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PAX, LUX ET VERITAS SINCE 1965
Post "Barrier Troops" as a Soviet Tactic
Created by John Eipper on 06/20/19 4:00 AM

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"Barrier Troops" as a Soviet Tactic (Boris Volodarsky, Austria, 06/20/19 4:00 am)

To David Pike's post of 19 June and JE's comment:

So-called barrier troops are well known and there is no sense to acknowledge or deny this fact (as is the case with modern Russian historiography, which exercises total denial of their existence).

From Wikipedia: Barrier troops, blocking units, or anti-retreat forces are troops that are placed behind the front lines during a battle in order to apprehend or shoot any soldiers attempting to retreat without orders or desert. The most often cited example of their use comes with the Soviets' Red Army.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrier_troops

This long article is quite good and useful to read. What was new to me in David's post was the alleged use of blocking units (by the Soviets?) during the Spanish Civil War. I quote, "was the tactic used by the Red Army to move forward (as they had already moved forward on certain Spanish Republican troops in the Civil War)."

Could David give his source for this claim?

JE comments:  Were Soviet commissars attached to some Spanish Republican units?  I'd also like to know more.

Wikipedia (above) says that the units were officially disbanded by Stalin's orders in October 1944.  The war was nearly over by this point.


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  • Decimation, Deserters, and Draft Dodgers (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 06/20/19 9:30 AM)
    The use of "barrier troops" in Spain was common knowledge in Italy.  I remember a propaganda postcard about it and another showing a "Rojo" tied with a chain to his machine gun in the trench. My grandfather had a number of these cards that unfortunately were lost.

    But nothing new. During WWII practically all armies used the firing squad for those who refused orders or showed cowardice. Even worse, sometimes the practice of decimation took place, executing one out of every ten in a unit that had withdrawn without orders to do so.


    According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the practice started in 471 BC.


    It is difficult to determine a clear number of Great War-era executions, as some executions took place on the spot, such as the officer who shot a soldier trying to escape. Many apparently were not even reported. Anyway, the official death sentences in Italy were 750, France 600, UK 346 and (surprise) Germany only 46.


    About WWII, I know only what my father once reported to my mother: after El Alamein under a furious British attack, two Italian soldiers went running toward the enemy with raised hands. They were immediately put down from a burst of machine gun from the Italian line. It's a terrible fact, though understandable.


    A question: practically all nations have laws against deserters or draft dodgers (however some cowards may even become warmonger presidents in certain nations), but at the same time there is an international law to protect those who escape from a country at war, even if they are strong young fellows. Is there something wrong with this?


    JE comments:  I've read of machine-gunners chained to their guns in several contexts.  In the Great War, it was Germans who did so voluntarily.  Echoes of the Roman galleys?  Other accounts say these "chains" were actually chain-like harnesses that allowed the gunners to move around their heavy equipment.


    https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/46667-german-soldiers-chained-to-machine-gun/


    The official count for WWII executions for desertion in the US stands at one:  Detroit's own, Private Eddie Slovik.


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    • Soviet "Barrier Troops" in Spain? (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 06/21/19 7:08 AM)

      I am astounded by the ease with which Eugenio Battaglia (20 June) mentions the use of barrier troops in Spain. Just a couple of his father's postcards showing a "Rojo" tied with a chain to his machine gun in the trench and voilà, the confirmation is here.



      According to the Soviet government directive of 29 June 1920, the use of barrier troops ("zagradotryády") was stopped in Russia (until the war). Their presence behind the front lines--this time these were special departments of the NKVD who formed them--was reinstated by the NKVD directive no. 39212 of 28 July 1941. Does David Pike (and, it looks like, Eugenio in tow) mean that during the Spanish Civil War there existed NKVD troops, or indeed any other Red Army units, that could have been used in this function? It seems this supposition is as truthful as writings by Robert Service and Robert Conquest whose Congress-for-Cultural-Freedom mentality dominates all their works.



      I repeat my question: which source is there to prove there were indeed Soviet barrier troops or blocking units in Spain during the Civil War?


      JE comments:  The Congress for Cultural Freedom was the "soft-power" wing of the CIA.  It would be instructive to chronicle how many of the war-tactic shibboleths we've discussed were the brainchildren of the CCF.


      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congress_for_Cultural_Freedom


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      • Soviet "Barrier Troops" in the Spanish Civil War? (David Pike, France 06/22/19 4:50 AM)
        In response to Boris Volodarsky, I rush to intervene on the topic of the day, despite my book deadline of June 26. Not because I have time to put anything together, but because nothing I have written promotes the idea of Soviet forces taking part in the Spanish Civil War.

        I have always thought they were limited to a few hundred "advisers," albeit in many key positions, and never allowed to expose themselves to death in combat. They were nevertheless present behind the lines, and giving instructions. Did the Nationalists ever take a Soviet prisoner during the war? What I learned about the Soviets and their running of prisons (prisons that not even the Spanish Republican police could enter) came from those who had deserted from the International Brigades, especially those who gave evidence against André Marty.


        JE comments:  What do we know about Soviet-run prisons in Spain?  I was aware that the Russians disappeared a lot of people, but I always thought this nasty work was carried out "informally."

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        • Did the Soviets Use "Barrier Troops" in Spain? (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 06/24/19 4:49 AM)
          In response to the comments of David Pike and Boris Volodarsky regarding the use of Soviet "barrier" troops and the general participation of Soviet troops in the Spanish Civil War, I have done some digging through several sources freely available.



          Apparently there is no evidence of Soviet troops used in the "barrier" function in Spain. There were indeed Spanish comisarios políticos, equivalent to Russian political commissars--военный комиссар--in the Republican communist regiments. They had the tasks of ideological education and discipline. In this regard there are testimonial accounts and documentary evidence of these comisarios being particularly severe as troop "barriers." Many times they shot their own troops if they dared to retreat in combat. It is said that communist troops were highly disciplined. The 5th Regiment was legendary in this regard, but many times the commissar had to act in this particularly mean and nasty way.



          Now to the question of Soviet combat troops in the Spanish war. According to sources, the number of Russians in the war was in between 2000 to 3000; they were military consultants, security advisers (spies), translators, instructors but also in some cases, combatants.



          Russia sent more than 600 airplanes, 350 tanks, armored cars, machine guns, rifles and ammunition and other war supplies.  They also sent 772 pilots, 351 tank drivers and operators, besides a good number of volunteers in the International Brigades. During the war 99 pilots died in combat, as well as 53 tank operators, and an uncertain number of Brigade members.



          Many of the Russian combatants were highly decorated when they got back to the USSR, but also many others were also executed by the Stalinist purges. Only a few remained in Spain after the war.



          The role of Soviet spies in the war has been obscure and remains largely secret, but particularly notorious were their several failed attempts to kill Franco. See the famous Orlov Case.



          Of course the Russian aid was paid for by the Republican government with the full gold reserves of the Bank of Spain, though the aid was incomparable with German and Italian aid to the rebels.

          JE comments:  What type of personality do you need to become a comisario político?  Total intransigence?  Absolute cruelty?  General jackass-ism?  It's not the kind of work I'd be cut out for.



          Boris Volodarsky (literally) wrote the book on Orlov. And voilà! Boris is next in the WAIS queue, with a comment on the 2000 or so Soviet adviser/combatants in Spain.

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        • More on Soviet "Volunteers" in Spain (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 06/24/19 5:50 AM)

          I am grateful to David Pike (22 June) for answering my question. Briefly commenting on David's post and JE's question about Soviet-run prisons in Spain, I submit the following:



          We have established that there were no "barrier troops" staffed by Soviet advisers during the Spanish Civil War. There were no Soviet-run prisons either. Different Chekas that operated in the Republican zone during the first months of the war were all staffed and headed by the Spaniards and sometimes foreigners, mainly Germans with one or two Poles, Austrians and a few Americans. The Chekas were running secret as well as regular prisons. Soviet NKVD advisers, as for example Lev Nikolsky (better known as Alexander Orlov) sometimes took part in the interrogation of the Trotskyists and even more seldom of other prisoners, mainly foreign, but not a single prison was "Soviet-run."


          John wrote, "I was aware that the Russians disappeared a lot of people, but I always thought this nasty work was carried out 'informally.'" Well, to those who'd like to know all details about the NKVD work in Spain, I shall recommend my book Stalin's Agent (Oxford University Press, 2014). All of those who "disappeared" were either suspected Trotskyists or indeed worked with Trotsky at this or that period.



          Soviet "volunteers"--military advisers, translators, medical staff, technical specialists and fighters--did take part in action, especially pilots and tankmen. Many were awarded the highest Soviet decoration--the Order of Lenin with (or without) the golden star of the Hero of the Soviet Union for exceptional courage in battle. Some of them, very few, were taken prisoner. Altogether from September 1936 to April 1939 there were slightly over 2,000 Soviet volunteers in Spain.



          The Main Archive Department of Moscow have just published a two-volume special edition that includes all names and short biographies of all Soviet volunteers in Spain any material on whom was found in the archives. The director of the archive was very kind to send me both volumes as a gift. Two last Soviet participants who took part in the war--navigator Victor Lavsky and translator/intelligence officer Adelina Kondratieva--both died in 2012.


          JE comments:  Boris, what do we know about the (albeit few) Soviets who were captured by the Francoists?  Did any of them switch sides and stay?

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          • Soviet POWs in Spanish Civil War (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 07/04/19 6:19 AM)

            I am sorry for delay in commenting our esteemed editor's excellent question (and Cameron Sawyer's comment of 29 June). I was travelling.


            JE asked, "Boris, what do we know about the (albeit few) Soviets who were captured by the Francoists? Did any of them switch sides and stay?"


            If I wanted to be very laconic I would simply say--nothing at all is known about Russian PoWs in the Spanish Civil War. In my files I can probably fish out a few names but that would be it. The intriguing part of the story is that, as in the case with other nationalities, Russians were fighting on both sides. A certain number of the White Guards, former tsarist officers and NCOs, after the revolution and the Russian civil war resident in France, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Turkey were volunteers to the Franco troops. The Soviets were of course on the Republican side. As it happens, a small number of them became prisoners of war. Some of those who were captured by the rebels were interrogated and information was later summarised in the infamous Causa General collection without any reference to sources. Part of this information leaked to (but was not officially shared with) SIS. In London it was considered of no value and shelved. Remarkably, it is still classified but I am sure there is nothing interesting there except for the fact that British agents collaborated, albeit sporadically, with Franco's information services. One related story, however, is rather interesting.



            In Paris, there were in fact two Russian centres that organised and sent volunteers to Spain. One was run by the "White" Russian Combined Armed Forces Union (ROVS) headed by General Eugen Ludwig Müller, better known as Yevgeny Miller. Another centre was the Russian Union for Repatriation closely linked to the Russian embassy and headed by the former "White" officer Serge Efron. Efron was the husband of a great Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva and an NKVD agent. His centre was sending volunteers to the Republican forces while ROVS supplied well-trained Russian officers to Franco troops.


            One of the Efron's recruits was Lev Savinkov, a son of Boris Savinkov. "The Russian terrorist and Socialist-Revolutionary Boris Savinkov (1879-1925) has become well known as an ardent rebel against Communism," his sons' biographer Marc Jansen writes. "After having fought the Communists, first within Russia and then from abroad, in 1924 he crossed the border in order to continue the struggle again in Russia itself, but fell into the trap the Soviet secret service had set for him." Unfortunately, Jansen's piece published in Revolutionary Russia is not consistent and contains some factual errors.



            Savinkov was lured to the USSR by his mistress, Lyubov Daerenthal, accompanied by her and her husband, both of whom were NKVD agents, and arrested soon after crossing the Russian border. Savinkov was tried, sentenced to death, but repented and was given a life sentence instead. However, in May 1925 he was thrown out of the prison window by several OGPU (predecessor to the NKVD) operatives, among whom was one Grigory Syroyezhkin.



            In 1937 Lev Savinkov, his younger son and a Russian patriot, who lived in Paris, left for Spain to joint the International Brigades but was recruited as an NKVD agent by Syroyezhkin--one of the two commanders of the NKVD-trained Spanish republican guerrillas. Savinkov junior was soon promoted to lieutenant and then captain, serving under the nom de guerre "Léon Savin" (or Savint, as he called himself in Catalan). In October, Efron came to Spain himself on the run from the French police who were after him in connection with the murder in Lausanne of a Russian NKVD defector. Efron was not an assassin but took part in this operation together with "Alexander Orlov" (Lev Nikolsky) who especially came from Spain for this matter.



            Late in 1937 Efron returned to Russia and was arrested by the NKVD in December together with his daughter Alya, both accused of being German spies. Alya betrayed her father, spent time in the Gulag but survived while he was shot. Syroyezhkin was soon recalled to Moscow and also shot.



            After returning from Spain to France in 1939, Lev Savinkov lived in poverty. He gave several interviews but did not say much. Lev died in January 1987. Savinkov's elder son, Victor, lived in Moscow and also collaborated with the NKVD. He was later shot after which all members of his family committed suicide.



            General Miller's deputy in ROVS was young Tsarist General Nikolai Skoblin, another OGPU/NKVD agent. He took part in the kidnapping of General Miller from Paris in September 1937. Miller was exfiltrated to Russia, imprisoned and later shot. After having spent some weeks in the Soviet embassy in Paris hiding from police, Skoblin was transported to Barcelona by Orlov and later shot near the Russian consulate villa.



            Marina Tsvetayeva returned to Russia with her son in 1939. She committed suicide in 1941.



            A niece of General Miller, Lily Sergueiev, also known as Natalie Sergueiew, was sent by the German Abwehr to Spain as a spy but collaborated with SIS and became an agent (codenamed TREASURY) in the double cross disinformation game organised by the British during WWII. She wrote a book Secret Service Rendered (London, 1966).



            Most of the Soviet military advisers who were in Spain, including all RU (later GRU) officers, with only a few exceptions, were executed. The interpreters and rank-and-file fighters survived. Many, but not all NKVD operators survived. Almost all of them became Russian intelligence heroes although some, like Sudoplatov, Eitingon, Grigulevich, Vaupshasov and "Orlov" were involved in murders. Altogether from September 1936 to April 1939 there had been about 10-12 NKVD operatives in Spain but quite a number of agents, mainly foreigners. What happened to the civil war prisoners (Russian and Soviet) is not known but several prisoner exchanges took place under the British umbrella.



            Some of those Spaniards who went to live in exile in Russia during or after the civil war, were permitted to return to Spain after Stalin's death. About 2,000 returned. The CIA immediately took notice and decided to use the opportunity to get some valuable intelligence about Russia. The operation was codenamed PROJECT NIÑOS and involved hundreds of people. A Barcelona film studio is currently making a documentary about this operation with Yours Truly taking part. It should be out in autumn.


            JE comments:  Boris, please keep us updated on the Project Niños project.  I anticipate there will be some major revelations--although presumably none of the participants are still living.

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