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Post Soviet Red Cross and the Spanish Communists: What was the Connection?
Created by John Eipper on 02/10/21 3:02 AM

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Soviet Red Cross and the Spanish Communists: What was the Connection? (Silvia Ribelles de la Vega, USA, 02/10/21 3:02 am)

I hope this email finds you and everyone else in this Forum well.

I have a question for the WAIS community that perhaps someone can answer. I will welcome any comment, opinion or literature to read on the matter. I have been combing the Internet and found little information.

I am once more taking advantage of the many specialists in this Forum with the hope that someone can shed some light on my query.

"What was the relationship in the second half of the 1940s between the Soviet Red Cross, the Communist Party of Spain and the NKVD?"

First, the background information:

In April 1939, most leaders of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) and thousands of hand-picked militants were welcomed in the Soviet Union, taken in as political refugees, fleeing Franco in Spain. Among them, thousands of well-seasoned fighters with three years of experience on the battlefields of Spain.

When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler in June of 1941, many of those Spaniards asked to be allowed to join the Red Army to take part in the war to defend the Motherland. After much reticence, they were finally accepted, but were placed in units made up of foreigners only, other "political immigrants" like themselves. Some also fought in guerrilla warfare behind German lines. They were parachuted with orders to carry out sabotage missions, etc. Pretty bold stuff.

When the war was over, they were demobilized (I am only talking about the Spaniards), many were decorated, and most went back to their old jobs: bakers, machinists, etc. A few of them had found spouses, and had now Russian children (I have just learned that after 1947, marriages between Soviet citizens and foreigners were forbidden). But most of them were still PCE men. They were still faithful to the party and to its fight in Spain, no matter how barren, imbalanced and empty.

In 1947 the PCE in France created a list known as the "N'X Comrades": Spanish men who had fought in the Red Army, who were well-prepared politically and militarily, and had no recent criminal records in Spain. These men were called from the USSR to be trained in France and enter Spain undercover to undermine Franco's regime.

I can imagine that leaving the USSR was not an easy task in those years, even less so trying to enter again, unless it was authorized. These men had to have the consent of the NKVD so that they could be issued passports, etc. So the Soviet Government must have been on board with their leaving the country. But here comes the surprising part: some of them received a 600-ruble allowance to maintain their families while they were gone. And this allowance was issued by no other than the "Red Cross." I imagine it had to be the Soviet Red Cross.

Why would the Soviet Red Cross pay for the maintenance of the family of a Spaniard embarked in this political adventure in a foreign land? Was he perhaps going to be used as a spy for the Russians as well as a fighter for the PCE against Franco? The Red Cross had to be aware of the nature of the mission, don't you think? If Stalin was not going to obtain anything in exchange, why have the Red Cross pick up the tab? The PCE already received a generous allowance from Stalin.

There had to be some kind of relationship between the Red Cross and the NKVD but, was it that strong? Lenin said, when he signed the decrees that created the Red Cross in the USSR, that it had to work "loyally with the State," but I would have never guessed the link to be so strong.

I know that some of these questions are impossible to answer, and that the answers can possibly be found in the inaccessible archives of the Red Cross in Moscow. Has anyone perused the documents in the Russian Red Cross successfully lately?

Perhaps someone can shed light on the ins and outs of the liaison between the Soviet Red Cross and the State at that moment. And then, what does the PCE have to do with this? Is it too outlandish to think that these Spanish fighters were going to be used as spies for Stalin? What kind of intelligence could they gather for the Vozhd?

Thank you very much for reading this!

JE comments:  Silvia, I thought WAIS had dissected every detail of the Spanish Civil War, but you've raised a new and fascinating question about its aftermath.  I take it for granted that the Soviet Red Cross was a fully integrated and "infiltrated" branch of the Soviet government.  The same thing occurred with the Russian Orthodox Church.  But who can give more details?  As an international organization, the situation with the Soviet Red Cross must have been complicated.  But this, I suspect, would have been its advantage for the Spanish operation:  couldn't the Red Cross deliver funds internationally with less suspicion?

Sir Paul Preston, Ángel Viñas, Carmen Negrín, Boris Volodarsky and others:  we need your expertise!

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  • Soviet Red Cross and the Spanish Communists (Paul Preston, -UK 02/10/21 2:19 PM)
    What a fascinating post by Silvia Ribelles! (February 10th)

    When I wrote my biography of Santiago Carrillo, I became aware of some of the people that Silvia writes about, hardened militants who fought for the Russians in guerrilla units and then went into Spain. I had never heard about the welfare for their families back in the USSR.

    My only--and probably not very useful--guess is that it might have been a budgetary device to get around the fact that perhaps the NKVD did not normally provide welfare payments for foreigners who were not their employees. However, this is just a feeble suggestion. If anyone will know, it will be Boris Volodarsky.

    JE comments:  Boris, we need you!  One also wonders if Stalin wanted to maintain plausible deniability for the Spanish infiltration, especially given its scant prospects for success.  The Red Cross could always be dismissed as "humanitarian" assistance.

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  • Soviet Red Cross (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 02/12/21 3:13 AM)
    Many thanks to Paul Preston and JE. Am trying to comment Silvia Ribelles's query of February 10th and am sorry if my comment is too long.

    First, a brief historical memo. The Union of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR was formed on 29 May 1923, when Lenin was still alive and the Bolsheviks badly needed all sorts of international recognition. (I shall remind our readers that the USA agreed to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet government only in November-December 1933. For those WAISers who are interested, according to the terms of Roosevelt-Litvinov agreements that formed the basis for diplomatic recognition, (1) the Soviets pledged to settle their outstanding financial debt to the US, (2) the Soviet government guaranteed that it would refrain from interfering in American domestic affairs; and (3) they would grant certain religious and legal rights for US citizens living in the Soviet Union. Needless to say, all three promises failed to materialize.)

    In January 1928 the Soviet Red Cross was recognised by the Red Cross International Committee and joined the International League in 1934. The CPSU apparatchiks immediately created a full bureaucratic Red Cross pyramid similar to the CPSU structure. There was a Red Cross Congress convened every four years, Red Cross secretariat, executive committee, revisory commission, Moscow and Leningrad city committees, republican committees and Red Cross cells at every enterprise, organisation, institution and even small business (hairdressers and grocery stores). The main task of the Soviet Red Cross was to prepare Soviet people for the future war by creating necessary medical facilities like first aid stations and medical trains, and secure primary basic training of future medical staff.

    Almost from the very beginning, the chairman's position in the Soviet Red Cross was formal and unimportant. Although the first chairman (1924-34) was Stalin's old associate, Avel Safronovich Yenukidze, at one point member of the Central Committee and secretary of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union (arrested in February and shot in December 1937), others were not widely known or important. Thus, in the period of 1942-47 Prof. Sergey Alekseyevich Kolesnikov, a cardiac surgeon, formally headed the presidium, and in 1947-54 it was Vasily Andreyevich Kholodkov, a psychiatrist and member/deputy of the Russian parliament (Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR).

    Without any doubt, the only raison d'etre for the Soviet Red Cross was its international activity (but not influence) or, rather, a possibility of such. In other words, from the early days shortly after the revolution it was easy to send Bolshevik delegates and Cheka officers abroad using the cover of the Red Cross. Therefore, after its formation the Office of External Relations was the most important department of the Soviet Red Cross organisation always headed by the Cheka-OGPU-NKVD-KGB-appointed officer or agent/collaborator. The Red Cross cover was very useful to send delegations to and establish permanent representations in many countries abroad. Such first representative offices were opened in Switzerland and Great Britain (1918-1927) and in the United States (1928-47). The first official financial and material help to the Spanish republic after the civil war broke out in July 1936 was provided through the Soviet Red Cross office in Geneva, Switzerland. Because the International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the most honoured and widely recognised humanitarian organisations in the world, it is at the same time an excellent cover for all sorts of clandestine activities.

    It will take a lot of time and space to write about the Spanish republicans in the Soviet Union shortly before, during and after the Second World War or even during and after the Spanish Civil War. Silvia Ribelles de la Vega is right that only hand-picked militants, PCE leaders and functionaries, NKVD agents and collaborators (well-seasoned fighters with three years of experience on the battlefields of Spain) were welcomed to the Soviet Union. I have to stress that in most cases after June 1941 they were gladly accepted to join different fighting formations alongside rank-and-file Soviet citizens. Besides, a lot of Spaniards fought in OMSBON units, were parachuted behind the lines, and were part of the NKVD and GRU secret missions in Europe, Nazi Germany and America.

    To the best of my knowledge, in his excellent biography of Santiago Carrillo, Paul Preston is covering in detail the little-known period of 1945-47 when several Spanish guerrilla units were based in France from where some were sent to Spain undercover. Both the NKVD and GRU were in control of all those missions. That means they provided advisers, arms, ammunition, documentation, cover, financing, communication facilities, often tasking, and so on. All this training and missions were organised and coordinated through the PCE leadership, among others Dolores Ibárruri and Santiago Carrillo who were probably the main contacts. It is no surprise that financing foreign Communist parties, the PCE included, was one ideological task and one budget (and one command-and-control system), while supporting clandestine and subversive activities of its separate members was quite another. It is also no surprise that some kind of financing was directed through the Red Cross channels. Whether the chairman and head of the financial department knew anything about where funds were really going, is absolutely unimportant. Even a telephone call from a responsible Central Committee official was more than enough. And it was only natural that everybody in the Soviet Union and abroad knew that the families of the friendly Spanish communists were supported and provided by the Soviet Red Cross. Who else could "pick up the tab," as Silvia writes?

    If you see the Soviet Red Cross as one of the many covert arms of the NKVD and the CPSU, then everything becomes very clear.

    The documents on the history of the Soviet Red Cross are available in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, f. R-9501, op. 17, d. 8756 (years 1918-92). Some international activity including Switzerland-Spain 1936 - f. R-9501, op. 1 and 14, d. 1950 (years 1925-92). Office/Department of External Relations - f. R-9501, op. 5, 13 and 16, d. 1629 (years 1925-88). Representative officers of the Soviet Red Cross in Switzerland and the UK - f. R-9501, op. 6, d. 88 (years 1918-36, 1945). Representative officers of the Soviet Red Cross in the USA - f. R-9501, op. 7, d. 94 (years 1928-47).

    JE comments:  Great essay, Boris.  You've filled in many gaps.  The Red Cross, founded in Geneva in 1863, is one of the most extensive and ubiquitous multinational organizations in history, comparable perhaps only to the UN or the Catholic Church.  We see its presence everywhere--and since I donate blood from time to time, they telephone me nearly every day (really!).  Yet what do we know about its structure and governance?  How do the logistics of the RC work when it has dealings with both sides of a war?  And as Boris Volodarsky shows above, how has the RC been "exploited" by national governments to further their agendas?  There's lots more to uncover here.

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    • Red Cross Files in Russian Archives (Silvia Ribelles de la Vega, USA 02/12/21 11:45 AM)
      Many, many thanks to Professor Boris Volodarsky for his not-at-all-long email explaining this relationship between the Union of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and the NKVD. The information he provides is priceless.

      I was told that the Archives of the Union of the Red Cross and Red Crescent should have individual files on those who were taken under its wing. I wonder whether access to these files is possible. Or would these files be in the State Archive of the Russian Federation?

      And also a big thank you to Sir Paul Preston, and, of course, to John Eipper at the helm of WAIS. The late David Pike gave me the gift of this Forum, and I will be forever grateful to him for this. He would have been interested on this particular topic, I am sure. One of the things he wished the most was having unhindered access to the archives in Moscow, and he was getting ready by learning Russian with a private tutor.

      Have a wonderful Saint Valentine´s weekend.

      JE comments: Likewise, Silvia! Your kind note is even better than a Valentine's card.  I am a lightweight compared to David Pike, but I've also been brushing up on my Russian of late.  My method?  The only way to learn during pandemic times:  TV.  Currently I'm watching the Red Queen (Krasnaya Koroleva) on Amazon Prime, a Russian series about the first Soviet "supermodel," Regina Zbarskaya.  It's a gripping and beautifully reconstructed portrait of the Khrushchev era.

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      • Soviet Red Cross Archives; Supermodel Regina Zbarskaya (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 02/16/21 3:21 AM)
        To Silvia Ribelles: To the best of my knowledge, all Soviet Red Cross files are available without restriction at the GARF. Even now, when all archives are closed because of the quarantine, the archivists respond to inquiries by email and are generally very helpful.

        To JE: John, you have chosen a good method of learning Russian, and if you add reading Russian newspapers (but not books) aloud every day, you shall make a very visible progress. About the Regina Zbarskaya series, I haven't seen it but hope they included a story of her relations with the KGB.

        To add, below is a link to the Russian documentary about Regina Zbarskaya. A long time ago and at different places, I met both wives of her first (and officially only) husband, Lev Zbarsky. Those were gorgeous and famous Soviet actresses Marianna Vertinskaya and Lyudmila Maksakova. I was a young journalist working for the Moscow Radio World Service and arranged an interview with Marianna. Although it was after 11:00 am, she was responding to my questions lying in bed in her light nightgown. Maksakova, on the contrary, met me in a hotel lobby wearing a very posh and expensive fur coat. To my question, "Isn't it a bit strange because it is very warm August outside," she answered imperturbably, "But it is going to rain and in such a case natural fur is the best protection." I was speechless.

        The link to the Russian documentary about Regina Zbarskaya:


        I may also recommend a film of a completely different calibre about little known events of 1-3 June 1962 that became known as Novocherkassky shooting:


        There are a few ads at the beginning--just skip them.

        JE comments:  Bolshoe spasibo for the recommendations, Boris!  The Zbarskaya series (she is known as "Barskaya" on the show) does address her time in the early 1960s as a "honey trap" for a British diplomat.  This is at the insistence of her own husband, (Z)Barsky, who had been blackmailed by the KGB.  We're snowed in today at WAIS HQ, so we'll probably watch the final episodes of Red Queen:


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