, is perhaps more of a national
religion than is Communist ideology. Finally, it encourages any sport
directly connected with the development of military skills: shooting,
flying, gliding, parachute jumping, boxing, sambo, karate, the biathlon, the
military triathlon, and so forth.
The most successful, richest and largest society in the Soviet Union
concerned with sport is the Central Army Sports Club (ZSKA). Members of the
club have included 850 European champions, 625 world champions and 182
Olympic champions. They have set up 341 European and 430 world records.1
1 All figures as of 1 January, 1979.
Such results do not indicate that the Soviet Army is the best at
training top-class athletes. This was admitted even by Pravda.2 The secret
of success lies in the enormous resources of the Soviet Army. Pravda
describes what happens: `It is sufficient for some even slightly promising
boxer to come on the scene and he is immediately lured across to the ZSKA.'
As a result, out of the twelve best boxers in the Soviet Union ten are from
the Army Club, one from Dinamo (the sports organisation run by the KGB), and
one from the Trud sports club. But of those ten army boxers, not one was the
original product of the Army club. They had all been lured away from other
clubs -- the Trudoviye reservy, the Spartak or the Burevestnik. The same
thing happens in ice-hockey, parachute jumping, swimming and many other
2 2 September, 1985.
How does the army club manage to attract athletes to it? Firstly be
giving them military rank. Any athlete who joins the ZSKA is given the rank
of sergeant, sergeant-major, warrant officer or officer, depending on what
level he is at. The better his results as an athlete the higher the rank.
Once he has a military rank an athlete is able to devote as much time to
sport as he wishes and at the same time be regarded as an amateur, because
professionally he is a soldier. Any Soviet `amateur' athlete who performs
slightly better than the average receives extra pay in various forms -- `for
additional nourishment', `for sports clothing', `for travelling', and so
forth. The `amateur' receives for indulging in his sport much more than a
doctor or a skilled engineer, so long as he achieves European standards. But
the Soviet Army also pays him, and not badly, for his military rank and
The ZSKA is very attractive for an athlete in that, when he can no
longer engage in his sport at international level, he can still retain his
military rank and pay. In most other clubs he would be finished altogether.
What has this policy produced? At the 14th winter Olympic Games, Soviet
military athletes won seventeen gold medals. If one counts also the number
of silver and bronze winners, the number of athletes with military rank is
greatly increased. And if one were to draw up a similar list of military
athletes at the summer Games it would take up many pages. Is there a single
army in the world that comes near the Soviet Army in this achievement?
Now for another question: why is the Soviet Army so ready to hand out
military ranks to athletes, to pay them a salary and provide them with the
accommodation and privileges of army officers?
The answer is that the ZSKA and its numerous branches provide a base
that spetsnaz uses for recruiting its best fighters. Naturally not every
member of the ZSKA is a spetsnaz soldier. But the best athletes in ZSKA
almost always are.
Spetsnaz is a mixture of sport, politics, espionage and armed
terrorism. It is difficult to determine what takes precedence and what is
subordinate to what, everything is so closely linked together.
In the first place the Soviet Union seeks international prestige in the
form of gold medals at the Olympics. To achieve that it needs an
organisation with the strictest discipline and rules, capable of squeezing
every ounce of strength out of the athletes without ever letting them slack
In the second place the Soviet Army needs an enormous number of people
with exceptional athletic ability at Olympic level to carry out special
missions behind the enemy's lines. It is desirable that these people should
be able to visit foreign countries in peace time. Sport makes that possible.
As far as the athletes are concerned, they are grateful for a very rich club
which can pay them well, provide them with cars and apartments, and arrange
trips abroad for them. Moreover, they need the sort of club in which they
can be regarded as amateurs, though they will work nowhere else but in the
Spetsnaz is the point where the interests of the state, the Soviet Army
and military intelligence coincide with the interests of some individuals
who want to devote their whole lives to sport.
After the Second World War, as a result of the experience gained,
sports battalions were created by the headquarters of every military
district, group of forces and fleet; at army and flotilla HQ level sports
companies were formed. These huge sports formations were directly under the
control of the Ministry of Defence. They provided the means of bringing
together the best athletes whose job was to defend the sporting honour of
the particular army, flotilla, district, group or fleet in which they
served. Some of the athletes were people called up for their military
service, who left the Army once they had completed their service. But the
majority remained in the military sports organisation for a long time with
the rank of sergeant and higher. Soviet military intelligence chose its best
men from the members of the sports units.
At the end of the 1960s it was recognised that a sports company or a
sports battalion was too much of a contradiction in terms. It could arouse
unnecessary attention from outsiders. So the sports units were disbanded and
in their place came the sports teams. The change was purely cosmetic. The
sports teams of the military districts, groups, fleets and so forth exist as
independent units. The soldiers, sergeants, praporshiki and officers who
belong to them are not serving in army regiments, brigades or divisions.
Their service is in the sports team under the control of the district's
headquarters. The majority of these sportsmen are carefully screened and
recruited for spetsnaz training to carry out the most risky missions behind
the enemy's lines. Usually they are all obliged to take part in parachute
jumping, sambo, rifle-shooting, running and swimming, apart from their own
A person looking at the teams of the military districts, groups and so
forth with an untrained eye will notice nothing unusual. It is as though
spetsnaz is a completely separate entity. Every athlete and every small
group have their own individual tasks and get on with them: running,
swimming, jumping and shooting. But later, in the evenings, in closed,
well-guarded premises, they study topography, radio communications,
engineering and other special subjects. They are regularly taken off
secretly in ones and twos or groups, or even regiments to remote parts where
they take part in exercises. Companies and regiments of professional
athletes in spetsnaz exist only temporarily during the exercises and alerts,
and they then quietly disperse, becoming again innocent sections and teams
able at the right moment to turn into formidable fighting units.
According to Colonel-General Shatilov, the athlete is more energetic
and braver in battle, has more confidence in his strength, is difficult to
catch unawares, reacts quickly to changes of circumstance and is less liable
to tire. There is no disputing this. A first-class athlete is primarily a
person who possesses great strength of will, who has defeated his own
laziness and cowardice, who has forced himself to run every day till he
drops and has trained his muscles to a state of complete exhaustion. An
athlete is a man infected by the spirit of competition and who desires
victory in a competition or battle more than the average man.
In the sports sections and teams of the military districts, groups,
armies, fleets, flotillas there is a very high percentage of women also
engaged in sport and who defend the honour of their district, group and so
forth. Like the men, the women are given military rank and, like the men,
are recruited into spetsnaz.
There are no women in the usual spetsnaz units. But in the professional
sports units of spetsnaz women constitute about half the numbers. They
engage in various kinds of sport: parachute jumping, gliding, flying,
shooting, running, swimming, motocross, and so on. Every woman who joins
spetsnaz has to engage in some associated forms of sport apart from her own
basic sport, and among these are some that are obligatory, such as sambo,
shooting and a few others. The woman have to take part in exercises along
with the men and have to study the full syllabus of subjects necessary for
operating behind the enemy's lines.
That there should be such a high percentage of women in the
professional sports formations of spetsnaz is a matter of psychology and
strategy: if in the course of a war a group of tall, broadshouldered young
men were to appear behind the lines this might give rise to bewilderment,
since all the men are supposed to be at the front. But if in the same
situation people were to see a group of athletic-looking girls there would
be little likelihood of any alarm or surprise.
To be successful in war you have to have a very good knowledge of the
natural conditions in the area in which you are to be operating: the terrain
and the climate. You must have a good idea of the habits of the local
population, the language and the possibilities of concealment; the forests,
undergrowth, mountains, caves, and the obstacles to be overcome; the rivers,
ravines and gullies. You must know the whereabouts of the enemy's military
units and police, the tactics they employ and so forth.
A private in the average spetsnaz unit cannot, of course, visit the
places where he is likely to have to fight in the event of war. But a
top-class professional athlete does have the opportunity. The Soviet Army
takes advantage of such opportunities.
For example, in 1984 the 12th world parachuting championship took place
in France. There were altogether twenty-six gold medals to be competed for,
and the Soviet team won twenty-two of them. The `Soviet team' was in fact a
team belonging to the armed forces of the USSR. It consisted of five men and
five women: a captain, a senior praporshik, three praporshiki, a senior
sergeant and four sergeants. The team's trainer, its doctor and the whole of
the technical personnel were Soviet officers. The Soviet reporter
accompanying the team was a colonel. This group of `sportsmen' spent time in
Paris and in the south of France. A very interesting and very useful trip,
and there were other Soviet officers besides -- for example a colonel who
was the trainer of the Cuban team.
Now let us suppose a war has broken out. The Soviet Army must
neutralise the French nuclear capability. France is the only country in
Europe, apart from the Soviet Union itself, that stores strategic nuclear
missiles in underground silos. The silos are an extremely important target,
possibly the most important in Europe. The force that will put them out of
action will be a spetsnaz force. And who will the Soviet high command send
to carry out the mission? The answer is that, after the world parachuting
championship, they have a tailor-made team.
It is often claimed that sport improves relations between countries.
This is a strange argument. If it is the case, why did it not occur to
anyone before the Second World War to invite German SS parachutists to their
country to improve relations with the Nazis?
At the present time every country has good grounds for not receiving
any Soviet military athletes on its own territory. The USSR should not be
judged on its record. To take three cases: the Soviet Government sent troops
into Czechoslovakia temporarily. We of course trust the statements made by
the Soviet Government and know that after a certain time the Soviet troops
will be withdrawn from Czechoslovakia. But until that happens there are
sufficient grounds for `temporarily' not allowing the Soviet Army into any
Secondly, the Soviet Union introduced a `limited' contingent of its
troops into Afghanistan. The Soviet leaders' idea was that the word
`limited' would serve to reassure everyone -- there would be grounds for
concern if there were an `unlimited' contingent of Soviet troops in
Afghanistan. But so long as the `limited' contingent of Soviet troops is
still in Afghanistan it would not be a bad idea to limit the number of
Soviet colonels, majors, captains and sergeants in the countries of the
West, especially those wearing blue berets and little gilt parachute badges
on their lapels. It is those people in the blue berets who are killing
children, women and old men in Afghanistan in the most brutal and ruthless
Thirdly, a Soviet pilot shot down a passenger plane with hundreds of
people in it. After that, is there any sense in meeting Soviet airmen at
international competitions and finding out who is better and who is worse?
Surely the answer is clear, without any competition.
Sport is politics, and big-time sport is big-time politics. At the end
of the last war the Soviet Union seized the three Baltic states of Estonia,
Latvia and Lithuania and the West has never recognised the Soviet Union's
right to those territories. All right, said the Soviet leaders, if you won't
recognise it de jure, recognise it de facto. A great deal has been done,
some of it with the help of sport. During the Moscow Olympic Games some of
the competitions took place in Moscow and some of them in the occupied
territories of the Baltic states. At that time I talked to a number of
Western politicians and sportsmen. I asked them: if the Soviet Union had
occupied Sweden, would they have gone to the Olympic Games in Moscow? With
one indignant voice they replied, `No!' But if parts of the Games had taken
place in Moscow and part in Stockholm would they have gone to occupied
Stockholm? Here there was no limit to their indignation. They considered
themselves people of character and they would never have gone to occupied
countries. Then why, I asked, did they go to an Olympic Games, part of which
took place in the occupied territory of the Baltic states? To that question
I received no answer.
The units made up of professional athletes in spetsnaz are an elite
within an elite. They are made up of far better human material (some of
Olympic standard), enjoy incomparably better living conditions and many more
privileges than other spetsnaz units.
In carrying out their missions the professional athletes have the right
to make contact with spetsnaz agents on enemy territory and obtain help from
them. They are in effect the advance guard for all the other spetsnaz
formations. They are the first to be issued with latest weapons and
equipment and the first to try out the newly devised and most risky kinds of
operation. It is only after experiments have been carried out by the units
of athletes that new weapons, equipment and ways of operating are adopted by
regular spetsnaz units. Here is an example:
In my book Aquarium, first published in July 1985, I described the
period of my life when I served as an officer of the Intelligence
directorate of a military district and often had to act as the personal
representative of the district's chief of intelligence with the spetsnaz
groups. The period I described was identified: it was after my return from
`liberated' Czechoslovakia and before I entered the Military-Diplomatic
Academy in the summer of 1970.
I described the ordinary spetsnaz units that I had to deal with. One
group carried out a parachute jump from 100 metres. Each man had just one
parachute: in that situation a spare one was pointless. The jump took place
over snow. Throughout the book I refer only to one type of parachute: the
D-1-8. Four months later, in the magazine Sovetsky Voin for November 1985, a
Lieutenant-General Lisov published what might be called the pre-history of
group parachute jumps by spetsnaz units from critically low levels. The
General describes a group jump from a height of 100 metres in which each man
had only one parachute, and he explains that a spare one is not needed. The
jump takes place over snow. The article refers to only one type of parachute
-- the D-1-8.
General Lisov was describing trials which were carried out from October
1967 to March 1968. The General did not, of course, say why the trials were
carried out and the word spetsnaz was not, of course, used. But he
underlined the fact that the trial was not conducted because it had any
connection with sport. On the contrary, according to the rules laid down by
the international sports bodies at that time, anyone who during a contest
opened his parachute less than 400 metres from the ground was disqualified.
General Lisov conducted the trial contrary to all rules of the sport
and not to demonstrate sporting prowess. The military athletes left the
aircraft at a height of 100 metres, so their parachutes must have opened
even lower down. The group jump took place simultaneously from several
aircraft, with the parachutists leaving their plane at about one-second
intervals. Each of them was in the air for between 9.5 and 13 seconds.
General Lisov summed it up like this: 100 metres, 50 men, 23 seconds. An
amazing result by any standards.
The fifty men symbolised the fifty years of the Soviet Army. It was
planned to carry out the jump of 23 February, 1968, on the Army's
anniversary, but because of the weather it was postponed till 1 March.
I could not have known at that time about General Lisov's trials. But
it is now clear to me that the tactic that was being developed in the
spetsnaz fighting units in 1969-70 had been initiated by professional
military athletes a year before.
This dangerous stunt was carried out in my ordinary spetsnaz unit in
rather simpler conditions: we jumped in a group of thirteen men from the
wide rear door of an Antonov-12 aircraft. The professionals described by
General Lisov jumped from the narrow side doors of an Antonov-2, which is
more awkward and dangerous. The professionals made the jump in a much bigger
group, more closely together and with greater accuracy.
In spite of the fact that the ordinary spetsnaz units did not succeed
and will never succeed in achieving results comparable with those of the
professional athletes, nevertheless the idea of the group jump from a height
of a hundred metres provided the fighting units with an exceptionally
valuable technique. The special troops are on the ground before the planes
have vanished over the horizon, and they are ready for action before the
enemy has had time to grasp what is happening. They need this technique to
be able to attack the enemy without any warning at all. That is the reason
for taking such a risk.
During a war the fighting units of spetsnaz will be carrying out
missions behind the enemy's lines. Surely the units of professional
athletes, which are capable of carrying out extremely dangerous work with
even greater precision and speed than the ordinary spetsnaz units, should
not be left unemployed in wartime?
Before leaving the subject entirely, I would like to add a few words
about another use of Soviet athletes for terrorist operations. Not only the
Soviet Army but also the Soviet state's punitive apparatus (known at various
times as the NKVD, the MGB, the MVD and the KGB) has its own sports
organisation, Dinamo. Here are some illustrations of its practical
`When the war broke out the "pure" parachutists disappeared, Anna
Shishmareva joined the OMSBON.'3 Anna Shishmareva is a famous Soviet woman
athlete of the pre-war period, while OMSBON was a brigade of the NKVD's
osnaz which I have already referred to. Another example: `Among the people
in our osoby, as our unit was called, were many athletes, record holders and
Soviet champions famous before the war.'4 Finally: Boris Galushkin, the
outstanding Soviet boxer of the pre-war period, was a lieutenant and worked
as an interrogator in the NKVD. During the war he went behind the enemy
lines in one of the osnaz units.
I have quite a few examples in my collection. But the KGB and the
Dinamo sports club are not my field of interest. I hope that one of the
former officers of the KGB who has fled to the West will write in greater
detail about the use of athletes in the Soviet secret police.
However, I must also make mention of the very mysterious Soviet
sporting society known as Zenit. Officially it belongs to the ministry for
the aircraft industry. But there are some quite weighty reasons for
believing that there is somebody else behind the club. The Zenit cannot be
compared with the ZSKA or Dinamo in its sporting results or its popularity.
But it occasionally displays a quite unusual aggressiveness in its efforts
to acquire the best athletes. The style and the general direction of the
training in the Zenit are very militarised and very similar to what goes on
in the ZSKA and Dinamo. Zenit deserves greater attention than it has been
shown. It is just possible that the researcher who studied Zenit and its
connections seriously will make some surprising discoveries.
3 Sovetsky Voin, No. 20, 1985.
4 Krasnaya Zvezda, 22 May, 1985.